Recently, we had some Irish friends visit us. It was the first time they had visited the Langhe in Piemonte. We took them off to a local Festa, and they were blown away. Not by the music, which was ear drum breaking. Not by the location, which was on a hill-top with beautiful views all around. Not by the wonderfully entertaining dancers, who took over the cobbled make-shift dance floor with gusto. No, none of these things impressed them as much as the relish and patience shown by the locals queuing for food. Not drink but food - at 9pm at night! In fact, the free wine generously laid out on tables by a local winery was largely overlooked in favour of devouring the food.
I had to explain this cultural phenomenon as best I could. You see Italians in the countryside, barely go anywhere on a night out without the promise of food. It’s similar at Aperitivo time when all the small village bars offer free tasty morsels with the Aperol Spritz or other alcoholic beverage. When you go to the cities forget about free treats with your Aperitivo, you’ll be lucky if you get grissini! This is a countryside ritual that all who come here for the first time can’t believe.
This is why Andrew, or Andrea, his new Italian name, fondly christened by the locals, is particularly suited to life in Italy. He can’t go anywhere without thinking of having a coffee and snack within 10 minutes of arrival. Me? I could go all day without eating, if I wasn’t reminded by his growling tummy.
But back to the Italian's passion for food. We often eat with our lovely Piemontese neighbours, who come from all walks of life. But sit them down at a table and our idea of Western manners go out the window. There is no waiting until everyone has been served or has helped themselves to food from heaving platters. Italians don’t wait, they dive straight in! And because alcohol is secondary to food, they barely toast either. But as most of our female friends don’t even drink alcohol, they don’t see it as so important. This took some getting used to. It felt rude to start eating when others hadn’t been served. It was only due to our fellow diner’s encouragement with the endearing word ‘mangiare’, the Italian word for ‘eat up’, that we bravely ate before everyone was ready.
It’s said that Italians think about food and talk about food more than any other subject. And I can well believe it. Everything is timed according to when they eat. Lunch time has a break so long that they can go home, cook a meal and rest after eating. So revered is lunchtime that no work is done sometimes for 2 hours. Of course, that doesn’t apply so much in the big cities, but they mostly still take a full hour for lunch. Compared to London and Dublin, this is to be applauded for sure.
The only thing is they are not brave eaters in the countryside. We had friends over from Sydney a couple of years ago and we had a welcome dinner with all the neighbours. Some of these neighbours had been serious international corporate players before retirement. But my friend was astonished that the dish she suggested we make for lunch was not recognised by them. It was their first time trying it. The dish was Spaghetti Puttanesca, the world-famous Neapolitan dish. And guess what happened when I tried to serve innocent mint sauce to our neighbour with his lamb one Easter? He was horrified that we would want to taint the taste of the lamb with mint! He wouldn’t be convinced to even try it.
They are so proud of their Piemontese cuisine you can barely get anything else in the Ristorantes and Trattorias. You might spot a rare sighting of Lasagne al Forno if you are very fortunate. The only dish to make it this far North in great numbers is the pizza! But that hasn’t been here for long.
In the Piemonte city of Turin you can get all types of cuisine, but the most prized is Piemontese, and second is Sushi! How this came about is a bit of a mystery, but then it mostly has a base of rice, well this is risotto land and raw fish is similar to carpaccio, so it isn’t as brave as it first appears.
But, like all things in Italy, there is a weird idiosyncrasy to all this eating, they don’t really eat breakfast. This can be very hard on overseas visitors, as they face first thing in the morning a buffet of cakes and croissants (called a brioche in the courtryside) filled with oozing apricot jam. If Italians eat breakfast it tends to be sweet things so that they can burn the calories off. Even Tiramisu was traditionally eaten only in the morning. That’s why in Piemonte they are mostly whippet thin. They tend to have a break before 11am and have a café or cappuccino, and at a push a brioche, though mostly at weekends. This is a little like the on trend fasting diet of leaving a break of 16-18 hours from dinner until the first meal of the day, well I wonder where they got that idea from???
Ahh Italy - I just love it all!
The Summer Season Begins in Piedmont
For certain, as time has gone before, farmers could rely on the changing of the seasons, not like clockwork but in a rhythm of clearing, sewing, tending, pruning, watering, harvesting and resting. All conducted at a certain time and manner befitting the season. This seems to be changing along with our climate sadly.
I was out walking today on what finally felt like the first day of real summer. Before me were a multitude of herbs, fruits and wild grass that seemed to be thriving but according to my journals kept over the last 4 years all seemed to be late in their scented splendor. I have been contemplating this for some time. I admit to only having walked a half life so far on my journey on the earth, but it seems to me the seasons are shifting slowly.
But let’s not be too hasty to start mourning the loss of what we know seasonal timings to be when we can look around us now and enjoy the view.
On my stroll
Stepping out of the fading wooden front door thoughts of re-varnishing it leave my mind on seeing the beautiful sight before me, the Langhe Hills of Piedmont, in perfect green and lush magnificence. My ears are hit hard with a choir of bird song, as I make my way down the stone driveway and pass the soon to bloom lavender to my right and the overgrowing hedge to my left. Butterflies dart about through my experimental wilding habitat and the frantic buzzing and strumming of bees and crickets awaken my senses to summer. I can’t believe it’s here. No more rain forecast just glorious sunshine baked days.
Strolling on to the Strada I hear no motors coming, only a cuckoo calling. I take in the sight of my elderflowers coming into bloom, though not as plentiful as last year. I think there is just enough heads to make my Elderfower cordial. I take in a deep lungful of green, new summer, air.
The background is full of the low hum of strimming sounds from distant farms. It’s that time of the year when farmers here go at it like mad things, sweating through their ‘overalls and ruining the tranquillity of nature on the rise. I feel somewhat clever for adopting Isabella Trees ‘Wilderness’ approach in the garden. I have informed the neighbours of my wilding experiment. They crease up their brows on hearing my plan to let the land go ‘au naturel’ and look at me bemused. Unless there is a heatwave of epic proportions, and fear of land burning, I won’t be moved on my decision.
