I’ve always felt that whether you’re in Edmonton or Manhattan or Red Deer there will be good food and there will be bad food. No matter where I’ve travelled I’ve had great meals and abhorrent meals, often in the same day.
Of course, I haven’t travelled everywhere, but this idea has been corroborated by several writers, even regarding Paris. Jeffrey Steingarten acknowledges that most baguettes, even in Paris, are shit. George Orwell went so far as to say that his time in Paris “destroyed one of my illusions, namely, the idea that Frenchmen know good food when they see it.”
In other words you can’t look at one city or region and say unequivocally, “Their food is good.”
Oh, but actually there is one exception. It’s the city of Alba, in Piemonte, in Italy. There isn’t any bad food in a 10 mile radius of Alba.
Piemonte is a region in northwestern Italy, bordering France. It’s home to some of Italy’s most important wines, namely Barolo and Barbaresco, but also Moscato d’Asti and several other knockouts made from Nebbiolo, Barbera, Dolcetto, and Arneis. It is a land of both butter and olive oil, egg-rich pastas, risotto, wild game, truffles (black and white), cheese, and hazelnuts.
I’ll admit that I’ve only spent five days in Alba, all in the middle of September 2014. You can’t know an entire region in five days, but it’s usually long enough to flush out some terrible food. In our five days we ate at a taverna with the worst kind of tourist name (Ristorante Italiano!), a fancy restaurant on the main square, and an osteria off the square. We ate a few meals in the small surrounding villages like Barbaresco, and also had a handful of breakfasts at our agriturismo. And we noshed in markets and alimentari and wine tasting rooms. And yeah: there wasn’t any bad food.
There is a profound strength to their food culture, and a near-militancy in preserving it. (Alba is a short train ride from the town of Bra, where the Slow Food movement began.) I don’t know if it is a matter of geography or economics or that the region doesn’t have the same overwhelming tourism seen in Venice or Rome. But somehow Alba is particularly immutable in its foodways and wholly dedicated to quality and tradition.
I thought I would share three of my favourite meals in Piemonte to illustrate the point.
Meal the First: Antiche Torre, in Barbaresco. This was a simple lunch with two classic Piemonte dishes served with two classic Piemonte wines. I remember it vividly because it was our “Barbaresco Day”.
We didn’t properly prepare for our time in Piemonte. When we arrived in Alba we realized that most of the things we wanted to see and do and eat were a good way outside the town, and not accessible by foot or bus. We hadn’t rented a vehicle in advance. I can’t drive stick, and even if I could, I didn’t have an international driver’s license. Actually I didn’t know what an international driver’s license was before I walked into a car rental company in Alba. After a bit of grief and scrambling we were able to secure a two-seat Vespa that would help us explore the region.
On the blissful, sunny days, driving the Vespa with Lisa’s arms around my waist was a fantastic dream come true. It so happens that 2014 was a notoriously dreary year in northern Italy. Almost every day we woke to cold wet miserable dreary grey skies, and the day we had earmarked to visit Barbaresco was just such a day. We tried to make our trips in the open Vespa during breaks in the rain, but were only partially successful. After touring the peerless Barbaresco winemaker Marchesi di Gresy we were starving for lunch, and the cold wet miserable rain notwithstanding we fired up the scooter and drove into town. Eventually we found ourselves at the Antiche Torre, totally underdressed and sopping wet to boot.
Lisa had a glass of Dolcetto. I had Barbaresco.
First we shared a plate of carne cruda. This literally means “raw meat,” but it is a preparation similar to steak tartare.
At that time, back in Edmonton, you couldn’t offer a simple steak tartare: there needed to be some sort of catch or gimmick. For example when I worked at Jack’s Grill we made a tartare with Spring Creek Ranch tenderloin that was flavoured with caper and Tabasco, topped with a quail egg yolk, and served with lotus root chips. Though Alberta is one of the most famous beef-producing regions on the planet, you needed something like beet juice or gochujang to sell your tartare.
The carne cruda at Anitche Torre was very simple, even elemental. It was chopped beef with salt and pepper (maybe olive oil?) and a slice of lemon. It was served with grissini, the ubiquitous long wonky bread sticks of the region. It was delicious, and at the risk of putting too fine a point on this topic, had me rethinking what we were doing back home.
Next we each had a bowl of tajarin (say “tie-ya-RIN”). No dish better expresses the refined decadence of Piemontese cuisine. Tajarin is a pasta made of flour and egg yolks. This may not seem so crazy to cooks who were raised by Thomas Keller and The French Laundry Cookbook (his pasta recipe is basically all yolks…) but from a historical perspective this is very extravagant. Tajarin noodles are cut by hand into very thin, very long pieces, and served in simple sauces. Lisa’s came with ragù, mine with big chunks of porcini that had been sautéed with vinegar. Tajarin has a tendency to knot and clump, so the noodles need to be teased apart. This sounds annoying but it’s actually kind of fun.
Meal the Second: Osteria Sognatori, in Alba. While we were in Italy we ate at a dozen different places that called themselves osterie. These are supposed to be quaint and humble restaurants, often with communal seating. Osteria Sognatori was perhaps the only spot that truly fit that description. The service and food were charmingly informal, unaffected, but came with such genuine warmth and generosity when we left I felt like I had just eaten in someone’s home.
