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Day 2: Eat, Drink, Smile, Repeat

ITALY | Monday, 2 June 2014 | Views [2499]

Fact: the wind feels better in your hair in Langa. I can’t count the number of times I caught myself with a big, stupid grin on my face in the car side mirror. We drove everywhere, windows down, Bob Dylan blaring. The weather was on our side; despite the gloomy forecast the sun burnt off the haze around midmorning each day. Having already driven from place to place, backtracked, revisited and taken plenty of turns, I started to recognise clusters of villages in the distance, a chain of white flags strung across the road. We headed east through Mango to Castiglione Tinella, where we were met by thunderous barking from a couple of wolfhounds at Caudrina Winery. A little mixed terrier (named Bush, after the former American president ) trotted behind them,. This Bush was significantly smarter, carrying a cork in his mouth in an attempt to play fetch whenever the opportunity presented itself. With Bush in tow, Romano Dogliotti and his son Alessandro gave us the grand tour of Caudrina. 

The winery produces 250,000 bottles a year and is spacious enough to prove it. Romano obviously put a lot of thought (and Euro) into his winery, with its high, wooden ceilings boasting cellars 18 meters below, at the lowest point.  It was here we discovered Carl’s love of cats (he kept filming Osama, named after you-know-who), as well as his fear of small spaces. We took the stairs down into the earth instead of the elevator to avoid setting off his claustrophobia. Priceless equipment was everywhere, from fermenting tanks to a mechanical herd of tractors. After a peek at the family’s impressive pantry (complete with personal wine reserve and hanging salami), we tasted Asti sparkling and Moscato, which Romano has been making for 50 years. “I’ll never die of thirst,” he said, before inhaling deeply, taking a sip, and declaring to taste the hills, honey flowers and beautiful women, all in one glass.

Following our 10am tasting (it’s never too early in Langhe), we took a tractor tour. I jumped in the front with Romano and Bush, while Pietro and Carl sat on a blanket in the back, and the dogs ran behind us. Forget hiking and hot air balloons – a tractor is the best way to immerse yourself in the vines. We dipped and ducked between them, chugging uphill (“I think I can, I think I can”) and coasting downhill (with the engine turned off). At the bottom of a particular valley where the vines gave way to forest, Romano pointed out the place he used to bring girls as a young man. Two adventurers on motorized cycles passed us. Around another corner was a man walking his dog. Apart from that it was just the birds and us. When we returned to the winery I was full of adrenalin, the kind that fills your body when you overdose on fresh air.

It was time to eat again. When we arrived at Bardon in San Marzano Oliveto the charming restaurant filled up quickly, since it was a public holiday. The sloped timber ceiling, tiled flooring and yellow light streaming through the windows gave the dining room a conservatory-like atmosphere. Tables were clothed in white and set with fresh bread and grissini. We consulted Bardon’s wine bible; a menu with no less than 26,000 options to choose from. The first dish that arrived was the kind that food bloggers dream about: a canary-yellow pepper stuffed with tuna sauce, thick pork fillet on potato topped with warm artichoke, a mound of ubiquitous carne cruda and a pretty pile of fried goat’s cheese salad with snowflakes of black truffle. Ravioli ragu followed, and then the trolleys rolled out. The first contained a collection of meat: rabbit, lamb, pork, herb-stuffed quail, baked chicken, offal and more. After that the cheese arrived, causing my self-control to disappear into thin, fresh, Langa air. It was impressive by anyone’s standards. For once I wasn’t the only one who whipped out my iPhone camera.

Pietro had his most memorable meal at Bardon. A few years back he had asked one of the owners to call him if they came across wild red and yellow Caesar's Mushroom. He showed me a picture on Google Images; I hadn’t come across them before and if I did, my instincts would tell me to avoid the bulbous, poisonous-looking fungi at all costs. How wrong I would be. It just so happened that when Pietro received the phone call, it was during the two weeks of the season when the mushrooms overlapped with the white truffle harvest. Pietro ate simply but opulently, white truffles and wild mushrooms on raw veal, followed by white truffle tajarin. “If you know how to eat and drink, and you eat and drink until the last day of your life, that’s a great joy until the day you die. Italians always know how to eat and drink,” said Pietro. 

Weighed down by lunch, we still had a long day ahead. First to Canelli, where we descended into Contratto’s historical champagne cellars –underground cathedrals  that date back to 1867. At 5000 square meters and 40 meters below ground at the deepest point, it’s astounding to think that these UNESCO tunnels were dug by hand into the limestone. Less surprisingly, the same engineers who dug the tunnels through the Alps did the digging. There were 200 of them, and it took five years. The cellars are naturally cool, 12 to 13 degrees Celcius throughout the year and perfect for the fermentation and slow bottle maturation of Metodo Clasico sparkling wines. Appreciated by the upper class in the 1920s and 1930s, specifically the Vatican and European royalty, over a million bottles are produced each year. An Aussie winemaker showed us around, explaining that the hand-painted marks on the bottles help during ‘riddling’, when each is manually turned an eighth a day, and how a fencing mask was worn in the eighteenth century during dégorgement to avoid damage caused from exploding bottles. I also learned that wearing an eighteenth century fencing mask during a piece to camera does wonders for your hair.