Last year when we gave up chasing our tails with the strimming of it all, this new approach soon became a revelation. There were more bees and butterflies and insects I had never seen before flitting amongst the long grass and wild flowers and this year there are even more. I love it. I love treading in my wellies through the wild wheat that dominates the background of this natural landscape, they sway at my shoulder showering me lightly with tiny crickets. I enjoy seeing a habitat of natural beauty rather than artificial boring cut grass. I love wondering what all the pretty flowers and herbs are that grow in this wild apothecary. I wish I knew. I feel that we have lost so much knowledge of nature and its healing properties over the last 100 years.
I stroll along leisurely up the winding hill. A stream trickles down the side, snaking its way down to my neighbour Giovanni’s small lake, providing his captured fish with clean water. Just the other week we were visiting Giovanni and Anna on the way back from town. Giovanni's eyes gleamed at the sight of us and his enthusiastic kissing and big hugs forewarned us that he was about to ask a favour. He was.
He pointed towards a small wooden white rowing boat that sat in his driveway, about four foot wide with a bench in the middle. He was about to place it in the lake but obviously he couldn’t do it alone. It required some wrestling to heave it on the back of the small trailer, but Andrew and Giovanni deftly managed it with some flexing of the muscles. I went with Anna to watch the two men at work. We headed down to the lake, passing the sheep and baby lambs who stood stock still and bleated quizzically at us. Finally, through much grunting, posturing and panting the boat slapped into the water. Back slapping and cheering met it’s bounce on the water, particularly with the sight of it floating. Giovanni clambered in and set to rowing like only a man from Sardinia could do. The fish won’t know what’s coming!
Climbing high up the hill I am completely alone. No houses are in view, no cars growling by. Solitude. All is lush and green, every shade of green even eucalyptus green from a tall gangly sapling. There are so many birds, I wish I had my long departed grandfather with me on this walk to tell me what birds are singing now. The question comes back to my mind ‘How much knowledge have we lost over the last 100 years?’ It is frustrating me not to know, I can’t even see the birds to identify them as they are hidden in the rich green foliage of the trees.
I turn back and take in the view of the valley, as it curves down to the village out of sight around the hills, as it always has done for thousands of years. How fortunate am I to live here and be a witness to nature in all its sprouting, budding, springing glory, now that summer has arrived.
When in October this year, the eponymous travel guide, Lonely Planet, announced Piedmont to be the number one destination to visit in 2019, those of us already smitten by this region probably shrugged and said ‘what took you so long?”
The Italian region of Piedmont (or Piemonte if you want the Italian name) has hidden its light under a bushel for years, regarded well by only those who either ski, love food & wine, or are European history buffs. In the regional capital, Turin, external tourism is barely acknowledged, although it is a city beloved by the French and understandably so. For several centuries, Piedmont was controlled by the royal House of Savoy and indeed, the greatest legacy in Turin itself is arguably that of the Savoyards.
So, if you have been swayed by Lonely Planet to think about Piedmont (after probably having said “where?!” and then remembered either The Italian Job or the 2006 Winter Olympics), how should you start?
In very broad terms, you can look at three areas: the Alps and the foothills, Turin and its surrounds and then the southern hills - the Langhe, Roero and Monferrato all already Unesco World Heritage sites. The unifying aspects of these three areas are food and wine: it difficult to eat badly in Piedmont (assuming one is wise enough to avoid the ubiquitous food chains of which there are mercifully few) and I urge you to ignore the exterior of restaurants and bars, may of which are not that inviting and treat yourself to the best cheese, beef, veal and wine in the world. And then there is the chocolate and the vegetables and…oh, look just go and see for yourself.
Turin is, in my opinion, one of the most elegant, handsome and graceful cities in Italy, if not the world. If your concept of Italian cities is rooted in the Renaissance or Roman periods, Turin will come as something of a surprise. Although there are highly visible Roman remains and some medieval areas, the Renaissance largely passed it by, for which thank the Savoyards who at the time neglected the city. Move on to the Baroque era however, and you have an example par excellence of all that is best in that period.
It is also the cradle of the Risorgimento, which led to the unification of Italy in the second half of the nineteenth century. This was far from a bloodless revolution and I urge you to visit the Museum of the Risorgimento contained within the first Italian Parliament building. Turin was the first capital of the newly united Italy and this building is a superb example of the ornate red brick architecture that typifies many Piedmont buildings of the era.
Turin has so much to offer that I am having difficulty stopping; just let me say go to Porto Palazzo the biggest food market in Europe and go to the Cinema Museum in the Mole. Walk everywhere, stop for coffee or an aperitivo when ever you feel like it, people watch, stroll along the river, go to Superga and Stupinigi and Veneria Reale….see, I said I couldn’t stop.
After the buzz and baroque of Turin, hire a car and head south to the gentle landscapes of the Langhe, Roero and Monferrato, all places where some of the best wine in the world is made. Visit stunning hilltop towns that are so photogenic you may wonder if Hollywood had a hand in them. Find local producers of cheese that you may never find again as this time next year, the climate may have been subtly different so it won’t taste quite the same. Observe how man and nature have created some of the most beautiful landscapes in the world and wonder why you haven’t been before. Slow down to the pace around you, then realise why, in the words of Unesco, this place is “an exceptional living testimony to the historical tradition of grape growing and winemaking processes, of a social context, and a rural economy based on the culture of wine.” The official reason for inclusion as a Unesco World Heritage site includes these words: ‘the vineyards of Langhe Roero and Monferrato are an outstanding example of man’s interaction with his natural environment”. So beautiful a place, not to be missed in a lifetime.
The third area of Piedmont to explore is the Alps and the foothills. These beautiful imposing mountains hold Piedmont in a cradle of peaks running from the north east of Turin, north of beautiful Lake Maggiore curving west and forming the border with France until they gently roll into the Mediterranean west of Ventimiglia.
