Today, across wine regions of Europe, wine families are under the crushing weight of over-regulation. Big Brother is an unwanted participant in the wine industry, particularly in Italy.
Unlike large wineries that can afford the high cost of labor and hire dedicated administrative staff, small to medium size family-owned wineries struggle to tend to their vineyards, make wine and comply with the albatross of regulations from the European Union and Italy bureaucracy. Oh, did I mention trying also to raise a family and have a life?
Provincia Ufficio Ispettorato Agrario (Provincial office of agricultural inspection)
Regione Assessorato Agricoltura (Regional department of agriculture)
Valoritalia – Ente Certificatore (DOC, DOCG, IGA, etc)
ASL (Unità Sanitaria Locale) (Local health department)
NAS (Nuclea anti-Sofisticazioni dei Carabinieri) (Anti-adulturation police)
ICQRF (Ufficio Repressione Frodi) (Fraud office)
Corpo Forestale dello Stato (State forestry department)
Guardia di Finanza (think IRS!)
Agenzia delle Entrate (Inland revenue – again, think IRS!)
It doesn’t matter if regulators arrive in the midst of time-critical work in the vineyards or cellars. Nothing takes priority over the controllers. Although like Mother Nature the government requires immediate attention, the latter can be quite unreasonable if its needs are not met.
Labor is extremely expensive in Italy. Family owned wineries and restaurants have been forced to reduce staff. Volunteer labor – once part of the cultural beauty of the Italian harvest – is strictly forbidden. If you happen to be in Piemonte during the harvest and see helicopters flying overhead, it’s not National Geographic taking photos, but the government’s labor controllers. They compare the work sheets of farmers with aerial photos. If the numbers in the latter are greater than the numbers reported, crushing fines are imposed on the farmers. The result? Wine family members must be able to attend to all demands of the winery both internally and externally. And I haven’t even mentioned the market demands they must tend to in order to sell their wines.
I have to wonder how an industry that has been around since before the Romans could survive without governmental regulations. But it did. With no sign of a halt to the expansion of European Union and Italian government regulations, let’s hope the industry – particularly the artisanal family wineries – can survive the suffocating weight of bureaucracy.
I began my journey to write “A Labor of Love: Wine Family Women of Piemonte” when I discovered riveting stories about the courageous women of Piemonte. The first stories I heard were about Beatrice Rizzolio, grandmother of Giovanna Rizzolio of Cascina delle Rose. The courageous, brilliant woman is memorialized as a “savior” at Yad Vashem. Her designation as one of the Righteous Among the Nations came in 1975 in Rome for recognition of her courage in saving Jews during the Nazi occupation of Piemonte after the Italian armistice with the Allies on September 8, 1943.
Much is known about the courageous acts of women who fought as women partisans against the Nazis and fascisti. But what of the simple farmers who risked their lives and possessions to give aid and succor to the partisans? Little is known about them except for the stories families tell to each other and, occasionally, to an outsider like me.
One story of a courageous couple – Leone and Cornelia (Elia) Cigliuti – came to me through their granddaughter Claudia Cigliuti. The winemaking Cigliuti family has lived for centuries on the Bricco di Neive.
The bucolic vineyard-carpeted hill was once a hotspot of Autonomi partisan activity during the Nazi occupation between September 1943 and the end of the war in May 1945.
Sympathetic to the partisans, many farming families provided the partisans with shelter and food. This placed them in grave danger. Retribution for adding partisans was swift and brutal. But the courageous Piemontesi defied the occupiers and women like Elia Cigliuti were important civilian soldiers through their resistance.
One could say Elia owed her life to chickens. One day when Elia was outside her house, she saw a group of men walking up the road next to the family’s home. Knowing Fascist soldiers were nearby and thinking the men were partisans, she waved her arms and began to shout, “Go away! Go away!” Sadly, they were not partisans.
The Fascists ran to her, threatening her life as they demanded to know who she was trying to warn. With guns aimed at her and her life in the balance, the quick-thinking Elia pointed to the chickens in the vineyard. “I was shooing away the chickens so they wouldn’t eat the grapes!” she insisted. It wasn’t an easy sell.
Eventually, Elia convinced the gun-wielding soldiers the chickens were to blame for her shouting and nothing more. Truth is, chickens are just fine in vineyards and are considered valuable “vineyard workers” since they aerate the soil, eat insects and leave behind nitrogen rich “fertilizer.” Thanks, however, to the Cigliutis’ chickens that were in the right place at the right time, and to a lack of viticultural knowledge amongst the menacing fascists, Elia lived.
Not doubt stories like this abound. Unfortunately, they will fade from history unless shared. Hopefully, more wine families of the Langhe and Roero where partisan activity was fierce will commit to paper the stories of their ancestors’ aid for the cause of liberty.
Want to know more about Piemonte’s wine family women? Subscribe to my blog and stay up to date on the early summer 2016 release of my book “A Labor of Love: Wine Family Women of Piemonte” and follow me on Wine Families of the World on Facebook.
I was delighted to read Will Lyon’s article in the Wall Street Journal – “Why Piemonte is the new Burgundy.” I’m always thrilled to see Piemonte get such positive, enthusiastic ink, particularly in the Journal. I’m even more delighted to see Punset amongst the list of recommended wines since it’s long overdue for feisty organic pioneer Marina Marcarino and her wines to receive such accolades!
