Travel: Langhe e Roero, Italy

Earlier this year I applied to World Nomad's Passport & Plate program and was awarded what would turn out to be one of my most memorable travel experiences to date. I spent 12 days in Italy, 9 of which I was hosted in Langhe e Roero in Piedmont, Italy. The following thesis (!) is a detailed account of each incredible experience I had. It starts with a poem I wrote which will be put over a video created by Carl Pendle, who filmed the whole trip; then an introduction to the area followed by a 'thank you' to the people who made it possible; and finally a day-by-day account of my travels. 

I hope it inspires you to visit this stunning corner of the world.

At Home in Langhe: A Poem

What if I traveled, not to experience something foreign, but to discover a destination where I truly felt at home?
What if there is a place – my kind of place – where kisses come in twos, courses in fours and laughter is limitless?
A place where rosemary dances in the air with a whiff of musty cork, and you catch yourself, smiling, in the rearview mirror?
Take me to this place, where there are no corners to cut, just bends to explore.
Where every curve in the road offers a new perspective, and each fork in the road leads to a mouthful that ends in a satisfied sigh.
Feed my curiosity at a table where anticipation is the sweetest thing, and my cup is constantly topped with knowledge.
I want to uncover a place of pleasure-seekers, where wine pulses through people’s veins and they share not out of generosity, but from genuine love.
Show me this place, where the land is a bounty never taken for granted; where Mother Nature rewards with damp-scented truffles and shady hazelnut trees.
Follow me to a place where the wind feels better in your hair, and clusters of medieval villages perch in the distance; where coffee is black after 11am but the hills are always green.
Meet me at this place, full of strangers joking like long-lost friends, where white-haired men and women sit contented for hours – because they are.
You’ll find me in this place – one with the soil, the sky and the vines – hungry for life, surrounded by a language of gusto and song.
So join me, in Langhe, a place where time passes slowly and every moment is savoured like the spoon my mother used to let me lick.

An Introduction to Langhe e Roero

I had originally planned to write every day during my stay in Langhe and Roero, a heavenly corner of Piedmont in northern Italy. I pictured myself sitting on a little balcony somewhere, typing up the events of the last twelve hours while they were still fresh in my mind. My expectations couldn’t have been further from reality. Each day my itinerary started from 9am at the latest and ended after midnight. Every second was to be spent eating, living and immersing myself – the writing could wait. Besides, I was too busy falling in love with the food, the wine, the landscape and the people. After nine wonderfully exhausting days I learned as much about this little corner of Piedmont, Italy, as I did about myself. It’s hard to know where to start, but I suppose the food, wine, landscape and people is as good a place as any.

First, the cibo – the food. Words like ‘fresh’ and ‘local’ aren’t public relations terms to be flaunted the same way they are at home in Melbourne. Instead, they’re simply the lowest common denominator, a matter of fact when it comes to operating kitchens both at homes and in restaurants. Food is fresh and local, the same way the sky is blue and the hills are green. Foraging isn’t a trend here, either; it’s a way of life. Perhaps you grew up hunting wild mushrooms with your father, and now the tradition of brushing aside leaves in the woods is as strong as your preference for porcini. Maybe you live on sizeable land, with gradients as unpredictable as the truffles that materialize haphazardly at the roots of certain trees. The Langhe people nurture their land and Mother Nature rewards them with an enviable bounty of vines, truffles and hazelnut trees.

Perhaps that’s why food and wine are synonymous here. You rarely have one without the other. From powerful and spicy Barolo to the fruitier Barbaresco, the reds from the region are unique. I went from smelling “wood” in my glass to detecting whisps of clove and sage, hints of baked quince and the lingering aroma of sour tamarillo. Alcohol is complementary to both food and lifestyle. Binge drinking doesn’t really exist. You start with Aperol Spritz during aperitivo, move onto white or sparkling to kick things off, then a fruity red to wash down primi followed by a heavier variety during secondi, before finishing with Moscato or Grappa. If you’re not a winemaker in Langhe, you know one. Tourists peek across tables to see what the locals are drinking, and are often surprised when they catch them and gesture for their glass and treat them to a taste.

Then there is the landscape characterised by its hilly terrain. But in reality it is so much more. Admiring locals adopt words like ‘amphitheatre’ and ‘balconies’ to describe the majestic landforms. Each hill is blanketed in a patchwork of neat vines that transform from deep green to golden as the sun makes its daily journey across the sky. The hills themselves are coloured along a gradient. Up close they’re painted in pale lime, the palate deepening to hazy blues and purples the further back you cast your eye towards the horizon. Clusters of medieval villages are perched atop the landscape, tiled with terracotta roofs and crowned by castles from as early as the thirteenth century. Where the altitude is too high or the sun is too strong, hazelnut trees grow. Langhe is home of Nutella after all, but you haven’t tasted real chocolate hazelnut spread until you’ve sat at the table of a hazelnut farmer for dinner.

But my favourite thing about Langhe is the people. It was a pleasure to sit at a dinner table, surrounded by a language I cannot speak, but somehow still understand the conversation completely. The locals know what it means to really live, to savour and share, and not take anything for granted. They’re full of passion, whether for their world-famous €50+ bottles of wine or quietly farmed snails. They are eternally generous in food, wine, time and knowledge. Their warmth is contagious, and everyone has a couple of quirks that adds to their personality. On the odd occasion when someone doesn’t know someone else, they joke like old friends. Age, profession and background are irrelevant within friendship groups. What binds these people together is much stronger than that – it’s a sense of place, of unashamed pride for their land, and the unanimous belief that everything we do in life is better when it is shared with others. After spending the better part of a fortnight immersed in the food, wine, landscape and people of Langhe, I could not agree more. 

A Much-Deserved Thank You

I have to thank World Nomads,{aly} and TuLangheRoero for providing me with such an incredible opportunity and putting together the trip of a lifetime. I am also thrilled to have been paired with the talented Carl Pendle, the ever-humble filmmaker and photographer extraordinaire who always pointed me in the right direction and no doubt made me look much better on film than I do in reality. It also wouldn’t have been possible without all the producers, chefs and locals who took the time to share their knowledge and their home with me; I have never before experienced such generosity. Thank you also to the beautiful people I met along the way who I’m now pleased to call my friends, especially those who made me feel like family and showed me the romance of Langhe.

And of course, Pietro. It’s not often you can cite one of the highlights of a trip as your host. In a word, Pietro is ‘real’. He’s an Italian personified, known for his ability to chat endlessly. Everyone we walked past he greeted with a sweeping hug or a belly slam. He’s a Casanova, but the ladies encourage it, and he drives like the devil is on his tail. Bob Dylan has never had a more loyal fan. He loves to indulge in all the wonderful food and wine his home has to offer, and he’s not afraid to go back for seconds. Most importantly, Pietro is full of knowledge; constantly pointing out people and places of note, force feeding his guests like a good Italian, and teaching me the fundamentals, such as how to swear in dialect. I never would have fallen so in love with Langhe if it hadn’t been for him. 

“Salute, valute e fomne nen tant brute!”

A toast to health, wealth and a woman who’s not too ugly!

Day 0: Falling in Love with Langhe

The first time I met Pietro, our host, for what would become my most memorable trip to date, he was complaining. Someone had told him that my assigned filmmaker Carl and I would arrive at his B&B at midday. We didn’t. It wasn’t until 24 hours later that I truly grasped Pietro’s almost poetic, Italian ability to curse, but seeing as it was our first meeting, he politely bit his tongue when we arrived half an hour late. Together with a friend of his, we ditched our bags at his B&B, Relais Al Bel San Domenico, and went for a casual lunch.

I’m always impressed by Europe, especially little towns like Alba. The narrow streets are paved with cobblestones and all the buildings are hundreds of years older than in my country, Australia. It seems odd when a car squeezes past pedestrians – most of the locals walk everywhere. We turned a few corners and ended up in a little square. Nearby was Osteria dei Sognatori, a cosy, atmospheric osteria that never sleeps. It was full of families and groups, so we were lucky to nab a spot as patrons at a corner table got up to leave.

A quick chat between Pietro and the owner – there’s no written menu – and we were off. Antipasti came thick and fast, including my first taste of raw, hand-minced veal seasoned with salt, pepper and a generous dash of olive oil, known as carne cruda. Think of it as steak tartare of royalty, so tender it dissolves and with the same satisfying freshness as tuna belly sashimi from the Tsukiji Fish Market in Tokyo. More followed – about five plates in all including cheese and black truffle, mixed salumi and vitello tonnato – before a couple of mains arrived that harked back to traditional times. I ate chicken coated in egg and fragrant with vinegar, which is how meat was preserved before refrigeration. Despite decreasing stomach space, I wasn’t about to turn down the fluffy tiramisu.