If you love mountains, as I do (I’d rather be up a mountain than on a beach any day) this long, majestic arc of young mountains with their snow capped peaks will captivate and exercise a certain fascination. There is so much to see and do in these mountains, whether you are strolling the shores of a lake in the north, marvelling at how, from 983AD, builders created the stupefying Sacra di San Michele on a seemingly inaccessible peak, or simply gazing at their beauty from the splendid food market in Saluzzo in the south. I find these mountains particularly effective for reminding me to bring a sense of proportion to my life. Gazing at them is almost a meditative experience for me which I don’t find anywhere else. Oh and the skiing is pretty good, too!
I can imagine at this point my Piedmontese friends will be saying what about so and so, what about the rice growing, what about here, there and everywhere…yes, I have omitted many Piedmont jewels, but this is blog post, not a guide book and I suppose my main objective was to tempt you to Turin and her region. Yes, the economy needs tourism but no one wants our beautiful city to become a Venice or a Florence, cities which have all but sold their souls to tourism.
So, as Lonely Planet says, at first Piedmont and particularly Turin can seem more French than Italian. But to dismiss the region on that basis is to overlook the innate “Italian-ness” of the area; many of the commodities we think of quintessential Italian are Piedmontese. Alfa Romeo, Maserati, Lavazza, the iconic Moka pot, Nutella, Ermenegildo Zegna…all Piedmontese. So this year, give Tuscany a miss and come to the north…you will be surprised and enchanted.
To get in touch with Jan you can find her on Twitter @TheWatchfulCook and her website.
Top 5 things to do in Cortemilia
Ok, I admit I have used the boring ‘5 things to do’ in Cortemilia as the header, as I know you want to read short snappy list articles. There are many more things to do in Cortemilia but there is more than one thing to do to. A lot of travel articles reference Cortemilia for a pit stop and they will in the same breath mention Canobbio too, the famous pasticerria. But then as soon as that is written they take you off to Alba or Asti and that is the end of that, as if Cortemilia only has one place to visit. Except it hasn’t.
Cortemilia is a little like Cinderella. She is a proud Roman town that sits dominated by two huge sisters with big personalities, Alba and Asti, who get all the attention due to their prestigious names due to truffles and wine. Yet, here, hiding in the depths of the majestic Alta Langhe Hills, sits their very hardworking sister and a princess in disguise. Not to mention the fact that the truffle hunters get a lot of the famous white ‘Alba truffles’ from the Cortemilia hills and the winemakers around here are medal winners.
I fell in love with Cortemilia a few years back, when I ventured into Piemonte for the first time, after a dozen different holidays to all the other areas of Italy. I was smitten with the place within seconds and we now live here. It’s not beautiful in the centre for sure, but take yourself off up the hills from all angles of the town and you will see beauty within a minute. Cortemilia is a practical town. It is the vibrant heart beat of the region, circled by many villages that rely on it for every day trade such as Pezzolo, Perletto, Roccaverano, Bergolo and many others. The mornings are hectic with life and the late afternoon and evenings bustle too. Of course, like every non-tourist area of Italy the place is closed up for the sacred hours of lunch and siesta between 12.30pm and 3.30pm.
But I digress, here are my 5 favourite things to do in town, from my perspective, as a permanent resident and proud adoptee of Cortemilia:
Then go for a stroll around the corner to the arch covered portico shopping area, there are some great local shops to explore.
2. Stop off in my favourite organic food shop 'Alla Rinsfusa' and meet Marianna. If you are self-catering, their wholegrain spelt bread is the best.
-3. Pop into ‘Gallo’ a true Alimentari (local grocers) where you can see locals buying their vegetables and hams, they have great cheese and will give you a sample if you are buying.
4. Stroll up to B.J. boutique and meet Anna, an elegant lady who runs a very stylish Italian boutique with gorgeous Italian label clothes you can afford to buy, this isn’t Alba thank goodness!
5. If you are staying self-catering, circle back and on the other side of the road is a great butchers, Macelleria Bogliacino where you can meet a lovely hardworking family team, Amabile and Manuela Bogliacino and their daughter, Elena, she is fluent in English and German too. They also make the best home made Insalata Russo, a Piemonte staple and other tit-bit delicacies to take away - so delicious!
6. Then take yourself off via the pedestrian bridge, over the River Bormida and take in the relaxing view of the local wildlife, geese, ducks and sometimes - otters!
Continue on, and there is a real old bar, 'Bar Bruna' on the right, it’s tiny but knowledgeable about wine. If the weather is nice you can sit outside. They sell the best collection of wine in the area in the back room off-licence.
7. Then walk down the cobbled street where more little shops await and my all-time favourite vintage furniture shop is on the right, ‘Ricordi e Desideri’, run by the lovely Monica and her husband Rino. You can pick up a vintage glass or two or other trinket to take home in your carry on luggage.
8. Further on and you reach Piazza Savona and diametrically opposite is Bar Nazionale, the first place I ever entered in Cortemilia and a destination for everyone who loves Cortemilia. The characters in this place in the morning are great to watch. All the wise farmers, young and old, meet here to talk all things farming. Don’t be alarmed to see them drinking Moscato at 11am, they’ve been up since 4! This is also the place to watch football, Italian league, in the evening. At the weekends bikers come to hang out and show of their bikes! The bar staff is super-efficient and is a very friendly team run by Luana Giribaldi. Great for cappuccino and brioches (croissants) in the morning.
9. Another lovely bakery 'Pane Burro & Zuccero' is a few doors up from Bar Nazzionale run by Dania Franchello, vibrant and energetic, she stocks great local produce for gifts too. Plus, her partner is an excellent winemaker, Enzo of Patrone winery, and if you are extra nice to her she might help organise a private tasting for you at Patrone, which is another great experience too!
