A Road Less Traveled

nourish! team embarked on an assignment to La Morra of Northern Italy, only to be surprised by the unexpected discovery of slow food, wild Muscat grapes, highly sought-after white truffles and a series of culinary wonders. Nowhere do people take gastronomic pleasure more casually than in Northern Italy.

 

Italy is a relatively small and traveler-friendly country, unlike other European countries with a wider geographical girth; it is a long, boot-shaped country with cities located strategically across the peninsula. Infrastructurally equipped with an extensive – and less expensive than most European railroad and motorway system, it is convenient and time-efficient for short-term travelers who need to make their ways across most large and small cities across the peninsula. Our Piedmont to Venice to Rome route in and of itself brought us through many compelling cities: Verona, Milan, Parma and Rome to name a few.

 

La Morra, Piedmont was our first intended stop in Italy; it took us 4 hours to reach the destination. This time including our getting totally lost for an hour in the nearby city of Turin, but I consider this unplanned deviation from the map a blessing in disguise. It allowed us to see so much more of this beautiful country, and not solely major tourist hot spots. Turin is home to the famous football teams Juventus F.C and Torino F.C; it is also the headquarters of automobile manufacturers FIAT and Alfa Romeo, all of which we unknowingly passed by. In our defense, though, we right-hand drivers were struggling to stay on the left side of the road and were frantically looking for exit-signs back to the autostrada.

 

What awaited us ahead was rather “magical” – literally, when we finally got back to the motorway and drove through a tunnel that eventually got us back on track to La Morra, the beautiful landscape of a vine-clad, panoramic hilly scenery unfolded right before our tired eyes. This exceptional sight was another great reminder of the natural beauty that exists in the country; it was a sight of peace and serenity, where the smells, colours and sounds of the Mediterranean hillside relaxed us all, despite having slept badly in-flight before driving four long hours from Malpensa in Milan.

 

For many travelers who have been to the northwest region of Piedmonte, falling in love with the humility and modesty of the land and people is a surety. Tourism is not a big business there, yet the prices for eating out in trattorias, as well as accommodation in an agritourismo (an Italian term for a farm holiday or agricultural tourism) could not be more affordable. This is also the case for La Morra, a small town located atop of a group hills overlooking vineyards below. The first impression you get upon arriving in this small town is that you have somehow stepped into a medieval village that seems to be locked in time. This lost-in-time feel nonetheless has an advantage to it, because it allows us to experience the authentic traditions which have been preserved and passed down from generation to generation, particularly with regards to food and wine.

 

After another hour of driving through vineyards and rolling hills, we were met by the owner of our farmhouse, Frank and Marissa, who incidentally also own small-scale vineyards. We were served with some great wines and delicious anti-pasto made with local cheeses at Frank’s agritourismi, basking in the welcome, and in the sunny Friday-noon sun. These welcome snacks and home-matured wines were simple, unpretentious, but extremely delectable.

 

Set against the imposing background of the Alps, the hills are surmounted by crenalated castles and scattered villages that give it a fairy-tale air. While I was standing at Piazza Castello, the center of La Morra which offers a picturesque experience in viewing the landscape of vibrant vineyards at their lushest, I wondered if I could succumb myself to its enticement and reward my determination and efforts with a good bottle of something produced locally in Piedmont. That question though, was what.

 

From La Morra, we set off early in the morning to the nearby town of Barolo, the place that gives its name to a powerhouse Barolo wine, a red Denominazione di Origine Controllate e Garantita (DOCG) that is produced only in the North-Italian region of Piedmont. Our host, Frank, tells us that it is made from the Nebbiolo grape and is often described as one of Italy’s greatest wines, rivalled only by Tuscany’s Brunello di Montalcino.

 

Yet this town has more than wine to impress its visitors; there is also an enormous castle that has been transformed into the majestic Enoteca Regionale del Barolo – literally, the “wine repository of Barolo”. This Enoteca is primarily aimed at providing visitors or tourists with the opportunity to taste as many premium local wines as possible at a reasonable fee of €2, and to possibly purchase them afterwards. Obviously, this Enoteca is a collaborative effort with growers in the region, and is also intended as a center for first-hand information about wine growers.

 

I tasted my way through some great wines that afternoon; there had been a particularly gorgeous Barolo; a slightly sweet but moderate Cortese white wine; an intriguing and fragrant Arneis white, as well as some impressive reds like Gattinara and Gheme. Before I knew it, it was noon, and I thought, a good bottle of bubbly like Prosecco would do us good in livening our moods further. However, this Italian sparkling was not to be found in Piedmont, as the Prosecco grapes are only grown and produced in the Veneto region close to Venice.

 

 

Far be it from me to defy the full power of a Barolo – a wine so strong and bold, I think, should only be paired with food of similar weight such as red meat, aged cheese and rich, fungi-based risotto. But what I was really looking for wasn’t something serious at all. So, I had to keep my options open until I came across something of interest while driving back to La Morra: densely-formed grape vines tangling over twenty feet of brick stone walls close to the farmhouse in which we stayed.

 

Upon encountering this creeping vine of grapes, I did not instantly recognize them for what they were. Clusters and clusters of grapes were hanging on the tendrils; some were already vine-dried. These grapes were no more than half of the size of the normal table concord grapes. Though the resemblance was undeniable; the leaves were somewhat smaller than those grown in Frank’s vineyards, but beyond that, they were almost identical in the form to those cultivated, save for one distinctive characteristic – the aroma! These grapes were then easily distinguished by their sweet and musky smell. Its name implies its characteristics further – they are called muscato grapes.