After a quick espresso at the bistro across the road operated by the same owners, we took the scenic route around town and back to the hotel, delaying each other to snap impressive buildings, while Pietro’s friend pointed out roman foundations and reminisced about an absurd, three-wheeled vehicle called a Piaggio Ape that used to drive around Alba selling gelati. Back at the B&B, Pietro showed me to my room, fit for a princess. Luxurious red curtains matched the bedspread, decorative and almost Venetian in style. There was plenty of space in the grand wooden wardrobe for me to hide my mess, as well as elegant period furniture and an impressive modern bathroom (two showerheads equals two ticks in my books). After consecutive 16-hour days, that shower soon became my best friend. I slept with my windows open and didn’t set my alarm so that the bells of the Al Bel Domenico church across the road would be my natural alarm clock. I told the team I felt like an Australian princess, and it stuck.

The weather forecast didn’t look promising over the next few days, so we decided to spend the remainder of the afternoon exploring by car and taking in the scenery. That way, if it bucketed for the rest of the week, at least Carl had some footage to work with. We cruised around Tre Selle and Trezzo Tinella in Barbaresco, and stopped at Treiso in Rocche dei Sette Fratelli, the Rock of the Seven Brothers. Local legend has it that seven brothers working the fields on Good Friday refused to stop in honour of the Procession of Christ. The earth opened up suddenly and swallowed them whole. Now there are seven fingers of land in the rock formation, one for each brother.

Pietro’s explanation, which blames tectonic plates for the landform, was more plausible. It’s a fantastic location from where to see a cross-section of the unique, layered terroir that causes differences in Nebbiolo produced from grapes growing just a few rows away from each other. During white truffle season, locals descend these cliffs when it’s still dark so that they can hunt prized, wild truffles in secret. Opposite the cliff face where we stood, a wiry tree sculpture was strung with excerpts from well-known children’s books and poems, written in Italian, English and German. We drove on, realising we were in the hands of an Italian Speedy Gonzales as we flew around each bend, stopping to take photos and walk through wild poppies. Later Pietro’s cheeky spirit earned him the nickname Muttley, after the mischievous cartoon dog from Wacky Races.

It’s difficult to capture the Langa landscape with a camera, and even more of a challenge to depict it with a few, inadequate words. They’re not simply rolling hills, but hills that flow back as far as the eye can see, alternating altitudes and changing colour with the weather and time of day. On some mornings they’re covered in a blanket of haze that melds the distant hills with the sky. Come noon the world seems split into two: the blue sky and the rippling landscape dotted with neat rows of vines and deep green hazelnut trees. The palate is calming, and the urge to run through the fields fills every ounce of your being. When the sun falls, the vines cast gnarly shadows that creep across the grass, and in the final moments of the sunset the hills are washed with a flush of rose gold. By night, you can make out the arch and bow of each hill by the tiny lights from each town, like huddles of frozen fireflies. 

This is what we were blessed with every day in Langhe e Roero. One of the best places to get your bearings is from the outlook at La Morra, where the villages and towns are laid out before you and the snow-capped Alps stand to attention on the horizon. We stopped in at More e Macine for a quick beer and some salumi, surrounded by local products, people and Piemontese wine. We stood, squished up against the bar, completely in the way of everyone who passed but without anyone giving it a second thought. People are relaxed here. They don’t mind if they have to bump past you, or if you go behind the counter with a camera to get a shot of the tourist throwing her head back and dangling mortadella in her mouth.

Pizza was a two-minute walk away at nearby at Pizzeria Per Bacco. Oddly enough a young DJ had set up and was blasting incongruous music through the otherwise quiet streets. I thought that perhaps it was normal, until I realised that all four of us had the same confused looks on our faces. But it’s the pizza that’s important here. I have no problem admitting it was up there with the best I’ve ever eaten, although that could have something to do with my personal preference of a thin, puffy base swimming in creamy burrata, washed down with a couple of local beers. It was here that our lessons in Italian swearing and blasphemy commenced, perhaps a little too loudly. We exchanged words and sayings, often related to particular body parts, and I laughed until I felt the beer about to escape from my nose.   

After dinner we returned to More e Macine to meet one of Pietro’s friends. Despite bursting at the seams, panna cotta is always a good idea, especially when it’s made with fresh strawberries and you’re in Piedmont during summer. By this stage we were five. We drove to Monforte and were shown around Le Case della Saracca, a bar and B&B unlike any other I have seen. The building has been restored and its medieval atmosphere given a new lease of life by an incredible architect with respect for the old and a knack for the new.

Glass and iron feature heavily within the limestone walls, where a spiral staircase leads to six unique rooms, and a glass balcony suspended over the street guarantees vertigo. Tables are wedged into tiny corners and crannies across each level and they make for an intimate drinking spot, or you can mingle downstairs, like us. Pietro perfectly referred to it as a glass labyrinth. Some wine, a gin and tonic and a glass of sparkling later, we called it a night around 2am. We hadn’t even started day one of our itinerary, and I sure as hell didn’t have any time to jot it all down.

Day 1: Wine in their Veins

Langhe e Roero is renowned for food with soul and wine with body. It’s also the home of the world-famous white Alba truffles, and the birthplace of Nutella, the largest family-run company in the world. It was only fitting to start our first full day with a flaky croissant oozing with chocolate hazelnut spread. I needed the sugar kick to get me through our packed schedule. Following our ‘nutritious’ breakfast and a cappuccino –after 11am you’ll get a funny look for ordering anything other than a caffè (espresso) – we moved onto wine.

Beautiful Barolo is a charming town that begs to be explored on foot, but that would come later. We had an appointment with boutique wine producing family E. Pira & Figli, Chiara Boschis. The Pira family comes from a long line of wine producers who, after the men in the family died young, exhausted the family tree and therefore the family name. Luigi Pira was the last to feel the grapes between his toes during production before the technology was upgraded. A year after his death, his sisters sold the winery to trusted family friends, the Boschis. Chiara Boschis has managed the small winery since 1990, which produces 30,000 bottles of Barolo each year.

Giorgio Boschis took us on a tour of the property. As we descended to the cellar, the musty scent of damp cork filled our nostrils. The temperature instantly dropped. Barrique French Oak barrels were covered in a thick mist reminiscent of an eerie forest fog to keep in moisture and prevent wine evaporation. But even with the moisture machine, 1500 litres disappear each year. The Italians use a French term to describe the phenomenon, part des anges, which translates to ‘the part that goes to the angels.’ If there’s Barolo in heaven, there’s surely life after death.

Giorgio explained the different regions and varieties of the popular Nebbiolo grape, which is used to make Barolo. It was our first insight into the wine of the area, and although he cited many methods, barrels and landscapes, Giorgio insisted that, “the hand is more important than the tools” when it comes to making wine. Back in the main part of town, we stopped at some market stalls that had since set up in the street. I was instantly drawn to the young man selling cheese with his father. Wheels cracked from age were stacked on top of each other, sheltered beneath a thin veil to keep away hungry flies. I asked Pietro a few questions, which he passed onto the cheese monger. In no time at all he was slicing, dicing and thrusting cheese in my direction. I peeled each piece off the knife and popped it into my mouth, savouring the fresh tang and spicy mould.

Leaving a table full of cheese is not an easy thing for me to do, but I knew there would be plenty more during the week. We stopped in at the Corkscrew Museum, where I was tempted to spend a few hundred euros on vintage corkscrews. I resisted, content with Pietro’s claim that although Italians may have ‘invented’ wine, the English were the ones who invented the corkscrew. Typical, thirsty Poms. We had timed our Barolo visit to coincide with the release of a the new vintage (2011), where I briefly chatted with Federico Scarzello, President of Enoteca Regionale del Barolo while eyeing off the hundreds of bottles that were being opened as samplers. If Nebbiolo is king of the grapes, Barolo is king of red wine. The variety available is part of the appeal. It’s a grape that can be enjoyed young, with hints of berry and a bright aroma, or aged until it gains complexity.

There’s nothing quite like wine first thing in the morning to whet the palate. “Hungry Pietro,” said Pietro, repeating his third person catch phrase. We returned to More e Macine in La Morra. A blackboard menu was plonked on the spare chair next to us while the area’s specialty, tajarin con ragu (angel hair pasta with veal), was dished out to locals all around us. There would be plenty of time for tajarin later. We kept it seasonal with paper-thin slices of veal tongue, orecchiette and just-cooked asparagus. “Happy Pietro”. He was having a laugh with some producers sitting near us. Apparently I had gained a not-so-secret admirer. Enter 84 year-old Ugo, with the kind of face Carl couldn’t resist photographing. You can tell at a glance that he’s had a good life, from the blazer fitting snuggly around his belly to the wide smile that spreads across his face and up to his eyes, all without revealing his teeth. Ugo is a man who knows how to talk, even if you don’t speak the same language. He joined us, insisting on buying the next bottle of wine before we were half way through our first.  

Pietro translated chatter about wars and history and compliments, before I politely excused myself and joined the staff in the kitchen. Carne cruda was on the menu again, and this time I was making it. I followed the chef, who extracted two lean cuts of veal. Using a small, sharp knife he chiselled away all of the sinewy bits, putting them aside to cook in ragu: “nothing gets wasted”. Once the veal was clean, he cut it into thin strips, turned it 90 degrees, and diced it. This continued until the meat was minced so finely that you could practically spread it. A bit of seasoning, a lot of olive oil, and it was ready. Carne cruda is plated in a pile, sometimes with a wedge of lemon. Everyone that ate it squished it down with the back of their forks, before scooping up mouthfuls of the moreish meat. We were running on Italy time (i.e. late), and it was already becoming the norm. We had just enough time for Ugo to kiss my hand, four times, and we were off.

