Traveling to Piemonte with Holly and Luigi

By Pamela Broadley
September 16-27, 2013

There's nothing more inspiring than spending time in Italy!

“Another trip to Italy?” friends and family ask. Since my first year out of college, when I traveled to Italy to track down the museums and works of art memorized for my art history classes, I knew I would return again and again. I’ve long since graduated from back packs, foreign train stations and pensiones, those small family rooming houses with dubious plumbing. Instead, I go to Italy with Holly and Luigi knowing that I’ll have a spectacular vacation eating at fabulous restaurants, staying in charming hotels, and having plenty of time and freedom to soak up what I love about this country—the beauty, the flowers, the food, the long lunches with wine and water bottles scattered across the table, the way the architecture and landscape blend in perfect harmony, the people, so generous and welcoming. Dare I say the shopping?  The treasures—how can one country have so many? The expressiveness of this place…

Day One: Villa Beccaris is perched above the town of Monforte D’Alba in the middle of Barolo and Barbaresco wine country. Marco, our affable tour guide tells us that the grape harvest is two weeks late this year due to a cold, rainy June. So we get to see tightly packed cones of plumy grapes weighing the vines. We are treated to lunch in a glass conservatory overlooking vineyards, hill towns and in the distance, the Alps. Lunch is substantial and includes fresh squeezed blood oranges and a salad bar with impossibly fresh, crisp vegetables, great antidotes to jet lag. Oh, and the wine that says, “ you are back in Italy.”

Day Two: I have to pinch myself. While waiting to get on our bus, I snap a photo of the larger church down in the town around the corner from where we ate last night. It’s the exact shot that I clipped from a travel magazine nearly a decade ago—church tower, squiggle of mountains, misty vineyards. I am here!

We visit the wine museum that seems like a combination of haunted castle and demented experiential exhibit on the history of wine.  Come outside and drink in the views of sloping vineyards, the jumble of surrounding architecture. Walking along the castle embankment, I look down on a mustard colored stucco house with aqua shutters. Brick arches frame the windows. Lace trimmed shades are pulled a third of the way down. A sign on the terrace indicates that this is B&B Archi del 400.

Day Three: I am in love with the Hotel! My window overlooks the garden, an ancient spruce tree and the pool beyond. I walk out of my room directly into the courtyard paved in cobblestones the size of goose eggs. At breakfast in the glass conservatory, I claim the table directly facing the view of La Morra, the adjacent hill town and the vineyards, those orderly rows of green combed across the landscape. Luigi tells us to bring our swimsuits on today’s excursion. The villa where we are going for our cooking lesson has a swimming pool like no other. The villa is in Mango.

Many in our group enjoyed the cooking class, especially eating the final results!

I don’t spend much time in the cooking class having had my fill of pasta making demonstrations over the years. I take a swim in the mosaic-tiled pool and stroll around the topiary-filled grounds admiring the periwinkle blue umbrellas and the profusion of pink and purple flowers cascading from every balcony. Some of us stretch out on the lounge chairs and wait patiently for lunch, which turns out to be another fabulous meal of roasted peppers, pasta and veal scaloppini.

After lunch, we visit Bruno Rocca, a small winery in Barbaresco. All three family members introduce themselves and welcome us to their operation. The tasting room is beautifully set up, and the décor is modern. The wine is intense. When we leave, there’s another exuberant send-off. Back at the hotel, I flip to the English page on the company’s working philosophy: “At the Rabaja estate, wine is considered the reflection and the soul of its land which, if loved and defended, always keeps its promise.”

Bicerin is a wonderful concoction of coffee, hot chocolate and cream.

Day Four: We spend the day in Torino. Marco invites us to follow him to the charming Piazza della Consolata where we will have a drink described as sex in a glass. Did Marco actually say that, or did this association arrive after my first sip of the Bicerin, a three-layered concoction (whipped cream, coffee, hot chocolate)?

While waiting for our order, I slip into the Santaurio Della Consolata. A humble brick façade with attenuated gothic elements gives way to a spectacular baroque interior, a magnificent and transporting space, so full of decoration it closes in on me. I have stepped into a church service and later find out that this is the “home church” of Turin, very active and full of worshippers at noon mass.  I quickly leave the sacred and go right back to the profane: Al Bicerin, the nineteenth century coffee shop where I plunk down five euros for a chunky Nocciolato Amaro chocolate bar crammed with Piemonte grown hazelnuts.

