Thursday
Jul032014

July 3, 2014

Today we awoke to another sunny day with the ever-present sounds of a working vineyard clunking and clattering through the hillside. Unfortunately, we said goodbye to our friends, Marleen and Douwe, as they headed back to the Netherlands this morning in their sporty 2 seated Audi. But, never at a loss for socializing, we greeted a couple from Ontario, Canada and a couple from Australia who rendezvoused here with their friends from England. Already, topics of politics, economy and culture have been examined from our various perspectives.

We decided to keep our activities simple today. First, we drove over to a nearby ridge where Diano d’Alba is perched. We dedicated this visit to Warren and Sharon Vollert, who serendipitously discovered this wine some years ago and shared it with us. It quickly rose to the top of our preferred wines and after drowning several cases remains right up there. Warren, just as a reminder, the Diano d’Alba bottles have a red wax seal on the top as if the King needs reassurance that his wine hasn’t been tampered with. It is a special Dolcetto wine that Fosco makes and is unique amongst the surrounding vineyards. Unfortunately, we never found the Fosco winery, but the good Vollert name echoed through the valley.

We then programmed our GPS for Barolo which was a short 4 kilometers away and down in the valley. This is the quintessential little wine town with a number of Enotecas that specialize in wine tasting and feature virtually every vintner in the neighborhood. We walked the town which is only 4-5 blocks, then stopped in a cozy trattoria to sip a Barolo and nibble on some octopus smothered in fresh sautéed porcini mushrooms.

 Then, we stopped at yet another small town (forgot the name) and tasted a Barbera d’Alba, a Nebbiolo d’ Alba and two different Barolos. If we lived in this region of Italy, one wonders what kind of reputation we could earn among the native Italians.

We returned to the Paolo Manzone agriturismo and were introduced to yet another set of friends, this time from Belgium,

Tonight is our last night at this incredibly serene place. Just as we miss our new found friends, Fabrizo and Marla in Pinasco, we similarly will miss Lisa and the Manzone family who have welcomed us with warmth and generosity of spirit.

Whoops, we almost forgot what happened at breakfast this morning. We were enjoying our fresh fruit, prosciutto crudo and cheese when Gwen noticed a small tree growing in a terracotta planter with what looked like a single huge lemon hanging proudly from one of its few branches. Gwen looked in amazement and was forced by curiosity to see if it was a real lemon. As soon as she touched it, it fell from the tree and Gwen was aghast. With hands to her face, she sheepishly returned to the breakfast area with all our friends watching. Everyone tried to comfort her in the awkward moment. Then, she relayed a story from her youth involving her beloved brother Stanford. Apparently, Gwen, Stan and their mother were visiting their grandfather and while young Stan was swinging on the swing, their grandfather was pointing out his prized apple growing high up on a branch. While their grandfather shared his pride in that glistening apple, Stan swung higher and higher till, oblivious to his grandfather’s pride and joy, he reached up and picked the prize apple. His grandfather was horrified at the premature plucking of his prized apple. Yes, as you may have suspected, such behaviors run in the family! While the fruit of the apple tree was sweet, the lemon was a bit sour.

Tomorrow, it’s on to Torino.

 

 

Wednesday
Jul022014

July 1, 2014

Paolo Manzone vineyards in Serralunga is a lovely place. Private balconies in each of the 4 rooms, beautiful vistas and very friendly hosts. The wine tasting we attended was conducted by the owner, Paolo Manzone. We were joined by our new friends from the Netherlands, Douwe and Marleen Akkerman and four Swiss folks. We started with Paolo’s white and then 3 different Barberas and finished with 3 of his prized Barolos. To finish the evening, Paolo brought out a special treat -- his 2006 Barolo that he keeps in a private cellar.

The next morning, after a classic Italian breakfast of prosciutto, cheese and homemade croissants, we headed off to explore a number of the neighboring medieval towns, each located at the top of their individual hillside. These are quiet little hamlets with narrow (sometimes too narrow) streets, better suited to a horse drawn cart off freshly harvested grapes. Everyone is exceptionally friendly and welcoming. I the center of each town is either a castle or a church where 360 degree views of the countryside inspire incessant picture-taking.