10. Have a tasting at Patrone winery – see my review here of this very cool, award winning, winery.
11. Finally, for the best pizza in Italy, Pizzeria La Torre can’t be beaten, run by family team Clara and Anna. It is only open in the evenings and not on Wednesday. You must book to get a table! +39 0173 81881
Oops that was supposed to be 5 things to do wasn’t it! My passion for Cortemilia has gotten the better of me – sorry 😊. I will write another part on what to do outside of town, as there are loads of other things to do such as hiking, cycling, cooking, yoga and other local shops to visit here.
Hopefully, by now, you can see that this is the place to stay, in the heart of 'Alta Langhe' and a great base to do your day trips to the coast, Alba and Asti from here, that’s why the Romans made this their 'crossroads town'!
Places to Stay in Cortemilia
To stay in Cortemilia I would recommend Canobbio’s B&B or Cucina Barroero for a holiday, they have a great pool and it is a great place to stay for biscuit lovers too. If you have young children, Agriturismo Gallo is full of knee-high kids running about the place and they make pizzas in the summer too. Another B&B is Hotel Langha In.
Hotel Villa San Carlo is perfect for a decadent and romantic stay and is a hit with Americans, it has a lovely garden, pool and a world famous restaurant too and Carlo Zarri has cooked for Michelle Obama and other celebrities so you will be in for a treat.
If you are planning a trip here get in touch, I can meet you for a glass of wine!
Where to find these great places:
Canobbio: Piazza Molinari, 11, Cortemilia
Alla Rinfusa: via Dante Alighieri, 21Cortemilia
BJ boutique: via Dante Alighieri, 55/57 Cortemilia
Macceleria Bogliacino: via Dante Alighieri, 48 Cortemilia
Bar Bruna: via Cavour, Cortemilia
Ricordi e Desideri: via Cavour, Cortemilia
Patrone Winery: Strada Viarascio, 15, Cortemilia
Bar Nazionale: Piazza Savona, Cortemilia
Pane Burro & Zuccero: Piazza Savona, 9, Cortemilia
Pizzeria La Torre: Piazza Castello, 18, Cortemilia +39 0173 81881
Cuccina Barroero: Str. Viarascio, 35, Cortemilia +39 0173 821250
Agriturismo Gallo: Strada Serole, Cortemilia +39 0173 81 404
Hotel Villa San Carlo: Corso Divisioni Alpine, 41, Cortemilia +39 0173 81546
Living like Vampires in Alta Langhe
This is my second permanent summer here in the Langhe Hills of Piemonte. Last year was a rich lesson in how to cope in relentless dry heat for 3 months straight. This year another lesson, how to cope in humid hot temperatures for 3 months.
We have turned into vampires! Bram Stoker would be proud of us!
When we used to holiday in Italy in our younger, and more naive years, we were always baffled with the deadly quiet villages all shuttered up and left, at least in our minds, abandoned. We couldn’t understand why no one walked the streets between 12 and 4pm. Back then we used to sunbathe by a pool all day and eat lunch outside in the midday sun.
Now, I dream of holidaying in Scotland next year. Living permanently in a hot climate is not sustainable I fear without a good number of breaks in the summer to more temperate climates. It doesn’t help that I am fantasising about moving to Scotland having immersed myself in the ‘Outlander’ book series, of which I am now on my third read through, or more accurately listen through, as I am listening to the audio version on Audible, narrated by the wonderful Davina Porter. I really want to be in Scotland.
But back to the vampire business. We learnt the art of ‘shuttering windows’ last summer, as our Piemontese neighbours, one by one, told us off for having all our windows wide open all day during the summer. They would say, ‘Are you mad? Shut those windows at once,’ anytime they visited before 7pm. Then after 7pm it was, ‘Are you mad? Open those windows at once,’ any time after 7pm. You see, there is an art form here. Shutters are Italians air-conditioning units. If the temperature outside is hotter than the temperature inside the house all windows and shutters are closed to stop the heat entering the house. We now have a more comfortable 28 degrees inside while it is 38 degrees outside. But, with the shutters open, the heat inside was more around 32 degrees. As soon as the temperature outside goes below the internal temperature you throw all windows and shutters open to get the cooler air to enter before bed time. It is logical and effective. It just means checking the internal and external thermometers frequently.
Our paranoia about the temperature led us to a speedy return the other day from a morning appointment. Half way back I remembered we hadn’t closed the shutters for the day and the temperature was already 30 degrees. Andrew put his foot down to get home to save the day but there was a funny moment. Coming up our hill, around 12pm, there rounding a bend, was a bunch of 5 walkers, all wearing khaki shorts, linen flowing tops in a rainbow of pastel colours and the ubiquitous straw hat – tourists! It really took me back! That was us, no more than a few years ago, out strolling and taking in the view in the midday sun while locals were racing by in cars in a demented style, mouths open wide, gawking, as they passed by the lunatic people who were mad enough to be out walking in the midday sun, while they sped up the hill to get indoors and bang the shutters closed tightly.
I do truly feel like a vampire. We are working and eating indoors all day now, even a quick walk to the garage breaks me open in a full on sweat. But at night, as the sun sets, we all venture outside to water the parched plants, bring stiff sun-dried washing in and eat dinner under the stars, hopefully with an accompanying cool breeze wafting by.
This month it is Festa season. On a trip back from visiting friends in Acqui Terme, at the Brazilian festival, a couple of weeks ago, we passed by three separate Festas. Each little village has its own Festa, though there isn’t a lot to differentiate them apart from different bands. The bands are great though, as whoever seems to book these has an eclectic taste in music. Last Saturday we went to a Festa in ‘Pezzolo,’ a tiny hamlet where Ferrero was born, he who started the Ferrero company that went on to make Nutella and Ferrero Rocher! I am surprised they don’t have a day a year off in his memory for his contribution to all things chocolate, let alone all the employment he created. ‘Pezzolo’ by day sleeps. We play tennis there on its one tennis court every weekend in the morning. Barely a soul moves about the sleepy streets of ‘Pezzolo’ during the day, which is good for me, as I get very shy when anyone even glances at me playing tennis! But at its Festa, last weekend, at least 200 locals lined the streets eating, drinking, chatting and dancing to the bands. I was very impressed with a great funk ska band that played on the main stage that night.
