Burt Wolf's Menu: Piedmont, Italy - #108

The Piedmont of Italy... at the foothills of the Alps.... It’s the land of the truffle-hunting dog... discovering white truffles worth more than their weight in gold.  This the place where vermouth was invented and where some of the great wines of Italy are still produced.  And wherever you find good wine, you usually find good food -- and that is clearly the case in Piedmont.  So join me in Piedmont, Italy for BURT WOLF’S MENU.

The Piedmont district of Italy is in the northwest corner of the country, bordering with both France and Switzerland, at the edge of the Alpine mountain range.  The word Piedmont translates into English as “foot of the mountain”, which is an excellent description of the terrain.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):   During the 1500's, Turino, the capital city of the Piedmont, was also the capital city of the Kingdom of Savoy.  Savoy was an independent dukedom that ended up battling most of its neighbors in order to survive.  In those days, in addition to whatever else it is you did for a living, you were also a soldier.  This was a tough neighborhood and it toughened up the people who lived in it.  The mountains and the military shaped the mentality. The result is the people of Piedmont have ended up with a serious devotion to hard work in tough times, but it’s also balanced by a love of a good time.  And very often, that good time is found in good food and good wine.  In moderation, of course.

The Po and Tanaro rivers flow through Piedmont creating a fertile plain... a plain that has produced crops of the highest quality for thousands of years.  Barley, wheat, rye, and oats... some of our most ancient crops are grown here and used to produce excellent breads.  Corn is ground into meal and used to make Polenta. Polenta is an ancient corn pudding that for centuries was the food of the rural poor.

There are apples... pears... grapes and wonderful pomegranates.  Walnuts.  Chestnuts... and the famous hazelnuts of Alba.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):   The area is also famous for its rice.  During the 1780’s Thomas Jefferson was bouncing around Europe making friends and drumming up business for the newly formed United States of America.  Like most gentlemen farmers of the time, he was always on the lookout for something new and valuable to bring back to his land in the U.S.  As he passed through the Piedmont area of Italy, he began to collect local samples of the seed rice.  It was already famous as the best rice in Europe.  He took those samples back to North America and made a valuable contribution to our rice industry.  To say, um, “took” the rice isn’t totally accurate, though.  What Jefferson did was “smuggle” the rice.  The farmers of the Piedmont already knew how valuable their seed rice was and had passed a group of laws preventing its removal from the area. 

The cooking of Piedmont is often similar to the type of cooking that you’d find in the Alpine areas of France and Switzerland.  The older recipes took the heat that was being generated in the hearth to warm the home and gave it an additional role as the fire for cooking.  Roasting on spits... long slow cooking in big pots that hold the heat.  It is the cooking of mountain families. Cooking that is filling and healthful for the lifestyle of the people who created it.  The cows that graze up and down from the Alpine meadows produce some excellent milk that is used to make some of Italy’s finest butter and cheese.  Dense and flavorful fontina cheese is used to make one of the most traditional dishes of Piedmont.  It’s called fonduta. Fontina is melted and mixed with butter, milk, egg yolks, and white pepper.  On top, a layer of thinly sliced white truffles.  It is served in individual plates and eaten like a soup.  Another specialty of Piedmont is called bagna calda which literally means “hot bath.”  Olive oil, butter and chopped garlic are heated together in a sauce pan.  Chopped anchovies and salt are added and the mixture is served in small individual bowls that are kept warm over heaters or candles.  Slices of raw vegetables -- carrot, artichoke, celery, sweet pepper, and cauliflower, are brought to the table, dipped into the hot oil and eaten as a first course.

Bollito misto is beef, chicken, and ham cooked together and served with vegetables and dipping sauces.  And when it comes to sweets, Piedmont is unbeatable. Baci di dama means “lady kisses”. They are little cookie sandwiches made of nuts and chocolate.  Tiny triangles of hazelnut chocolate called Gianduiotto.  The torrone of Alba, a hazelnut and honey nougat.  Cookies called brut e bon, which means “ugly and good”.  I can’t spot the ugly but I can sure taste the good.  Chocolate truffles that got their name because when they were first made, they reminded everyone of the local fungi that grow wild in the forest.  Panna cotta, a cream and caramel pudding.  And those are only the sweets I can remember without checking my notes.  The most famous food of Piedmont, however, is the white truffle.  Often called “tartufo d’Alba” because they come from the area around the town of Alba. 

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  Truffles are usually described as a fungi or a form of mushroom. But unlike any other form of mushroom, truffles grow completely underground.  They start forming during the summer and are ready for eating during October or November.  The trick, of course, is to find one.  The truffles of Piedmont are found by truffle-hunting dogs that are trained at the the truffle-hunting dog university of Italy. The place really exists.  And the dogs and the truffles are worth a fortune.   