 

These loose-hanging clusters of globes flabbergasted me! How could anyone walk by, and not be tempted to try one? Though small-berried with relatively thick skin, they were packed with flavor and scent of great complexity: spicy orange blossom with subtle, rich jasmine overtones. We don’t get these grapes at all in Malaysia; and so the next few days in La Morra saw the occasional pull over at the grapes’ growing site. Rather shamelessly, we pull juicy clusters off their vines for snacks in between breakfast, lunch and dinner. We feared liberally on these grapes until our tongue grew sore from the acidity, and then we ate some more.

 


1. Cured Meats and Cheese: Prosciutto is a must, when in Italy must eat, must see, must experience. It is often served thinly sliced as an antipasti, much in the manner of cheese. Fresh mozzarella is affordable and accesible, as is a breathtaking array of other milky, pungent dairy delights.
2. Porcini Mushrooms: An excellent example of a class mushroom, the Porcini is a predominantly European fungus. Affectionately known to some as a porcino, penny bun, or cep, it has often been called the King of all mushrooms. It is commonly harvested wild, as attempts to commercially cultivate its spores have been unsuccessful.
3. Italian-roasted Coffee: Italy is a coffee nation. For citizens in a nation that does not grow its own beans, Itallians have cultivated a love of coffee that is deep-veined in tradition. They serve coffee the way they roast it – passionately sincere and full of life and love.
4. Heirloom Squash Varieties: La Morra boasts a fine selection of heirloom squash in all shapes and sizes, vibrant-hued against the chilly backdrop of the impending winter. Among the selection, we found the curving zucchetta rampicante, the rough-skinned marina di ghioggia, and the orange-lined long Naples squash.
5. Hazelnuts: A prime product of the region of Piedmonte, Italian hazelnuts are a source of delight for those who enjoy the taste and flavour of Nutella. The second largest producer of hazelnuts in the world, Italy accounts for 13.5% of the international hazelnut output.
6. Truffles: Italy is world-famous as the home to tartufo bianco – white truffles that grow, notably, in the cities of Alba and Asti in Northern Italy. Essentially the body of an underground mushroom, truffles are highly prized for their uniquely earthy fragrance and flavour in haute cuisine.
7. Zucchini Flowers: A delicacy commonly enjoyed upon Mediterranean shores, these golden-orange blossoms are perfect when deep-fried coated in batter. Choose tightly-closed blooms for culinary use, and check for unsuspecting insects within when cleaning.
8. Muscat Grapes: Typically discernible through a fragrant and floral aroma, muscat grapes form the backbone of the much-beloved moscato wine. A sweet dessert wine with an effervescent finish, moscato is revered for its low alcohol content, deeming it suitable for most everyone.

 

Naturally, the wines made from these grapes also retain the particular muskiness no matter where they are planted. The Muscato grapes do no usually reflect its territorial peculiarity unlike the Barolo or other district wines. They are often overlooked because many people consider them too sweet and are usually paired with desserts. However, this is not the case with the Muscato d’asti, which tastes typically reminiscent of sweet orange blossom, with a slight scent of vanilla and nectarines. It also boasts an uplifting aroma and it is really not as sweet as other dessert wines tend to be. So, if you do feel like a drink on a weekend afternoon, this lovely low-alcohol bottle of wine would be a relatively harmless thing to choose.

 

Happily, there yet another activity to partake in beyond seeking out great legendary wines and wild grapes from the street to keep travelers contended in Piedmonte. For devoted gastronomes, the culinary pilgrimage in Northern Italy is incomplete without a visit to Alba in search of the highly esteemed tartufo bianco, better known as the white truffle.

 

As fate would have it, we found ourselves in Alba at the perfect time of the year, because white truffles are so rare and uncommon that annual fairs, such as the Fiera del Tartufo are dedicated to these tuberous fungi during the months of October to November. This inadvertently makes Alba the gastronomy capital in the Northern region of Italy where dining can be relatively pricey at this period of time; the restaurants were packed with noisy tourists enjoying lunch. We had a wonderful lunch at the old-fashioned Pasta e Pasta, where we were treated to generous heapings of salads, cheeses, pesto, wild mushroom tagliatelles, and gnocchis for just €25 each, all garnished with paper-thin pieces of delicious truffle.

 

After a quick sightseeing along the Via Vittorio Emanuele – a bustling street in the center of Alba which dates back to the 12th century – I thought I’d have stumbled into a culinary paradise as I beheld specialty shops selling truffle-based products such as pasta, cheese, salamis, oils, paste, extracts and so on. We knew, somehow, that we would not leave this town without bringing a piece of the white truffle back with us, but the notion of carrying fresh-out-of-the-soil mushrooms all the way to our next destination without proper conditional storage was a bit farfetched, so we ended up buying lots of minimally processed truffle products such as pastes and oils. And so, shopping in tow, it was back to our rented van, and off towards the north-eastern city of Venice, to the Carnivale and to the renowned land of seafood supreme.

 

And despite the beauty lying ahead, we looked back, and we remembered the glory of Piedmonte. We remember it today, because it is, if anything, a piece of heaven on earth.

 

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