Castiglione Falleto is a tiny hamlet on a hill surrounded by vineyards. We can see the town from our room and were excited about visiting it. We drove up a narrow winding road to the top of the town, where a sweet church is perched.

After taking a few pictures, we discussed how to get back down. Gwen was concerned about cars coming the other way on the narrow alley we drove up, and another little road down looked too narrow for the car. She saw a third road with a sign that said “Municipio,” so we took that route. That turned out not to be the way out. After passing the tiny municipal building, the road wound up and around and ended up at the hill road we had determined was too narrow for the car.

So, since Gwen has a serious problem with backing up on narrow downhill roads, we decided to try to “thread the needle” and go up. We collapsed the side mirrors to give us a lower profile and Dick with his cane walked up the hill to guide Gwen. She was nearly paralyzed with fear but started creping up slowly, then smoke started coming out of the engine (from the clutch) and Gwen heard a screech on the passenger side. We realized that we were stuck, literally between a rock and a hard place. Dick went for help because there was no way in this century that Gwen was going to back down that hill. Suddenly a Swiss couple arrived. Gwen told them her predicament and the wife said her husband is a good driver and could back down the car. Gwen climbed over the passenger seat and the Swiss man climbed in. He was able to back down the car but in the process scraped the other side view mirror. Meanwhile, Dick came with an Italian guy who apologized for the road, saying they should have put up a sign saying that it is too narrow for cars. The Swiss guy and the Italian guy drove the car around and back up to us. We thanked everyone and left by the road that took us up. We are taking a trip to Alba today to fix both of our side view mirrors.

After that trauma, we drove a couple of miles to the famous town of Barolo. Unlike most hamlets is this area, Barolo is located near the bottom of a valley with its ubiquitous Nebiolo grape vineyards reaching up the hillside. For fear of another encounter with impassable streets, we headed to the city of Alba where every Tuesday, bars and restaurants present music, drink, food and dancing in the center of the old section of the city. We walked the streets in search of the perfect spot to sip wine and eat some Piedmontese cuisine. Then, we spotted a group of tables with a sign announcing pasta with truffles. That’s all she wrote. We quickly claimed a table, sipped a couple of glasses of Prosecco before ordering a plate of linguini with black truffles. The holy grail of mushrooms once again presented their savory virtues.

Back in medieval times, truffles were thought to be the work of the devil, while later they were supposedly witches’ food, an animal and even a mineral. In fact, they are none of the above, nor a tuber, a parasitic fungus, a disease of the soil nor a potato. They are simply a fungus, that is symbiotic with several species of oak, poplar and linden trees, and whose fragrance and taste is unmatched.

We than headed back to Paolo Manzone Agriturismo to watch, with our Dutch friends, the US soccer team lose to Belgium in the World Cup. That’s it. Good night.

 

 

Monday
Jun302014

June 29-30, 2014

Last night we joined Connecticut friends for a group cooking lesson. Marla skillfully designated various tasks for each of us after the group joined in cleaning and slicing the fresh chanterelle and porcini mushrooms and prepared stuffed peaches. While the four Connecticans prepared the dough for the four savory tarts, we assumed the roll of pasta makers. Then we all pitched in to delicately make the tiny raviolis called Plin. Plin is a classic Piedmontese pasta stuffed with hand ground, cooked pork, chicken and veal (Fabrizio’s job). Marla made the pastry dessert. That night we all marveled over our expert culinary skills.

The next day, after a wonderful breakfast at Bella Baita, we motored up the valley to visit the little town of Usseaux, population 70! There, we discovered the most quaint little hamlet known to humankind. The townspeople were just departing a social event held in the church, children we playing in the narrow streets and thoughts of Brigadoon kept coming to mind. The town center fountain provided constant water flowing down from the mountain tops and serves as a community drinking supply. Around every corner were murals depicting animals, wildlife and anonymous people. The town consists of one narrow cobblestone street going steeply down to the bottom with several block-long streets shooting off to the sides. All along the street are wooden doors to the houses inside. While dreamily observing every nook and cranny of the town, we keep expecting Cyd Charisse and Gene Kelly to emerge hand in hand from the mist.