The dogs have learned to pick up the scent of the truffle and lead their masters to the spot in which they are growing. The hunting is done at night, for a number of reasons.  The aroma of the truffle is stronger.  Also, the dogs are not distracted by other visual signs. 

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):   And, though no one really likes to talk about it, the darkness hides the location of the truffles from poachers who might come along and steal the harvest. The truffles tend to grow in the same places almost every year, and the hunters don’t want anybody to know about it.  They also go out with tiny flashlights that only shed a little bit of light...no need to shed too much light on this subject.

Dario Renaldi is a one of Italy’s most skillful truffle hunters. Actually, Dario should be called a truffle “gatherer”... the hunting is really done by his dog Lea.

[Truffle hunt; DARIO RENALDI whispers in Italian]

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  That’s really impressive -- a dog that can find truffles!  But you know, what I would really like is a dog that could find the matching sock to my pair!  I wanna go “Fetch!  Fetch!!”  That would really be extraordinary. 

The truffles of Alba like to grow in the same soil that hosts the great vineyards of the area... Vineyards that produce the wonderful Barolo and Barbaresco wines. Now you would think that that would be great for the vineyard owner, but it’s not.  You need lots of rain during the late summer to have top-quality truffles, but lots of rain during the late summer can damage the grape harvest.  White truffles are almost always served raw... sliced paper-thin and dropped on top of a pasta or a risotto or the local cheese fonduta, or just a green salad.  They have an extraordinary affinity with cheese.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  The Italian composer Rossini loved white truffles so much that eventually his name became associated with dishes that contain them.  If you see something on a menu with the word Rossini next to it, it means that when the dish was originally introduced, it probably contained white truffles.

Neive is a small, picturesque Piedmont hill-town that looks the way a Piedmont hill-town would look if it was built by a set director in Hollywood.  A main street with structures that have been standing on it for hundreds of years.  An ancient church.  And a good restaurant. The restaurant is called La Contea, and it’s owned by Claudia and Tonino Verro, a husband-and-wife team who do the cooking for the restaurant, and run a small inn that’s part of the establishment.  Today Tonino is preparing a red wine risotto.  He starts by heating a large frying pan; this one has a diameter of twelve inches.  As soon as it’s hot, in goes three tablespoons of olive oil, three tablespoons of chopped rosemary, which Tonino stores in oil, and three tablespoons of chopped garlic which Tonino also stores in oil.  If you’re going to use this technique of keeping your herbs in oil, make sure that you keep the bottle in the refrigerator.  Next in ... a half cup each of chopped onion, chopped celery and chopped carrot.  Cook and stir those ingredients together for a few minutes.  Then add the rice... four cups of standard long grain will work fine.  Two more minutes of cooking and Tonino starts to add some of the local Barolo wine.  The central technique to this recipe is to add the liquid to the rice a little at a time, allowing it to be absorbed before the addition of the next batch of liquid. The two liquids being used in this particular dish are red wine and chicken broth.  But if you wanted to do it just with the broth, you’d still end up with a fine rice dish.  Wine and broth are alternated until the dish is finished, which takes about twenty minutes.  When the rice is ready, a little grated parmesan cheese is sprinkled onto the serving plate.  Then the rice, a few slices of local white truffle, and you’re on the “rice track” to a great meal.

For the second recipe here at La Contea, Tonino and his wife Claudia will be working together as a team.  And they’re preparing a dish of braised beef with vegetables.

The recipe starts with two bottles of red wine being poured into a big pot.  Then a rump roast of beef goes in. Coarsely chopped celery.  Cloves of garlic that have been sliced in half with the peel left on.  Carrots cut into rounds.  Slices of onions are added.  Rosemary.  Bay leaves.  Cumin.  And cloves.  They make sure that the beef is fully submerged in wine, vegetables and spices and then they let it stand in the refrigerator for twelve to twenty-four hours.  When the marinating time is over, a large sauté pan is heated.  In goes a little oil.  About a half cup of rosemary.  Then a little cooking.  Garlic cloves, crushed in their skins, are stirred in.  Then some sliced onion, carrot and celery. 