Driving from place to place is all part of the experience in Langhe. I had wondered earlier if the locals appreciate the scenery as much as us newcomers. Pietro answered me unknowingly on the way to Massolino-Vigna Rionda winery in Serralunga when he said, “Even if you live here, sometimes you take a gravel road and you end up in a place with a whole new perspective.” The terrace at Massolino-Vigna Rionda, where groups sit for tastings, is like something out of a romantic film. The winery was perched midway up the hills with the kind of view that inspires painting en plein air. The family, all four generations of them, have been making wine for over a century. Their first vintage dates back to 1896. We were shown a distinguished new tasting room upstairs and giant, 100-plus hectolitre Piemontese barrels downstairs (they produce around 15,000 bottles from one of these bad boys).

Slightly up the incline from Massolino-Vigna Rionda lies a fortress untouched from the thirteenth century. The streets encircle the medieval castle, which was last used during the Napoleon Italian war in 1795. There’s a view to die for from each arched window at the top of the castle: red terracotta roofs below, towns in the distance and flocks of birds flittering from tower to tower.

Perhaps it was just the time of day at which we visited, but I like to think that whenever you’re in Serralunga, there are always people sitting outside their homes in the narrow street on their plastic chairs, chatting beneath flowers cascading from the windows. The romanticism continued as we drove to the Castelletto hamlet in Monforte, where a tiny, abandoned graveyard overlooks the valley, across to the medieval castle from where we had come.

We re-fuelled with a snack at Barolo Bar (mixed salumi and cheese, and a much-needed beer for Carl) and a drove up to the top of the village to look at the grass-covered, outdoor amphitheatre that packs out during the Alba Jazz Festival. Back in Alba, we showered, caught our breath, and charged back to Serralunga. Pietro had organised a special ‘family’ dinner for us at Vinera Centro Storico, a small osteria with a few tables downstairs and one large table upstairs. Our group of 11 commandeered the upstairs table. The idea was to enjoy a casual evening with a group of passionate producers and friends, drink too much wine, and eat too much food. We succeeded.

My plate and glass were continually refilled. Italian wine royalty, locals and producers from New Zealand drank and feasted the way I imagine the Romans once did, but perhaps with less blood. I was in the company of Marchesi di Gresy cellarmaster, Jeffrey Chilcott, Alessandro Boido of Cà ‘d Gal Winery, Daniela Rocca from Albino Rocca Winery, and friends from other parts of the world. We drank 14 incredible bottles including Barbaresco Bruno Giacosa 1970, Barbaresco Giovannini-Moresco 1967, Barolo Gaja 1964 and Barolo Pio Cesare 1957.

It was our first official day, and the Langhe hospitality was already leaving a solid impression. Wine knowledge was passed around generously like the antipasti that filled us before we arrived at primi. Back home, if you sit down at a table with a group of wine snobs, you’re likely to feel uncomfortable at your lack of knowledge. Often their noses are so far in their glasses – or so up in the air – that you are not given the chance to learn. But here, a lack of wine knowledge is seen as a clean slate, and the locals take pride in filling it with information. I also noticed for the first time that Italians eat more passionately. It sounds trivial, but even the way they grasp their fork with a full fist – like they don’t want to let it go – is charming. There is a certain mindfulness that occurs during a meal that can’t be matched by any other culture. Any corner of the world where the dining table is the most important place in the house is my kind of place.  

Day 2: Eat, Drink, Smile, Repeat

Fact: the wind feels better in your hair in Langa. I can’t count the number of times I caught myself with a big, stupid grin on my face in the car side mirror. We drove everywhere, windows down, Bob Dylan blaring. The weather was on our side; despite the gloomy forecast the sun burnt off the haze around midmorning each day. Having already driven from place to place, backtracked, revisited and taken plenty of turns, I started to recognise clusters of villages in the distance, a chain of white flags strung across the road. We headed east through Mango to Castiglione Tinella, where we were met by thunderous barking from a couple of wolfhounds at Caudrina Winery. A little mixed terrier (named Bush, after the former American president) trotted behind them This Bush was significantly smarter, carrying a cork in his mouth in an attempt to play fetch whenever the opportunity presented itself. With Bush in tow, Romano Dogliotti and his son Alessandro gave us the grand tour of Caudrina.

The winery produces 250,000 bottles a year and is spacious enough to prove it. Romano obviously put a lot of thought (and Euro) into his winery, with its high, wooden ceilings boasting cellars 18 meters below, at the lowest point.  It was here we discovered Carl’s love of cats (he kept filming Osama, named after you-know-who), as well as his fear of small spaces. We took the stairs down into the earth instead of the elevator to avoid setting off his claustrophobia. Priceless equipment was everywhere, from fermenting tanks to a mechanical herd of tractors. After a peek at the family’s impressive pantry (complete with personal wine reserve and hanging salami), we tasted Asti sparkling and Moscato, which Romano has been making for 50 years. “I’ll never die of thirst,” he said, before inhaling deeply, taking a sip, and declaring to taste the hills, honey flowers and beautiful women, all in one glass.

Following our 10am tasting (it’s never too early in Langhe), we took a tractor tour. I jumped in the front with Romano and Bush, while Pietro and Carl sat on a blanket in the back, and the dogs ran behind us. Forget hiking and hot air balloons – a tractor is the best way to immerse yourself in the vines. We dipped and ducked between them, chugging uphill (“I think I can, I think I can”) and coasting downhill (with the engine turned off). At the bottom of a particular valley where the vines gave way to forest, Romano pointed out the place he used to bring girls as a young man. Two adventurers on motorized cycles passed us. Around another corner was a man walking his dog. Apart from that it was just the birds and us. When we returned to the winery I was full of adrenalin, the kind that fills your body when you overdose on fresh air.

It was time to eat again. When we arrived at Bardon in San Marzano Oliveto the charming restaurant filled up quickly, since it was a public holiday. The sloped timber ceiling, tiled flooring and yellow light streaming through the windows gave the dining room a conservatory-like atmosphere. Tables were clothed in white and set with fresh bread and grissini. We consulted Bardon’s wine bible; a menu with no less than 26,000 options to choose from. The first dish that arrived was the kind that food bloggers dream about: a canary-yellow pepper stuffed with tuna sauce, thick pork fillet on potato topped with warm artichoke, a mound of ubiquitous carne cruda and a pretty pile of fried goat’s cheese salad with snowflakes of black truffle. Ravioli ragu followed, and then the trolleys rolled out. The first contained a collection of meat: rabbit, lamb, pork, herb-stuffed quail, baked chicken, offal and more. After that the cheese arrived, causing my self-control to disappear into thin, fresh, Langa air. It was impressive by anyone’s standards. For once I wasn’t the only one who whipped out my iPhone camera.

Pietro had his most memorable meal at Bardon. A few years back he had asked one of the owners to call him if they came across wild red and yellow Caesar's Mushroom. He showed me a picture on Google Images; I hadn’t come across them before and if I did, my instincts would tell me to avoid the bulbous, poisonous-looking fungi at all costs. How wrong I would be. It just so happened that when Pietro received the phone call, it was during the two weeks of the season when the mushrooms overlapped with the white truffle harvest. Pietro ate simply but opulently, white truffles and wild mushrooms on raw veal, followed by white truffle tajarin. “If you know how to eat and drink, and you eat and drink until the last day of your life, that’s a great joy until the day you die. Italians always know how to eat and drink,” said Pietro.

Weighed down by lunch, we still had a long day ahead. First to Canelli, where we descended into Contratto’s historical champagne cellars –underground cathedrals that date back to 1867. At 5000 square meters and 40 meters below ground at the deepest point, it’s astounding to think that these UNESCO tunnels were dug by hand into the limestone. Less surprisingly, the same engineers who dug the tunnels through the Alps did the digging. There were 200 of them, and it took five years. The cellars are naturally cool, 12 to 13 degrees Celcius throughout the year and perfect for the fermentation and slow bottle maturation of Metodo Clasico sparkling wines. Appreciated by the upper class in the 1920s and 1930s, specifically the Vatican and European royalty, over a million bottles are produced each year. An Aussie winemaker showed us around, explaining that the hand-painted marks on the bottles help during ‘riddling’, when each is manually turned an eighth a day, and how a fencing mask was worn in the eighteenth century during dégorgement to avoid damage caused from exploding bottles. I also learned that wearing an eighteenth century fencing mask during a piece to camera does wonders for your hair.

Our day took an even sweeter turn with a behind-the-scenes visit to Faccio in Cassinasco, where we were greeted by the friendly-faced Maurizio Cerrato, a sixth generation torrone (nougat) craftsman. The Faccio family started making nougat in 1856, five years before the Unification of Italy. It takes five kilograms of eggwhites, 40 kilograms of honey and 55 kilograms of toasted hazelnuts to make each batch. All ingredients are local and Maurizio makes 10 tonnes each year. Unlike a big, industrial company, Maurizio’s nougat has personality. He has nothing to hide in terms of ingredients or methods; everything is exactly as it appears. But that doesn’t mean it’s always profitable. “It's hard to be a craftsman but if you keep doing it, eventually it pays off,” said Maurizio. His nougat cream, which I’m currently eating with a spoon from the jar, is absolutely deadly. Thick, silky smooth and speckled with tiny bits of nougat that stick to your molars as you chew, I’ll be asking Pietro to send me more. Much more.

