In the gastronomic powerhouse that is Italy, the Piedmont region holds its head high. This northwest section of the country has culinary roots that are as French as they are Italian. Geography and generations of rule by the Savoy family add up to a cuisine that is rich in butter, truffles and hazelnuts, with hardly a tomato in sight.
The area is a magnet for oenophiles. The Langhe, Roero and Monferrato hills are the birthplace of some of the world’s most prestigious wines and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The carefully tended vineyards are interspersed between fairy tale castles and ancient villages, a landscape that will take your breath away.
The Slow Food movement was founded here, so expect an emphasis on preserving traditional foodways and serving fresh, seasonal products. If you live to eat, a visit is a feast of flavor. Here are 10 things you shouldn’t miss when touring the Piedmont region.
Bonet, a creamy and delicious dessert — Photo courtesy of Alexala-Alessandria-Monferrato Photo Gallery
In French, “bonnet” means “cap.” In the local dialect, one letter is dropped and the cake’s whimsical hat shape makes sense. This velvety, pudding-like dessert contains cocoa, milk, eggs and sugar, and sometimes a splash of coffee or rum. Baked in a water bath to keep it uniformly smooth, it may be showered with chopped hazelnuts or crushed amaretti cookies for additional texture. Soft peaks of freshly whipped cream are a welcome addition.
An assortment of local cheeses — Photo courtesy of Alexala-Alessandria-Monferrato Photo Gallery
Piedmont is a wonderland for cheese lovers. Sheep, goats and cows graze in pristine meadows, providing top-quality milk. Local cheesemakers are passionate about sticking to traditional methods and won’t sacrifice quality for quantity. The soft Robiola di Roccaverano is made with at least 50% goat’s milk. Creamy and white with hints of fresh grass and herbs, it is often served with honey.
Nebbiolo grapes on the vine — Photo courtesy of Ente Turismo Langhe Monferrato Roero
The noble nebbiolo grape thrives in the Langhe hills, where the hospitable southern-facing slopes are protected from wind and cold. Several notable wines are made from this grape, but the elegant Barolo is its most mature and complex expression, giving the great red wines of Bordeaux and Burgundy stiff competition.
Full-bodied and structured with plenty of acidity and tannins, Barolo pairs perfectly with many of the region’s classic meat, pasta and truffle dishes.
The Wine Bank in Pollenzo offers a journey through the nuances of Italian wine, including Barolo, with tastings, workshops and guided vineyard visits.
Sausage of Bra
Sausage of Bra is something you must try on your visit — Photo courtesy of Davide Dutto, Ente Turismo Langhe Monferrato Roero
Sausage of Bra is made from ground veal. Bra was once home to a small Jewish community who could indulge in this pork-free product without breaking their dietary laws. In the mid-19th century, a ban on beef sausage was enacted. The sausage of Bra received special dispensation from King Carlo Alberto of Savoy, who himself was a fan of this luscious link, to continue to produce them with the officially forbidden veal.
Highly perishable and rarely found outside of the region, locals eat it raw with nothing more than a splash of fresh lemon juice. Each spring, the village hosts a festival dedicated to its delectable namesake sausage.
Bagna cauda is a relative of fondue — Photo courtesy of Allison Tibaldi
Bagna cauda contains only three ingredients; chopped anchovies, crushed garlic and either olive oil or butter. It’s simmered until it’s a thick paste and served in a terracotta tureen heated by a candle. Autumnal vegetables, such as peppers, radishes and the unusually shaped Nizza hunchback cardoon, are dipped into the pungent sauce. Historically eaten by country folk during the harvest, it’s a cheese-free cousin of Swiss fondue.
Crunchy krumiri cookies — Photo courtesy of Allison Tibaldi
Krumiri are crunchy butter cookies that are the specialty of the town of Casale Monferrato. Amusingly shaped like a mustache to honor the stubble of King Vittorio Emanuele, who unified Italy in 1861, krumiri were created in 1878 at the Rossi family bakery. The time-tested recipe of butter, eggs, flour, sugar and vanilla stands intact. The cookies are still handmade on-site and sold in collectable red tins.
Tajarin, delicate strands of fresh pasta — Photo courtesy of Ente Turismo Langhe Monferrato Roero
In the Piedmont, pasta is made from soft wheat flour and enriched with eggs. It’s a fresh product, as opposed to the dry, durum wheat pasta favored in southern Italy. Tajarin are long, delicate ribbons with a yellowish hue courtesy of egg yolks. Resplendent in their simplicity when bathed in fresh local butter, they are also delicious dressed with a meat sauce made of Bra sausage and sprinkled with a windfall of freshly grated Parmesan cheese.
White truffle of Alba
Dogs help to hunt for the Alba white truffle — Photo courtesy of Davide Dutto-Ente Turismo Langhe Monferrato Roero
This fragrant fungus is found in other parts of the world, but the Alba white truffle’s superiority is undisputed, the distinct aroma impossible to imitate. Rare and costly, they are harvested in autumn with the help of truffle hunting dogs.
Foodies flock here to consume this intoxicating wild tuber and to attend the famed International Alba White Truffle Fair. Truffles are eaten fresh and raw, shaved into wafer-thin slices with a special gadget. They regally crown dishes such as pasta, softly scrambled eggs and creamy risotto, adding a refined and earthy note.
Hazelnuts are a star ingredient in the Piedmont — Photo courtesy of Emanuele Canaparo-Ente Turismo Langhe Monferrato Roero
Piedmont’s hazelnuts have a rich taste and unmistakable fragrance. They star in countless traditional confections, including chewy nougats, crunchy brittles and torta di nocciole, a rustic cake made with ground hazelnuts. One of Italy’s best-known exports is Nutella, the addictive hazelnut spread. It was created in the backroom of a bakery in Alba, a town long recognized for its quality crop.
Gringolino wine for sale at the Grignolinoteca — Photo courtesy of Allison Tibaldi
Grignolino is an affordable garnet-colored wine with a fruity aroma and abundant acidity. Modern winemakers have tamed the once copious amounts of tannins by utilizing slow, gentle pressings. Rarely found outside of Piedmont, wine lovers will want to take a deep dive and visit the Grignolinoteca. Located inside the Crea restaurant in the lush and leafy Sacro Monte di Crea sanctuary, this comprehensive library of grignolino sells dozens of bottles from scores of nearby producers.
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