|Piedmont: Class Notes|
|December 16, 2002|
Now that we're in "the regions" of Italy and things are supposed to get molto hardo, I'm thinking it's a good idea to transcribe my class notes. I don't really expect anyone to read these or be interested in them, but they're going to be there for me. If you like them, great. If not, send your order back.
After learning about Piedmont and eating the amazing fonduta -- for which I immediately ran out to buy Fontina cheese from Formaggio's so I can make it on Christmas Eve -- I've decided that I definitely want to make this the first region of Italy I visit. The cold, the mountains, the rustic food, the FESTIVALS...imagine, a whole festival centered on a piece of fungus I can't even get in the U.S.! What a wonderful place. The rest of my class agrees with me and furthermore, we all have decided that Chef Directrix needs to take us on a field trip there. She laughed, poured more grappa and coffee and told us we had so much more ground to cover. Between you and me, I don't think we're going to change our minds.
Some of this information is subject to correction once I am able to verify spellings, further facts, etc.
Piedmont was part of Gaul, not Rome. Its name dates back to the 13th century, derived from "Piedmontu" meaning, "at the foot of the mountain." It is the most NW region of Italy.
Turin is the capital city. It's avant-garde, sophisticated and its food and culture are very influenced by the French.
The further north you go in Italy, the more fertile the land.
The further south, the more volcanic, hot, and drought-ridden. There's a dearth of cattle in the south, which means not many dairy products and people were poorer. The south is subject to Siroccos the way Provence is subject to Mistrals.
Most Italians who emigrated to the United States were primarily from Southern Italy. That's why Americans view Italian food as spaghetti, meatballs, and red sauce. Spaghetti and meat balls doesn't even exist as a dish anywhere in Italy.
The first king of Italy, Vittorio Emmanuel, came from Piedmont. He was from the French house of Savoie and decided Italy should be unified. Cavour decided Vittorio Emmanuel should be king and that Italy should be unified. He was the wily dude who guided Italy to its independence in 1870.
In Piedmont, everyone speaks French in additional to Italian. It's a bilingual region where even the street signs are in both Italian and French.
Piedmont is a high, mountainous area. The people developed the art of going crops in such conditions -- even grapes. In fact, there are an abundance of vineyards in this region and Piedmont is considered one of the greatest wine producers in Italy. They are also considered some of the best wines in Italy. 90% of the wines from Piedmont are robust reds. The Muscat grape is the grape often used. Most of the wines in Piedmont are named for the grape from which they are made. Nebbiolo is a grape indigenous to the Piedmont region. It's name is derived from "nebbia," meaning "fog." Other grapes: Barbera, Dolcetto, and Grignolino. Wines named from where they are found: Barolo -- strongest of all Piedmont wines, a big wine akin to Burgundy. Goes well with robust mountain food --, Barbaresco, Gattinara, and Asti Spumante. Gattinara is made from the Nebbiolo grape.
Even places as far up as 9,000 feet have wonderful grazing areas for cattle.
Southern Piedmont is a very fertile plain.
The River Po flows from Piedmont into Lombardy. The Po Valley is rice country because of the water overflowing the banks. While Piedmont has some risotto, risotto is much more important to Lombardy. Polenta is very popular in Piedmont. Polenta and risotto have only become popular in recent years because people don't know any better.
Because of the overflowing River Po, the banks have lots of frogs that are used in many dishes. There's also plenty of freshwater fish like carp and trout from the River Po.
Cardoons are members of the thistle family. They look like huge celery but they are more like artichoke in taste. Especially the fond of the artichoke.
Juniper berries are also found in proliferation in Piedmont as are game like wild boar, white hare, wild ibex, and antelope. Game and juniper berries marry well together in a dish.
Grolla of Friendship: a wooden community drinking vessel with many spouts. Filled with grappa, lemon/orange peel, juniper berries, espresso and sugar. Passed around after dinner as a digestivo.
Grappa is a brandy distilled from grapes. It's like the eau de vie of Scandinavia. Can also be made from cherries or pears.
Piedmont is an area of contrasts. It is mountainous yet it still has vast farmland.
The Large Farm: farms do not belong only to a single proprietor. Several families will live on it and work the land from a common headquarters. The large farm will specialize in one particular crop or item.
Because of the fertile plain, cows do very well and Piedmont is one of the greatest producers of meat and cow dairy products. Fontina cheese, especially.
There are Seven Provinces of Piedmont
Southern Tier: West to East
Cuneo: Has fourteen very fertile valley. Known as "the granary." Capon festival around Christmastime.