We then motored down the valley to a mountain lake (really, it is more of a pond) called Lago Laux. There on the shore is a classic chalet restaurant whose specialty is polenta. We chose a polenta served with three different sauces. One a béchamel sauce with gorgonzola cheese, another was tomato based with olive oil and the last, bagna cauda sauce that we described earlier. We kept thinking of our friend Don Barbacovi who first introduced us to “real” Italian polenta many years ago. We toasted him and our good fortune with a glass of Prosecco. Last night Marla and Fabrizio hosted us with another sumptuous dinner.

This morning Gwen took a hike down the road to Fabrizio’s garden that produces most of Bella Baita’s vegetables and fruits such as blueberries and strawberries. Fabrizio also showed Gwen his work in progress, which is the restoration of a 400 year old stone house on his property near the garden.

Then, sadly, it was time to say goodbye to Fabrizio and Marla.

We set our GPS for Serralunga and two hours later we arrived at the Paolo Manzone Agriturismo centered in the middle of his vineyard. Within minutes we were sipping some of his Nebbiolo d’Alba and then, surprisingly, two of his Barolos were generously offered and accepted. All were beyond belief. Tonight, we join a Swiss couple and a Dutch couple for a wine tasting of all of Paolo Manzone’s fine wines. If the pictures of this wine tasting seem a bit fuzzy in tomorrow’s post, we hope you’ll understand.

Saturday
Jun282014

June 26-28,2014

We can see France from our backyard!

Yesterday, we arrived at Bella Baita after driving through one of the most picturesque valleys we have ever seen. This lovely B&B is perched way up the valley ridge high enough to peer across the Italy-France border. Sara Palin has nothing on us! The winding road with plenty of switchbacks to Bella is one that won’t soon be forgotten. For all intents and purposes you drive straight up the mountain about 2000 feet.

The owners of Biata, Marla and Fabrizio, are both trained chefs. Marla is originally from the States bur Fabrizio is Italian t beautiful 3-course dinner of homemade zucchini flan with a wonderful tomato sauce of fresh tomatoes and mint, followed by beef with home-grown arugula and yellow beans. Dessert was a fruit tart. Marla is a fabulous baker. She makes all the breads, brioches and desserts,

The next day we arose to a full breakfast with Marla’s breads and focaccia  with fresh tomatoes. Then we took off down the scary road and on to Fenestrelle. Here is an ancient fort and a wall separating Italy and France, built by the Savoys, (a French separatist people who once claimed all of Piedmont as their territory) beginning in 1728 and not completed for another century.

The wall, known as the Great Wall of Italy or the Great Wall of Europe, is the second longest wall in the world next to the wall of China. It has 4000 steps, rising more than ½ mile. The steps are shallow to enable the donkeys to carry building materials. Unfortunately, or maybe fortunately, the steps were closed while we were there so Gwen did not have the chance to make either the 3 or 7 hour trip to the top.

After visiting Fenestrelle, we drove on down the winding mountain road to Sestriere, the home base for the 2008 Torino Olympics. On the way we stopped for a picture of the denuded ski jump. In Sestriere, we stopped for quick bite. Gwen had a pizza covered with roasted vegetables and Dick had an antipasto plate.

When we returned we started our cooking class -- menu was bagna cauda on roasted vegetables, chicken legs boned and stuffed with Spek and tiny gnocchi.

Bagna cauda is a regional specialty made with anchovies, olive oil, garlic and a little milk or cream. It is usually served as a fondue with roasted vegetables. There is a reason why anchovies are such a big part of the diet, even though the area is, of course, far from any ocean. Back in the day, salt, a necessary ingredient for life, was taxed heavily. So the mountain dwellers would fill their containers with salt topped by salt, essential for human health, could be transported as contraband under the anchovies, which were not taxed. Thus, a tradition was begun. After all, they had to eat the anchovies they had imported.

We cleaned and boned the fresh anchovies, which are larger than the ones we see in the cans. Then they were slowly cooked with olive oil and minced garlic. The next project was the chicken legs. We learned how to bone the legs and to make the rolls with the Spek inside. Finally, we made the gnocchi, with gorgonzola sauce. Without question, the best tasting ever. One reason is the size, not more than ½ inch. The cooking lesson was invaluable -- we learned a lot and Fabrizio and Marla are not only excellent chefs, but terrific teachers as well.

