The cuisine of Piedmont - la cucina piemontese
This page provides a brief overview of just why you should come to Piedmont to try the fantastic cuisine of this region as part of my art history tours. Generally-speaking, the word I would use to describe the cuisine of Piedmont is ‘earthy’. Despite the hot summers here, the other seasons can be much cooler, and it snows heavily here in winter, so historically Piemontese cuisine has been built on many substantial rustic dishes to see you through the colder parts of the year: what we would now call ‘comfort food’. And it’s delicious! This was the cuisine championed by the much-missed Italian chef Antonio Carluccio, who grew up in this region.
In the autumn and early winter, there are many small local festivals - sagre - celebrating this cuisine, but some of these events are much bigger, such as the ‘Fair of the Fat Ox’, which has been held under that name in Carrù in December since 1910, but originates in a livestock market held there for centuries, and the international Cheese festival, held in Bra every September. But you will find the wonderful produce of the region in every local market, and one of the advantages of basing my tours in Fossano is the fantastic market held here every Wednesday morning, with all the food stalls in Piazza Castello.
Much of the food of this region comes from the animals raised here: sheep, goats and cattle. I used to say that ‘I learned to eat meat’ in Tuscany, because of the quality of the steaks there, but that was before I came to Piedmont. The quality of the beef here is superb, eaten as various cuts, or simply finely-diced and eaten raw with olive oil and lemon juice, as in the insalata di carne cruda. There are many preserved meats here, and the salami are not always entirely cured, like their counterparts in Tuscany. Various meats can also be eaten together, as in the substantial bollito misto, which also includes sausages, and is eaten with a selection of sauces.
With so many animals producing milk, the dairy products of the region are simply wonderful, particularly the butter and cheeses of the mountain valleys. There are many types of cheese made here, but just a few I know (and love) are: Toma, a soft or semi-hard cheese made of cow’s milk, Castelmagno, a semi-hard blue cheese made from cow’s milk, with some sheep or goat’s milk added, and Gorgonzola, a soft blue cow’s-milk cheese, originally Lombard, but widely-produced in Piedmont. The cheeses of Piedmont are delicious when eaten with another product of the region: honey.
Pasta is of course eaten widely here, but risotto is the real signature dish of the region, as Piedmont produces so much rice, and has done for centuries. The ‘Rolls-Royce’ of varieties grown here is carnaroli. Many risotti eaten here are ideal for vegetarians, and two of my particular favourites are risotto ai porri (leek risotto) using the leeks from Cervere, and risotto alla zucca (pumpkin risotto). And let’s not forget the wonderful mushrooms of the region, including porcini, and Piedmont’s ‘white gold’ - truffles. Beans and pulses are also used in hearty soups and stews.
One slightly unexpected ingredient used here is salted anchiovies, used in the famous bagna caöda (English pronunciation ‘banya cowdah’), meaning ‘hot sauce’, a slow-cooked sauce made with olive oil, butter, anchiovies and lots of garlic, and the finished sauce can be quite fierce! Everyone has their own particular recipe, and some include milk. It is eaten with a variey of cooked or raw vegetables which you dip into it, and it also makes a fantastic tip for another famous local product, grissini (breadsticks).
Red wines. The easier-drinking, more everyday reds of the region include the fruity Barbera (the most-planted grape in Piedmont) and Dolcetto, another fruity wine, sometimes produced in a slightly-sparkling, frizzante style. Nebbiolo is a more highly-prized wine, with floral aromas which contrast with its strong tannins. The Nebbiolo grape is used the make the prestigeous Barolo, which develops softer characteristics when laid down for several years before drinking. Lesser-known reds of the region include the dry Freisa, which mixes slightly sour fruitiness with a herbaceous bitterness (it’s much nicer than I’m making it sound!), and Bonarda, which balaces the flavour of red-berry fruits with tannins to produce an excellent wine.
White wines. The white wine from the region perhaps best known outside Italy is the frizzante Moscato Bianco, of which Asti Spumante one type, but I’ll return to that wine below. Still white wines from Piedmont include Arneis, a fruity, lemony wine with a spicy or herbal finish (depending on the vineyard), and Erbaluce, a wine with cleaner, sharper fruit notes, produced in the foothills of the alps in the north of Piedmont. A frizzante version of this wine is also produced.
Chocolate, Cakes and Biscuits
If you have a sweet tooth, then you are going to love Piedmont. Delicious chocolate is made here, and a local speciality is Gianduja, a type made with 30% hazlenut paste, the same hazelnuts that are used in the famous Nutella spread which comes from this region: they even make a pizza topped with it here! Individual chocolates (milk or dark), with fondant fillings are popular, such as the alcoholic (and delicious) Cuneesi al Rhum. Delicate cakes and pastries betray the French influence in Piedmont, but there is also a wide selection of biscuits particular to the region, just a few of which are : Frollini, Turciok (see photo above) and Ciaplat. You can sample these treets with an espresso at a caffè, or enjoy them after dinner with a glass of Moscato Bianco, a frizzante wine which blends sweet fruit flavours with a floral bouquet.
This brief overview really is barely scratching the surface of the rich and complex cuisine of Piedmont, but I hope it’s been enought to whet your appetite!