Langhe may you linger
If you have to chew over your thoughts for a few days before a busy conference there are few better places to do so than the Langhe region of Piedmonte in northern Italy. This area isn’t as well known as high profile tourist destinations like Tuscany, but that adds to the attraction for the seasoned traveller.
Situated about two hours’ drive southwest of Milan, the Langhe is a hilly area, steeped in history and endowed with a larder to die for. This is the home of the Slow Food movement, where food and the wine that accompanies it matter above almost anything else. Don’t expect the thin pizzas, light pastas and olives you’d find further south if you want platters made with local seasonal produce. Here you will find egg-based pasta, foccacias, wild boar, specialty cheeses and the famed white truffle.
It would not be hard to stagger from one eating venue to another in the Langhe, picking through a bewildering range of unfamiliar dishes. Instead, we slowed down and selected one place per day. There is plenty to help you make your choice since the Piedmontese are justifiably proud of their culinary reputation. The pace of life is pleasantly slower, allowing the visiting foodie to spend up to three hours or even more over a meal served with a finesse Perth restaurateurs would do well to learn from. Whether a little, local osteria or starched tablecloth posh, courses arrived fresh from the kitchen, promptly and with panache. The favourites were oh so difficult to pick, but had to include quails’ thighs in a parmesan basket (only an antipasti), a fine version of tagliatelle know as tajarin stirred with truffles, and wild boar on juniper berries.
Getting under the skin
This surfeit of great food came with an excellence of local wines from the tiny Barolo region including Barolo-proper, Nebbiolo and Barbaresco. We avoided bottle shops with signs helpfully displaying their wares in four European languages and chose to struggle through transactions in our limited Italian vocabulary. In La Morra, one of several medieval hilltop towns in line of sight from our boutique hotel, we walked into a hole-in-the-wall bottega and stumbled upon a wine merchant with a quiet passion for the local wines. He doubled up as an unofficial food tourism information office. To our great pleasure he turned up shortly after at the small and vibrant Osteria Marte & Macina just as we were tucking into our antipasti. Full of local people eating local food, this was where we needed to be to get under the skin of the Langhe. Wine supplies were stacked in the narrow space in front of a display counter filled with local cheeses and other delicacies. Rough wood tables jostled groups of customers against each other and a big dog lay across the doorway. He could have been a truffle hound for all I knew. Our bill came to 26 per head.
The less travelled road
The spring in the Piedmonte can be quite wet, but in late April the weather was kind to us, allowing early morning walks among the vines surrounding our hilltop hotel. On slopes unsuited to vine growing we found hazelnut trees growing in the neat rows of a serious crop. Some hedgerows bore warning signs about the hunting of wild boar and rabbit. Viewed from our hilltop eyrie, the effect was a patchwork of vineyards, hazelnut groves and small farms, rolling hill after hill off into the hazy distance. On almost every summit was a tower, a church spire, a castle or village. Barolo, centre of the wine region, was something of an exception nestling in the bottom of a valley. Our friends in a large, family vehicle found the going a bit heavy on the smaller roads, while we got round the frequent hairpin bends easily in a little Eurohatch. The eastern Langhe is hillier. Gorges are deep and the linking roads narrow, but a bit of persistence with the map and we were rewarded with tiny villages looming out of the clouds. After a steep descent down a winding, single-track road we found the fortified village of Sinio with its own castle. Late for lunch, we sought refuge in the general store and enjoyed one of the best espressos I’ve ever had, followed by a freshly cooked pasta primi. Simple things, done well like so many of the culinary delights we’d experienced in the Langhe.
The castle on the other side of the small piazza is now a classy hotel. Impressive from its exterior, we left the interior to our imagination and pottered on past the dominating keep at the centre of Serralunga d’Alba, its size a clue to the wealth tied up in the surrounding vineyards. The grandest of nearby castles was across the valley from us in Grinzane Cavour where the Comte de Cavour saved the local wine industry from destruction, modernised it and established its wealth; a useful career move for one of the architects of modern Italy. A few banners marked the 150th anniversary of unification this year, but the Comte’s memorial is the proliferation of vineyards marching off into the distance. This region has not always enjoyed a peaceful domestic life. The old town of Roddi overlooks a Roman battlefield, and the city of Alba established a brief notoriety when it announced its independence during the Second World War. Many small hilltop towns bear painful reminders of the sacrifices made by partisans and the civilian population during those dark days. One of the more bizarre historical discoveries we made was the commemoration of the treaty made with Napoleon in the town of Cherasco. Here of all places was a modern commemoration of Bonaparte’s subjugation of Italy. Beautifully restored buildings line a main street, framed by triumphal arches and designed to a Francophile plan. In the municipal buildings you can see the inner room used to shelter the Turin Shroud during the Napoleonic Wars. Every year a reconstruction is held to celebrate the arrival of Napoleon. You could be forgiven for thinking this was a little corner of France until, that is, you make a start on the day’s food marathon with your aperitivo. It is a delightfully Italian way to finish the day in the company of friends and prepare your palate for another round of gustatory delights.
Tuscany without the tourists; as one guide put it, is far too enjoyable to keep as a personal secret. How to get there from Perth: Qantas flies to London-Heathrow and connects with the British Airways service into Milan-Malpensa. Singapore Airlines flies direct to Milan from Singapore. Hire care services at Malpensa were quick and efficient: the drive to Roddi is by autostrada for much of the route and takes only two hours. Just don’t take the cross-country track the sat nav thinks is quicker in order to cut a corner off the motorway route. Peak season is July – October and the major sustainable food festival, the biennial Terra Madre, book out a long time in advance. I’ve no doubt that we’ll be back.
MicroGnome, July 2011.