Next day, after another sumptuous breakfast, we accompanied Marla and Fabrizio to the weekly market in Pinerolo.

There we saw every Italian delight known to mankind. Fresh fruit, just harvested porcini and Chanterelle mushrooms, a dozen iterations of parmesan cheese, every homemade goat and cow milk cheese ever dreamed about and wall to wall people making preparation for the weekend’s celebration at the dinner table. We have another cooking class tonight. More on that later.

  

 

Thursday
Jun262014

June 25,2014

As mentioned yesterday, we were invited to a local Cantina inauguration. Before the festivities, we all watched, disappointedly, as the Italian soccer team was eliminated from the World Cup. The sad faces didn’t last long though. Little did we know that aside from a short tour of the soon to be winemaking facility and the requisite glasses of wine and plates full of food, the local Priest arrived and offered a prayer and said a blessing for a successful enterprise. Then the gluttony began. Our Bricco chef prepared a whole roasted pig with all the fixens and the one hundred guests were well nourished and even better lubricated.  The chef boned the pig and stuffed it wirh meat and herbs.

The next morning we programmed the GPS to deliver us to Canelli where one of the area’s largest and most prestigious wineries is headquartered. This trip actually was conceived back in February, when we attended a special wine tasting at our favorite Cozumel restaurant, Guidos. The proprietor and our friend, Yvonne Villager, hosted one of the owners of Piedmont’s Coppo winery.. Gianni Coppo and his three brothers continue the family’s wine making heritage which has been handed down from their grandfather, Piero Coppo, who founded it in 1892. Gianni introduced us islanders to five of his wines and we loved every one. We told Gianni that we were planning a trip to the Piedmont and he encouraged us to come visit him for a personal tour and tasting. Fast forward to yesterday and there to greet us is Gianni and his nephew, Massimiliano. The 3 hour VIP tour took us through the entire winemaking process and we promised to never reveal the secrets of their artistic genius.

We walked through the labyrinth of cellars and observed the french oak barrels, the finest of which are hand-made from trees harvested in the Allier and Troncais forests. Of particular interest was a separate little cave, housing vintages of as many as 80 years ago and more.

Massimiliano also described the laborious process of daily testing of the grapes from various sections of each field to determine when to harvest. The sugar content is chemically measured and ripeness is assessed by tasting and by biting the seeds to see if they are green inside.

Then, we sat down to discuss in depth the myriad intricacies and variables that combine terroir, geography, soil chemistry, sun exposure, that go into the final sumptuous bottled product. They even showed us samples of the various soils with an explanation of the resultant effects on the vine and its fruit. While discussing, we sipped their Chardonnays, their Camp du Rouss (field of the Red-head) Barbera and finally their signature Barbera, made from grapes from three oldest vineyards, Pomorosso.

All told, this was a wine lovers dream. Thank you, Gianni and Massimiliano.

Before we head West to the Italian Alps this afternoon, we want to tell you a bit more about Bricco San Giovanni. Built 250 years, the building was originally a farmhouse that housed the farm animals on the ground floor and the people on the second. Its built on the apex of the hill with 360 degree views of the vineyards below. Its proprietor, Kristina, is a Swede who has lived here in Italy for fifty years. Her son, Leonardo, was here on vacation this past week and lives in Washington DC.

Kristina is the consummate Innkeeper. Every detail for ones comfort and “feeling at home” has been considered. Also, her chef prepares a gourmet five course dinner each evening and the daily breakfast is complete with classic Italian prosciutto, salami, cheese, fruit and even huge fresh figs.

Just for laughs, we want to describe an experience we had this week at a local shopping center’s bathroom. Both of us, separately, sought to flush the toilet and discovered no flushing handle. Desperately searching the stall, we finally found a baseball-sized button on the wall close to the floor. You simply kick the button and it flushes. Similarly, there are no handles on the sink. Instead, you use your knees to press baseball-sized buttons to activate the the hot and cold water, Using the bathroom, apparently, does not have to be routine.

Sadly,we said goodbye to our Dutch friends, Tony and Petra, who were off on another biking adventure and we are off to Bella Baita in the Alps. If our next entry sounds a bit nonsensical, blame it on the altitude.