Another afternoon, another winery. This time in Calosso, but not before passing the stunning divide of Sant’Antonio, Canelli, and eventually reaching the hill of Rodotiglia. Here we met Valter Bosticardo of Tenuta dei Fiori, the father of Gambarossa. Gambarossa was a forgotten, native grape that is now DOC recognised by the official title ‘Calosso DOC’, named after the local village. Pietro believes it’s the smallest DOC in Italy. We walked through Valter’s vineyards as the sun emitted its final, golden glow, before relaxing at his beautiful property. His children picked cherries in the background as we sipped Pensiero, a 1996 Metodo Classico (champenois) made with Moscato grapes, unusually aged for 12 years. His Barbera d’Asti ‘Rusticardi 1933’ was also incredible. We resisted the plate of bread topped with cheese, salami and tapenade – we couldn’t ruin our dinner at Michelin Starred La Ciau del Tornavento in Treiso.

The first thing you notice at La Ciau del Tornavento is the view from the grassy terrace. The hills epitomise the outlook people fall in love with in Langhe. Couple the panorama with a splash of red from potted flowers, a wine cellar worth a visit, and the flash of chefs’ whites as staff disappear to the herb and vegetable garden below, and the bar is instantly set high. Our dinner that evening far surpassed that bar. Chef Maurilio Garola escorted us to the chef’s table in the kitchen, where we watched experienced staff from all over the world prepare plates.

Stuffed anchovies and plump prawns crumbed with crushed hazelnuts arrived in brown paper cones, followed by deep-fried frog legs coated with breadcrumbs, parsley and garlic on a mirrored plate. A glass coffee cup of creamy potato soup – stained black around the edges by cuttlefish ink and with tiny purple tentacles lurking within – was served with a shallow bowl of tender cuttlefish chunks, this time on zucchini purée with candied lemon strips. A refined vitello tonnato preceded handmade pasta: bright green basil ravioli with burrata and anchovy; traditional plin stuffed with veal, rabbit and pork; and signature ricotta ravioli – the ricotta aged three months in hay, cooked in water spiked with hay, and presented in a hay nest.

I took a breather from eating to learn how to make ravioli del plin. Plin translates to ‘pinch’ and refers to the technique used to form the bulbous little morsels, usually stuffed with a mixture of meats. Secondi saw me indulge further: quail stuffed with foie gras and herbs, served with snow peas and eggplant. I also tried finanziera, a traditional Piemontese dish made up of all the bits of meat you don’t usually eat: hen’s crest, marrow, brains, sweetbreads and testicle, along with porcini and pickled onions and cucumbers. It was DELICIOUS. Any funky aromas or tastes are masked by vinegar, leaving behind rich flavours and fantastic textures – gelatinous, crunchy, soft, and firm. Not for everyone, but definitely for me.

Following a palate cleanser of hay sorbet, my stomach told me that dessert was out of the question. But, being in Italy, that didn’t stop it from arriving anyway. A white chocolate cylinder piped with citrus mousse, blobs of firm hazelnut chocolate wedged between crumbly biscuit with mint ice cream, and a stunningly presented dessert titled Il giardino dolce aromatico, or sweet aromatic garden. Think rosemary ice cream, tiny wild strawberries in a gel dome, a bounty of herbs and sweet crumbs that tasted like spring blossoms. We could barely look at the exquisite selection of “small pastries” that followed, let alone eat them. Sitting here writing retrospectively, I now regret not forcing myself to eat more… even if it would have guaranteed having an upset stomach.

Day 3: A Mouthful of Memories

Maurizio Albarello was late, as Italians often are. As for us, for the first time that week, we were right on time. “Mauriziooo!” yelled Pietro from the ground floor, ringing the bell like an excited six-year-old and banging on the door at Trattoria Antica Torre in Barbaresco. This continued for five minutes, before Maurizio appeared in his chef whites, all the way down to his white leather shoes and white socks. “You’re just in time for coffee,” he said in Italian. After our espressos and brute ma bon biscuits (it’s dialect for ‘ugly but good’) we followed Maurizio upstairs into a cramped room at the rear of the property.

I never knew egg yolks and flour could smell so good. It’s the same smell that reminds Maurizio of his grandmother when he cuts tajarin by hand each morning. Antica Torre is the best place in the region to get the local angel hair pasta. Vibrant yellow sheets were draped over a blue and white checked tablecloth, others strung from the ceiling on a wooden bar to dry. Maurizio worked quickly, breaking two eggs at a time (he goes through around 300 a day) and separating the yolks from the whites, the latter are used in the biscuits. The yolks are added to an industrial mixer containing 00 flour. Using just two ingredients – no salt, butter or olive oil – Maurizio creates the tajarin that draw locals and celebrities such as top chef Rene Redzepi of Noma, the best restaurant in the world, to Antica Torre for lunch. Only open Friday and Saturday for dinner, Maurizio makes 10 kilograms of tajarin by hand for the lunch trade, fresh each morning. Patrons regularly ask for a third helping.

Maurizio removed the egg and flour from the mixer. It reminded me of wet, yellow Play-Doh. He flattened small chunks with the palm of his hand and ran them four times through a machine that irons the dough into long sheets. After hanging them to dry (the length of time drying depends on the weather), Maurizio folds four sheets into an ingot-sized block, chops off the uneven edges for the staff meal, and uses a rectangular knife to create centimeter-thin pasta strands. “Have you ever cut your fingers?” I asked as he worked with the precision and speed of a Japanese master chef. “Mai,” he smiled, never. His tajarin is so fresh you can eat it raw. I tried my hand at cutting, holding my breath and narrowly avoiding my fingernails. I was slow to say the least, but according to Maurizio, practice makes perfect. Unfortunately for me, practice around here extends across generations.

After our lesson we caught up with Jeffery Chilcott, the New Zealander we met a couple of nights earlier at the ‘family’ dinner on Sunday. Our rendez-vous was at Marchesi di Grésy, a winery that produces 200,000 bottles per year from four vineyards. With a stunning outlook and tours available, it’s little surprise people so often request to hold events there. Rows of pink blossoms and purple lavender spears closed the gap between the winery and the vines. Apparently they had just bloomed that week. We did a lap of the property, from the old concrete tanks to the purple-stained barrels aging drops to be sent around the world. Jeffery’s passion for the area is contagious. “If we get just a few people to visit, just a few people here, our job is done,” said Jeffrey, dusting his hands together symbolically.

Jeffrey, who is fluent in Italian, has lived in the area on and off for a 25 years. Ask him what the English equivalent for an Italian word is and he’ll often forget. His wine knowledge is bottomless, but he speaks in a way that anyone can understand. A good wine, said Jeffrey, should invite you to enjoy another sip, regardless of its age or area. In Langhe, the way wine is categorised and named recognises each winery. This creates diversity, said Jeffrey, where each bottle contains the individual story and identity of the vineyard from which it originated.  

By the time I had managed to simultaneously conduct an interview and polish off four glasses of wine, it was time to eat again, but not before Jeffrey grabbed a couple of bottles to go with lunch. “Having a chaotic cellar is a good thing because when you can't find something you want, it ages,” he joked. As we drove through the hills back to Antica Torre the sun burnt off the last of the clouds. We sat in the courtyard, where three of the most renowned Barbaresco producers were also lunching. Double magnums from four vintages were making the rounds for a special tasting, and Aldo Vacca of Produttori del Barbaresco treated us to a sample. At one point, a solo traveler from Kensington, London, leant across and traded a glass of 2005 Barbaresco for a glass of 2007.

The waitress came to the table and Pietro took charge: “three tomato, four tajarin and a lot of happiness,” he ordered in Italian. Thickly slices of tomato were drowning in olive oil and a chunky green sauce of anchovy, parsley, garlic and more olive oil. Local eggs had been used to fry up a bright yellow frittata, full of herbs and flavour. But the tajarin, unsurprisingly, stole the show. It was served from a hefty pile into our bowls, releasing steam as the tongs worked their magic. It wasn’t al dente as you might expect, but silky smooth – no chewing required. The thin ribbons had a rustic unevenness afforded to them from the hand cutting. Veal ragu was scattered sparingly throughout the strands and Parmesan, as you preferred it. You could eat bowls of the stuff and not feel too heavy; no wonder customers ask for thirds.

There’s nothing like a bit of sightseeing to work off lunch, especially after all of that wine. After a little trouble finding the key, Pietro treated us to a peek at the fifteenth century tower next to Antica Torre in Barbaresco, which will become UNESCO listed later this month. It’s currently under restoration and renovation, with plans to open an interactive Museum of Barbaresco, as well as a special room for sensory wine tastings and analysis, and a glass panoramic terrace. The most impressive aspect of the tower is the uninterrupted, 360-degree view over all three regions: Langhe, Roero and Monferrato. At 30 metres high, it’s the best place to get your bearings.