Next, we are off to the market. I never get tired of the European market experience where every vendor specializes in the ultimate ingredient: tomatoes shaped like overstuffed drawstring purses, eggs “enormi,” cascading piles of green beans, olives, grains and legumes, acres of deconstructed, pure food. My friend picks up an apple, intending to make a purchase, an action that unleashes a torrent of Italian. One must ask to buy, not touch.

Day Five: I think this was my favorite day in Piemonte! We travel to the Alta (high) Langhe to meet two food artisans. Leaving the vineyards behind, we drive through forests, villages and high meadows to the town of Borgomale. The bus drops us off on a narrow road and we walked until coming to a round, hand painted sign hanging from a tree: “Formaggi di Pecora a Latte Crudo,” loosely translated as “raw sheep milk cheese.” There, we meet Silvio Pistone, a handsome farmer who fashions delectable cheese from his small flock of Langhan sheep.

Silvio raises Langhan sheep and makes delectable cheese from their milk.

Silvio spoke not a word of English but he didn’t need to. Our lesson was to soak up his sense of purpose, pride, and grace that comes from closeness to the land and the simple beauty of his mission to keep the Langhan cheese tradition alive. I went kind of nuts taking pictures of Silvio’s home—both the eclectic interior, as we were invited in to see perfect fresh baked loaves of bread set out for the cheese tasting, and the grounds as if trying to soak up the authenticity and pure comfort of his lifestyle in the Alta Langhe.  To sample the cheese, we are invited into an adorable log cottage with herbs and braided garlic hanging from the ceilings, displays of farm implements and pots and pans on the walls, and beautiful still life and landscape paintings everywhere. It turns out that Silvio’s mother is an artist with her own studio in Alba.  A few of us buy paintings on the spot and Silvio wraps them carefully for the trip home.

After eating a substantial lunch, including desert, we pull up in front of Pasticceria Artigianale in the village of Bossolasco. On the ground floor, glass cases hold flawless cakes, one glazed with a sheet of dark chocolate, one a shiny mauve concoction loaded with cherries and one perhaps a cheese cake with chocolate crumb crust. We gather upstairs and watch Eugenio Truffa demonstrate several chocolate making techniques all the while high on chocolate fumes and transfixed by the ropey column of liquid chocolate that Eugenio dips his molds under like he’s merely filling an ice cube tray from the faucet. And I’m distracted by other things: next to the crafting table there is a virtual chocolate, candy and cookie buffet. Are we expected to eat more? And what is that brown plastic coffee pot, the shiny little brown espresso cups and spoons sitting on a tray?  Oh, and look, there are child’s drawings taped to the wall, floating balloons and princesses like my daughter used to draw twenty years ago. I stop to think—if I were at home attending a cooking class at say King Arthur Flour, would the pastry chef have his kid’s drawings taped to the wall? Marco is directing our attention to the silvery patina on the “coffee pot,” and I realize that it’s made of chocolate, as are the cups and spoons. Eugenio pulls a plastic crate out from under the baker’s table to show us the chocolate motor he is building. I am not kidding! I sample a few items on the buffet table—chocolate with hazelnuts, chocolate covered peppercorns, a truffle or two. Then I set off to explore the town.

Marco is a superb tour guide!

Marco has explained that this region was extremely poor after World War II. Wealthy Swiss and Austrians have bought up the real estate and restored the old buildings of this medieval village. I’m sorry that the area went through desperate times but I’m grateful for the restoration. I’m alone and no one else can hear me give what I call my Italian groan—oh, the beauty of the apricot colored stucco, sea green shutters, climbing roses, the curvature of the street, the views, the little café in the church piazza where I would love to sit with an espresso and look across the valley to the next Langhe hill.