Alba: trifola comes from Alba. Trifola are white truffles. Trifola d'Alba are the rarest and most prized in all the world. Morocco white trifola are sometimes passed off as Trifola d'Alba. They are inferior.
White truffles: Tuber magnatum, part plant, part fungus (sounds like a good idea for a superhero) grow under oak trees. In Piedmont, they can grow under poplar, willow, and hazel trees as well. Have a symbiotic relationship with the root system. Can be found as deep as a foot underground. Unlike the tuber melanosporum -- the black truffle -- found in Perigord, France, these truffles are not searched out by pigs. There is a special, exclusive university in Piedmont that trains dogs for this express purpose. They don't have to be muzzled like pigs because they have no desire to eat the white truffle, just find it. Hunting is done at night because the odor is more detectable to dogs at that time.
Riso alla Piemontese: Risotta (riso) with white truffles.
Asti: Asti Spumante -- sparkling sweet white wine -- comes from this province. Has a corn husking festival. "Martini and Rossi Asti Spumante!"
Alessandria: lots of mesa corn
Vercelli: Long, narrow province and pushes way up into the Alps. It is know for its cereal.
Novara: Goes into the Swiss frontier. Also known for cereal.
Turin: Industrial capital. Been called the most Italian city in France because of its extreme French influence. Filled with old cafés and rococo architecture. Said to have introduced chocolate to the rest of Europe.
Valle d'Aosta: NW corner. Politically autonomous district. It never belonged to France but they speak French dialect. It was once governed by the Dukes of Burgundy. It is not officially recognized as a province of Italy.
Piedmont is considered very progressive, avant-garde, and have a great love of pageantry. No where else in Italy do they go in for food festivals the way they do in Piedmont. Because of the food festivals, it is best to visit Piedmont in the Autumn. The grape harvest is in October.
The Slow-Food movement started in Piedmont as a protest against a McDonald's opening up in Rome.
There are two main cuisines in Piedmont:
Larger cities and lower altitudes: a lot of French influence, more sophisticated
Higher mountains and higher altitudes: N. of Turn. More similarities to Lombardy. Not so much French influence. Healthier, heartier, more provincial and rustic. The people that work in the cold -- on the farms and on the mountains -- need stick to your ribs kind of food.
Two examples of "Mountain Food":
Fonduta:Similar to Swiss fondue. Made with fontina -- an Alpine melting cheese -- milk, an enriching liaison of egg yolks, covered with white truffles and served with polenta.
Bagna Cauda: Hot anchovy dip. Melted anchovies with butter, olive oil, cream, white truffles and garlic. Served with raw cardoons for dipping.
Garlic is one of the favorite seasonings of Piedmont.
The food may be heavy, but the people of Piedmont are not heavy eaters. Also, they aren't fat because of all the walking up and down mountains and hills they have to do on a daily basis. They are big sweet tooths (teeths?) because of all the sugar they burn off working in the cold. Piedmont is well-known for its confectionary.
"Baci" means kiss.
Cheeses from Piedmont:
Tome: Heavy, cow's milk cheese, reddish cast to it from Valle d'Aosta. Natives claim this cheese cleans one's teeth and satiates hunger. Most cheeses satiate my hunger when eaten in very large quantities.
Rabilia: sharp, creamy goat.
Paglierino: cow's milk cheese, aged in straw.
Fontina: From Val d'Aosta. Aged in stone buildings, 10,000 ft. up, in 40 lb. rounds for 100 days. Made with summer cow's milk. More prized than the cheese made with winter cow's milk. Has mold on outer rind -- flavorful, soft. Used a lot in Piedmont dishes.
Grissini: Breadsticks originated in Turin. Usually twisted and several feet long. Two kinds.
Stira: 3-ft. long sticks, are hand-pulled and fired-off in fire ovens. Dusted with rice flour.
Rubata: Fatter than stira, less even. Can see finger marks from where they were rolled rather than pulled.
Vermouth: Produced in Turin. Name comes from German "Wormwood". Guarded secret ingredients. Suspicion that there is absinthe in it since Wormwood is used in making absinthe.
Lots of lettuces and chicory (endive) and herbs produced here.
Lots of varieties of honey.
Panizza: Also known as Paniscia, is a typical risotto dish from Novara. Cooked in vegetable broth with beans and sliced sausages, topped with a lot of black pepper.
Gianduia: Chocolate/hazelnut -- Baci candy, desserts, pudding.