The history lesson continued in Neive at Castello di Neive winery, a baroque castle and vineyard owned by Mr. Italo Stupino. At 78-years-young, Italo certainly knows how to appreciate women. We toured the palace, full of decorative frescos, original furniture and even an old chapel with windows connecting with the downstairs dining room and upstairs bedrooms. The chapel had no cooling or heating systems, so when temperatures were extreme, the residents could roll out of bed, open the window to the chapel, and pray accordingly. Then they could get back into bed and perform another ‘service’, said Italo cheekily. Down a flight of stairs we entered the labyrinth of cellars, naturally cool and in some places full of water where the rain had seeped in through the earth. Fifteen years ago, Italo discovered more space when he knocked down a wall, revealing a tunnel where small animals were probably kept. It had been 300 years since it was last used.

Italo showed us two ancient bottles he was gifted, originally produced by the castle. They were a 1925 Nebiolo, spelled with one ‘b’, and a 1904 Pinot respectively. Less for drinking, more a token from a time past. Pietro let us in on a local tradition, where parents buy 60 bottles of a vintage that matches the year their child is born. The idea is to open one every year of your life – the number of bottles is an indicator that the tradition is a touch outdated! Anxious that he would drink the bottles from his daughter’s vintage, Pietro decided to buy magnums as a safeguard. Hardly surprising, coming from a guy whose response to “do you drink rosé?” was “I wash my feet in it”!

Another trip in the car took us to Serralunga d’Alba, where we visited Fontanafredda Winery, a huge, royal estate and hunting lodge created by King Vittorio Emanuele II for his lover Rosa Vercellana (also known as La Bela Rosin). What a life she must have lived! Today, the grounds are meticulously manicured, from the art nouveau glass pavilion opposite a sulphurous swan lake, to the conference centre in the same building as the grand cellars. Giant oak barrels sit heavily beneath the nineteenth century vaulted ceilings, stacked on top of each other as if they weighed nothing. We raced ahead of a guided tour, around seemingly never-ending turns and down a narrow tunnel (much to Carl’s despair), until we reached the exit.

By the time we found our way back to the Royal Villa, it was time for my cooking lesson at Michelin starred Ristorante Guido with chef Ugo Alciati. I liked Ugo straight away. He seemed humble with a gentle smile and kind eyes, the complete antithesis of some of the renowned chefs I’ve met in the past. We had a shiny red kitchen set up all to ourselves. Carl fastened a GoPro camera to my head as I mimicked Ugo making Plin of Lidia, the traditional pinched ravioli that paid homage to Ugo’s mother, wife of Guido. I also got to play with some black truffles as we made a decadent salad of duck, foie gras and shaved truffle. Interestingly it contained lightly cooked daikon (Japanese radish) that added a wonderful, watery crunch. Carl dubbed it one of the best things he’d eaten all trip.

Following my one-on-one with Ugo and a walk around the gardens, we headed upstairs and sat among a mixture of revived frescos and contemporary art hung from the bright, refurbished walls. Despite the modern touches, chandelier lighting, decorative finishes and terracotta floors give Guido Ristorante an old world feel. The food, on the other hand, is a contemporary take on fresh, seasonal and traditional ingredients. There were seven courses all up. It began with ricotta so soft it dissolved on the tongue, continued with perfectly cooked anchovy risotto with a couple of centimetres of rich, melted cheese hiding at the bottom and slices of guinea fowl and liver pâté on brioche, crowned with jellied wine. The highlight was the fior di latte mantecato al momento, freshly whipped milk ice cream, lusciously folded over itself in an oversized ice bowl. The only ingredients are cream, sugar and special hay milk from cows that eat herbaceous foliage at high altitude. Fresh and velvety, I imagined it as the milk of the gods, tasting more of milk than milk itself. I alternated greedily between a spoonful of ice cream and a sip of Moscato – a better match never existed. In a single mouthful, a memory was made. Thank you, Ugo.

Day 4: Da Morire

Andy Warhol once said, “An artist is somebody who produces things that people don’t need to have”. Take for example the multi-coloured Barolo Chapel in La Morra, painted by pop artists Sol LeWitt on the outside (US) and David Tremlett on the inside (UK): no one really needs it, but it certainly stands out against the blue green hills of Langa. Another contrast is just a stone’s throw away – a crumbling building much in need of some TLC. You see a quite a few of these in the region, some in the process of being restored, others waiting patiently to be liveable again, little pieces of history dispersed around hills and valleys. Around the corner from the chapel, a different scene awaited us: the stunning Palas Cerequio hotel and restaurant.

Let me pause for a moment to admit to what is perhaps my greatest weakness: cheese. You know that deep ache you get when you experience love at first sight, or the flutter in your chest when you spy someone you fancy across the room? Cheese arouses a similar physiological response in me. Call it over the top if you will, but when it comes to cheese, I have zero self-control. In this case I was given a pardon – exercising self-control at a cheese tasting overlooking Michele Chiarlo winery at Palas Cerequio was forbidden as far as I was concerned.

There are nine DOP accredited cheeses from Piemonte, and with a little guidance from two ONAF experts (The National Association of Cheese Tasters), we worked our way through seven of them. I was thrilled to learn that women are generally better tasters than men; our senses are more discerning. I could barely control my heart rate. Putting that much cheese in front of me is like giving a free hit to a recovering addict. I asked Pietro if he had any weaknesses as debilitating as my cheesy Achilles' heel, and he answered on behalf of all Italians: “Food, wine and women… probably in that order.” “How about at the same time?” I asked. “Perfetto”.

We started with the lighter cheeses: Roccaverano, an oozy goat’s cheese matched with Cortese di Gavi white wine; Murazzano sheep’s cheese with a dash of cow’s milk aerated with tiny holes that we broke apart like bread in our hands, and paired with a young Cipressi Barbera d'Asti; and Raschera cow’s cheese aged two and a half months with La Courte Barbera d’Asti, fragrant with red berries. We moved on to more familiar varieties that far surpassed anything I’ve sampled at home: a crumbly and nutty Castelmagno from high up in the mountains and aged in a cellar, married with Barbaresco Asili that smelled like strawberry jam (“if Barbaresco is queen of the wine, Castelmagno is king of the cheese”); and Grana Padano, a granular cow’s milk cheese packed with tiny crystals that make you salivate, washed down with Barolo Cerequio, a red wine perfumed with rose petals and blackberries. The final two cheeses were sharp and spicy: Bra Duro, a golden cheese coated in a white grain and aged five years, paired with Cannubi Barolo, and one of my favourites, Gorgonzola, covered in blue-green mould balanced by some local Grappa. “In this land, we know how to enjoy life,” explained one of the cheese experts. With a title that translated to something along the lines of ‘cheese expert’, I wasn’t about to argue. 

It was in this setting that I learned the expression “da morire”, to die for. It wasn’t just the boulders of cheese spread before me, or the hotel in the abandoned hamlet of Cerequio – the name given to the most recognised Cru of Barolo – it was the lifestyle. Nobody eats alone here. Sharing is second nature. I felt intoxicated in that moment, not from wine or cheese, but from this place.

I prefer cheese to snails. The same can’t be said for Giovanni Avagnina from the International Institute of Elicicoltura, ‘snail growing’. If everyone was as passionate about a single thing to the same degree Giovanni is passionate about snails, the world would be a better place. We visited him in Cherasco, where snail paraphernalia covered every surface. A decorative snail cake in a glass display, snail sketches, snail statues, snail paintings – you name it, he had it. Giovanni, a somewhat eccentric chap with white hair that contrasted against his pink shirt and purple jumper, has authored a book on snails that’s been translated into four languages. Each year, people from 30 countries around the world use his program and produce a total of 2000 tonnes of snails for the best restaurants and products. Any snail products one buys should have the certified snail stamp to guarantee quality, like the dolphin-safe symbol on tuna cans in Australia. We briefly visited his snail farm where we learned that every square meter of land produces approximately one kilogram of snails. A kilogram sells for between four to eight Euros, so a lot land is needed to earn a living as a snail farmer.

Our food tour took another sharp turn and we landed, pleasantly, in chocolate. We paid a visit to nearby Pasticceria Barbero, a historical pastry store established in 1881. Owner Giancarlo Torta (yes, ‘torta’ translates to cake) humoured us with pralines, chocolate covered coffee beans, truffles and liqueur. The shop has the charming feel of a bygone era: vintage scales, marble bench tops, wooden shelving and stands of glass jars filled with colourfully wrapped delights. But my ‘kid in a candy store’ moment came later, when we swung by Giancarlo’s factory and I tried my hand at making Baci di Cherasco (Cherasco Kisses). It’s relatively simple: crush toasted hazelnuts with a rolling pin to ensure chunks of different sizes, hold a tray under your industrial chocolate fountain machine, liberally sprinkle hazelnuts into the melted dark chocolate, mix together, and then flick ten cent piece-sized blobs onto a tray to dry. I gave it a shot, and realised it was more difficult than it looked. My lack of finesse made Giancarlo laugh, “she gives big kisses!” he said, but I was busy sticking my finger into the stream of melted chocolate.

