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Day 5: People Make the Place

ITALY | Thursday, 5 June 2014 | Views [2496]

This day was a good day for many reasons, the first being I now know what I’m going to call my daughter when the prospect of having children no longer terrifies me. Gaia. It’s nice, no? The Gaia we met first thing in the morning was nice too. Gaia means happiness, and it also happens to be her last name, Gaja. Gaia Gaja. The Gaja family is one of the best known in the area as they’re behind The Gaja Winery, founded by Gaia’s grandfather Giovanni Gaja in 1859. It has since been owned and operated by five generations. The winery owns 250 acres of vineyards in Piedmont, but it hasn’t always been smooth sailing. Gaia explained to us how traditionally, Barbaresco was always considered ‘less’ than Barolo; less desirable, less preferred, less complex. Her grandfather and father helped put Barbaresco on the map, producing it in a way that helped people to accept that it was not ‘less,’ but different, with a personality and appreciation of its own. Gaia’s father is credited for being an innovative winemaker, apparently the first to employ the now widely used barrique barrels in the vinification of Barbaresco to soften the tannin associated with the Nebbiolo grape, and relaunching Cabernet Sauvignon in the region after 100 years.

Gaia’s appreciation for wine is in her blood. She recalls the peculiar method by which her grandfather used to drink wine, pouring two small splashes into a glass, swirling it around, smelling it and ever so slowly sipping it in with mouthfuls of air. It was only after he had finished those two splashes that he would pour himself two more splashes: wine was made to be appreciated, not consumed. Unfortunately for his guests, said Gaia, he served them wine in the same manner. I asked her about the relationship between food and wine. In Langhe, she said, everything is delicate: the red fruit of Barbaresco, the distinctive aroma of white truffles, the earthiness of hazelnuts and the quality of the meat. Each contains a unique subtlety complemented by the others.

Perhaps the person who best understands this relationship is Cesare Giaccone, chef, artist and local legend. We visited him at his home and restaurant at Albaretto della Torre in Alta Langa, La Bottega Ristorante di Cesare Giaccone, where he seats a maximum of 16 people at a time. Gaia was pleased to learn we were visiting him for lunch; “I’m not sure how much longer he’ll be around,” she said. But upon seeing Cesare, with his cheeky smile obscured by a thick moustache and his matching red apron, wristwatch and signature necktie, I could tell he had plenty of life in him yet.

Donning his red-initialled chef’s jacket complete with sheer black pocket square, there was no denying Cesare was a character. His studio is beside the dining room, separated from the restaurant by a flimsy screen. Behind it there are stacks of canvases and bundles of paintbrushes in plastic containers. There’s even a bra tree, a natural wooden stand with women’s lingerie draped over it. At first glance I thought it was someone’s washing, but after further investigation we discovered it was “for inspiration”. When I was in the other room, Carl asked Cesare why the bras were there. Cesare leaned in close and whispered to him the only thing he would say in English that day, “Because I love women”. 

At 67 years old, Cesare has been cooking for half a century, a practiced multi-tasker with 14 burners in his kitchen and only a single assistant to wash his veteran pots and pans. Spending a couple of hours watching him work is something I will never forget. His movements reflect his age until he begins to cook; everything is effortless for him in the kitchen, where he becomes graceful. Cesare is not a man of measurement; he is a man of experience. His finger darts from pot to mouth and back again, herbs are ripped and chunks of prosciutto fat are fried with oil and butter until they adopt the appearance of golden resin. He chops with purpose while the air fills with the first strawberries of summer, followed by hits of rosemary, burnt sugar, vinegar and chilli. 

At any time Cesare is doing at least eight things at once: adding finely-cut tripe to vegetable stock, steaming cuttlefish, taking a ladle-full of liquid from one pot and pouring it into another. Sometimes he goes to do one thing and changes his mind, such as walking halfway to the sink to discard the green asparagus water, and then returning to the stove to boil cauliflower in it. Cooking is instinctive for Cesare, his middle finger automatically bending back at the top knuckle from years of ingredient preparation. He may not have a Michelin Star, but he doesn’t need one. Robert De Niro rang ahead to book before visiting from the US. 

Standing in the kitchen of a master was as enjoyable as experiencing the final product; sometimes anticipation is the sweetest thing. Our wooden table was set with a white table cloth, blue wine glasses and hand painted and written menus – they change daily according to what Cesare picks up locally that morning. The restaurant does five to seven services per week, either lunch or dinner, depending on who gets in first with reservations. Wine bottles adorned with labels he has painted line the shelves, along with Cesare’s personal collection of rare poetry books, artworks and awards. Diners pay 100 Euro for the experience of savouring eight-plus courses in his dining room, warmed by the brick fireplace and surrounded by paintings inspired by the area’s produce and Cesare’s dreams.

