Land of flavour and slow time

Anna Montali travelled to Italy to experience the Slow Food movement, whose followers believe in rediscovering the origins of our food and eating responsibly (and deliciously)

ANNA MONTALI

Do you remember how food used to taste before fast food came along? Remember when love, dedication and authentic ingredients went into the food we ate? Today there is a movement to save our heritage in the enjoyment of food and wine. Piedmont local Carlo Petrini founded the Slow Food movement in 1989, with the intention of increasing our gastronomic pleasure by going back to the humble beginnings where it all started – back to the earth. Carlo believed that everyone should have access to good, clean and fair food.

I was lucky enough to be invited on a tour to the heart of the global Slow Food movement, south of Turin to Alba, where I was excited to visit the core of the wine and food regions. The plan was to experience authentic regional food as it was made years ago and is made again today by chefs who practice the Slow Food ethos. My first glimpse of Bra was misty vineyards and, as far as my eye could see, rolling hills with small family estates that characterise winemaking in the hilly Langhe region. After a short stop at our refurbished gothic estate hotel, Albergo dell’ Agenzia, which dates back to 1833, we headed off to the Grinzane Cavour Castle. Grinzane is a tiny town not far from Alba. The castle, now a museum, is the home of the wine producers’ organisation, where once a year in the great hall they have blind tastings and the best bottles are given special labels.

Every October the castle also hosts the world’s most famous truffle auction. Truffle lovers from all over the world (including film star Gerard Depardieu, a truffle fanatic) fly to Italy to bid for the prized fungus. White truffles from Alba sell for about 3 000 Euros (around R30 000) a kilogram. Here we also saw our first bottles of Barolo and Barbaresco wines… over the next few days we would get very familiar with both varieties. The old villa at Tiboldi, a familyrun establishment, is a journey into a past where everything was slow and relaxing. The courtyard overlooks beautiful gardens and panoramic views. Outside, tables were laid with bowls of chunky Parmesan, Italian cold meats and fresh bread. In the restaurant we feasted on gnocchi with cream, shaved fresh truffles and Castelmagno cheese, pork-cheek stew and velvety, gelatine-free panna cotta. After this sumptuous meal it was clearly evident that the principle behind the Slow Food movement is the logic of eating well.

During our first wine-and-food-filled tasting days we came to understand that the idea of slow food is the freshest locally produced ingredients picked from the local markets each morning to produce wholesome, meltin- your-mouth dishes. We attended an interesting hands-on cooking class where we made our own pasta with a delicious filling at our hotel Albergo Dell’Agenzia in Pollenzo, with Chef Giuseppe Barbero. The hotel is part of the University of Gastronomic Sciences and in the cellar, built over the ruins of an ancient Roman tomb and spring, is The Wine Bank. Here a slightly humid chamber houses hundreds of crates of wine from all over Italy, including some of the world’s very best. At first it felt like a dusty mausoleum, but thankfully one is eventually allowed to drink the wines.

Dinner in Bra at Osteria del Boccondivino was a scrumptious affair where food and wine exist to be savoured in unity. The restaurant takes great seasonal ingredients and prepares them simply – that is the Italian way. We eased ourselves into a degustation parade of perfection: baccala con patate, minestrone di verdure and my very best, coniglio grigio di Carmagnola, ending with the splendid semifreddo al croccante e pistacchio di Bronte. Early in the morning we visited the Mulino Sobrino, a mill that buys the highest quality grains from local producers and utilises ancient methods to produce wonderful organic flour. I bought their polenta flour, which they describe as “rare”, because they have rediscovered a grain that disappeared with the arrival of hybrids, and it is now cultivated exclusively for the making of polenta.

I can’t wait to try it. Our visit to Ristorante Brezza, a three-generation family-run business, was another of the many highlightsof my tour. A heavy wooden carved doorway leads into a cantina lined with huge barrels and many bottles of wine. Wooden tables were laid with delicious antipasti dishes belonging to the gastronomic tradition of the Piedmont region, including the long  crunchy grissini sticks that become so familiar with our meals. Here we were served the much-anticipated dish of the tour, the famous risotto di Barolo. I love this kind of eating. It is simpleand unpretentious and it elevates humble produce to an exalted place. It makes one really appreciate the virtues of local freshness and seasonal ingredients. This is what slow food is all about – the simple things of life. Our city-centre trip took us to Osteria Dell’ Arco, where the traditional rustic chic found throughout Italy made me feel warm and at home on a cold winter’s day. The alluring aroma of freshly ground coffee and the delicate waft of sliced truffle coming from the kitchen added to our pleasurable anticipation.

Charming chef Maurizio Dellapiana impressed us all with his gnocchetti di ricotta al pesto di spinaci. And later, with a splash of yet another robust Barolo wine, we were served yet another delicious dessert. Afterwards we walked through the streets of Alba, looking into shop windows filled with neat rows of pastries and candies by the famous Ferrero (whose home base was in Alba). So much food and wine and far too little time to sample it all. On our last evening we went to Osteria Murivecchi, where I was amazed at how they kept the heavywooden door closed by a sack of rocks hanging on the other side – strange, but it worked. The warm, candlelit environment was full of old barrels and ladders, murky mirrors and  dusty wine bottles, yet at the same time there was something clean and modern about the place. We ended our evening with yet another great bottle  of red and the laughter continued well into the evening.

It makes sense to me that the Slow Food movement started in Italy. There really is no such thing as “Italian food”, because Italy is very regional and people take pride in displaying their own gastronomic experiences from locally produced ingredients. Italy has always stood for the pleasures of the table. Wherever you go it is guaranteed that you will enjoy an unforgettable culinary adventure. Just before leaving I tasted an espresso made from locally roasted Vergnano and Lavazza coffee beans, with a Gianduia chocolate eaten in the arcades of Turin. This was a moment where I wish time could have stood still.

Getting There
Anna Montali travelled to Torino with Lufthansa German Airlines (contact Karin Duncker on 021- 794-8182), Medvacations and the RSI Group. Anna stayed at Albergo dell’ Agenzia in Pollenzo (call 0039-0172-458 600 or visit www.albergoagenzia.it). Note that you may not bring home cheese, cured products, truffles or anything unsealed: the beagles will sniff them out and you will have them confiscated. Rather enjoy while you are touring. For an immersive tour of the Turin region, book your Slow Food tour through Medvacations. Call 011-783-5351 or email info@medvacations.co.za.

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ANNA MONTALI

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