Experience(ing) It(aly) by Steph McFaull

It was my first glimpse of the winding roads of the Piedmont region. I was curious to see where the countryside peppered with vineyards, orchards and hazelnut groves would lead me. We arrived at a small town with a history of witches and wineries and drove into a beautiful Italian family compound.   La Ciuenda is a small cooking school and food business operated by Cristina and her mother in Piedmont. I had no idea of hard work in a kitchen until I saw these ladies in action- working all day and night over the stoves to produce the finest quality dips (Bagnet Verde, Bagna Caouda), pear mustards, preserves, relishes and the all time guilty pleasure, Torta Di Nocciola (Hazelnut Cake). All are made with such quality ingredients, time, passion and the magic ingredient, love.learning to make authentic northern italian food

I was lucky enough to spend two days with these inspirational ladies in their kitchen, the hazelnut groves and woods surrounding the village, and at a Slow Food market in Alba where they were selling their produce. I gained an insight into the techniques involved and tried my hand at some, including the traditional Piedmontese pasta Plin, a ravioli filled with rabbit, veal and pork, accompanied by a hazelnut sauce and shaved truffle. The feeling of rolling out fresh pasta dough on the table and preparing the filling – was I doing it right?  The angst as my work was assessed to determine if it was up to scratch. Despite the feeling of disappointment if my plin wasn’t quite pinched closed enough, it was so special being taught by people with such high standards – Italians just have to have their food made a particular way!

Bidding La Ciuenda farewell, Kerrie Abba – my infectious ExperienceIT personal guide – and I drove through the Roero region to Matteo Corregio, all the while Kerrie informing me of the history of the region and pointing out the special landmarks. These ad hoc discussions were so fantastic and so valuable to learn about the towns and the people. Matteo Corregio produces several white and red varieties on site. Laboratory tests to determine the perfect pH or sugar level do not reign supreme here, Lucca is adamant that what happens out in the vineyard is of paramount importance for what happens in the production process.barolo and nebbiolo grapes

We had just finished our tour of the winery; the old barrels, the cellar door and the cool, clay walled tunnels stocked to the roof with old bottles, when Lucca offered to take us up to the vineyard. “It’s no limosine” he warned us as we jumped into his old ute. Just as well it wasn’t, because no limo I know of would be able to navigate the steep, undulating tracks to the vineyard rows which are pruned into perfect and very narrow lines. This chance offer to see the winery in its most natural state was the highlight of the day.

The next day held in store a drive out to Saluzzo, a small historic town at the foot of the Alps. Arriving at the cheese shop to show up all cheese shops, I was overwhelmed with the variety and choice! These cheeses were unlike any I had tasted in Australia, namely due to the milk used in small production houses in Italy is unpasteurised- a huge ‘no no’ in Australia!

Cheesemakers everywhere here were telling me that the reason why the Italian cheeses were so flavourful, was because of the fact that they use ‘latte cruda’ (raw milk). The cows, sheep and goats are left to graze on wild greens, violets and herbs, giving the cheese a robust and grassy complexity of flavour– a party on the palate!

The next day saw us bid farewell to Barolo and say hello to Finale Liguria, the journey there was as spectacular as the end result! The mountainous countryside had valleys so low I couldn’t see the bottom and mountains so high, the clouds precluded the view to the top.

Seeing this, I can completely understand why different villages had regional food only made in their area. Each area has a different micro climate depending on its altitude and incline, and certain plants thrive in areas where others fail.

The town of Finale Borgo brought an exciting array of winding tunnels and cobbled footpaths. We dined alfresco (much to the shock of the restaurant owners as it was ‘cold’ outside)! Traditional pesto pasta and calamari was the regional delicacy- it was the best I’ve ever had! After lunch we took a stroll into the main square; a visit to any Italian town is incomplete without a gelato! I sampled a rich, creamy and smooth duo of hazelnut and chocolate- absolutely heaven (and I even have the photo as evidence that nutritionists do eat ice cream!)

Onward to a small cheese producer resulted in an experience like no other –

a tour of the farm, a visit to the sheep in the barn and a private degustation in a cottage on a mountaintop overlooking the Langhe.

The whole experience was ‘organic’, from seeing the cheeses drying on their wooden shelves, to seeing the sheep let out for their afternoon graze in the paddock, to Silvio opening a fantastic bottle of red, serving a plate of hand made quality cheeses, bread made with a 40 year old yeast, and lighting the candles for us.

This was easily the highlight of the week in the valley. This was an experience which could never be replaced by anyone- the generosity of our host, the taste of the freshest cheese on earth- the smell and flavour of ‘farm’ was so evident.

The Pecorino was outstanding on its own, but when Silvio suggested we pair it with Cugna, a rich fruity preserve- utterly mindblowing!! This whole experience was like being invited into a family home,  with such pride and respect for the product they made being evident in the tasting we were given.

My last day with Kerrie was spent at the Grinzane Cavour, a medieval castle transformed into a museum and wine museum perched on top of a mountain. The morning visit to another family run winery was also a unique experience. The care taken to ensure the solids are not dispersed through the wine, then the solids being used as fertiliser in the garden. The tasting was also very special, with such love and respect for the end product.

The stand out feature to me of this week in the Piedmont region, meeting producers, seeing and sampling their products has demonstrated to me just how much respect these people show their food and wine they are making.

Nothing is mass produced, the most important thing is to care for the grapes while in the vineyard, to keep the sheep warm at night so they are happy and healthy, and to pair the most complimentary foods together to ensure the greatest flavours are showcased. Here, the people value this care and respect for food demonstrated by the producers. They are happy to pay a little extra if it means their products are shown the respect and care they deserve, and to bring out the best in each ingredient.

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