Day Six: It’s Sunday, a perfect day to visit Alba, a medieval town with a shopping district! The town feels festive draped in flags and banners–a throwback to ancient pageantry. We walk through a square with a tiny food market and then into another a larger square with impressive towers and the town cathedral. Marco lectures and I snap photos of the huge Elena Miro (Italian fashion brand) advertisement draped over a building under restoration. People are crowding in for the church service, but we skirt the main aisle and stand near the choir stall admiring the deep blue and rust vaulted ceilings. Churches in Italy are art museums, spiritual spaces and theatre all rolled in to one. Only the lure of shopping trumps the temptation to check out one more church. Once, I was with a group in Todi, and we were about to go into the third church of the day when I spotted a tiny stall selling gorgeous Italian linens. I broke away from the tour and bought the tablecloth and napkins that I’ve used for a decade of Christmas celebrations. In Alba, the third church of the day is on the shopping street, and with a single discreet glance at each other, my friend and I scoot into an elegant shop.  A little hungrier than I was at E. Truffa’s yesterday, I notice a bakery selling what must be a local specialty—thick cookies of ground hazelnuts glued together with melted dark chocolate. I buy a few for “dinner.”

We have been told that our travel schedule will be light today. Just a visit to Alba and then lunch at a special restaurant in Nieve, one of the three villages certified to produce the grapes used in Barbaresco wine.  Marco warns us ahead of time that La Contea will be serving tongue. This gives us all time to avoid childish reactions at the table. What he doesn’t say is that this will be the longest, most wine soaked lunch of the trip!  Three hours in the wine cellar on a gorgeous seventy-degree day in a beautiful hill town with fabulous views, pathways to explore, churches, people enjoying lunch outside on a cobblestone square!  The group is forgiving—I sneak out with my camera between courses, taking photos of the backyard view and from the second floor restroom balcony. No one from our group asks what I am up to.  I walk up the street and into a church, stunned by the Byzantine style choir stall with the saints and the Stations of the Cross flattened against gold leaf.  I get back to the wine cellar as desert is served: pastry, fruit garnish and the owner’s names inscribed on the white plate rims in chocolate script with the message: Ringraziano which means that the owners are thanking us for being there!  Everyone is getting their pictures taken: couples are kissing, photos are snapped of the owners and servers.  The moscato fuels intense revelry, and then we are released into the streets of Nieve.

Day Seven: Today is our last full day in the Langhe. We meet Giani, a truffle hunter, and his dog at a hazelnut grove outside the village of Roddi. Sixty something Giani is trim and agile.  He wears the official badge of the Universita dei Cani da Tartufo Fondata a Roddi nel 1880 signifying that he is a truffle dog trainer.  When Giani’s dog sniffs out a truffle and starts to dig, he sprints over, distracts the dog and unearths the treasure with a miniature hoe.  The dog gets a treat and darts away to follow the next lead.  This hazelnut grove seems to yield enough truffles for everyone in the group to take a turn on the hand tool.  I notice that the grove is adjacent to a Barolo vineyard, and I take a little side trip.  Vines swirl across the landscape to the horizon. Rows and rows garlanding the hillsides.  Cones of perfectly round grapes slightly smaller than ping-pong balls.
We meet Giani back at the Universita dei Cani museum in Roddi. He and his wife serve us table wine, bread and an assortment of truffle-based appetizers. The cheese dipped in honey with shaved truffle is outstanding—the sweetness, the earthiness and the textured tang of cheese.

The village of Roddi is the perfect spot to spend our last day. It is beautiful, authentic, and full of life. Children stream out of the elementary school right below Giani’s house perhaps going home for lunch. In the dark light of the communale (town hall), I pick up a brochure explaining that the vineyard landscape of Piemonte is under consideration for UNESCO World Heritage Site designation in the category of “cultural landscapes.” Good, I think. Let’s hope that what I’ve seen and felt here over the last week will be honored and preserved far, far into the future.

Day Eight: We arrive at Hotel Cannero, and I have the sense that this place has been waiting for me to return. The lake is placid, the air is balmy, and the mountains rise up just as dramatically as I remember. The Hotel feels like an old friend, and I run around reacquainting myself with the beautifully appointed spaces. Thankfully, the staff is familiar, too—the same daughter-in-law in the wine cellar, the same Maitre d’ with his mischievous antics, the same dignified son at the front desk, and the same watchful mother. I get a great room overlooking the courtyard fountain with a balcony facing the lake. From here I can watch the day unfold. The ferry edges up to the dock, a family pushes a baby carriage along the promenade, a couple drives away from the hotel in their antique roadster with the top down. Holly has planned some wonderful activities and group dinners, but my friend and I have a few of our own plans like a shopping trip to Stresa and pizza at Cannero’s Il Giardino restaurant. This is the leg of the trip that’s a true vacation. For the most part, I can leave my camera behind and take everything in directly. Like I said on my first visit to Cannero, “some day I will come back.”