I never expected to eat cheese for breakfast, followed by snails, chocolate and finally raw veal sausage, but that’s exactly what happened. The latter happened in Bra, spelled and pronounced in the exact way that will make those of you lacking maturity giggle (myself included). The father and son team in charge at tiny local butcher, Macelleria Aprato, crammed myself, Pietro, Carl and all of his camera gear into their even tinier kitchen. The lesson of the day was Salsiccia di Bra, a sausage with a history that dates back to when an old king gave Jewish people equal rights, and they were able to make and sell the veal sausage (although today they usually add some bacon for flavour). Today, there are only about 12 manufacturers that are allowed to call their sausage Salsiccia di Bra. The veal is minced twice, and then a third time with the bacon, before being mixed with water and a secret spice cocktail known only to the people that produce it (kind of like Coca-Cola). It’s then injected into animal intestines to keep its shape. Political correctness aside, the process looks exactly like stuffing meat into a flimsy condom. After an embarrassing bursting incident, I eventually got the hang of it. The sausage is best eaten raw and because it was so fresh, it was juicier and more fragrant than the version I sampled at dinner that evening.

Before dinner we stopped in at the University for Gastronomical Sciences in Pollenzo, where we chatted with the Director Piercarlo Grimaldi, about the course that attracts students from all over the world. The grounds are impressive to say the least, conjuring imagery of Harry Potter and Quidditch. A long dining table with branded crockery and wine glasses was set for the students. Naturally, Carl suggested I take off my shoes and walk barefooted down the middle for the camera. Footage to come, pun intended.

We ate that evening at Ascheri Winery in Bra, where owner Matteo Ascheri showed us around the grounds. The cellars were impeccably designed by the same architect behind Le Case della Saracca in Monforte. Black tiling, bold wooden finishes and polished concrete surround neatly stacked bottles, all strategically lit to combine practicality and design. The elegance continued upstairs in the four-star, boutique hotel. The 27 rooms are industrial chic, each decorated in earthy tones and a little bit different to the next. The portholes in the walls that direct the eye to various historical sites are a nice touch, as is the complimentary bottle of wine. Despite the cheese, chocolate and sausage, we had worked up an appetite. Dinner was on-site at Osteria Murivecchi, a cosy and warm osteria with a Piemontese menu scribbled on a blackboard.

It started, as meals often do, with an oversized plate of cured meat, including the Salsiccia di Bra like I had made earlier. My favourite, carne cruda, made an appearance, and by the time we worked our way through the platter (there’s no such thing as wasting food here), I was stuffed. That didn’t stop me from finishing my home-made gnocchi, dense potato pillows in tomato and basil, or from enjoying beautifully grilled sole, my first and final encounter with fish (and salad) during my time in Piedmont. Somehow being too full for dessert meant finishing with cheese and grappa, but I insisted that I had consumed enough cheese for one day. All right, you caught me; maybe I had just a little bite.

Day 5: People Make the Place

This day was a good day for many reasons, the first being I now know what I’m going to call my daughter when the prospect of having children no longer terrifies me. Gaia. It’s nice, no? The Gaia we met first thing in the morning was nice too. Gaia means happiness, and it also happens to be her last name, Gaja. Gaia Gaja. The Gaja family is one of the best known in the area as they’re behind The Gaja Winery, founded by Gaia’s grandfather Giovanni Gaja in 1859. It has since been owned and operated by five generations. The winery owns 250 acres of vineyards in Piedmont, but it hasn’t always been smooth sailing. Gaia explained to us how traditionally, Barbaresco was always considered ‘less’ than Barolo; less desirable, less preferred, less complex. Her grandfather and father helped put Barbaresco on the map, producing it in a way that helped people to accept that it was not ‘less,’ but different, with a personality and appreciation of its own. Gaia’s father is credited for being an innovative winemaker, apparently the first to employ the now widely used barrique barrels in the vinification of Barbaresco to soften the tannin associated with the Nebbiolo grape, and relaunching Cabernet Sauvignon in the region after 100 years.

Gaia’s appreciation for wine is in her blood. She recalls the peculiar method by which her grandfather used to drink wine, pouring two small splashes into a glass, swirling it around, smelling it and ever so slowly sipping it in with mouthfuls of air. It was only after he had finished those two splashes that he would pour himself two more splashes: wine was made to be appreciated, not consumed. Unfortunately for his guests, said Gaia, he served them wine in the same manner. I asked her about the relationship between food and wine. In Langhe, she said, everything is delicate: the red fruit of Barbaresco, the distinctive aroma of white truffles, the earthiness of hazelnuts and the quality of the meat. Each contains a unique subtlety complemented by the others.

Perhaps the person who best understands this relationship is Cesare Giaccone, chef, artist and local legend. We visited him at his home and restaurant at Albaretto della Torre in Alta Langa, La Bottega Ristorante di Cesare Giaccone, where he seats a maximum of 16 people at a time. Gaia was pleased to learn we were visiting him for lunch; “I’m not sure how much longer he’ll be around,” she said. But upon seeing Cesare, with his cheeky smile obscured by a thick moustache and his matching red apron, wristwatch and signature necktie, I could tell he had plenty of life in him yet.

Donning his red-initialled chef’s jacket complete with sheer black pocket square, there was no denying Cesare was a character. His studio is beside the dining room, separated from the restaurant by a flimsy screen. Behind it there are stacks of canvases and bundles of paintbrushes in plastic containers. There’s even a bra tree, a natural wooden stand with women’s lingerie draped over it. At first glance I thought it was someone’s washing, but after further investigation we discovered it was “for inspiration”. When I was in the other room, Carl asked Cesare why the bras were there. Cesare leaned in close and whispered to him the only thing he would say in English that day, “Because I love women”.

At 67 years old, Cesare has been cooking for half a century, a practiced multi-tasker with 14 burners in his kitchen and only a single assistant to wash his veteran pots and pans. Spending a couple of hours watching him work is something I will never forget. His movements reflect his age until he begins to cook; everything is effortless for him in the kitchen, where he becomes graceful. Cesare is not a man of measurement; he is a man of experience. His finger darts from pot to mouth and back again, herbs are ripped and chunks of prosciutto fat are fried with oil and butter until they adopt the appearance of golden resin. He chops with purpose while the air fills with the first strawberries of summer, followed by hits of rosemary, burnt sugar, vinegar and chilli.

At any time Cesare is doing at least eight things at once: adding finely-cut tripe to vegetable stock, steaming cuttlefish, taking a ladle-full of liquid from one pot and pouring it into another. Sometimes he goes to do one thing and changes his mind, such as walking halfway to the sink to discard the green asparagus water, and then returning to the stove to boil cauliflower in it. Cooking is instinctive for Cesare, his middle finger automatically bending back at the top knuckle from years of ingredient preparation. He may not have a Michelin Star, but he doesn’t need one. Robert De Niro rang ahead to book before visiting from the US.

Standing in the kitchen of a master was as enjoyable as experiencing the final product; sometimes anticipation is the sweetest thing. Our wooden table was set with a white table cloth, blue wine glasses and hand painted and written menus – they change daily according to what Cesare picks up locally that morning. The restaurant does five to seven services per week, either lunch or dinner, depending on who gets in first with reservations. Wine bottles adorned with labels he has painted line the shelves, along with Cesare’s personal collection of rare poetry books, artworks and awards. Diners pay 100 Euro for the experience of savouring eight-plus courses in his dining room, warmed by the brick fireplace and surrounded by paintings inspired by the area’s produce and Cesare’s dreams.

We started simply with thick-cut trout marinated in pink onions that balanced sweetness and acidity, before being treated to one of Cesare’s wonderful and wacky combinations, asparagus with strawberry sauce. A gentleman dining alone at the table next to us answered his phone, said something briefly in Italian, and then hung up. “Sorry, I have asparagus and strawberries in front of me, I can’t speak,” Pietro translated. The cuttlefish we had cooked earlier was served in a bright orange Mediterranean sauce with green beans, followed by pink slices of duck in an equally colourful sauce of fresh fruit blended with olive oil.

The surprises continued: porcini paired with peaches and a pinch of parsley (Cesare had driven 120 kilometers in total for the mushrooms that morning, but was still not 100 per cent happy with them), faultless risotto de Langhe, a soul-warming vegetable broth spiked with tripe and the pièce de résistance, the best goat I’ve ever tasted. It had been roasting on a spit above the fireplace beside us since we arrived, juice dripping onto the coals with a sizzle that released the kind of aroma that draws in passers-by from off the street. Dolce was traditional bonet, a Piemontese specialty best likened to a crème caramel and chocolate pudding hybrid.

It was clear – both from the audible sighs of pleasure from the gentleman next to us as well as in each dish that we relished – that Cesare is rooted in tradition but not bound by it. He reinvents classic flavours into new works of art, taking advantage of Langhe’s natural bounty and combining colour, texture and movement to create edible masterpieces on a daily basis. To say there is no one like him, and that there will never be anyone like him again, is not an exaggeration. Cesare is a red puzzle piece that stands out against the verdant landscape, just one of the many individuals that give Langhe so much personality. I feel privileged to have had such an inimitable experience.  

