Rolling landscapes framed by the Alps, viniculture to rival anywhere on earth and gastronomical delights of such quality that it prompted the birth of the Slow Food Movement; Piedmont in Northern Italy may not draw the same number of visitors that descend on Tuscany but spending a few days in the fertile hills between Turin and Milan doesn’t disappoint. Best get there soon though as the secret is now well and truly out!
The Piedmont Region
The Piedmont Region of Northern Italy is the country’s second largest of twenty regions but could easily be described as the forgotten child – particularly when compared to Italy’s other notable tourist regions of Tuscany, Venice, Rome, Sicily, Lombardy and Puglia. Its comparatively lowly tourist status belies the wealth of riches the region has to offer: from Lake Maggiore in the north and Olympic grade ski resorts in the Alpine west to the culture of its largest city, Turin. All of this lies nestled at the very foot of the Alps which frames views of rolling hills and vineyards saturated with colours that change throughout the seasons and are coated with snow and fog in the winter.
Even more importantly (and particularly for those who love wine and food….so pretty much everyone) Piedmont is world renowned for its acclaimed grapes and wines and is a major producer of luxury cheese and chocolate (Nutella and Ferrero Roche both coming from the region). Food aficionados are drawn from all across the globe to feast on Alba’s white truffles at the annual October Truffle Festival (Tartufi Bianchi) and to sample the “king of Italian red wine”, Barolo. Wash all of that down with sparkling white wines from the neighboring village of Asti (a mere 30km from Alba) and you’ll soon find yourself in a glorious food and wine haze from which you’ll never wish to emerge.
On a recent trip to Piedmont I had the good fortune to visit two of Piedmont’s key food and wine destinations; Asti Province and the town of Alba in Cuneo District; spending 72 hours hiking through rolling vineyards and feasting on the region’s broad array of cheese and chocolate (a particular weakness for me and my waistline) whilst staying on a vineyard. I soon appreciated that Piedmont is a vastly underrated region and one I will certainly be returning to in the near future.
Exploring Asti and Alba
From the moment we arrived at the airport in Milan until the moment we pulled into our accommodation nestled into the vineyard drenched countryside on the outskirts of Asti, the gently sloping valleys led our eyes towards the towering Alps glistening with snow to the north and west. The Province of Asti lies at the very heart of Piedmont, and its gently undulating hills create landscapes of undeniable beauty. Vineyards are visible from the crest of every hill and iridescent light ablaze as far as the eye can see (at least when the valleys aren’t coated with the thick fog for which the region is famed). The stunning landscape is home to numerous towns, boroughs and hamlets; each distinguishable on the horizon by the multitude of medieval bell towers and church spires. Hiking across the fields of vines between villages is an activity in and of itself.
A visit to Asti Province is likely to start with a visit to Asti Town which also happens to be one of the most important centers for art in Piedmont and dates to pre-Roman times. The medieval town is still home to many of the historic palaces and towers that gave Asti its original moniker as the “city of 100 towers” (although only 15 remain). The city is divided into two distinct sections. The first is the new Baroque (1700’s) town which is centered on the triangular Piazza Alfieri; the stage for the town’s famous Palio di Asti horse race held annually on the 3rd Sunday of September (a race which remains as a historical exemplifier of the fierce rivalry between the towns of Asti and Alba). The second center is the medieval town which is built around the Piazza San Secondo with its San Secondo Church and Crypt built in the Romanesque style.
Outside of Asti, The entire province is littered with imposing castles, churches and medieval noble dwellings worthy of photo stops. Along the ancient and famous Via Francigena (which linked Canterbury, UK and Rome and which runs through Piedmont) you can trace history through the numerous Medieval churches, cathedrals and abbeys in towns such as Cortazzone with its Romanesque church, Passerano Marmorito with its castle and Montechiaro with the Santi Nazario e Celso church.
The center of the white truffle universe, and Asti’s ‘fierce’ local rival, Alba sits only 30km away. The small town is a real charmer with its, imposing towers, palaces, unspoiled medieval streets and 11th century cathedral. A particular highlight is the Saturday market which comprises of around 200 stalls; 45 of which are food related. The market takes place from 9am until 2pm (although we found that by 2pm things were starting to pack up). Make sure that you find your way to Piazza Pertinace where approximately 20 local, slow food, producers sell their wares including everything from cheese, wine, preserves and traditional foods to honey, fresh fruits, vegetables, cold cuts and hazelnuts.
What to Eat and Drink In Piedmont
The following represents just a tiny portion of the gastronomical delights that await you in Piedmont:
Alba White Truffles: The Alba White Truffle is one of the most highly prized truffles in the world. To put that statement into perspective just consider that a single 1.6-pound beauty sold for $150,000 in November 2009. We were therefore very excited (and somewhat surprised) that our host for the weekend walked over with a Tupperware box full of them! Needless to say he wasn’t in the mood for sharing although we did particularly enjoy some truffle salami from the local market.
Nutella and Ferrero Roche: Alba is the home of Ferrero, who produce both the famous Nutella spread and the Ferrero Rocher chocolates which appear on the coffee table at your mum’s house every Christmas (or is that just my mum?). Anyhow, the chocolate’s delicious taste comes thanks to Piedmont’s Tonda Gentile hazelnut and has done since 1946. It’s estimated that Ferrero employs 4,000 people from the town of Alba alone.
Wine: Where to start! The Piedmont region is home to 42 DOC and 17 DOCG wines. For those who have no idea what that means (which included me before I visited Piedmont) the letters DOC or DOCG on Italian wine labels is a guarantee form the Italian authorities of the wine’s origins with DOCG being superior to DOC. If nothing else make sure that you don’t miss the most famous of the DOCG bunch: Asti Spumante sparkling wine and Barolo red wine.
Cheese: Cheese is a big deal in Piedmont and in that sense I think Piedmont closely mirrors my own life. According to Dairy Science (I’m obviously a regular reader) the region produces a whopping 50 varieties of cheese of which 10 meet the EU Denomination of Protected Origin (DPO) standard. The most noteworthy are Bra Tenero, Bruss , Tuma ‘d Trausela, Gorgonzola, Cevrin di Coazze, Raschera, Taleggio, Grana Padano, Castelmagno, Murianengo, Toma del Lait brusc, Riobiola di Roccaverano, Toma Piemontese, Saras del Fèn, and Murazzano. Get your fill – I don’t think I’ve ever eaten so much cheese in a 72 hour period!!
Amaretti di Mombaruzzo: Who doesn’t love an almondy amaretti biscuit with a coffee?!? But did you know that the hills of Asti, in a small town called Mombaruzzo, are where these delicious little morsels are most famously produced (although the Amaretti di Saronno may have something to say about that statement)? Franco Vicenzi founded the Amaretti di Mombaruzzo company in 1965 and continues to produce them to this day.
We stayed in Gorra which is south of Asti Town and north of Alba. The location was perfect for hiking and biking and was within easy driving reach of Asti (20 minutes), Alba (20 minutes), Turin (1 hour) and Milan Airport (1.5 hours).
If you want to tour the region’s wineries and therefore wish to abstain from driving then you can’t go far wrong basing yourself in Asti and arranging day tours. Two companies you might want to consider taking a look at are Tasting Tours and Tours By Locals. I haven’t used either personally but their itineraries look pretty solid.
Asti is on the Turin to Rome trainline route. Frequent trains run from Turin (30 minutes) or Genoa (one hour). If you’re coming from Milan you need to change in Alessandria or Voghera.