I have found my Italy! The Italy that looms large and glorious, sun and wine drenched, vignetted in my dreams. It’s real! And it’s in the Langhe part of Piemonte, the region of Italy around Alba, Barolo, Barbaresco…names that may sound awfully familiar to you if you take any interest in wine.
It’s the part of Italy where Nutella was originally invented. For real. Just think about that for a moment.
It is the food and wine lovers region of Italy, I think, even more so than Tuscany. Though it is gorgeous and extraordinary, with sweeping vistas of rolling hills covered with a patchwork of vineyards and hazelnut trees, the bulk of tourists don’t go there, I believe because it’s not really near or on the way to anything else. So, if you go, it is your chosen pilgrimage, in search of food and wine, and the ridiculously quaint stone villages – complete with a castle and church – perched on every hilltop. Villages built in the 12th century, and still so tied to their pasts that the day the tower was destroyed in 1275 is embedded in the collective memory and still seems to evoke feelings of pain.
We went because I’ve been obsessed with Alba ever since I read a piece on it written by the notable Jefferey Steingarten. We went because, even though the food in Liguria has been fine, there has been nothing that made us push our chairs back from the table and say, “wow, my culinary mind has just been blown.”
On the other hand, the blasted smithereens of our blown culinary minds are now scattered all about the Langhe. Had we stayed one more day, I think I would have had to go up a pant size.
As we arrived in the region we wound our way, half lost much of the time, along narrow, circuitous roads, past swathes of gnarled grape vines and finally up to the little villa where we were to stay. Immediately we were ushered in to a cooking class with a small troop of other guests – let’s start the experience off with a bang, shall we?! – taught by a woman named Rita.
To envision her, conjure up your most stereotypical image of an endearing and remarkably spry Italian nonna. Is it in your mind’s eye? Well, that’s Rita. She spoke barely more English than the words, “wash!” “see” and “stop!” but somehow she managed to lead a (mildly hapless) group of 8 foreigners from the United States, the Netherlands, Denmark, and Greenland through 5 ½ hours of cooking. There as a great deal of pointing, gesturing, “bene!” “no!” “ohhh, macho! Va bene!” and good natured laughter. By the time we were done, I think we all wanted to bundle her up and take her home with us.
When we were finally finished, at 8:30pm, we sat down for another 3 hours of eating through what we had made. Roasted peppers with bagna cauda (the famous garlic, anchovy, olive oil sauce), vitello tonato (thinly sliced veal with a tuna-mayonnaise-caper sauce, which sounds highly suspect, looks like a gray mess, and tastes amazing), spinach-nutmeg ravioli with pasta we had rolled, risotto made with white wine and veal stock, a pork roast with lemon-caper sauce, panna cotta, hazelnut cake with zabaglione, and wine poached pears.
The villa also produces its own wine, which flowed freely throughout the meal. Sparkling, white, red, moscato, a housemade limoncello. And don’t forget the grappa, a distilled wine liquor so powerful it could easily leave you lying on the floor if you have more than one. The feast was cacophonous and joyful. Our two compatriots from the Netherlands, who towered more than half a foot over any of the rest of us, shook the villa with their contagious laughter. And my how they could drink wine! A bottle each, I believe, before we had even started eating!
Breakfast at the villa had almost as many courses as supper, and that was in addition to crusty bread, homemade jams, fresh pressed nebbiola grape juice, and tiny cups of potent coffee. But, it was dinner on our second night that will be etched in my memory forever. We went to a seemingly humble (remarkably well-priced) restaurant called La Cantinetta (not to be confused with La Cantinella, which is also in Barolo) tucked just back from the street in Barolo. There, we ordered the fixed price tasting menu.
What followed was a parade of antipasti (the region is known for its antipasti, among other things) the likes of which I had theretofore imagined to have been confined to the spectacular noble banquets of antiquity when pages dressed in velvet scurried about with platter after platter of food. I felt a bit like nobility as we each received an assortment of small creamy salads, house cured salami, pate (which tasted somehow like the essence of thanksgiving) and onion marmalade on brioche, carne crudo al Alba (this one I couldn’t quite appreciate. It’s a large mound of raw ground meat laced with a great deal of olive oil. I think if you like raw meats, like tartare, it’s a wonderful example), and more vitello tonato.
Next, out came small dishes of creamy polenta with porcini sauce, followed by a spectacular creation: large ravioli each stuffed with a ring of spinach-ricotta and a runny deeply orange egg yolk which came spilling out as you cut into the ravioli with your fork. This one, I will not rest until I decode it and recreate it at home.
And then it was time for “the meal” to begin. Yes, just begin. A risotto, studded generously with musky porcinis, and potato gnocchi that tasted like tiny bites of the most obscenely buttery, fluffy mashed potatoes, and which dissolved in your mouth (with not the merest hint of gumminess) in a wash of pungent cheese sauce. After the pasta course we had to wave our white flags and bow out of eating our secondi, in spite of how tantalizing the roasts and braises looked when we saw them at some of the tables to our sides.