The Festa in ‘Pezzolo’ was a sight to behold that really gladdened the heart, because, these people are just like us. They live indoors all day and only come out at night – we are all vampires of the Langhe Hills.
I was invited to a conference in Turin recently to talk about the food and wine of Turin and Piemonte. I got asked a few questions about my memories of Italian food and why I love Piemonte food at a round table event. Unfortunately, due to a difficult translator set up, I never really got to answer any question for longer than 30 seconds. This left me frustrated. I love this region and I can gasbag on about it all day but my answers at the conference were too abstract and without depth, due to the brief time I was given, so I thought now would be an opportune and cathartic time to tell you about my first memory of anything Italian and of course Italian food.
I grew up in Surrey, England, in a town called Walton-on-Thames. A pretty place, back then, with of course the Thames river flowing through it and lots of green fields near my house and lovely walks by the river. Things have changed in the last few decades sadly, but one thing has remained, all the wonderful Sicilian and Italian people who migrated there in the 1960’s and 70’s. It was more like Sicily-on-Thames looking back on it. But as a small child you don’t notice these things. It was normal for friends to be called Rosanna, Luigi, Francesca, Lucia, Gaspare. Just as it seemed normal to me to be going across our, not so busy back then, main road to shop in one of the first Italian delicatessens in Surrey, ‘Alio’s’.
Every Saturday, from about 8 years of age, I would march across to 'Alio's', with my father’s money in my pocket, and food order in my ear, to come back with Italian bread, Prosciutto, Salami, Mortadella and gorgeous Rosetta bread rolls. But this errand didn’t bother me, I loved this errand because arriving at ‘Alio’s’ on a Saturday morning meant entering another world, another country – Italy! Inside was a cavernous cool room, with rows of dried pasta in all shapes and sizes, a variety of tinned tomatoes from South of Italy, all sorts of Italian biscotti, savoury snacks and many other wondrous delicacies. On a Saturday all the local Italian Mamas and Papas were there, hustling and bustling and ringing up the till like a famine was on the way. Each order at the tiny counter took about 20 minutes in this wonderful store, as Ben (Beniamino), the owner, sliced heaps of the whole variety of Italian charcuterie you can think of and cut large slabs of aged Parmesan cheese with his menacing cheese wire. I was tiny back then, probably no more than 4 foot and my memories were of looking up all the time, always in awe of these loud noisy, boisterous, people. They all spoke in Italian, fast and passionately with hands gesticulating wildly. The word ‘Ciao’, was my first Italian word, as I guess it is for most non-Italians, but I heard it at 6 for the first time when I was first taken to ‘Alio’s’ in 1981, as each customer shouted it in friendly greeting and on exiting. This was way back before many of us bundled off to Tuscany and the Amalfi for annual holidays, only the wealthy went there for holidays back then, but I didn’t feel I was missing out and had no urgent need to visit, as I grew up in my very own little Italy.
One of my close friends at primary school was Rosanna. I would head to her house to play and often have dinner there. I loved having dinner there, as her father had an ice-cream van business, which meant ice-cream for pudding! But one of the best memories I have is trying a 'Ragu' sauce with pasta at her kitchen table. I am guessing it was spaghetti, but all I can remember is the gorgeous, picante, rich sauce dripping down my chin and wanting to eat it forever. This was always thought of in my mind as a ‘Spaghetti Bolognese’, though now we all know that there is no real dish of that name in Italy and it is just a version of ‘Ragu’. So, my first real Italian dish was that one, a ‘Ragu’, cooked by a real Italian woman in her kitchen in Walton. It wasn’t long until my own father perfected a delicious ‘Ragu’ or ‘Spag-Bol’, as it became known, with some initial kind direction from Ben in ‘Alio’s’. I guess I and Walton were lucky because ‘Alio’s’ stocked the most amazing olive oil, which we all know these days can make or break an Italian meal. Back then, it wasn’t common in England to cook with olive oil and I don’t think it had been many years since olive oil had only been available to buy in the chemist, where it had been traditionally sold to clean out ear wax!
Another memory of my childhood is regularly seeing a big 'Artic' lorry arriving periodically with Italian number plates outside ‘Alio’s’. It was always stuffed full of seasonal Italian food treasures and big drums of real olive oil. Every early Autumn, it arrived with a special delivery – red and white grapes, ready for the local Italians to turn into wine. What a great place!
At middle school I was again blessed with another Italian best friend, Natascha. This was another step up in Italian cuisine for me, as her father owned three Italian restaurants in Surrey. I had my first wood fired Italian pizza at his restaurant in Weybridge and was instantly hooked. And so it went on. I went to a local secondary Catholic school where there were many of the Walton Italians. I rode on the school bus from Walton next to my school friends Luigi and Gaspare and my one wish of those school years is that I wish that in my school years they had taught Italian instead of French, I might have been fluent by now! But as a child I just didn’t notice all these Italians in my life, they were just there. I think it was why I didn’t see an urgent need to visit Italy until I was 30. I even had an Italian boyfriend, Ciro, for a couple of years in my twenties, who himself owned a chain of Italian restaurants. I knew so many Italians, I had eaten so much Italian food and drunk so much Italian wine I wasn’t desperate to go and visit Italy at all. Italy was, in a way, already an extension of me and my own micro-culture. Instead, I wanted to explore other countries and foods, which I did do thoroughly.
When I did finally arrive in Tuscany at 30 years of age, I was blown away. Because there is more to a country than food and wine! There is beauty, landscape, smells, temperature and local cultural differences and customs. I fell in love instantly with Italy and never looked back. That is why I am here now, in my forties, in my personal favourite Italian region, Piemonte, making up for lost time but very grateful that I did travel the world first. There is after all no place like home and, thanks to my English-Italian quasi upbringing, I feel truly at home here in Piemonte.