Our day took an even sweeter turn with a behind-the-scenes visit to Faccio in Cassinasco, where we were greeted by the friendly-faced Maurizio Cerrato, a sixth generation torrone (nougat) craftsman. The Faccio family started making nougat in 1856, five years before the Unification of Italy. It takes five kilograms of eggwhites, 40 kilograms of honey and 55 kilograms of toasted hazelnuts to make each batch. All ingredients are local and Maurizio makes 10 tonnes each year. Unlike a big, industrial company, Maurizio’s nougat has personality. He has nothing to hide in terms of ingredients or methods; everything is exactly as it appears. But that doesn’t mean it’s always profitable. “It's hard to be a craftsman but if you keep doing it, eventually it pays off,” said Maurizio. His nougat cream, which I’m currently eating with a spoon from the jar, is absolutely deadly. Thick, silky smooth and speckled with tiny bits of nougat that stick to your molars as you chew, I’ll be asking Pietro to send me more. Much more.

Another afternoon, another winery. This time in Calosso, but not before passing the stunning divide of Sant’Antonio, Canelli, and eventually reaching the hill of Rodotiglia. Here we met Valter Bosticardo of Tenuta dei Fiori, the father of Gambarossa. Gambarossa was a forgotten, native grape that is now DOC recognised by the official title ‘Calosso DOC’, named after the local village. Pietro believes it’s the smallest DOC in Italy. We walked through Valter’s vineyards as the sun emitted its final, golden glow, before relaxing at his beautiful property. His children picked cherries in the background as we sipped Pensiero, a 1996 Metodo Classico (champenois) made with Moscato grapes, unusually aged for 12 years. His Barbera d’Asti ‘Rusticardi 1933’ was also incredible. We resisted the plate of bread topped with cheese, salami and tapenade – we couldn’t ruin our dinner at Michelin Starred La Ciau del Tornavento in Treiso.

The first thing you notice at La Ciau del Tornavento is the view from the grassy terrace. The hills epitomise the outlook people fall in love with in Langhe. Couple the panorama with a splash of red from potted flowers, a wine cellar worth a visit, and the flash of chefs’ whites as staff disappear to the herb and vegetable garden below, and the bar is instantly set high. Our dinner that evening far surpassed that bar. Chef Maurilio Garola escorted us to the chef’s table in the kitchen, where we watched experienced staff from all over the world prepare plates.

 

Stuffed anchovies and plump prawns crumbed with crushed hazelnuts arrived in brown paper cones, followed by deep-fried frog legs coated with breadcrumbs, parsley and garlic on a mirrored plate. A glass coffee cup of creamy potato soup – stained black around the edges by cuttlefish ink and with tiny purple tentacles lurking within – was served with a shallow bowl of tender cuttlefish chunks, this time on zucchini purée with candied lemon strips. A refined vitello tonnato preceded handmade pasta: bright green basil ravioli with burrata and anchovy; traditional plin stuffed with veal, rabbit and pork; and signature ricotta ravioli – the ricotta aged three months in hay, cooked in water spiked with hay, and presented in a hay nest.

I took a breather from eating to learn how to make ravioli del plin. Plin translates to ‘pinch’ and refers to the technique used to form the bulbous little morsels, usually stuffed with a mixture of meats. Secondi saw me indulge further: quail stuffed with foie gras and herbs, served with snow peas and eggplant. I also tried finanziera, a traditional Piemontese dish made up of all the bits of meat you don’t usually eat: hen’s crest, marrow, brains, sweetbreads and testicle, along with porcini and pickled onions and cucumbers. It was DELICIOUS. Any funky aromas or tastes are masked by vinegar, leaving behind rich flavours and fantastic textures – gelatinous, crunchy, soft, and firm. Not for everyone, but definitely for me. 

Following a palate cleanser of hay sorbet, my stomach told me that dessert was out of the question. But, being in Italy, that didn’t stop it from arriving anyway. A white chocolate cylinder piped with citrus mousse, blobs of firm hazelnut chocolate wedged between crumbly biscuit with mint ice cream, and a stunningly presented dessert titled Il giardino dolce aromatico, or sweet aromatic garden. Think rosemary ice cream, tiny wild strawberries in a gel dome, a bounty of herbs and sweet crumbs that tasted like spring blossoms. We could barely look at the exquisite selection of “small pastries” that followed, let alone eat them. Sitting here writing retrospectively, I now regret not forcing myself to eat more… even if it would have guaranteed having an upset stomach. 

Tags: italy, langhe, passport & plate, piedmont, piemonte, roero, travel, world nomads

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