We remained in Upper Langa, this time driving to Cortemila. Travelling through Langhe, your eye follows the natural lines of the landscape. They journey from a valley up the northern face of a hill, covered in orderly rows of vines, and down the other side, planted with hazelnut trees that require less sun. We spent the remainder of the day and evening at hazelnut farm Cascina Barroero. Stefano and Isabella Barroero were our hosts, along with their five children, countless farm animals (including a ram named Silvio Berlusconi, because “he’s short, fat and thinks he’s beautiful”) and a pet duck that thought it was a house cat. Hazelnuts will never taste the same for me. These were rich, buttery and as satisfying as chocolate. Toasted and salted, it was impossible for me to turn them down when they were passed my way a fifth time.

The family has invested significantly in machinery, with industrial mixers and packers taking up the whole of their reasonably small factory. They make cakes, chocolate, biscuits and chocolate hazelnut spread that are sold both locally and around the world. Once the hazelnuts have been picked, they store them in a great wooden box in a shed, which the family calls the hazelnut pool; apparently sitting in it is one of the most relaxing experiences on earth. I asked if any of them ever get sick of hazelnuts. The eldest daughter raised her hand, laughed, and ate another. Cascina Barroero is a little slice of heaven, a beautiful property with a family home, accommodation, pool and three thousand hazelnut trees. It’s the kind of place you escape to for three months of the year, to disconnect with reality, wind down and appreciate the simple things in life.

After some downtime enjoying what everyone had dubbed the first day of summer – the weather was divine – and some sword fighting with the kids, we sat down to dinner with the family. Alessandro Boido from Cà ‘d Gal winery joined us, bringing with him a beautiful Moscato d’Asti Cà ‘d Gal “Vigne Vecchie” 2006, of which only around 5000 bottles are produced every year. Of course pasta was on the menu, with an addictive homemade seasoning of crushed hazelnuts and various herbs and spices. It would have been rude to refuse seconds. Hazelnuts were on display again come dolce, a selection of cakes and biscuits that we were encouraged to dip into chocolate hazelnut spread and, my favourite, homemade zabaglione. It was so kind of the Barroero family to welcome us into their home. I had by now come to expect such generosity from the people of Langhe. It was relatively early when we drove back to Alba, full of hazelnuts, serenaded by Pietro’s Bob Dylan soundtrack. We dumped our gear and headed to the main square, where the first night of the local jazz festival was in full swing. As we sipped Negronis outside and chatted about the day, it occurred to me for the first time how much I was going to miss this place.

Day 6: Always Bring a Bathing Suit

One of the things I love most about Langhe e Roero is that passionate people power it. Small producers know how to work the land, and do so with love and determination. Anna Adami is one such woman, rising early at her sheep farm, Cascina Raflazz in Paroldo, to tend to the flock and make the Murazzano DOP cheese that we had tried a couple of days earlier. Steep pastures and thick woods surround the farm, offering a stunning outlook for the agriturismo farm getaways they have offered since the early ‘90s. Guests can partake in home cooked meals in the restaurant or start the day gazing across the panoramic Langa hills with a coffee, like we did.

Once the caffeine had entered our blood stream, we followed the friendly boxer dog to see the sheep, which had been freshly sheared for summer. The shed was made up of numerous pens divided by a central corridor. Dried grass and hay had been thrown in the centre and the sheep stuck their skinny little heads through the bars to eat it. As they did, the boxer lovingly licked their foreheads. Back in the main building, past countless darting swallows that had decided to fasten their muddy nests to Cascina Raflazz, I had my first lesson in cheese making.

Anna cut the solidified milk mixture and then drained the liquid (there has to be at least 60 per cent sheep’s milk for it to qualify as Murazzano DOP, the rest is cow’s milk). Here, the cheese is made from raw milk without any additives or nasties. At this early stage it had the texture of silken tofu and tasted like fresh baby milk formula. Next they pack it down firmly in plastic cylinders, which they place back into the containers to steam. The cheese needs to age for at least five days for a thin rind to form. In the back room, shelves of wheels were changing from milk white to ivory to straw in colour, gaining strength and complexity as each day passed.

We veered away from food for the rest of the day, first driving to Bastia Mondovì to see the thirteenth century Chiesa di San Fiorenzo. Gory fifteenth century frescos by painter Canavesio cover every wall of this relatively unknown church. It’s operated by a group of volunteers, so those interested in visiting should double check opening times or pre-organise a tour. On one side of the church are scenes of Heaven and neat rows of saints, on the other Hell is depicted violently with horror and chaos. I found the latter fascinating, particularly the interpretations of devils and the representation of the Seven Deadly Sins. I winced when my eyes fell across gula, gluttony, where two repulsive devils were force-feeding a naked, burning man. My stomach rumbled, and I shuddered.

With a head full of images of burning babies and bloody torture, it was time for lunch at La Cà ‘d Baruc in Murazzano. It’s the kind of osteria where you instantly feel at home with its warm welcome, rustic brick walls, wooden tables and fireplace. Pietro teased owner Giovanni Messuerotti for making his wife, Marina, do all the hard work in the kitchen. Food was brought out with abandon: thinly sliced pork with pickled cucumbers, red pepper and anchovy mousse, carne cruda, tajarin and our first helping of snails cooked in tomato, garlic and herbs. The snails weren’t actually on the menu; they had been illegally hunted and kindly shared by regular customer Michel, who comes in every Friday for lunch with three of his friends. Michel, with his friendly gestures and Santa Claus beard, was thrilled to share his lunch with us.

By this stage the week had started to catch up with us, so Pietro organised some relaxation time. I was as surprised when I found out there is a Moroccan hammam in Alba. Elena Grosso opened La Maison Arabe following numerous trips to Morocco. Now, down a little side street as unassuming as any in town, is a beautiful space that evokes the colourful souks of Marrakesh. Women wash you with buckets, massage you with fragrant oil, scrub you, wash your hair and instruct you when to use the steam room. I could feel a week’s worth of wine and olive oil escaping through my pores! It was wonderful, but not entirely smooth sailing. I’m a firm believer that something hilarious happens every trip you go on, and my hilarious event took place at La Maison Arabe. Traveller’s tip number 248: always take swimwear with you on holiday, even if you’re in the Italian countryside. I was supplied with a barely-there disposable g-string and a white sheet, both of which I used to the best of my ability to preserve my dignity while sharing the hammam with Carl. Thank god I was paired with a polite, respectful Englishman!

I spent the afternoon sitting in the main square of Alba, writing a piece for Carl to put to one of his videos. We drove to Canale in Roero as afternoon turned to evening, where we walked through the vineyards, picked a few cherries and took an aperitivo at the picturesque Villa Tiboldi, overlooking the pool surrounded by an ocean of vines. One of the owners, Massimo Damonte, joined us for a spritz and talked about his famous Arneis white wine. We ate outside by candlelight; the kind of dinner that melts together when the food, setting, company and conversation are inseparably harmonious. Or maybe it was the wine.

Standouts included my firm and salty cod with the added freshness of green peas and sweet, candied lemon; Carl’s roast pigeon with hazelnuts; steamed asparagus with tomato and parmesan sponge; and dessert, a perfect panna cotta with a waffle shield on a bed of coffee spheres. It was late by the time we got back to Alba. I barely had time to throw my handbag on my bed at Relais Al Bel San Domenico when Pietro knocked on the door. The rest of the crew were having a drink at the at Osteria dei Sognatori’s bistro across the road, where we had eaten our first meal. The second wind you experience in a foreign country never ceases to amaze me.   

Day 7: Time Passes Slowly

According to the Bible, the seventh day is supposedly the holy day of rest. I’ve never been religious, which is just as well as we had a full itinerary to get through. It started in Grinzane Cavour, where we briefly checked out national monument, Castle of the Count of Cavour. Inside there’s an enoteca, the one Michelin star Ristorante Al Castello and a museum, but outside is the most impressive. We were headed for 30 degrees Celcius-plus that day and the turrets of the massive, thirteenth century building were strikingly set against a clear blue sky. We smiled at couples young and old canoodling on benches out the front, before heading to Monforte for a wine festival.

The Barolo Boys had put on this particular event; a former local football team who united to get all Barolo produces in the area in one location for a tasting. This time, Valle d’Aosta, Franciacorta and Burgundy were also included. From the centre of Monforte we climbed uphill towards Palazzo Martinengo, past white-haired men sitting on the side of the street and pastel coloured buildings creeping with roses. We arrived at the entrance and were given wine glasses to hang around our necks. Stalls with cheese, crafts, potted garlic products and different wine varieties snaked up the hill and in and out of buildings, including Le Case della Saracca, the ‘glass labyrinth’ and hotel, and Palazzo Martinengo. Inside the palazzo chandeliers hung from decorative ceilings and a young producer crowd chatted as their glasses were refilled. But it was the outside terrace that hooked me. Complete with chic outdoor furniture, manicured hedges, a fountain and a view of the town below and the hills in the distance; it was like something straight out of an up-market travel commercial.

