Cheese, truffles, history and wine in Piedmont, Italy

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This was my introduction to “cheese wrapping,” a gastronomic tradition in Italy of aging cheeses by encasing them in leaves and other substances. I also learned that there are professional “cheese hunters” who seek out the best leaves in which to wrap locally made cheeses, and who know the how long each variety should be aged to bring out its best flavor.

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The opportunity to learn about this unusual occupation is one attraction of a visit to the Piedmont (Piemonte) region of northwestern Italy. Others include its lovely landscape of gently rolling hills blanketed by vineyards, and tiny towns that grew up around imposing stone castles in medieval times.

Adding to the appeal are an enticing history and the fact that Piemontese food and wine, while not as renowned as other better-known cuisines, in my opinion should be.

Piemonte derives its name from the phrase ai piedi del monte (at the foot of the mountains), and the Swiss and French Alps soar above the area. A perfect home base for traveling throughout the region is Alba, “the town of 100 towers.” That claim dates back to the 12th and 13th centuries, when noble families built ever-taller fortified towers to both provide protection from attack and demonstrate their wealth. While only four of the original structures remain, the name has stuck.

Grinzane Cavour Castle

Alba also contains portions of its ancient city walls, fragments of frescoes and other remnants of Roman rule.

Outside of Alba roads wind to and through little towns of stone buildings that line narrow cobblestone streets. Church steeples rise above red tile rooftops as if gazing out at the surrounding view. Many a hilltop is capped by an ancient castle, whose massive walls and turrets recall times of past grandeur.

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Along with their common attractions, each town also has its own unique appeals and stories to tell. Serralunga d’Alba is one of 11 villages where Barolo wine may be produced. It and Barbaresco are Italy’s most prestigious red wines.

The village of Grinzane Cavour and 12th century castle of the same name also have a connection with viniculture. Among exhibits in the fortress is the Regiona Piemontese Wine Cellar, which showcases and offers tastings of the area’s vintages.  Also of interest is the Masks Room, which has a soaring ceiling that is painted with portraits, crests and a series of fantasy monsters and allegorical creatures that range from droll to macabre.

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One proud claim to fame of Cherasco is that Napoleon Bonaparte described it as “le plus beau coin d’Italie.” Even those who don’t agree that the town is “the most beautiful corner of Italy” can appreciate the original star-shaped Roman bastion and the medieval architecture which abounds there.

Elegant porticoed arcades continue to protect pedestrians from sun and rain, as they did in the past.   The ruling Savoy family spent many a summer holiday in the sumptuous Palazzo (Palace) Salmatoris. The graceful “Triumphal Arch” in the town was donated by a citizen to give thanks that the plague which wracked the region in 1630 spared the citizens of Cherasco.

Wine cellar

Anyone who travels to Italy’s Piedmont region is sure to leave with an appreciation of how important food and wine and are in the lives of its people, and probably with a few extra pounds as well. Cheese and truffles — especially white truffles — hold a place of honor on many a dining table.

Cheese-making is closely identified with the region, having flourished there since the first century A.D. Many farmers continue to follow traditional family recipes, which often call for a mixture of milk from cows, sheep and goats.

A visit with a “cheese hunter” turned out to be one of the more unusual experiences of my trip. Gianna Cora demonstrated how he wraps cheeses in various kinds of leaves to both preserve and flavor them. He uses leaves from chestnut and fig trees, as well as cabbage, cauliflower and other vegetables. I also encountered, but chose not to sample, cheese wrapped in grass, tobacco leaves and goat hides.

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Gianna reported that each year he gathers and uses over 100,000 chestnut leaves alone, and I didn’t inquire how he knows the number. He explained that about three dozen of his neighbors share his unusual profession, and claimed — without embarrassment at the pun — that he is recognized as “the Big Cheese” among them.

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It didn’t take long after my arrival in Piedmont to observe that the locals are as serious about enjoying cheeses as Gianna is about making sure they taste as delectable as possible. Many restaurants serve a wide selection of locally produced types. I watched as diners discussed the selection with their server, asked for small samples before ordering, then nibbled on their choices with an enjoyment that was obvious even from across the room.

Enjoyment of the magnificent countryside scenery, ancient towns and intriguing history of the Piedmont region might not be demonstrated so clearly. But this corner of Italy has much to recommend a visit to savor all of the flavors it has to offer.

If you go. For more information about Italy’s Piedmont region, check out: www.langheroero. Click on the small image of the British flag in the upper right corner of the screen to translate the site into English.

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