The patron to my left happened to be a cooper (wine barrel maker), who before leaving announced, to the room more or less, that the bottle of wine he had been drinking was wonderful. It was a wonderful wine, and it only needed 10 more years in the bottle to really be great. I’m nosy, and I had to ask him a few questions. He had met that wine maker before, he said, and the winemaker was crazy but also brilliant (typical!). He liked that that winemaker makes wine in the traditional style.
Many traditional wine producing countries have started changing the characters of their wine to suit the taste of the American critic Robert Parker, he explained, particularly winemakers in Bordeaux and even some in Barolo. But, many in Barolo stayed strong in the traditional style, and now an increasing number who had started to change to the “modern style” are going back.
Fascinating! Oh, and he left a good quarter of the bottle of wine he had been drinking (himself!) sitting on his table after he paid and left. I’m slightly embarrassed to admit it, but I stole just the tiniest sip (with the egging on of all the people at the other tables) to see what it was like – it was just going to get dumped out, anyway! It was a gorgeous wine…but, it needed ten more years of aging to be a great wine.
The waiter chuckled at us when we had to cry uncle before even getting our “main” course. But would we still like dessert? Perhaps just one to share? We caved, and were presented with a plate of assorted confections. A pyramid of hazelnut semifreddo, a thin slice of dark chocolate ganache with delicate pieces of cookie, an amaretti custard, and a panna cotta to defy belief. It was eating cream in its most perfect form, luxuriant, quivering, and so delicate it barely held itself together. We rolled out of the restaurant so full we had had to decline even coffee at the very end, and desperately wishing for more stomachs. How would we ever eat anything more the next day?
Don’t worry. We did. Our gustatory experience of the region was not over yet. No chance! because October is white truffle season, and white truffles do not preserve well (we were told in no uncertain terms not to believe anyone that tells you that they can be). So, autumn in the langhe – particularly Alba – is a frenzied truffle feed, with the option (for a sum) to get a mountain of white truffles shaved over virtually anything. However, the seminal method of eating the tartuffo bianco is on the local pasta of the region, called tajarin, drenched with butter. This dish was what had nested itself in my memory after reading about the Langhe, and what had made me promise myself, I would go, and I would eat.
Tajarin is a gloriously decadent pasta made with only the yolk of the eggs, not whole eggs. Now, the Italian for the yolk is the rosso, or red, of the egg, and if you take a look at them you can see why. They are so intensely orange as to just touch the border of red. And, using them in tajarin yields swirling strands of pasta as brilliantly golden as Rapunzel’s hair.
The combination of tajarin with loads of mountain butter, bedecked with a flurry of white truffle shavings, and a restrained dusting of sharp “mountain cheese” was about as rich of a meal as I have ever had. And, to be perfectly honest, after trying it I don’t get what all of the fuss is about…but I absolutely get what some of the fuss is about. The firm, papery truffle shavings infuse the whole dish with a subtle, earthy perfume that is truffle-y, but doesn’t overwhelm you with the boisterousness that truffle oil sometimes does. And that much butter, well, ahem, it’s just going to taste good.
I think I would have been happy to spend our whole trip in the Piemonte, giving myself entirely over to the philosophies of Epicurus. Instead we had just two days. Which, is probably for the best, for any more and I would have had to purchase an extra stomach and liver or two, and I’m not sure they sell those in Alba. So, we bid goodbye to the region to swoop down to Florence for some culture.
But, we brought some recipes and new ideas (ok, and at least one bottle of wine) with us.
Here is the recipe for Rita’s hazelnut cake. The villa where we stayed not only grows grapes for wine, but also grows hazelnuts, and they epitomize the flavorful nutty complexity that hazelnuts can attain. This cake captures all of that, simply, and deliciously. It was really one of the most delectable cakes I have eaten (I’ll have to try it at home to see if that was the result of the setting, the quality of the hazelnuts, or if it’s really just that good). Rita had us make a zabaglione – another regional specialty – to serve over it, which was a perfect, and spectacularly indulgent, match.
Rita’s Torta di Nocciole (Hazelnut Cake) (for 8-10)
- 300 gr toasted and peeled hazelnuts (preferably Piedmontese)
- 3 whole eggs
- 200gr sugar
- 50ml of milk
- 150 gr. butter
- 16 gr baking powder
- (2 tablespoons of
- dry marsala or dry sherry-optional)
- a pinch of salt.
- In a food processor, chop the skinned hazelnuts well and add them to the beaten eggs. Add the sugar, milk, softened butter, liqueur (if using), salt and stir for several minutes.
- Add the baking powder and stir again in clockwise direction for 4 minutes.
- Put the mixture in a buttered, lightly floured cake pan and bake 50 minutes at 170°. Insert a wooden skewer in the middle… and if it comes out dry, then the cake is done.
- Serve with warm zabaglione.
For each person:
- 1 egg yolk
- 1 Tablespoon of sugar
- 1 Tablespoon of marsala or moscato wine
- Place the yolks and sugar in a metal bowl and whisk until well combined and somewhat lightened in color. Put the bowl over a bain marie (small pot of simmering water), stir in the marsala, and continue beat with a wisk until light and fluffy and pale golden. (Note: this takes some serious arm power! Also, it’s done if your thermometer reads 140F for 3 minutes. Rita, of course, did not rely on a thermometer.)
- Serve warm spooned over hazelnut cake.