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Day 3: A Mouthful of Memories

ITALY | Tuesday, 3 June 2014 | Views [2621]

Maurizio Albarello was late, as Italians often are. As for us, for the first time that week, we were right on time. “Mauriziooo!” yelled Pietro from the ground floor, ringing the bell like an excited six-year-old and banging on the door at Trattoria Antica Torre in Barbaresco. This continued for five minutes, before Maurizio appeared in his chef whites, all the way down to his white leather shoes and white socks. “You’re just in time for coffee,” he said in Italian. After our espressos and brute ma bon biscuits (it’s dialect for ‘ugly but good’) we followed Maurizio upstairs into a cramped room at the rear of the property. 

I never knew egg yolks and flour could smell so good. It’s the same smell that reminds Maurizio of his grandmother when he cuts tajarin by hand each morning. Antica Torre is the best place in the region to get the local angel hair pasta. Vibrant yellow sheets were draped over a blue and white checked tablecloth, others strung from the ceiling on a wooden bar to dry. Maurizio worked quickly, breaking two eggs at a time (he goes through around 300 a day) and separating the yolks from the whites, the latter are used in the biscuits. The yolks are added to an industrial mixer containing 00 flour. Using just two ingredients – no salt, butter or olive oil – Maurizio creates the tajarin that draw locals and celebrities such as top chef Rene Redzepi of Noma, the best restaurant in the world, to Antica Torre for lunch. Only open Friday and Saturday for dinner, Maurizio makes 10 kilograms of tajarin by hand for the lunch trade, fresh each morning. Patrons regularly ask for a third helping.

Maurizio removed the egg and flour from the mixer. It reminded me of wet, yellow Play-Doh. He flattened small chunks with the palm of his hand and ran them four times through a machine that irons the dough into long sheets. After hanging them to dry (the length of time drying depends on the weather), Maurizio folds four sheets into an ingot-sized block, chops off the uneven edges for the staff meal, and uses a rectangular knife to create centimeter-thin pasta strands. “Have you ever cut your fingers?” I asked as he worked with the precision and speed of a Japanese master chef. “Mai,” he smiled, never. His tajarin is so fresh you can eat it raw. I tried my hand at cutting, holding my breath and narrowly avoiding my fingernails. I was slow to say the least, but according to Maurizio, practice makes perfect. Unfortunately for me, practice around here extends across generations. 

After our lesson we caught up with Jeffery Chilcott, the New Zealander we met a couple of nights earlier at the ‘family’ dinner on Sunday. Our rendez-vous was at Marchesi di Grésy, a winery that produces 200,000 bottles per year from four vineyards. With a stunning outlook and tours available, it’s little surprise people so often request to hold events there. Rows of pink blossoms and purple lavender spears closed the gap between the winery and the vines. Apparently they had just bloomed that week. We did a lap of the property, from the old concrete tanks to the purple-stained barrels aging drops to be sent around the world. Jeffery’s passion for the area is contagious. “If we get just a few people to visit, just a few people here, our job is done,” said Jeffrey, dusting his hands together symbolically. 

Jeffrey, who is fluent in Italian, has lived in the area on and off for a 25 years. Ask him what the English equivalent for an Italian word is and he’ll often forget. His wine knowledge is bottomless, but he speaks in a way that anyone can understand. A good wine, said Jeffrey, should invite you to enjoy another sip, regardless of its age or area. In Langhe, the way wine is categorised and named recognises each winery. This creates diversity, said Jeffrey, where each bottle contains the individual story and identity of the vineyard from which it originated.  

By the time I had managed to simultaneously conduct an interview and polish off four glasses of wine, it was time to eat again, but not before Jeffrey grabbed a couple of bottles to go with lunch. “Having a chaotic cellar is a good thing because when you can't find something you want, it ages,” he joked. As we drove through the hills back to Antica Torre the sun burnt off the last of the clouds. We sat in the courtyard, where three of the most renowned Barbaresco producers were also lunching. Double magnums from four vintages were making the rounds for a special tasting, and Aldo Vacca of Produttori del Barbaresco treated us to a sample. At one point, a solo traveler from Kensington, London, leant across and traded a glass of 2005 Barbaresco for a glass of 2007.

The waitress came to the table and Pietro took charge: “three tomato, four tajarin and a lot of happiness,” he ordered in Italian. Thickly slices of tomato were drowning in olive oil and a chunky green sauce of anchovy, parsley, garlic and more olive oil. Local eggs had been used to fry up a bright yellow frittata, full of herbs and flavour. But the tajarin, unsurprisingly, stole the show. It was served from a hefty pile into our bowls, releasing steam as the tongs worked their magic. It wasn’t al dente as you might expect, but silky smooth – no chewing required. The thin ribbons had a rustic unevenness afforded to them from the hand cutting. Veal ragu was scattered sparingly throughout the strands and Parmesan, as you preferred it. You could eat bowls of the stuff and not feel too heavy; no wonder customers ask for thirds. 