Travelling into Turin today I am struck with the majestic wide boulevards of artery roads pumping cars, motorbikes, trams and cyclists into and around the city. I can’t say I am impressed. Before visiting any city I imagine what it will look like and I am never correct in my assumptions. I made a big assumption that Turin was probably going to be a tiny city with a couple of old Fiat factories on the outskirts and the usual churches and a few squares. I envisaged tourists sipping hot chocolates and coffee and stocking up on chocolate presents. I was wrong on both counts.
The sat nav guides me into a beautiful small square just in the old city centre with a little grassed mound that once upon a time had a refreshment stand for the parading Torinese. Today, people are sitting on benches relaxing in the sun and toddlers are playing on the grass; it is a cheery sight. But there is a strange calmness in the air. For an old city person, I am used to noise, heaving masses, diesel fumes, here, in the heart of Turin, there is a peculiar tranquillity. The people numbers are not here. There are sporadic local people walking here and there but no jostling like other cities of Europe that one comes to expect. There are several pedestrianised streets, with little bollards at the end of the streets, frustrating any cars attempt to make a short cut.
I wander along in awe at the serenity. What this awe gives me is time to look up. I am not needing to look ahead of me to avoid people here. I can look up at the beautiful architecture. Above the shops are old apartment buildings from centuries past and fully occupied, with all the historic architectural detail you want to see. Ornate iron wrought balconies proudly presenting overflowing flower baskets framed by beautiful shutters. Little ‘key stone’ carved heads of people feature under gables and over windows, faces I don’t know but I am sure the Master craftsmen of centuries gone by knew. Some are gargoyles with grotesque faces, but most are proud and regal looking. There are carved bulls on water fountains and lion heads on many bridges and gates just in case I forget this is a Royal city, there are palazzos to see on many of the city squares. Turin was the first capital city of a united Italy. It held that position for a grand total of four years and lest you forget it was the home of the House of Savoy, one of the longest and most powerful ruling families in this part of the world. Yes, majestic is a word to sum up Turin’s architecture, squares and wide boulevards. It is a serene majesty. I feel like I have snuck in through a secret side gate into a private palace full of impressive courtyards, cool marble passages and fountains. The city is also clean, well kept and for some reason that I can’t put my finger on, it smells good. I wasn’t expecting it to smell good. Turin has had its recent smog and pollution problems, so I need to research this one.
What Turin is now is fresh and vibrant. Yes, of course, we can on a weekend visit, tick off chocolate, coffee, bicerin, churches, markets, Piemotese food of yore and Fiat. But, this is to be predictive and generic, as well as not fair to a city that is always moving. Turin is more than these classical Turin stereotypes. It is a complex city and one I have only scratched the surface of. There are numerous blocks and quarters with entirely different vibes. It is flat and on a grid layout, rather like New York but on an easier to navigate scale by foot. This is a multi-cultural city and a new one at that. Where once the Southern Italians flocked in to build Fiat into a global car manufacturer, bringing their Southern culture and food with them, now it is experiencing a wider immigration effect. This is reflected in its variety of restaurants and food halls. There are numerous Argentinian, Spanish, Greek, Moroccan, Japanese, American and other nationality restaurants here. There is a Jewish area with a fringe Muslim area with foods unrecognisable to the traditional Torino palate.
What I am delighted to see most is the young Torinese start-ups. Yes, they have been branded hipsters and even one restaurant featured some non-welcoming graffiti on its wall but they are running the show in the area of ‘San Salvario’, a hop, step and jump from the heart of the old city. The new bars and trendy eateries here are stuffed to capacity every night with young people, and the students and graduates of the various colleges and Turin University. In fact, there are young people everywhere, and many cycling at pace over cobbled streets on vintage bicycles. Even the ubiquitous bike hiring stations feature vintage style bikes! The young have taken this city and are running it. Though I’m not sure that the city knows it!
There is a propensity to fry the food here in many new establishments. I, personally, am not a fan of fried food and I don’t know if this is a trend or a Torinese tradition. Certainly, I haven’t come across it in the Langhe region where I live. As it is summer a lot of menus are featuring fried zucchini flowers stuffed with a variety of creamy fillings, fried Toma cheese and fried fish. I am still not sold on this but each to their own. Anyway, it makes a refreshing change to see different food on the menu instead of the Piemontese traditional staples of Vitello Tonnato, Agnolotti del Plin, braised beef in Barolo etc But, don’t panic if you are craving your regular Piemontese food fix, these dishes are here aplenty in Turin too.
For fashionistas you will not be disappointed. There are boutiques everywhere as well as the big fashion names, and a range of shops for all budgets. My favourite find was a beautiful Vintage Clothing shop with impeccable clothes and presentation called Char.ly Vintage & Flowers on Via Giueseppe Pomba.
The nightlife here is jumping. Starting with Aperitivo after work and moving into long summer social evenings too. All very reminiscent of a trip to Barcelona but without the heaving tourist masses, and quite refreshing for me, as a now country living girl, where everyone locally departs for bed circa 10pm. Here, in Turin, the place is buzzing from 10pm with lots of cafes and bars open with the young bright Torinese flooding the streets in all their energetic beauty. I walk into Turin’s Jazz club to find a swing dancing night on; to my delight, as I am a very experienced swing dancer. Unfortunately, I had the wrong skirt on to partake, as I really don’t like twirling my vintage skirt up with a view of my bottom on show! Frustratingly, I had to sit by the sides and watch the dancers hit the floor without me. But next time!
I recently discovered Vermouth while on a short trip to Sete in France and a visit to ‘Noilly Prat’ in Marseillan, I have never even had a Martini so this was a new taste experience for me. This drink is all the rage now in Turin, the home of Vermouth. There are craft makers of Vermouth aplenty, all battling their way to own your taste buds, over the longer established ‘Martini’ and ‘Cinzano’ brands of the recent years. Some of the old names have revived ancient recipes and come back to the market such as ‘Contratto’ and ‘Cocchi’. But I am disappointed to be offered only the ‘Martini’ brand in two of the bars I ventured into. This will take some more research on my part. I just know there must be better bars here in Turin selling better local artisanal Vermouth’s and I will track them down next time. Hopefully, by my next visit, this trend will have caught on across all the bars of Turin. If you visit here soon, be sure to find these highly rated Vermouth producers. But when in Turin a regular Vermouth on the rocks with a slice of lemon is still very refreshing on a summers day, sipped in one of the many squares, whilst partaking in the sport of people watching.
