Located in the northwest corner of Italy is the region of Piedmont. The second largest region in Italy, with its capital of Turin/Torino, Piedmont’s position between the sea to the south, France to the west, and Switzerland to the north, has positioned it as an important player in the transport of goods throughout history. These various influences have also had significant influence on the region’s unique cuisine.
Along the western and northern borders, Piedmont is surrounded by the Alps, with over 40% of it’s terrain categorized as mountains. Moving east, the mountains transition to the lovely hills of the Langhe and Monferrato, dotted with vineyards produced the renowned wines of Piedmont, including Barolo and Barbaresco. The Po River, Italy’s longest river whose fertile food plain has fed northern Italy for centuries, begins in Piedmont under the shadow of Monviso in the Alps and crosses Piedmont, through Turin and opening into flat plains around Novara and Vercelli on the eastern border near the region of Lombardia. This diverse countryside provides an amazing range of products for the tables of Piedmont.
As Piedmont does not lie directly on the coast, the cuisine is predominately meat and dairy. Hunting and fishing is commonplace In the mountainous areas to the west; game like wild boar, as well as freshwater trout from mountain streams. As in the nearby region of Valle d’Aosta, many of the meat recipes come from across the Alps - hearty braised meat and mixed boiled meats, called bolliti, served with a variety of sauces.
There is also traditional stock-rearing of cattle and pigs. Piedmont is known for it’s prized breed cattle, called “Razza bovine piemontese”. These are almost exclusively raised on smaller family farm which adhere to a high standard of breeding. In the 1870s, this breed began exhibiting a unique “double muscling” characteristic that resulted in beef with extra muscle mass and very little fat and low cholesterol content. In spite of the lack of marbling, this lean beef is tender and juicy, and often enjoyed raw in Carne Crudo.
Historically, in autumn people head into the forests and hills to collect mushrooms and nuts, which could be dried or roasted and used all year round. Today fall menus in Piedmont feature porcini mushrooms, hazelnuts and chestnuts.
But probably the most precious autumn culinary treasure are the prized white truffles from Alba and Mondovì. These delicacies have distinctive pungent aromas and strong, earthy tastes. During autumn months they are hunted using pigs or white dogs, usually at night when their smell is at it strongest. They are typically served simply shaved over pasta, eggs, or risotto. White truffles can command prices close to $4000 a pound. For five weekends beginning in mid-October, truffle lovers from all over the world descend upon Alba to taste and buy their prized white truffle.
The influence of neighboring France and Switzerland is exhibited in Piedmont’s vast array of cheeses. From Taleggio, Ossolano d’Alpe, also called Bettelmatt, to Castelmagno, Robiola di Roccaverano, Bruss, and Murazzano, nine of the over 40 Italian DOP cheeses hail from Piedmont.
The river valleys of Piedmont supply fruits, vegetables and grains to the region, not only the Po River but smaller tributaries like the Tanaro, Belbo, and Bormida. Fruit orchards dot the hillsides alongside neatly terraced vineyards. In the spring, the Saracen asparagus from Vinchio is cultivated in the hills between vines. Summer brings red and yellow peppers, known as "Quadrato d’Asti”, which are enjoyed raw with bagna cauda, or preserved in oil.
In autumn you will find a unique vegetable not common in the US, the cardoon. Locally called cardo gobbo, or “hunchbacked” cardoon, it is a white crunchy stalk, with a sweet flavor similar to an artichoke. It is an essential ingredient to an autumn bagna cauda. or cooked in a bechemel.
Rice and corn flourish in the fertile Po river valley the provinces of Novara and Vercelli. So you will find many types of risotto and polenta on the tables of Piedmont. Gnocchi and pasta are common here as well, the hand-made local pasta include tagliatelle, here called tajarin, as well as a stuffed ravioli type pasta, here called agnolotti dei plin (pinched). Piemontese pasta is characterized by the use of only egg yolks, sometimes up to 30 yolks per kilo of flour. Great fresh yolks from truly free range chickens are bright orange in color, and I will always recall the deep vibrant hue of the first plate of agnolotti I enjoyed in Piedmont.
Desserts are dominated in Piedmont by two well known products: chocolate and hazelnuts. Piedmont has given us gianduja, a Piemontese specialty of chocolate-hazelnut cream, and, of course, Nutella. Turin has been known for chocolate production as far back as the sixteenth century, today home to candy producers Caffarel and Ferrero Rocher.
Regional dishes of Piedmont:
Grissini - Long thin breadsticks, often referred to in Piedmont as torinesi. Traditionally made by hand and mixed with water only, believed to be ease digestion.
Carne cruda - Thinly sliced veal carpaccio or ground, from the locally raised Piedmont cattle. Mixed with olive oil, fresh garlic, lemon juice, and salt and pepper; put over the top when topped with white truffle shavings.
