The Food Tour Begins...
This is the next installment of my Europe travels that I started previously with Arrival in Milano.
Torino, October 2005
I boarded a train this afternoon from Milan to Torino (aka Turin, the capital of Piedmont, or the region of Piemonte) to meet with my friend Kayleen, the illustrious tour director of the ten day food and wine tour that I joined. I neglected to look up the cross streets for where exactly in Torino the hotel was where I was meeting Kayleen (a day before the actual tour begins). This is not-so-subtle dramatic foreshadowing.
I negotiate my way from the central train station to an internet cafe where I can find out where the hotel is, only to find that it closed despite its listed hours in my tour book and on its sign. I walk to a nearby bar and ask the man there if he knows the hotel I’m looking for. He doesn’t. I show him the address but it rings no bells. I start to leave and then (commence story number 1 of 200 of incredibly generous Italian folks) he proceeds to spend the next 30 minutes on the phone for me, running up and down the street asking friends, and eventually procuring a taxi for me as it turns out the hotel is in a suburb of Torino, a 20 minute drive away.
I meet up with Kayleen (who, incidentally, just barely found the place herself) and we have what turns out to be the cheapest, most delicious bar food of my trip so far. We sit down at some regular enough looking place we came upon in this fairly working class town outside Torino. We order two glasses of red wine and they bring us 4 plates of snacks (free with drinks) consisting of various cheeses, fresh pork salami, ham, olives, pickles, delicious little bits of bread with cheese and tapenade, and strangely, potato chips. Kayleen orders an espresso and I have some sparkling water. Our bill? 4 euros. This amounts to about 5 bucks. A comparable meal in Seattle would easily come to 30 dollars, if not more.
The following day...
We meet up with Mario, the very patient, hilariously understated man who will be our driver for the next 10 days. He's 65, from Florence, claims he doesn't smoke or drink much so he can spend more energy on his third vice, women. We head off to meet the others, full of anticipation and excitement and immediately the van grinds to a halt. It sounds like the entire ignition has dropped out. Kayleen and I just stare at each other. It turns out that Mario drove right over an orange construction cone and it has gotten itself wedged underneath the car. It takes the three of us and 20 minutes to free it.
We're off (again!) to the town of Pollenzo- a small, small town outside of Bra (which is a small town). Basically there are 3 things in Pollenzo, the gorgeous hotel we are staying at, the University of Good Taste (the first University of Gastronomy in the world) and a Michelin starred restaurant called (in all seriousness) Guido.
I meet the rest of the group, 6 in all. We eat that night at an excellent osteria in Bra, Osteria Boccondivino- the food is incredible. I have a wild mushroom risotto, plus a capon salad with balsamic.
The next morning we meet with a representative of Slow Food Italy and get a tour of their national office in Bra, also home to Boccondivino. Afterwards we get to take a tour of the university (including the wine library where there are approximately 100,000 bottles of wine from all over Italy). They have preserved an ancient aquifer running through the cellar. We peer down through the grates in the cold floor at the gray stones and breathe in the scents of old, old, water that flowed beneath our feet.
We drink coffee at this great bar in Bra, Cafe Converso, which won an award for being the best coffee bar in Italy last year. We sip our espressos with a small scoop of gelato on top and eat naughty little pastries. We smile, hold our cell phones to our ears and pretend we’re Italian.
Then we are off to meet Lorenzo, a local cheese maker and seller in his little shop in Bra. He gives us samples of his local cow’s milk cheese, plus a few pecorinos (sheep’s milk cheese), and then a drippy, oozing, perfectly ripe gorgonzola. After the tastes, Lorrenzo takes us to the cellar where he has a small museum of cheese and 20 or so Parmigiano Reggianos which are being aged. Samples are given with flutes of Prosecco.
I interrupt this report to give you the very important gelato accounting for today:
1 coconut cone
1 cup of hazelnut and chocolate
2 scoops of vanilla
I now see that these journals are going to be all about food but then you probably expect nothing less from me.
The next two nights we eat at restaurant Guido which I mention above. I have a feeling I will compare all meals to Guido for the rest of my trip. Without a doubt, simply the best seafood I have ever had in my life. This restaurant is so special we all agree to come back the next night if we can get a reservation- despite how expensive it is. The dish I nearly cry over is a seafood dish that consists of the following: a single perfect scallop in its shell, a huge, beautiful prawn (with head fried on the side), several langoustine tails, and squid all cooked perfectly in butter flavored with just a bit of garlic and bay leaf. Nothing so fancy, but quite literally the best tasting seafood I’ve ever had. Sweet, briny, smelling like the sea, fresh, buttery, and lovely.
I start the meal with a carpaccio of sea bass with radishes and lemon and since I seem to be mentioning the dishes backwards, the very beginning amuse bouche was a perfect little piece of a local soft goat cheese suspended in a foam of pumpkin mousse. The wines are equally outstanding...a local Barbera d'Asti one night and the next a Dolcetto, plus a few white wines that I can’t remember the names of. Although, it hardly matters; it all is so good. My two new favorite words: bianco and rosso.
The next day we get a tour of the Barolo region in the Langhe, as well as a tour of a local winery, with of course samples and food. I have never had so much wine so early in the day before and with no great surprise find the afternoon siesta unavoidable and much enjoyable.
After the tour we meet Gianni (pictured above), a truffle hunter, who gives us a short lecture on the methods for procuring truffles. We meet his truffle dogs at his “university of the truffle hunting dog” which cracks me up because the university consists of three dogs, with three dog bowls and three dog houses.
je ne sais quoi of the rare underground fungus people all over the world covet is due to the tour the truffle has first taken around the truffle dog’s mouth. Sort of redefines the whole debate about whether or not to wash your mushrooms.
The next day we say goodbye to Pollenzo. Goodbye to the hotel we have fallen in love with; the church bells that wake us in the early morning; the pigeons and their sounds of resting and flight; the cappuccinos, frothy and light; and goodbye to our warm-hearted hosts Federica and Luca. I leave, also, enriched with a new card game: Scopa which I am now completely addicted to playing.
my room with a view
We have just enough time in our itinerary to check out Slow Food’s Cheese Festival in Bra, which brings together cheese makers from all over the world. The atmosphere in the city is festive and circus-like with small white pointed tents as far as the eye can see. The smell is nothing short of pungent and the samples are offered freely. I spend a great deal of time in the Casa dei Capri (the house of goat cheeses).
We sample a cheese later on that was so truly horrible that we would have wiped our mouths out with terry cloth had we had the good fortune to have some at hand. The taste still lingers as we load ourselves into the van for the only hectic day so far on the trip which was a winding, winding, drive to the Cinque Terre on the Italian Riviera. In retrospect, we probably should have omitted this from our trip because we only had a few hours there (it rained the whole time) and then we had to get back in the van for another 3 hour stomach churning drive to the Chianti region. I learn the important phrase "se non rallenta, vomito" which means "if you don't slow down, I'll vomit." We finally arrived in Greve in Chianti, our stomachs in our throats. We eat a late light dinner in the hotel and hit the hay.
Today we go to a famous salumi place in Greve where we have a cured meat tasting and oh, of course, a wine tasting (did I mention it is 11:00 in the morning?) Then, we stop on the way back to -that’s right- a wine festival. We sing oh solo mio with Mario the whole way back to the hotel.
I briefly consider the warning signs of alcoholism. Then I think better of it and go sleep off my hangover.