If you're in North America and aren't a frequent traveler to Europe, it's likely that you haven't visited Piemonte, or Piedmont. In fact, the U.S. doesn't even make the charts of Piemonte visitors, 40% of whom are from neighboring Switzerland and 30% from Germany.
But food and wine lovers would be remiss to cross Piemonte off their "to visit" list. Home to 45 different D.O.C. wines, Piemonte is a wine lover's paradise, producing Barolo, Barbaresco, Barbara, and Dolcetto, as well as celebration favorite Asti Spumanti.
Wine is so important in Piemonte, in the small town of Barbaresco you can go to church to buy your wine. Yes, wine takes on a sort of spiritual luster in Piemonte.
Piemonte's Grapes and Herbs
The hilly region bordering France and Switzerland (see a map of Italian regions) is ideal for dry farming most grapes, which are deep-rooted enough to withstand periods of dry weather. This attention to the environment and naturally produced items extends to food as well; Piemonte has said "no" to genetically modified organisms. But the delicacies the Piemontese say "yes" to are even more important: the white truffle of Alba, an enormous array of artisanal cheeses and cured meats as well as a vast assortment of herb products are all part of the Piemonte table.
"Piemonte is tops in the world for its herb products," according to chef Marina Ramasso, who uses them liberally in her traditional cuisine at Osteria del Paluch, not far from the Superga temple overlooking Torino (Via Superga 44 in Baddissero Torinese Tel. 011/940.87.50 ) Her kitchen is open onto a view of the patio and garden, and includes a wood-fired stove and oven in addition to the modern gas stove. This link to the past isn't just for show--Ms. Ramasso collects cookbooks and diaries from the 1800s and allows them to guide her traditional cuisine.
Piemonte - Its Cuisine isn't Stuck in Traditional Mode
But the food of the Piemonte isn't only about holding close to tradition. Davide Scabin at Combal.Zero is considered a food designer, reverse engineering traditional food to surprise the senses and create an atmosphere of fun unusual in a starred Michelin restaurant. Liquid pizza with beer? Cybereggs? A clear plastic bag called the Harry Potter, containing four regional specialties packaged like brightly wrapped candies; you choose by color the order of consumption? Yes, they were all part of Sabin's 16-course Creative Menu when we visited.
Leave your preconceptions about good food and great restaurants at the door--Combal.Zero is about having fun and thinking differently about what you stick in your mouth--and how. (Combal.Zero (review), Piazza Fafalda di Savoia - Rivoli. Tel. 001.95.65.222, closed Monday and Tuesday)
For traditionalists, of course, good food abounds in the Piemonte. there's Alba's celebrated white truffle, considered the best in the world. You'll find them available from September-January. Other seasons produce the Winter Black Truffle and Summer Black Truffle, the winter being the tastiest.
And a humble icon of traditional Piemonte cuisine is those pencil-thin breadsticks called grissini.
Did you know you can hunt truffles yourself? Head on out to "La Casa del Trifulau (House of the Truffle Hunters) in tiny Costigliole d'Asti and they'll explain truffle hunting to you, serve you a "merenda" (a snack taken between lunch and dinner) consisting of cheese drizzled in olive oil and showered with slivers of the truffle of the season, as well as some sliced sausages and bread--then you'll head out with the dogs Diana and Berta to hunt your own. It's really easy, the dogs do all the work.
(La Casa del Trifulau at Frazione Burio 1 in Costigliole d'Asti. Tel. 347 2991832)
If truffle hunting doesn't appeal to you, but eating them does, then get yourself a reservation at Tra Arte & Querce where you can have what I call a Breakfast of Champions featuring truffles freshly hunted.
When to Visit Piemonte
High season in the Piemonte is October - December. Truffles and the wine harvest are the reasons. How much bigger is fall than other seasons? Well, the percentage of restaurants that are full in the Fall are between 25 and 30 percent, compared to less than five percent for the summer. The wine town of Barolo is beautiful in fall.
May is also a good time to go, especially if you like your food served with the fresh flowers and herbs the Piemonte is famous for.
May is a wonderful time for wildflowers, spring showers, and the budding of Piemonte's fresh herbs. But then again, just about any time is a good time to visit Piemonte.
Recommended Places to Stay
We enjoyed our stay at Torre Barolo, which offers fantastic views of the wine town of Barolo from its rooftop terrace. Lots of stairs to climb though, so take that into consideration; it's a renovated 17th-century tower after all!
For good old country cooking (and fantastic breakfast from Marla, a pastry chef) in an off-the-beaten-track valley in Piemonte, try Bella Baita Bed and Breakfast. Marla and Fabrizio work with all the local producers to bring you the best local and traditional foods. They'll even teach you how to cook it!
Since all this great food and wine is scattered over the compelling wine country landscape, we suggest renting a vacation rental near Asti. There are plenty available on HomeAway, see Asti Vacation Rentals (book direct).
For an overview of Piemonte, see Italy's Piemonte Map.