There’s nothing like a bit of sightseeing to work off lunch, especially after all of that wine. After a little trouble finding the key, Pietro treated us to a peek at the fifteenth century tower next to Antica Torre in Barbaresco, which will become UNESCO listed later this month. It’s currently under restoration and renovation, with plans to open an interactive Museum of Barbaresco, as well as a special room for sensory wine tastings and analysis, and a glass panoramic terrace. The most impressive aspect of the tower is the uninterrupted, 360-degree view over all three regions: Langhe, Roero and Monferrato. At 30 metres high, it’s the best place to get your bearings.

The history lesson continued in Neive at Castello di Neive winery, a baroque castle and vineyard owned by Mr. Italo Stupino. At 78-years-young, Italo certainly knows how to appreciate women. We toured the palace, full of decorative frescos, original furniture and even an old chapel with windows connecting with the downstairs dining room and upstairs bedrooms. The chapel had no cooling or heating systems, so when temperatures were extreme, the residents could roll out of bed, open the window to the chapel, and pray accordingly. Then they could get back into bed and perform another ‘service’, said Italo cheekily. Down a flight of stairs we entered the labyrinth of cellars, naturally cool and in some places full of water where the rain had seeped in through the earth. Fifteen years ago, Italo discovered more space when he knocked down a wall, revealing a tunnel where small animals were probably kept. It had been 300 years since it was last used.

Italo showed us two ancient bottles he was gifted, originally produced by the castle. They were a 1925 Nebiolo, spelled with one ‘b’, and a 1904 Pinot respectively. Less for drinking, more a token from a time past. Pietro let us in on a local tradition, where parents buy 60 bottles of a vintage that matches the year their child is born. The idea is to open one every year of your life – the number of bottles is an indicator that the tradition is a touch outdated! Anxious that he would drink the bottles from his daughter’s vintage, Pietro decided to buy magnums as a safeguard. Hardly surprising, coming from a guy whose response to “do you drink rosé?” was “I wash my feet in it”! 

Another trip in the car took us to Serralunga d’Alba, where we visited Fontanafredda Winery, a huge, royal estate and hunting lodge created by King Vittorio Emanuele II for his lover Rosa Vercellana (also known as La Bela Rosin). What a life she must have lived! Today, the grounds are meticulously manicured, from the art nouveau glass pavilion opposite a sulphurous swan lake, to the conference centre in the same building as the grand cellars. Giant oak barrels sit heavily beneath the nineteenth century vaulted ceilings, stacked on top of each other as if they weighed nothing. We raced ahead of a guided tour, around seemingly never-ending turns and down a narrow tunnel (much to Carl’s despair), until we reached the exit. 

By the time we found our way back to the Royal Villa, it was time for my cooking lesson at Michelin starred Ristorante Guido with chef Ugo Alciati. I liked Ugo straight away. He seemed humble with a gentle smile and kind eyes, the complete antithesis of some of the renowned chefs I’ve met in the past. We had a shiny red kitchen set up all to ourselves. Carl fastened a GoPro camera to my head as I mimicked Ugo making Plin of Lidia, the traditional pinched ravioli that paid homage to Ugo’s mother, wife of Guido. I also got to play with some black truffles as we made a decadent salad of duck, foie gras and shaved truffle. Interestingly it contained lightly cooked daikon (Japanese radish) that added a wonderful, watery crunch. Carl dubbed it one of the best things he’d eaten all trip. 

Following my one-on-one with Ugo and a walk around the gardens, we headed upstairs and sat among a mixture of revived frescos and contemporary art hung from the bright, refurbished walls. Despite the modern touches, chandelier lighting, decorative finishes and terracotta floors give Guido Ristorante an old world feel. The food, on the other hand, is a contemporary take on fresh, seasonal and traditional ingredients. There were seven courses all up. It began with ricotta so soft it dissolved on the tongue, continued with perfectly cooked anchovy risotto with a couple of centimetres of rich, melted cheese hiding at the bottom and slices of guinea fowl and liver pâté on brioche, crowned with jellied wine. The highlight was the fior di latte mantecato al momento, freshly whipped milk ice cream, lusciously folded over itself in an oversized ice bowl. The only ingredients are cream, sugar and special hay milk from cows that eat herbaceous foliage at high altitude. Fresh and velvety, I imagined it as the milk of the gods, tasting more of milk than milk itself. I alternated greedily between a spoonful of ice cream and a sip of Moscato – a better match never existed. In a single mouthful, a memory was made. Thank you, Ugo. 

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

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