The meat comes out of the marinade and goes into the sauté pan, where it is browned on all sides.  That takes about ten minutes.  Then the vegetables from the marinade go on top.  Two cups of wine from the marinade are added and the beef is cooked for another ten minutes.  At that point the meat is transferred from the sauté pan to a large roasting pan.  More vegetables from the marinade go on top and it’s into a 350 degree Fahrenheit oven for two and a half to three hours.  Every half hour during the cooking time the meat is basted with the pan juices and the pan is checked to make sure that there is still liquid inside.  When the beef is ready it comes out of the oven to rest for fifteen minutes.  That will let the juices in the meat settle down and make it easier to slice.  While the meat is resting the roasted vegetables are taken out of the pan and pureed.   The recipe is plated by putting down some polenta, followed by a slice of the meat.  A little of the sauce from the pan drippings.  A tablespoon of chopped red onion. Some parsley. And the always extremely optional slice of white truffle.

Piedmont is also one of the world’s great regions for the production of wine, and the greatest wines of the Piedmont come from the land around the town of Alba.  The most highly prized is Barolo.  To be called a Barolo, the wine must be made from grapes grown in a small, clearly defined area.  The variety of grape must be a Nebbiolo, and the wine must have spent at least three years in a wooden cask.  It’s a rich and full-bodied wine.  Two of the most famous producers of Barolo are Marcello and Bruno Ceretto.  As a matter of fact, they are often referred to as “the Barolo Brothers”. Barolo comes with a lot of tradition.  Tradition that often has more to do with what people liked in the past rather than what we enjoy today. The old Barolos would often overpower the flavor of the food that they were served with.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  During the 1960’s, the Cerettos decided to lighten things up, to start making a Barolo that reflected the flavors of the soil, and the natural tastes of the grape.  They wanted to avoid the oakiness and tannins that came from unnecessarily long aging in the oak barrels.  So what they did is they reduced the amount of time that the grape juice and the grape skins stayed together after the grapes were crushed.  They reduced the amount of time that the wine stayed in the oak barrels.  But they increased the amount of time that the wine rested in the bottles.  And that proved to be a more gentle form of aging.  Always a good idea.  The result is a Barolo that is lighter and has a lot more of the natural flavor of the Nebbiolo grape.

The Nebbiolo grape is also used to produce Barbaresco, which is the second great wine of the Piedmont.  Wine professionals often point out that even though Barolo and Barbaresco start out with the same grape variety, they are clearly different by the time they get to the glass. 

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):   They are both wines with great strength and power, but the Barolo is a bit more massive -- kind of like the characters that Arnold Schwarzenegger plays.  And the Barbaresco a bit more stylish, kind of like the characters that Clint Eastwood plays.  But having either of those guys on your side is a great idea, or either of those wines on your table. 

The southernmost districts of Piedmont produce the Dolcetto grape.  It is used to make a dark red wine that has a light body and is called Dolcetto d’ Alba. Dolcetto is the wine that is taken to the table everyday by the families of the Piedmont.  One additional grape of the Piedmont that is of considerable importance is the Arneis, which is used to produce Arneis Blange, a straw-colored wine that has a slight spritz.  Once the Ceretto brothers began rethinking the approach to winemaking that had dominated their home town for thousands of years they began to see other things that could be improved.  They were among the first families in the region to own the estates that produced their grapes, and that gave them a real shot at controlling quality. 

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):   They began to concentrate on making wine that would go well with the traditional foods of the Italian diet -- the pastas, the grilled meats, fish and poultry, vegetables, salads, even the desserts.  I think it is a giant step in the right direction.

As Piedmont towns go... Treiso is tiny.  If you blink while you are passing through it, you will miss it. Which would be a shame, because Treiso is home to an interesting restaurant called Tornavento.  Tornavento means weathervane, and in this case it will point you to a restaurant with a very contemporary look. Open and bright, with a wonderful attention to detail. It is owned by Leila Gobino and Marco Serra and they are reworking the traditional recipes of the region. Today Marco is going to start his menu with a recipe for pasta with a meat sauce.  Two tablespoons of olive oil go into a heated sauce pan.  Then two tablespoons of butter.  A sprig of rosemary, a bay leaf, a clove of garlic, a cup of chopped carrot, a cup of chopped onion, and a cup of chopped celery.  All that is stirred and cooked together for about five minutes.  At which point two cups of ground chuck go in.  The beef is browned for a few minutes... a little salt goes in... and then a cup of red wine.  Everything is cooked and stirred until the wine is completely absorbed by the meat.  Then three cups of pureed tomatoes and their juices go in.  Plus two cups of boiling water.  All that simmers together for an hour.  Then the bay leaves and rosemary sprigs come out and a half cup portion of the sauce goes into a saute pan.  A half cup of sauce is considered a proper portion for a single serving.  The general rule of thumb is that a pound of pasta will give six first course servings.  A pinch of butter is added to finish off the dish.  The sauce is kept warm while the pasta is cooked... drained... and added to the sauce.  A few tablespoons of the water that the pasta was cooked in... some freshly grated Parmesiano cheese and the pasta is ready to plate.

