Autumn in Piemonte Introduction:
The Piemonte region in Italy’s north-west has fascinated me for a long time. I was born nearby in Lugano, just over the border in the Italian-speaking part of Switzerland, and as a child I heard stories of hillsides covered in chestnut woods, of high mountain peaks beyond, of life in fashionable Torino – known to the English-speaking world as Turin – and of food that was particularly good. It has always been there on the edges of my imagination – a land of undiscovered delights that I knew I must, at some time, get to know.<
This book is the story of a trip I made to Piemonte to satisfy my curiosity, to see what all the fuss was about.
The first thing I discovered was that Piemontese food had been part of my life for a long time. My mother was an inspired home cook and much that I know I learned from her. Travelling in Piemonte I found that many dishes I had thought of as a “specialita della Mamma” were in fact from this region. So I have been eating Piemontese food, and later cooking it myself, for a long time now, without knowing its origins. In that sense my travels around Piemonte were a voyage of rediscovery rather than a trip into the unknown.
What I also learnt in travelling there and talking about the region with my Italian friends is that it is largely an unknown area to many people in Europe, even to many Italians. By Italian standards you see remarkably few tourists, even in the high season. When people go there it tends to be for a purpose. Business travel is centred on the activities of the giant industrial conglomerate FIAT and its suppliers, or the woollen mills of Biella; in winter skiers speed north through Piemonte, up the motorways to Courmayeur or Sestriere, the passing countryside a blur. Food and wine lovers do come for the white truffle season or at vintage time, but they are relatively few in number.
In that sense Piemonte is a fairly undiscovered part of Italy. One of its advantages is that you can sample its many pleasures without sharing them with hordes of outsiders. The real life of the region dominates and visitors are peripheral, unlike many of the better-known areas in Italy. Considering that Piemonte covers some of the most beautiful and varied landscapes in Italy, this is definitely an oversight. It is a land with a great variety of experiences and riches. For lovers of Italian food and wine it is a veritable treasure chest of delights.
The season to visit is the autumn. The Alps of Piemonte are a wonderland in winter – Torino, the capital of Piemonte, is after all the site of the Winter Olympics in 2006 – and there are parts of Piemonte that are exceptionally beautiful in both spring and summer. But for food lovers, autumn is the highlight, the season when it all comes together. Autumn is vintage time in the vineyards, the season for wild mushrooms and truffles, when the rice is being harvested on the plains of the River Po, and it is the moment when the new cheeses come down from the rich mountain pastures and their tiny dairies.
So I made my trip in autumn. Together with photographer Simon Griffiths, I travelled to all the places I had wanted to visit, stayed in the houses of hospitable friends and was guided by them to experience the lesser-known delights of a land that has many to offer.
The book is not meant to be a comprehensive guide. It is more of an introduction to the various places and tastes the region has to offer. Its focus, naturally, is not history, architecture or geography, but food and wine. I do talk about the countryside and the towns of Piemonte, but the purpose of doing so is to put the food itself into some sort of context. Why is it like it is? How did it develop in this way?
Each of the sections of the book is about a particular place, a context for the food. The variety of these is a reflection of the diversity of Piemonte itself. In each section there is also a number of recipes that are related to the places. In choosing them I have obviously tried to reflect the things that inspired me when I visited, the sort of dishes I would want to make at home. I am a passionate amateur, not a professional chef, so the food I like to serve tends to be relatively uncomplicated, easy to prepare and made with ingredients you are likely to find in your local shops or markets.
When I travel I find I mentally divide food into two categories. Into the first go all the dishes that are particular to a place, that you must try while you are there, but for one reason or another – perhaps because you cannot find ingredients, perhaps because the dishes seem overly elaborate or have more curiosity value than real merit – I know that I will not make them at home. Into the second category go those dishes that have caught my imagination, that I know I will want to prepare and that when I do, I will be reminded where they came from. In this case the recipes I give are either Piemontese or inspired by Piemonte – my version of something I enjoyed there.
When you read them you may even find that, like me, you too have been eating Piemontese without knowing it. If you have ever begun the evening with an aperitif of red vermouth (from Torino), nibbled some grissini breadsticks (Torino), enjoyed a risotto or Carnaroli rice (Vercelli) with truffle oil (Alba), drank a Barolo with (Langhe), had a slice of Gorgonzola cheese (Novara) or Fontina cheese (Valle d’Aosta) and finished with a chocolate mixed with hazelnuts (Torino), you have indeed been experiencing some of the pleasures of the region.
I hope when you follow me around Piemonte you will enjoy what I found, be inspired to try the food I liked or even to go there and experience it yourself.