I traverse down to the River Po to view the rowers sweeping along it’s fast flowing water. As a past rower I am delighted to see many crews out on the water and I view from the bridge, with a little envy, some very beautiful rowing clubs too. Before we settled in Langhe I did try to find somewhere that was suitable to live within reach of Turin and its grand river, so that I could get a sculling boat and hit the water at weekends. But the Langhe Hills, without any rowing clubs, won my heart. Now, I think a little apartment in Turin wouldn’t go amiss…
I spy on the outskirts of the city the old large Fiat factory that gave Turin economic prosperity in the last century. Now it has been turned into a hotel and shopping mall. But Turin doesn’t rest and is on the move again, this time in technology. There is a bright aerospace technology industry set up here with a lot of investment and great University courses to fill its burgeoning graduate needs into the future. Biotechnology, Life Science and Robotics are also popular in this city and attracting a lot of international investment both in money and people.
If you visit Turin please go with an open mind. Yes, get the chocolate, coffee, church and market fix but adventure around the different quarters and see today’s Turin, not just the one of the past. There is so much to see here that even 3 days won’t cut it. I can’t wait to go back and discover more!
Rain Rain Go Away - Come again another day or month!
Rain Rain Go Away Come Again another Day
Yes, it is officially June now, we are one week in and this time last year I was at the beach every weekend. This year I haven’t unpacked my summer clothes! What has happened to the weather here?
All year we have been rained on frequently. At least once a week and in the last month multiple times a week, with many thunder storms for good measure. After having gone through a serious drought last summer, that led to us hastily setting up three new water butts in the garden this winter, we are now having to empty water out of the butts regularly, as they keep overflowing! The winter stream next to the house, which I love hearing has not stopped running. It has always stopped in March in years gone by. Yikes, is this Global Warming in full effect?
There are positives to all this rain, of course. There are birds in the garden! Yay! For the last two years barely a bird has been singing. Now I get woken to the dawn chorus and they are singing all day. So much so I was on a Skype business call the other day and my client said, ‘Wow you have some great bird song there!’ There has been heaps of new wild flowers that I haven’t seen before on my walks in previous June's, including a lovely flood of dog rose growing along the road. I am going to take cuttings and grow a dog rose bush alongside an exposed part of the garden, as I can’t find this in the garden shops anywhere here and I love drinking roseship tea in the winter. I am also experimenting with infusing regular Grappa, which all my neighbouring Italian friends do here themselves. I am starting off with a yarrow infusion and then a cherry one. The hills are verdant green and lush with leaf. Much lusher than last year and aesthetically everything looks, on the face of it, healthy.
My vegetable patch is coming along nicely, particularly veg grown straight into the ground such as the potatoes, carrots, celery, lettuce, beetroot, onions and garlic. But my tomatoes are about a month behind in growth and my aubergines won’t come out to play. The zucchini flowers aren’t happy either, I really hope this isn’t the second year in a row that I can’t manage to grow zucchini – I must be the only gardener on the planet who can’t pull this off!
The cherry tree is about a week away from harvesting and I am off to buy netting today to keep the birds off most of it. I am looking for new recipes for cherries if you have any. Thankfully I found a great cherry destoner last weekend at a French market I visited on a weekend away in Sete. The French are good at some things, I can’t find this implement anywhere here in Piemonte and yet there are cherry trees everywhere in the Langhe.
We caught up with a local wine producer, Enzo at Patrone in our local pizzeria last week. He is very unhappy about the lack of sun. Last week he said the grapes need a full run of sun and no rain for at least two weeks. Unfortunately for him and all the other growers this week has had some big rainfall already and more to come by the looks of the weather forecast. Optimism is low for the quality of this year’s wine harvest, particularly if this carries on. Last year is looking like a vintage year, though the quantity was low due to hail and the drought the quality is high. Remember to get buying the 2017 Barolo and Barbaresco as soon as they come out of their respective barrels in the next few years!
We are starting to entertain in the garden the next two weekends, weather permitting! Lots of great recipes coming up to be shared soon with you all and I might even make some videos of the recipes this time too!
Myself and Andrew are off to be a guest speaker at the Turin Epicurean event, held in Turin (of course) on 20/21/22 June 2018. Hosted by the lovely Lucia Hannau here are the details. There are lots of talks and cooking class and other foodie elements to get involved with. Come along if you are in Turin those days, I would love to meet you.
I am now off to do a little native American Indian Sun dance! Salute!
Fairy Dandelion Oil
This Spring, our Piemonte garden has been coated in a sunny yellow hue, since the beginning of April. Dandelions are everywhere. There are also plenty of patches of Daisy’s too, fighting for the sunlight, as the grass grows taller every day.
I just had to formulate a plan for this abundance. My research led me to one of my favourite ideas for herbs, a rubbing oil. I love rubbing oil. Last year I made a few pots of St. Johns Wort oil for carpal tunnel syndrome and muscle aches. Dandelions and Daisies are in this area of natural medicine too.
Dandelion flowers have great healing properties for strains and pulled muscles. Daisies are great for bumps and bruises. What a partnership.
I don’t have kids but can imagine that collecting these pretty flowers would be a great fun outing for young children to get involved in and to appreciate nature’s bounty. I have nicknamed this rub, 'Fairy Oil', as we all really know fairies live among the Daisy’s and Dandelions and have magical powers for healing!
If you have any leftover Dandelion flower heads that didn’t fit in the jar, you can also eat Dandelion petals in a salad!
What you can use Dandelion oil for
Dandelion reduces heat, alleviate swelling and inflammation.