When we first got to Sognatori there were no tables for us (usually a good sign) so we strolled the city streets for half an hour before returning. On entry the host pointed us to the back room. We found our own way and sat at the only free table, which was still cluttered with dirty plates and glasses. A server came shortly. There was no printed menu. She took our drink order, then told us what antipasti were available that night. We definitely felt a twinge of anxiety (“Is that all that is available? No pasta? No meat?”) but we played it cool and made our choices. Our antipasti arrived shortly thereafter and once we had eaten with gusto the waitress returned to reveal the pasta dishes that were available that evening. We ordered our pasta and the ritual was repeated for the secondi and dolci. So in a way you had to eat one course to unlock the next.
We began with vitello tonnato, a Piemontese classic: veal round, roasted medium-well, chilled, sliced very, very thin, served with a sauce made from tuna. It sounds weird, but it’s like a cold surf-and-turf appetizer. At Sognatori the tuna sauce took the form of a big pink dollop that was reminiscent of mayonnaise.
We also had a delicious minestrone soup, which came as a thick purée studded with vegetables, utterly unlike the brothy noodle and bean version common in North America.
Next was gnocchi with ragù. Dishes like ravioli and gnocchi are made throughout Italy, but it seems to me that the pieces get smaller the farther north you go. We had gnocchi in Rome, and they were big dumplings, less than a dozen on a plate. In Piemonte the gnocchi are the size of dried beans, with maybe a hundred on a plate.
We finished with panna cotta. Cooked in a loaf pan, sliced, and covered with a burnt sugar syrup. Not perfectly smooth, but tender and tasty.
At the end of the meal the waitress plonked two big bottles on the table: one of semi-frozen limoncello, one of grappa di Barolo. We were free to pour ourselves as little or as much as we pleased: it was on the house. And this was not some special courtesy or apology; we saw these bottles placed on every table at the end of the meal.
It was the first time I’d had grappa di Barolo. This is grappa made with Barolo grape pomace, but it is aged in oak, so it is a pale, amber-gold colour, not clear like most grappa. Aromatic, with a full, inky moutfeel.
After dinner we walked to the front of the restaurant and told the host what we ate. He tallied our order and we paid. On our way out we were given one more shot of complimentary booze, a herb liqueur.
Meal the Third: Pesce e Tartufi, in Alba. We took a cooking class at Pesce e Tartufi, and once we had participated in most of the prep, we were seated in the dining room, where we were served what turned out to be the most memorable meal of our entire five-week trip. Of course the fact that we had helped with the preparation had a lot to do with this. We fully expected to sit and eat the dishes we made in the class, but we were genuinely surprised by how beautiful and elegant the lunch service was.
So. The meal. The antipasto was a tortine, and for me this was the single most memorable dish of the entire trip. Tortine is sometimes translated as flan; it is like a flat, round frittata, maybe three inches across. This example was filled with thinly sliced trumpet zucchini and draped in the best cheese sauce I’ve every had in my cheese-sauce-filled life. Then the whole dish was covered in thinly sliced black truffles.
I need to elaborate on each of these components in turn.
The tortine itself, the disc of egg and zucchini. The zucchini were sliced very thin then sautéed with red onion in olive oil. These vegetables were then stirred into a béchamel, to which several egg yolks were added. This mixture was poured into something like a muffin tin and gently baked in the oven.
When I asked about the cheese sauce, the chef Bruno answered simply, “It’s a fonduta.” I admitted with some embarrassment that I didn’t know what that was… “Like fondue?” He smiled as if a small child had asked a ridiculous question, then explained. Start with a soft local cheese called Berge. Soak the cheese in milk for a full day, then melt it, still in the milk, in a double boiler, and whisk in whole eggs at the end. Bruno’s fonduta had an impossibly smooth, velvet texture. I know that’s a cliché, but there it is.
The truffles. There is no more pretentious thing you can do than rave about the truffles you ate in Italy but I’ll do it gladly. I’ve had “fresh” black truffles imported to Edmonton, and basically they are dry: if you slice them too thin they splinter like chocolate shavings, so you usually have to slice them thick, but then the texture is completely wrong.
The truffles at Pesce e Tartufi were moist and delicate. If you lifted a single round with your fork it bent under its own weight.
Enough of the tortine. It was followed by three pasta courses: ravioli with meat filling, gnocchi with sausage and tomato, and another ravioli, this time with a blue cheese filling.
Both the ravioli dishes were unsauced, served only with parmigianno grated over top. The pasta was put directly on a cloth serviette resting on a plate, I think to emphasize that there was no sauce. It was such a simple, sophisticated, surprising way to serve pasta
The secondo was coniglio, rabbit, which seemed to be on every menu in Piemonte that time of year. The rabbit was completely boned, then rolled and braised in Nebbiolo the method described in this post. It was then sliced into little rounds. Each plate had two rounds of rabbit nestled on top of two rounds of roasted eggplant. Little cipolini onions dotted the plate, and there was a rich reduction sauce all about.
Dolce was a hazelnut gelato with a kind of tuile and raspberry coulis. Simple but memorable. Hazelnuts were another item that was on almost every menu in some form or fashion. And know that I think about it, immediately after this meal we visited a hazelnut orchard in Cravazana. So the heady toffee-like aroma of roasted hazelnuts has been fused in my mind with our time in Piemonte.
Piemonte… such a special place.
- Okay he doesn’t actually say that. But in The Loaf that Nearly Died, he bemoans the “tasteless, fluffy, bleached imposter” baguettes that are so common in Paris, and touts the champion bakers that have saved the true baguette. This essay is collected in It Must’ve Been Something I Ate.
- Down and Out in Paris and London.