Vitello Tonnato - Thinly sliced veal served with a sauce of tuna, mayonnaise and capers. Served cold.
Bagna Càuda - Translates to ‘hot bath’, a community dish similar to fondue, with raw and cooked vegetables dipped into a sauce made of garlic, anchovies and olive oil which is kept warm over an open flame. A staple of the region, at one time this dish kicked off almost every Piemontese meal.
Castelmagno - A semi-hard cheese produced from the whole cows of the Piemontese cattle which have been fed on fresh hay from pastures, then is aged in caves for two to five months. Fantastic on its own as a table cheese, used in fondues or enjoyed with risotto, pasta, or polenta.
Robiola di Roccaverano - A soft-ripened cheese from the Langhe region and made with varying proportions of cow’s, goat’s milk and sheep milk. Robiola di Roccaverano has no rind and a slightly straw-yellow coloring with a sweet, mild taste.
Raschera - A pressed semi-hard cheese made with partly skimmed cow milk, to which a small amount of sheep's and/or goat's milk may be added. Ivory white color with irregularly spaced small eyes, and a semi-hard red grey rind. Savory and salty in taste, similar to Muenster cheese, becoming increasingly sharp with aging.
Toma Piedmontese - A soft or semi-hard cow's milk cheese. Toma varies with producer, region and locale of production, and is closely related to the French tomme.
Bale d’Aso - Traditionally made with donkey, this round sausage is today a mix of pork and beef seasonings. Boiled and served with masehed potatoes, beans or polenta.
Salsicca di Bra - A small salumi mad from raw ground veal mixed with pork fat, salt, pepper, nutmeg and cinnamon. In 1867 a royal decree banned the production of all veal sausages but the Bra style.
Cotechino - A fresh sausage made from pork, fatback, and pork rind. Also often served with lentils or beans and mashed potatoes or polenta.
Rice, Pasta, Polenta:
Tajarin - Long, thin ribbon-like pasta, similar to tagliatelle. Tajarin is a golden yellow-orange color from the rich farmhouse egg yolks used. An early recipe is said to require 30 egg yolks and over two pounds (just under a kilo) of flour. The pasta is cut into 1/8 to 1/4-inches wide strands. It is traditionally served with a meat ragu, mushroom ragu, or with a butter and sage mixture. During the late autumn and winter the butter and sage version may be topped with white truffle shavings.
Agnolotti del plin - Small, hand-made ravioli stuffed with minced meat, cheese, and/or vegetables and topped with either a meat ragu or butter, sage and nutmeg. Plin means ‘pinch’, as the pasta is pinched together during assembly.
Risotto al Nebbiolo - Risotto made with local Nebbiolo-based wine like Barolo or Barbaresco.
Gnocchi della Val Varaita - A long football shaped dumpling made from potatoes and cheese. Served with butter and grated grana cheese.
Meat and Fish:
Bollito Misto - Mixed “boiled meats”. More of an event rather than a dish, this was served to a large group at a celebration. Traditionally this included seven or more cuts of meat, including beef, veal, chicken, sausage, and cuts like veal testina (head), hearts and tongue. The warm boiled meats were served with several spicy sauces, like a green sauce made with parsley, capers and anchovies and a red sauce made with tomatoes and peppers.
Fried eggs with shaved white truffle - A very simple dish, one of the best ways to enjoy the amazing white truffles of Piedmont. Fresh farmhouse eggs, scrambled, fried or poached, topped with shaved truffles.
Brasato al Barolo / Brasato al Barbaresco - Veal roast, marinated overnight in Nebbiolo, then braised till tender in herbs and vegetables and served with Barolo or Barbaresco.
Finanziera - A traditional dish, not for the faint of heart. It translates to “Food for financiers”. A stew of sweetbreads and offal such as veal spinal cords, brains, bull testicles, chicken feet, and cockscombs cooked in Nebbiolo wine. Another example of Italy’s ‘cucina povera’, peasant food utilizing every part of the animal.
Coniglio al Civet - A strongly seasoned stew of game (rabbit, hare, boar can all be used) cooked with red wine, rosemary and garlic.
Torta di Nocciola - A traditional cake made with roasted hazelnuts. Often accompanied by a sweet zabaione sauce, and paired with dessert wines like the regional frizzante white wine of Moscato d’Asti, or even reds like Barolo and Barbaresco.
Bunet - A flan made with chocolate and amaretti. The word “bonet” translates to hat, and refers to the rounded shape of this cake.
Gianduja - A sweet spread of chocolate and hazelnut paste, invented in Turin during Napoléon's regency (1796–1814), when the Mediterranean was under a blockade by the British. Michele Prochet, a local chocolatier extended the little chocolate he had by mixing it with ground hazelnuts from the Langhe hills just south of the city.