You can use it by rubbing a little of the oil on aching sore muscles and joints, swollen breasts and tense backs and necks. Its anti-inflammatory properties are extremely beneficial for treating arthritis and gout by topical application.
Daisy oil is great gently rubbed on bruises, sprains, sore muscles and dried cuticles.
The Langhe Hills in Spring 2018!
Piemonte is alive at last, after what has seen like a very long winter compared to last year. This winter started in mid-December 2017 with snow that came and went, carpeting the terraced farmland in a blanket of crisp white snow for most of the following three months; fabulous for Christmas cards but not for the spirit! The snow was chased by rain! More rain in March and early April than the whole of last year. What will this mean for the farmers? So far they all seem happy that things are back on track, after last year’s drought, but they are hoping for some warm weather weeks now and no late April frost like last year. Last year’s frost greatly reduced grape yield in the Langhe but the quality, according to Barolo wine makers, will be high, so watch out for the 2017 vintage in a few years’ time when they start releasing Barbaresco and Barolo wines on the market!
Certainly, looking at our own land and gardens, there is a big difference this Spring. I have noticed an increase in song birds, last year the sun and heat were a month earlier and seemed to have had the birds hiding in the nearby woods, out of ear shot of the house. But we are surrounded by cuckoos, wood pigeon’s, blackbirds lots of different tits and other birds I am yet to categorise. So, for once, I am writing this outside, in the garden at 8am, with all the calls of nature in my ears, including my neighbour ‘Giovanni’s frogs and their mating calls!
The garden has woken up nicely in the last week, as at last the sun has made an appearance and daytime temperatures are up in the mid-twenties, with nights over 10 degrees. It has been a long time coming. The herb garden has taken off into a full on growing competition. I trimmed the oregano dead stalks back only two weeks ago and they have now started to billow into a stack of green healthy leaves. The parsley I planted last year, after originally planting celery by mistake (it really looked like parsley when it was young), has now become very established and in fairness has fed us fresh leaves all winter and looks like it loves it here. I have introduced some new herbs to the garden in pots to brighten up a dull entrance wall from the driveway, making a much more inviting welcome for us and our visitors. I envisage this will be far more attractive and aromatic! The herbs I have introduced are Pineapple Sage, Borage, Chives, Marjoram, Costmary, Melissa, Coriander and two different Mints. These are to experiment with and I will take cuttings soon and plant out in the garden in different areas to see how they fare here. I much prefer the idea of herbs growing in the land rather than pots. I sourced these herbs from a wondrous garden centre, Garden Pregno in Asti, Piemonte. Garden centres were getting me very frustrated, there was none I could find that had a decent array of plants but this one – oh my! You must see it! It is in Asti and you could blink and miss it driving by it but don’t be deceived. It has hidden depths! Behind the tiny entrance off the main road it has been sectioned into 6 ginormous glass houses about 50mtrs in length by 30mtrs wide, each containing different plants, trees, roses etc. It took an hour and a half to walk round just three of them – I was entranced. The plants are in amazing condition and are the best I have seen anywhere in the world. You just have to visit it if you love plants and are in Asti on a wine or sightseeing trip! Check out Garden Pregno's website
Garden Pregno, Asti Pictures
We have made a start on adding to the orchard with a granny smith apple tree, we can’t source this variety of apples in the shops here, so I am wondering how this will do in the summer heat. Another purchase is a nectarine tree, which will be espaliered against a south facing Langhe stone wall. I really hope these take off, as I sorely want my own apples in the next year or two and I prefer nectarines over peaches, which thrive in the garden but are mostly wasted on me. Fortunately, I think we have moved on from the earnest disaster of planting a pear tree in our first year and forgetting to water it! Our new friends in town have gifted us two gooseberry bushes, a new fruit for me to grow and one my mother loves. I am crossing my fingers on this, so I can feed her gooseberries all summer! The most frustrating thing now, is my lack of Italian. I am having to rely on gardening books from the UK, I know that the climate is challenging me on this front as plants react differently in each country and their instructions haven’t always played out well here, due to the lack of rain and very hot summers. I have to get on top of this language asap and buy some Italian gardening books, even if it is all Italian gardening terminology that I learn! If anyone has any recommendations please let me know.
Accompanying the return of the garden are our neighbours. They are starting to head back to Langhe after their winter sojourn in their respective, warmer weather, holiday homes in Menton and Genova. They arrive now for the summer months, as it is cooler in Langhe than the coast. Although I don’t think there is much difference in the summer temperatures, if last year is anything to go on. But I do like the idea of a coastal retreat for winter. This is something we are contemplating for next winter. Invitations are now coming in from the returners for dinners and lunches. It really is like we have been in hibernation for the last 4 months since they all departed and they have been sorely missed for entertainment, laughs and company.
I have made a couple of lovely things for the larder and health cupboard. Firstly, after a failed few attempts in the last couple of years, I have nailed a traditional Piccalilli recipe. Piccalilli and cheddar cheese are the only two food items I miss here. And thanks to some recent Dublin visitors we are now stocked with vintage cheddar cheese for another couple of months and have enough piccalilli for this year and to give as gifts to give our unsuspecting Italian neighbours palates and some lovely local ex pats.
Our garden is full of dandelions right now, I really can’t remember seeing this many last year. I have made an oil rub from these yellow darlings (courtesy of Jill at Prairie Homestead) for sore muscles, as grass strimming is upon us, or rather on Andrew. I expect the usual groans and gripes after he has strimmed the terraces and I do hope this salve will do the trick. I will also start adding the petals to salads and teas.
All in all, I am breathing again. I was holding my breath this winter and early Spring, praying for the rain to fill the well up and get the streams going again, as they hadn’t in 2017’s Spring. It feels like this year ought to be a full-on garden growing year. This is the point of being here and having this land, to feed and nourish the soul, and I am determined to make it happen this year. I will get the bountiful harvest I envisaged when we first bought here in the beautiful Langhe Hills of Piemonte!
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