Exploring cultures and communities – the slow way

Not for the first time, hidden europe salivates over north Italian food. Guest writer Peter Wortsman takes a few Piemonte byways in search of truffles, the perfect ravioli and a tongue tingling grappa.

article summary —

In Italy's northwest corner, where the Alps relax their grip and the Mediterranean blows salty kisses from the south, the best of nature and culture meet in the kitchen and marry on the plate.

Take the caramelle, a house specialty of the Antica Locanda Piemonte, in Condove, a tiny afterthought of a town wedged in the Susa valley west of Turin. The décor is spare, the atmosphere subdued. But these tiny ravioli - perfect parcels of pinched golden dough, with a dollop of chopped prosciutto in the middle and a dribble of basil cream sauce - come close to the Platonic ideal of pasta. Sated, several courses later, I stepped out into the Condove night, the sweet moscato house grappa sparking my synapses. And glancing up to the hills, the ethereal sight of the ruins of the Sacra di San Michele, monastic symbol of Piemonte, glowing golden like a second moon, prompted a wordless prayer: a creamy, doughy, ripple of tastes wrapped round a hint of ham converged in a belch that surely made the angels smile.

In the bustling market towns that dot the landscape between Turin and Cúneo, just as in the sleepy hilltop hamlets of the Langhe (‘little tongues of land', in local dialect), the vines bleed wine, the forests ooze wild mushrooms and truffles, and the trees hang heavy with hazelnuts, all of which find their way into the kitchen.

Truffles are the region's holy grail. They were relished by the ancient Egyptians, and Pliny waxed eloquent about them in imperial Latin. Alfred Hitchcock and Winston Churchill were among the famous connoisseurs of the last century.

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Peter Wortsman writes plays and short stories. He has translated a number of books from German into English. His new translation of Heinrich Heine's 'Reisebilder', a classic piece of early travel literature, has been published in 2008 by Archipelago Press under the title 'Travel Pictures'.

This article was published in hidden europe 12.