Tuesday, 9 September 2008

Whining and Dining Abroad: Piedmont

A man who is tired of London is tired of mediocre, overpriced restaurants, and it was in such a spirit that the Blonde and I escaped London for a week to the restaurants of northern Italy. Piedmont is the food lover’s Mecca: from the truffle-scented alleys of Alba to the vine-covered ridges of Barolo, it is one of the world’s finest destinations for those whose holidays consist entirely of eating, drinking, and eating to mop up the drink. We stayed at the magnificent Castello di Sinio, a converted sixteenth-century castle atop one of Piedmont’s traditional hill towns, and its impeccably restored rooms, walled garden and swimming pool above the town’s piazza proved the perfect escape.

On our first night, we visited La Libera, a beacon of modernity amongst Alba’s sleepy streets. Having flown from our beloved Stansted at 6am, we were ready for dinner at a time more appropriate to Yorkshire than northern Italy, but held off our hunger until we finally relented to the demands of our stomach and arrived at the restaurant just before 8. The staff could not have looked any more surprised if we’d walked in with Pope Benedict demanding that dancing girls in cages should accompany our meal, but eventually understood that we were English, and slightly demented, and wanted dinner before it was dark. We sat at the end of a long, communal table, in front of three capacious wine fridges – with wines at prices that meant they’d likely stay in the fridge – next to a shelf crammed with cookbooks, including Fergus Henderson’s Nose to Tail Eating. A good sign.

As we struggled with our badly-spoken and worse-understood Italian – an easy language to speak badly – we eventually ordered as the restaurant began to fill: most diners were evidently regulars, greeted with kisses on both cheeks and directed towards their usual tables. Some were blessed with personal attention from the chef – pristine in sparkling whites – but in the absence of a visit from on high we took a gamble and ordered almost at random.

Our risk was rewarded with a magnificent beginning to our culinary tour. My starter of antipasti tipici arrived as a selection of four small dishes including the ubiquitous vitello al tonnato and the finest, freshest steak tartare I’ve ever tasted, and the Blonde’s rabbit merely confirmed the efficacy of our random ordering policy. Our main courses upheld the standard, and were accompanied by an ethereally good bottle of Aldo Conterno ‘Conca Tre Pile’ Barbera: Conterno is renowned throughout Piedmont for producing some of the finest expressions of this underrated grape, and its combination of refreshing acidity, violets and brambles was the perfect first step on our wanderings across this magnificent region.

Our next meal took us swiftly across the holiday spectrum, from gastronomic pyrotechnics to simple local fare at the local pizzeria. I’ve often insisted that Italy is the finest place in the world to eat simply, and my belief was reinforced by some of the best pasta and pizza I’ve ever enjoyed: a Quattro Formaggi pizza came drenched in truffle oil – none of this drizzling so beloved of chefs with greater pretensions – and was washed down by a sizeable jug of local white. I still have no idea what it was: I didn’t ask and I didn’t care. It did the job that beer so often does, providing a cold, refreshing gulp rather than the whole-body sensory experience that is sometimes demanded of a fine wine. If only we could have local restaurants this informal, this cheap and this good.

The pilgrimage of our trip was lunch at Locanda Dell ‘Arco in Cissone. On a blisteringly hot day we enjoyed the luxury of a driver to take us to lunch and collect us afterwards: fortunate planning, for the lunch was such that we could not have walked or even cycled anywhere. Dell ‘Arco is one of those rare and marvellous restaurants where you feel like you have wandered into someone’s home for lunch, and taken pot luck on what happens to be cooking: sometimes you don’t want the hassle of a menu or the torture of deciding between a list full of potentially delicious dishes, but want instead to be told, quickly and in Italian, what it is that you are about to enjoy. Plate after plate of food arrived – six courses in all – as wines were brought and left open on the table for us to enjoy as much or as little as we liked. We were brought aubergine with ricotta, gnocchi with blue cheese, veal, rabbit with raspberry, sorbet, and cheese, and dispatched half a bottle of Langhe Chardonnay before arriving at the purpose of our visit, Silvano Bolmida’s 2006 Barbera. I remember little else, except remarking at one point that our lunch had broken the three-hour mark, and returning to our hotel to fall asleep by the pool.

For me, holidays are about doing more of what I do in my lazier moments at home, principally eating, drinking and falling asleep. Piedmont, with such a top-class hotel and so many superb restaurants, fit the bill superbly.

Hotel Castello di Sinio, 1 Vicolo del Castello, 12050 Sinio (CN), Italy

La Libera, Via E. Pertinace, 24/a, Alba

Il Commercio, Via Cavour 28, Sinio

Locanda dell'Arco, Piazza dell'Olmo , 1, 12050 Cissone

No comments: