Category Archives: Piemonte

Land of the Noble Grape

Finanziera

On a roll!  Four covers in a row! On to Finanziera, an historic Piemontese dish.

The second part of my two part article on Chef Memo Field Melendez of Profumo di Vino in Treiso appeared on the cover of today’s Highlife section of the Vail Daily.  After I submitted the article, I ran across an interesting history of finanziera – there are many!  I didn’t want to burn up my word budget on it in the article since this dish deserves an article of its own, so I didn’t delve into it.  But it’s so interesting I had to post it:

“Yet the poverty and inventive genius of peasant have also given rise to one of Piemonte’s most aristocratic modern-day dishes: finanziera.

Photo of FInanziera from the cookbook of restaurant Il Centro di Priocca.
Photo of FInanziera from the cookbook of restaurant Il Centro di Priocca.
Photo of Finanziera (specifically the cock's comb) from the book "Piemonte: A Vai Dei Saponi."
Photo of Finanziera (specifically the cock’s comb) from the book “Piemonte: A Via Dei Sapori.”

Sandro Doglio reckons the recipe was created to use of the bits when cocks were castrated to become capons.  Capons were of course raised and fattened for the lord of the manor or to sell at the market. But to the crests and the barbels of the poor birds and the organs cut off to reduce their masculinity – all parts of no commercial value – peasant women learnt to add a few drops of sour wine to make a tasty steve, which they thickened with a pinch of flour.  Some sources claim that this stew – the so-called finanziera – was a sort of tribute paid by peasants going to Turin market to sell their poultry.  To have a free passage into the city, they bribed the customs guards, or finanzieri, with giblets (livers, hearts, gizzards, testicles, crests and barbels).  And with these bits and pieces, the wives of the customs officers would prepare one of the region’s greatest dishes, an example of imagination, genius and astuteness combined.” 

– from “The Rhythms of the Langhe,” Mario Busso, Carlo Vischi, page 35

Perhaps the fact that finanziera is listed under “Regalie” (meaning, gifts) in some of the cookbooks I’ve seen gives credence to this conjecture about the origins of this innards stew.

This is one of my favorite books about the region.  Full of wonderful folk lore, great recipes, history and stunning photos of the region.  It can be obtained in the States.  I bought a second copy recently on Amazon.com after losing track of my copy that I repeatedly leant to friends and oenophiles.   Still wish it would find its way home along with my copy of the “Atlas of the Langhe.”

Two other wonderful Piemontese cookbooks (in Italian) where you’ll find finanziera recipes are:

Piemonte: La Via Dei Saponi by Mario Busso and Carlo Vischi
Piemonte: La Via Dei Sapori by Mario Busso and Carlo Vischi

and

Cookbook of "Il Centro di Priocca" restaurant
Cookbook of “Il Centro di Priocca” restaurant
Attributions for "Il Centro di Priocca"
Attributions for “Il Centro di Priocca”

Obviously, Mario Busso gets around quite a bit!  All three of these books are a must if you are a true blue Piemonte-phile!

If you haven’t had a chance to read the two articles about Chef Memo and his wonderful restaurant in Treiso – where you can usually find finanziera in winter – here are the links.  Feel free to “recommend” them!

Part 1 – Planting Mexican Culinary Roots in Italy

Part 2 – No Longer a Stranger in a Strange Land

Ci vediamo, tutti!

“Light” Lunch at La Cantinetta

After a week of travel and back-to-back fascinating interviews of le donne di Piemonte (women of Piemonte), I was ready for a break to process all that I had learned.  Spending my Saturday morning strolling through the Alba mercato and through the ancient city’s old town was just what I needed.  But now it was time for lunch!

I’m such a creature of habit.  Fortunately, some are good habits, like never missing an opportunity to have lunch at La Cantinetta in Barolo.

As I drove to the western side of the Langhe, the skies were darkening and curtains of rain fell in the distance.  Monte Viso and its neighbors in the Cottian Alps had been so prominent below the azure blue skies two days ago, but now were hidden in the clouds.  The autumn-like chill in the damp air made me feel as though I should be in search of tartufi bianci.  But looking out over the barren, pruned vineyards, there was no mistaking the season.  It was spring and the vines were merely waiting for the sun’s signal that it was safe for the swelling buds to break.  The locals were a bit worried about the never-ending cold, damp weather.  But there was still time for Mother Nature to help the vines along before flowering in the waning days of spring.

Monte Viso on a clear day
Monte Viso on a clear day

When I walked into La Cantinetta, with its walls covered with shelves of wine in the front room and simple larger dining room to the back, I was disappointed not to find co-owner and manager Maurilio Chiappetto running about the restaurant.  Everything was the same as it had been since we first ate there with 16 year-old Giuseppe Vaira nearly 14 years ago, except there was no Maurilio, dressed in an apron – usually a blue Deltetto one – bustling about.

But I was assured he would be in the afternoon.  Good.  It wasn’t just the food I was after.  I wanted to interview Maurilio and to finally have a chance to learn more about him, his brother and chef Paolo, their 89 year old “agnolotti-loving” father, Giovanni, and their fascinating traditional Piemontese restaurant they had been running since 1981, first in Alba then in Barolo since 1995.

Somethings must change and since I was on my own at the restaurant for the first time, I opted for a small table in the front room, next to shelves of some of the most noble names in Piemontese wines.  I also figured I had a better chance of catching Maurilio in the front near the cash register.

La Cantinetta is one of those marvelous restaurants that has a menu, I think, but offers you whatever chef is cooking for the day.  All you have to do is say “yes” or “no” to the courses as they come out.  That day I was determined to keep the calorie count below 5,000 and only have the small plates of uber-traditional antipasti.

I could write a 1,200 word column on antipasto (singular of antipasti – but let’s face it, when have you ever had just one antipasto?).  I’m not doing that now.  The word, derived from Latin and meaning “before the meal,” dates to the 1500’s, according to one dictionary source.  For the most part, Americans equate antipasti with a plate of salumi, olives and the like.  But the Piemontese concept of dishes “before the meal” in fact can be a meal!

At La Cantinetta, it is more than a meal!  Can’t believe I usually have Paolo’s antipasti (which is about five different plates, cold then hot) and primi piatti (usually two different different pastas and one risotto) and seconde (usually brasato, roasted lamb or chinghiale – wild boar).  Of course, let’s not forget the incredibly delicious, crispy grissini that grace every table in Piemonte.  Grissini are basically Piemontese bread sticks, but not like the skinny massed produced, pre-packaged kind.  A glass of Dolcetto and grissini would probably have sufficed, but what a waste of a gustatory opportunity!

Where was I?   Sorry, I fade into a culinary stupor just thinking about Piemontese food!

First up was Insalata Russa, or Russian Salad.  I wonder if the Russians call it Italian Salad when served in Moscow.  It is to Piemonte (and the rest of Italy) what potato salad is to a Texas barbecue.  Actually, it’s an Italian version of potato salad, with lots of extras like eggs, pickles, carrots, capers, peas and even tuna thrown in.  Everyone has their own recipe, just like potato salad.  Quite honestly, it’s a meal in itself.  Grissini, Insalata Russa and a glass of Dolcetto.  Nope.  There’s more.

Image 14

Maurilio came in, as usual in a bit of a hurry, and greeted me warmly as he had on so many previous occasions.  He was moving and had planned on taking the day off given it was quiet.  But here he was and it wasn’t long before he was lending a hand.  First, he poured me a glass of the house Dolcetto. Forgive me, I forgot to get the name of it, but it was lovely.

I spooned a bit of the Insalata Russa on my plate, savored it – yup, delicious as always – and then began snapping photos of it.  Italians have a God-given talent of transforming simple, pedestrian ingredients into delicious taste sensations.  My server brought the next dish.  Thinking I was finished, she picked up the small gratin plate still filled with the golden concoction.  I grew up in a household with three older brothers and had learned at a tender age to stop someone from taking my food.  And I did.   It wasn’t greed; it would have been insane not to have just a wee bit more!

I’ve never had the same antipasti choices twice.  Sometimes it includes carne cruda – another dish for another post – and sometimes sweet bell peppers stuffed with tuna and capers.  But always the Insalata Russa, Vitello Tonnato and, Chef Paolo’s sought-after chicken liver pate with sweet onion relish and brioche.  That was next.

This time the 2″ size ball of liver pate had a slice of terrine with pistachio nuts as a sidekick on the plate. This was not a time to be counting calories or fat grams.  And certainly I didn’t want to hurt Maurilio’s feelings, so I ate is all.  Just remember, it’s all from scratch and no preservatives!

Not finished yet.

Vitello tonnato is a dish that screams “Piemonte!”  Chef Nick Haley of Zino Ristorante in Edwards, CO studied at the prestigious Italian Culinary Institute for Foreigners in Costigliole d’Asti and is a huge fan of this simple dish of veal rump – usually poached or braised – and tuna sauce.  But he marvels at how Americans are so turned off at the thought of combination of veal and tuna.  What a pity because he would like to serve it more often in his restaurant.  When properly prepared and yellowfin tuna in olive oil is used, it’s a marvelous dish.

Like every other dish you’ll find in Italy, everyone has their own variations of the creamy sauce.  Chef Paolo’s preparation of  chilled paper-thin slices of rare veal with a dollop of sauce is never anything less than delicious.

Vitello tonnato makes an excellent summer main course and holiday celebration antipasto.  It’s also a popular dish in Argentina, no doubt brought there by Piemontese immigrants similar to Papa Francesco’s ancestors.

Not sure why, perhaps I was protecting my plate, but I didn’t get a picture of the vitello tonnato at La Cantinetta.  So here’s a snapshot of one I had at Profumo di Vino in Treiso with winemaker Renato Vacca of Cantina del Pino earlier in the week.

Vitello Tonnato at Profumo di VIno in Treiso
Vitello Tonnato at Profumo di Vino in Treiso

Still not finished.  And don’t forget, this is “merely” the antipasti.

Although made with pasta, Chef Paolo’s tender raviolo is a popular item amongst the antipasti choices.  The presentation changes a bit with the seasons, but it always stuffed with a deep golden, runny egg yolk and pureed spinach and topped with grated Parmigiani-Reggiano.  In keeping with the season – despite what the weather was saying – tender green, pencil-thin asparagus were cut and sprinkled on top.

Raviolo at La CantinettaRaviolo at La Cantinetta

 Any one of the preceding dishes would have qualified as a meal, not merely something “before the meal.”  But there was more to come.  The cardi (thistle) flan with fonduta is another Piemontese specialty.  Although slightly bitter, the flavorful vegetable flan is a perfect companion to the creamy sauce made from fontina cheese, egg yolks – and theirs are such a deep golden color! – and milk.  Maurilio was adamant in telling me no flour is used in their fonduta as it gives the sauce a slight grainy texture with a taste of flour.

Cardi flan with fonduta
Cardi flan with fonduta

This was nothing short of sublime decadence and a great ending to my meal although Maurilio was trying to convince me to have some pasta.  Willpower prevailed, helped along by the knowledge I was going to have a lovely four-course dinner back at Agriturismo Il Bricco that evening!  And I didn’t even have a second glass of Dolcetto knowing how strict the drink driving laws are now.

Discovering Chiara Boschis

Finally, without the distraction of food, I had Maurilio all to myself for an interview, except for the occasional break to say “Grazie” and “Ciao” to departing guests.  We spent an hour talking and you’ll have to wait until my Vail Daily article on that, but it was the discussion of my book project that finally turned the conversation onto the path of the serendipitous discovery of Chiara Boschis.

In my journal, I simply wrote “Chiara Boschis, owner E. Pira e Figli.”  Her family’s name was of course familiar, but this women who was one of the first of her gender to run a winery in Barolo was new to me.

Maurilio said “I’ll take you to meet her.”  So into the misty rain we went up the street and across the main road that skirts town to the winery on the corner.  Beside the thick, imposing wooden door was a plaque that read simply, “Pira.”  The loud bell brought to the door a smiling man I later discovered was Chiara’s younger brother, Giorgio, who has been with her in the winery since 2010.  Chiara was away, but he gave me her card.  I would have to wait, perhaps until June, to meet her.

Then again, not. The coming week would bring me back to Barolo to finally have an opportunity to interview this incredibly passionate, poetic winemaker who just so happened to be a woman.  One of le donne di Piemonte.

See my articles on Chiara Boschis at:

http://www.vaildaily.com/article/20130331/AE/130339983&parentprofile=search

http://www.vaildaily.com/article/20130407/AE/130409885/1078&ParentProfile=1062

And TripAdvisor review of La Cantinetta:

http://www.tripadvisor.com/ShowUserReviews-g1410653-d1503903-r156100269-La_Cantinetta-Barolo_Province_of_Cuneo_Piedmont.html

Discovering the Under Discovered in Barolo – In Search of Chiara Boschis

You’ll have to wait for my book, “Under Discovered: Piemonte through the eyes of its women” to get the full story.  In the meantime, I thought I’d introduce you to some of the wonderful women and their families who will populate the pages of my book.  Many I’ve known for nearly 14 years, but a few I’ve only just met through the process of researching my book.  One of those women is the effervescent and immensely talented Chiara Boschis, winemaker and owner of E. Pira e Figli in Barolo.

WInemaker Chiara Boschis at home amongst her treasured nebbiolo vines
Winemaker Chiara Boschis at home amongst her treasured nebbiolo vines

On Monday, I introduced my Vail Daily readers near and far to Chiara.  You can read more about her at:

http://www.vaildaily.com/article/20130331/AE/130339983&parentprofile=search

What I didn’t tell you was how I discovered this well-known, under-discovered maven of Barolo.  Serendipity is wonderful and often its surprises can yield incredible fruit.

After a grueling month of first getting my husband Dani off on his long trip to Israel, I was off on my odyssey in Piemonte.  I arrived in Treiso at Agriturismo Il Bricco evening of March 19th.  The journey had taken nearly 27 hours, but I was excited to be back in the land of the noble grape.

Wednesday, Thursday and Friday took me back and forth between Treiso, Barbaresco and Barolo interviewing fascinating women and men from the winemaking families of Cantina del Pino, Marchesi di Gresy, Gaja, G. D. Vajra, Livia Fontana and Cascina delle Rose.  Although I still had interviews to conduct at Deltetto, Ca’ del Baio and Matteo Correggia the following week, the weekend gave me a much-needed break to process all that I had learned in the hours of interviews.  Most of all, the weekend meant market day in Alba.

The Alba mercato is located on the fringes of the old city.  During the week the area under and around the massive roof is a parking lot.  But on Saturdays it becomes an expansive gastronomic venue.  Everything one needs to make prepare a stunning Piemontese feast – including the utensils, gadgets, pots and pans – can be found at the market.  Ok, so you have to shop elsewhere for the treasured tartufo bianci in autumn, but even the clothes and shoes to wear for the occasion can be purchased here.  Nothing like an hour walking around, envying the availability of beautiful vegetables, cheese, meat and seafood to remind me of what I miss most about living in Europe.  Why can’t we have markets like that in Colorado instead of the over-priced weekend farmers’ markets?

Pasta Perfection in the Alba mercato                    Mediterranean Mollusks

WIth that obligatory stroll through the mercato complete, I drove back to Il Bricco, deposited my goodies – chestnut honey, roasted hazelnuts, lace scarves and the Parmigiano-Reggiano given to me as a gift from the cheese couple I wrote about last year – and headed west to Barolo (see below).

Husband and wife cheese merchants in the Alba mercato

I was on a mission.  Ristorante La Cantinetta was my destination.

And we’re off!

With the best intentions to write everyday, I set up my blog. Unfortunately, the umbilical cord that keeps the lifeblood of our internet addiction flowing – wifi – has been unreliable.

I arrived in Geneva mid-afternoon on Tuesday, March 19th, after a long journey from Denver to Washington D.C. onward to Frankfurt – now there’s a marathon of a flight connection! – and finally Geneva.  It was my intention to jump into the rental car and drive either to Chamonix or Courmayeur since I didn’t believe for a moment I could survive the long drive – particularly through Torino – after such a long plane trip.  But the weather was so beautiful and the roads fairly empty that when I popped out of the Mont Blanc Tunnel at 4:30 in the afternoon, I kept going.  And yes, it is possible to drive for four and a half hours without radio, CD or MP3!

Snow had fallen in the Alps the night before, treating me to stunning views of trees covered with fresh snow and soaring alabaster peaks against a bluebird sky.  I’ve seen Mont Blanc from nearly every angle, including once from a low-level flight in Swiss International Airline’s brand new A340 on a journalist’s junket, but never quite so unforgettable as this.

Anyone who lived in Europe when the 7-mile long, two-lane tunnel was transformed into an inferno the morning of March 24, 1999, can’t possibly enter the tunnel without a little uneasiness.  I can’t.  This was the part I worried about the most as I drove through the Arve River valley to the tunnel.  If I had felt the least bit tired, which I wasn’t, I would never have taken the risk of entering the tunnel.  Not fair to anyone.  Driving through the Mont Blanc tunnel is one of the few times I witness restraint on the part of Italian and French drivers as they respect the speed limit and the 500 foot distance required – and monitored – between vehicles.

Once out of Valle d’Aosta and into the flatland between mountains and hills, the Alps bordering France and Italy appeared, drenched in the rose-colored light of the setting sun.  Monte Viso, the triangular peak that is the highest in the Cottian Alps, soars above its neighbors.  A solitary soldier, seen from miles away.

IMG_1768

The remainder of the long drive was fairly easy, even the rush hour traffic of the frequently maddening tangenziale circling Torino to the west.  The Asti Est (east) exit that used to be a transition from the relative ease of the autostrade to the confusing maze of construction zones and then onto the Asti-Alba road, lined with prostitutes and slowed by gawking truck drivers.  But now, with the autostrade completed between Asti and Alba, the once 30 minute drive is reduced to a quick 10 or 15, depending on how brave one is push the speed limit.  Something Italians generally have no problem with doing!

Arriving in Treiso and finding the Argiturismo Il Bricco beyond the church, high on the bricco (hill), was easy.  So many times before I had driven through the square.  Nothing had changed in the past 14 years except for appearance of the restaurant and bar Profumo di Vino, the successful brainchild of Mexican chef, Guillermo (Memo) Field.

Chef-Restaurateur Memo Field Cloudy Day View of Agriturismo Il Bricco

 Plates of local cheeses and tender, tasty salami with a basket of feather light grissini helped down my throat by the family’s Barbera d’Alba was all I needed.  The 28-hour journey was over, but the adventure was just beginning.

"Snack" at Agriturismo Il Bricco

 

It will take me a few days to catch up on my writing, but I will.  So much to process after 9 interviews!