We started simply with thick-cut trout marinated in pink onions that balanced sweetness and acidity, before being treated to one of Cesare’s wonderful and wacky combinations, asparagus with strawberry sauce. A gentleman dining alone at the table next to us answered his phone, said something briefly in Italian, and then hung up. “Sorry, I have asparagus and strawberries in front of me, I can’t speak,” Pietro translated. The cuttlefish we had cooked earlier was served in a bright orange Mediterranean sauce with green beans, followed by pink slices of duck in an equally colourful sauce of fresh fruit blended with olive oil.

The surprises continued: porcini paired with peaches and a pinch of parsley (Cesare had driven 120 kilometers in total for the mushrooms that morning, but was still not 100 per cent happy with them), faultless risotto de Langhe, a soul-warming vegetable broth spiked with tripe and the pièce de résistance, the best goat I’ve ever tasted. It had been roasting on a spit above the fireplace beside us since we arrived, juice dripping onto the coals with a sizzle that released the kind of aroma that draws in passers-by from off the street. Dolce was traditional bonet, a Piemontese specialty best likened to a crème caramel and chocolate pudding hybrid.

It was clear – both from the audible sighs of pleasure from the gentleman next to us as well as in each dish that we relished – that Cesare is rooted in tradition but not bound by it. He reinvents classic flavours into new works of art, taking advantage of Langhe’s natural bounty and combining colour, texture and movement to create edible masterpieces on a daily basis. To say there is no one like him, and that there will never be anyone like him again, is not an exaggeration. Cesare is a red puzzle piece that stands out against the verdant landscape, just one of the many individuals that give Langhe so much personality. I feel privileged to have had such an inimitable experience.  

We remained in Upper Langa, this time driving to Cortemila. Travelling through Langhe, your eye follows the natural lines of the landscape. They journey from a valley up the northern face of a hill, covered in orderly rows of vines, and down the other side, planted with hazelnut trees that require less sun. We spent the remainder of the day and evening at hazelnut farm Cascina Barroero. Stefano and Isabella Barroero were our hosts, along with their five children, countless farm animals (including a ram named Silvio Berlusconi, because “he’s short, fat and thinks he’s beautiful”) and a pet duck that thought it was a house cat. Hazelnuts will never taste the same for me. These were rich, buttery and as satisfying as chocolate. Toasted and salted, it was impossible for me to turn them down when they were passed my way a fifth time.

The family has invested significantly in machinery, with industrial mixers and packers taking up the whole of their reasonably small factory. They make cakes, chocolate, biscuits and chocolate hazelnut spread that are sold both locally and around the world. Once the hazelnuts have been picked, they store them in a great wooden box in a shed, which the family calls the hazelnut pool; apparently sitting in it is one of the most relaxing experiences on earth. I asked if any of them ever get sick of hazelnuts. The eldest daughter raised her hand, laughed, and ate another. Cascina Barroero is a little slice of heaven, a beautiful property with a family home, accommodation, pool and three thousand hazelnut trees. It’s the kind of place you escape to for three months of the year, to disconnect with reality, wind down and appreciate the simple things in life. 

After some downtime enjoying what everyone had dubbed the first day of summer – the weather was divine – and some sword fighting with the kids, we sat down to dinner with the family. Alessandro Boido from Cà ‘d Gal winery joined us, bringing with him a beautiful Moscato d’Asti Cà ‘d Gal “Vigne Vecchie” 2006, of which only around 5000 bottles are produced every year. Of course pasta was on the menu, with an addictive homemade seasoning of crushed hazelnuts and various herbs and spices. It would have been rude to refuse seconds. Hazelnuts were on display again come dolce, a selection of cakes and biscuits that we were encouraged to dip into chocolate hazelnut spread and, my favourite, homemade zabaglione. It was so kind of the Barroero family to welcome us into their home. I had by now come to expect such generosity from the people of Langhe. It was relatively early when we drove back to Alba, full of hazelnuts, serenaded by Pietro’s Bob Dylan soundtrack. We dumped our gear and headed to the main square, where the first night of the local jazz festival was in full swing. As we sipped Negronis outside and chatted about the day, it occurred to me for the first time how much I was going to miss this place.

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

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