Driving from Monforte through the hills to upper Monchiero, Bob Dylan was playing, as usual:

Time passes slowly up here in the daylight,
We stare straight ahead and try so hard to stay right,
Like the red rose of summer that blooms in the day;
Time passes slowly and fades away.

The realisation that tomorrow was our last full day crept to mind, and I felt a palatable pang of sadness in my chest. Twenty minutes later, it disappeared, which tends to happen when you’re surrounded by puppies. The puppies belonged to Ezio and Clelia at Tra Arte e Querce, an agriturism “between art and oak”. Eso Peluzzi, a famous painter, used to live there – hence the art – and Ezio is a trifolao (truffle hunter) – hence the oak. One of their truffle dogs had given birth a couple of months earlier, and we watched with ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ as Ezio handled a truffle like a tennis ball with the pups. The dogs get a taste for truffle by playing with it from a young age, and the dogs that keep the ‘black gold’ in their mouths the longest are usually the ones with the most promise. Once they are trained, they’re valued at around €6000 each.

We tore ourselves away from the puppies and followed Ezio and his prized truffle dog, Lucky, into the woods. The path disappeared and morphed into a steep decline, but Ezio and Lucky were unfazed. I should have worn better shoes! Lucky sniffed around as Ezio shouted commands in Piemontese dialect, until the dog picked up a scent and started digging. When the hole was deep enough, Ezio gently moved the dog aside and carefully continued with what looked like a pick, feeling the ground with practiced fingers for the truffle. He then levered it out, brought it to his nose and inhaled deeply, his eyes closed. Lucky received a treat, and we had our star ingredient for lunch. Back up at the property, Ezio brought out a shallow pot filled with yellow tajarin, heavily speckled with truffle and finished with tissue-thin shavings of black truffle. As we ate greedily, Ezio placed a blue gingham handkerchief on the table, opening it to reveal out half a dozen black truffles. Some were almost as big as tennis balls; all had been collected that morning. The aroma as we ate was intoxicating.

In Melbourne, seeing a pile of black truffles like that would send any food-respecting individual into a frenzy. Here, black truffles are more common and are available all year round. Black truffles satisfy the demand until October through to December, during which time the region’s prized white truffles are available. White truffle season is the busiest time of year in Langhe. Unlike the black truffles, white truffles can’t be cultivated. In other words they are one hundred per cent wild. Truffle hunters know the spots where they are most likely to grow, and hunt the truffles under the cover of night to avoid others discovering their secret locations. Even so, there is no guarantee that a tree that produced white truffles one year will do so the next. Pietro explained that as a general rule, black truffles should be used in cooking as heat releases their strong flavour, while white truffles are more delicate and should be reserved for garnish. As for truffle oils, pastes and products? “They’re bullshit”.

It was time for me to get out of the dining room and into the kitchen. I put my hands where my mouth is back in Alba at Ristorante Dulcis Vitis, where chef Bruno Cingolani gave me a personalised bagna caôda masterclass. Bagna caôda is Piemontese for ‘hot dip’ and is eaten in a similar style to fondue. After spending the week hearing about how much garlic was involved in the dish, I was nervous. All it takes is three ingredients, garlic, anchovies and olive oil. Together, Bruno and I peeled soft, young garlic and filleted the anchovies. Bruno then cooked the garlic in milk until it was soft (this is a modern technique to tone down the garlic, much to Pietro’s horror), while cooking the anchovies in Liguria extra virgin olive oil until the fish dissolved, ensuring the oil never reached boiling point. Once the garlic was ready, Bruno drained the milk and added the cloves to the anchovy and oil concoction. First he stirred it, then he mashed it together, and then he served us cheese and wine.

Carl and I said our ‘thank yous’ and ‘see you laters’ before walking around town and settling for a quick drink. Aperitivo followed our quick drink, so by the time we returned to see Bruno I was feeling nothing short of fantastic. We were five that evening in Bruno’s courtyard – bagna caôda is a social food, made to be shared. Tall glass jars overflowing with vibrant vegetables were places in the middle of the table along with house bread, sliced boiled potatoes, sweet and sour pink onion, roasted beetroot and thinly sliced raw veal. The bagna caôda arrived in individual ceramic pots heated by tea light candles. I was so pleased that one of my last dinners in Langhe was also one of my favourites. We dipped and dunked and passed until we were full… and then Bruno brought out spaghetti alla carbonara with salty chunks of ham and baby wild strawberries with ice cream.

It was Saturday night in Alba, and it seemed as though the entire town was at a little cocktail bar called Hemingway for their fifth birthday. The square was jammed with people listening to live music and watching fire twirlers. As for me, I people watched. One of the gorgeous things about living in a small town is that everyone comes to the same place. Younger people were ordering drinks while their parents sat at separate tables with their friends. Locals from the ‘family dinner’ the previous Sunday were there, as was 78-year-old Italo Stupino from Neive. I sat outside with new friends who spoke English when they remembered, but when they didn’t, I was just as content listening in their company.

Day 8: Best Enjoyed Together

Nothing quite induces simultaneous appreciation and dejectedness like the last day of a holiday. I was just getting the hang of sleeping in when – for the first time since arriving in Alba – my alarm woke me up. Monforte was waiting. Pietro picked us up and we drove through the hamlet of Perno, which exemplifies the typical Langhe view I so adore. Elisa Fantino was at Conterno-Fantino Winery to greet us; her father, Guido, owns the winery with his brother-in-law, Caludio Conterno. Pietro had pointed up at the winery from Monforte’s outdoor amphitheatre earlier in the week, explaining that it was surrounded by water. I didn’t think much of it at the time, but sure enough, a modern moat encircled the property. It was only natural that I should take off my shoes and walk in it on such a hot day. We sipped some wine and admired the view from the glass viewing deck on top of the building, before leaving Elisa to nurse her hangover (she had experienced a busy day working at the Barolo Boys event the day before, followed by a busy night celebrating). 

We escaped the heat and ate lunch surrounded by locals at In Piazza, perched in Monforte’s lower square. Only too aware that my stay was coming to a close, I ordered tajarin. Sophia Loren might have said "Everything you see I owe to pasta," but it was me who said, “Everything you see, I owe to tajarin”. Our final excursion took us to Montà, where we met honey producer Fratelli Cauda. Inside the warehouse were stacks of green boxes containing wooden frames filled with honeycomb. The room smelled of beeswax, and if you listened carefully you could hear faint buzzing from the bees on the floor that didn’t fly off in time before the honey was collected. On the first day, Pietro had told us a story about how he narrowly escaped death-by-bee-sting after a bee had decided to nest inside his gardening overalls. Just as well, he had said, he suffers from anaphylactic shock. Irony is a funny thing. When we went outside so Carl could get a shot of the bees, one became stuck in Pietro’s hair and stung him on the ear. A lot of swearing and a few pills later, all was good in the world once more. After that, Pietro and I waited inside while Carl dressed in full protective gear to get his footage.

On our way back to Alba we stopped at a shopping centre so Carl could pick up some presents for his family and I could buy some bikini bottoms – after the hammam incident I wasn’t about to be poolside and unprepared. Five of us spent our last evening in Barbaresco’s Tre Stelle fraction, near Pietro’s home, at Casa Nicolini. The incredible property includes accommodation, a restaurant, and swimming pool and is also perfectly positioned for admiring the gentle slopes of the Barbaresco hills. We started aperitivo early, lazing about on the grass, chatting and eating salumi while Carl wandered through the vineyards to find the perfect spot to set up his camera for a sunset time lapse. Relaxing by the pool was made more difficult thanks to the likely prospect of Pietro throwing me in the water when I least expected it.

We ate outside and corked champagne to celebrate Pietro’s 44th birthday. We were celebrating early, but his birthday was a couple of days later, the same day I was due back in Melbourne at 5.30am. I had to order carne cruda – I didn’t know when I would eat it again. The owner, who had enjoyed a bit to drink that day, emerged from inside with a truffle and slicer, proceeding to shave it over our primi until there was no truffle left. I interrupted the conversation to point out the sun, which disappeared behind the hill in a sphere of shimmering gold. Our attention soon turned to a tray of exquisite porcini risotto, earthy and warm with slippery mushroom slices, each mouthful a comforting hug that pushed the thought of leaving the following day to a more distant place. Wine and laughter flowed until somehow, we ended up back beside the pool playing music from our iPhones. Another round of drinks appeared and we lay on our backs comparing the difference in stars between hemispheres until it was finally time to leave.


I’ve always believed that everything is better shared, and nothing validated this more for me than my nine days in Langhe e Roero. I adore food and adventure, but I find dining and travelling with others so much more fulfilling than going it alone. What good is a sunset, whether it turns the hills golden or disappears behind the sea, if you can’t clink glasses with someone and say, “salute” when it disappears? When I eat something extraordinary my first reaction is to lovingly jam it down the person’s throat next to me so that they can experience it too. That’s what it’s all about in Langhe e Roero. Generosity is innate in Langhe locals. They don’t keep their best vintages locked away in a cellar; they bring them to dinner and fill the cups of strangers. The rest of the world could learn a thing or two from this beautiful corner of the world.


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