For dessert Marco is making a cake that is very traditional for Piedmont... it is based on the locally grown hazelnuts.  He starts by taking the bowl of an electric mixer and putting in one and half cups of ground hazelnuts.  The nuts were ground in a standard food processor.  Next one cup of white sugar... one cup of cake flour and a teaspoon of baking soda.  A half cup of unsalted butter is added.  Then seven eggs are separated and the yolks go into the dry ingredients. The bowl goes onto the mixer.  The paddle attachment goes on and all of the ingredients are mixed together.  That forms the basic batter which is then spread out into a lightly buttered round cake pan that has a nine inch diameter and a depth of about one inch.  A few hits on a flat work surface to get out any air holes and it is ready to go into a 350-degree Fahrenheit oven for 45 minutes.  When it comes out, Marco runs a knife around the edge of the pan to loosen the cake.  Then he flips it over onto a plate and then back... so it ends up top down.  You could also use a loose bottomed tart pan... which would make the flip a little easier.  Powdered sugar on top and the cake is finished.  Marco adds a few tablespoons of Zabaglione sauce to an individual slice just before it comes to the table.

The Cinzano family came from a small village in Piedmont called Pecetto. 

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  Pecetto has a long history of growing vines that are used in the making of medical infusions and elixirs, and for over 500 years Cinzano has been involved in this craft.  The original family’s land holdings in the area were so large, that on many of the old maps the area is actually described as “the Cinzano region”.

During the 1780’s a drink came into fashion that was known as vermouth. And soon the Cinzanos began to experiment with a series of formulas for their own version of what is basically a flavored wine.  By the middle of the 1880’s Cinzano Vermouth had become quite popular and was already being exported to other countries.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):   When the Cinzanos started their business, Italy had not yet been united into Italy.  The Cinzanos were actually living in the Kingdom of Savoy.  The King at the time was named Charles Albert and he was interested in starting a business for the production of high quality wine.  He was particularly interested in something with bubbles.  He wanted to stop drinking French Champagne and start drinking some of his own stuff. 

The king took part of his royal land holdings south of Turino and set up a winery.  The facility was called Santa Vittoria and the king asked Francesco Cinzano to go there and help with the work.  Francesco was soon producing top quality vermouth and a sparkling wine based on the Muscato grape that grew nearby. 

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):   They called their sparkling wine Asti Spumante, and it became famous as kind of a  “champagne on a budget”.  It was the drink for celebrations with millions of Italians who had immigrated to North America.  But as the Italian community moved up from settlers to socialites, so did Asti. The winemakers were able to take advantage of a series of new production techniques to balance the natural sugar in the grape and end up with a drink that’s good before meals and with desserts. Francesco soon realized that he was in a position to build a large international clientele.  

That’s a portrait of Francesco Cinzano.  He organized a group of salesmen to represent his products around the world.  That’s a photograph from 1863 of two of his first representatives, the Carpaneto Brothers.  Lots of sibling rivalry.  The standing Carpaneto is using this photo op to sneak a look at his brother’s sales notes.  That’s Giuseppe Lampiano. He traveled for the Cinzanos from 1878 to 1922.  Giuseppe was very skillful at fitting in with the locals while introducing them to the joys of his drinks. The most important of which was Vermouth.  A vermouth is basically a wine that has been fortified to the strength of a sherry by the addition of alcohol and sweetened and flavored by the addition of carmelized sugar, herbs and spices.  Vermouth making goes all the way back to the Middle Ages when wine that had begun to turn sour was reflavored with honey and various herbs to bring back a positive taste. 

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  One of the most common flavoring agents was wormwood.  The German word for wormwood is vermuth, and that is where the modern word “vermouth” comes from.  In Italy the idea of a flavored wine all by itself became popular, and eventually a large industry developed with its own source of good wine.  These days there are basically three types of vermouth on the market. 

There is a dry white, a sweet white, and a sweet red.  The dry white is nice with a little ice or club soda as a before dinner drink.  The sweet white is usually served by itself with a little ice, also as a before meals drink.  The sweet red is best known as an ingredient in various cocktails, like the Manhattan. The most famous role for the dry white is as the flavoring addition to the martini, which thanks to James Bond is probably the most famous cocktail in the world.  The traditional Martini cocktail is four or five parts of dry gin to one part dry vermouth.  Bond used vodka instead of gin... and he shook, rather than stirred.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  Well, that’s our report from the Piedmont region of Italy... good people, good food, good wine, good-bye.  I’m Burt Wolf.