So my hat is off to Mr. Lyons for such a nice article; I must respectfully demur, however, and note that Piemonte is not the new Burgundy. Nor the old. Piemonte is Piemonte. And, as Barbaresco producer Giovanna Rizzolio pointed out, it is Italian.
Piemonte has its own heart and soul that is reflected in its wines. And its heart and soul emanate from the cornerstone of the region – the wine families.
It’s a little sad – at least to me – that Piemonte’s wine families were not mentioned. Without their indomitable spirit and unyielding drive, the incredible oenological delights wine lovers are finally recognizing would not be possible.
The wine families of Piemonte are the source of the charisma and individualism of the region’s wines. Some prime examples include Chiara Boschis of E. Pira e Figli whose noble red wines reflect her spirit and passion;
Giovanna Rizzolio of Cascina delle Rose Barbaresco who fought a tsunami of opposition to be the first woman in Barbaresco to own and operate her own winery;
the Rocca sisters – Daniela, Paola and Monica – of Albino Rocca in Barbaresco whose own beautiful oenological signature was written on their 2013 Barbaresco, their first vintage to emerge on their own without their late father, Angelo Rocca.
and the Grasso family of Cà del Baio in Treiso in Barbaresco and Deltetto family of Canale in Roero;
…..and so on (it will all be in my book “A Labor of Love – Wine Family Women of Piemonte.”)
Incidentally, I don’t believe Piemonte is the “new Burgundy.” Piemonte is AND ALWAYS WILL BE Piemonte. I kind of feel passionate about that if you haven’t noticed!
Please never forget that the soul of Piemonte’s wines are forever tied to the families who create them. Their’s truly is a labor of love!
Women are now as important to the lifeblood of many Barbaresco wineries as the juice they extract from their grapes. Once in the shadows, societal changes broke the shackles that kept women out the family business and hereditary fortunes in patriarchal Italy.
Think about the changing face (actually, gender) of the heirs of Barbaresco’s wine families – women. Two wineries he praised – Cà del Baio and Albino Rocca – have three sisters who have or who will inherit the winery, carrying it on to future generations.
Not so long ago, Luigi, Ernesto and Giulio Grasso’s Cà del Baio, borne of hard work and determination, would not have stayed in the family given Giulio’s heirs are only women – Paola, Valentina and Federica.
And the three Rocca sisters, Daniela, Monica and Paola. What courage and talent they have displayed since the tragic death of their father! Mr. D’Agata has rightfully given their incredible work at Albino Rocca the credit they deserve.
Needless to say, Giovanna Rizzolio of Cascina delle Rose had to swim upstream against a very strong current to create her beautiful, successful winery on her family’s land.
And there are some dynamos! Elisa Scavino, Francesca Vaira, Isabella Boffa Oddero, Maria Teresa Mascarello, Gaia and Rossana Gaja, and Marta and Carlotta Rinaldi, just to name a few.
This is not to take away from the guys. Just to note the changes afoot in the vineyards and cantine of the Langhe, Roero and Monferrato. Otherwise, why would I spend two years to date researching and writing about them? Still many wonderful stories to uncover and share in the hills of Piemonte.
Many winery doors in Europe are thick, wooden barriers to domains through which centuries of winemakers have passed. On the edge of Barolo’s central district, on Via Vittorio Veneto just below sprawling Nebbiolo vineyards, there is one such door.
A black plaque with four large white letters affixed on the right of the door prominently displaying the name of the legendary wine family “PIRA” alerts visitors they’ve arrived. Press the button on the brass plaque to ring the bell that could easily wake the dead of centuries past. You’ll hear hurried steps – albeit maybe not immediately – lock turning, a bolt scraping open and finally the centuries-old door creaks open.
If your timing is right – the probability of which is improved dramatically if you’ve cleverly booked an appointment – Chiara Boschis’ bright, welcoming smile will be the first thing you see on the other side of the door to E. Pira e Figli.
On a cold March day shrouded in a light mist more akin to November than Easter, I met Chiara Boschis, E. Pira’s proprietor and winemaker. The door burst open and before me was a petite, smiling woman in leggings and a flowing skirt, bundled up in a puffy coat she clutched around her neck. I stood before her in jeans and a light, powder blue sweater and tee shirt, freezing. For some reason – as I stood there, slightly shivering – admitting it seemed out of the question. I live in the Rockies after all. We’re tough and rarely admit we’re cold.
Chiara greeted me as she would a long lost friend. Here before me was a much-loved woman who had successfully staked out her territory in Barolo’s male-dominated world and who was the subject of many laudatory articles in wine journals and blogs. But immediately I could see, despite her fame, she was no wine diva.
There was no period of uncomfortable formalities, only a warm two-handed handshake, a deep sincere look into my eyes and concern over my lightweight attire. Here was a woman in love with her craft and grateful for my interest in the women of Piemonte. I was humbled.
The conversation flowed effortlessly as we descended steep, concrete stairs, through another heavy wooden door into the maze of subterranean rooms of the centuries old winery. I was thrilled when we entered the warm barrel room where a humidifier bellowing steam transformed the space into a mild sauna. Low level lights shining up through the fog at the vaulted ceiling created an ethereal affect, giving the musty space a timeless feeling. I could see through the fog a small forest of large wooden barrels and smaller barriques where nature, guided by Chiara, was finishing its work aging and imparting aromas into her precious wines.
On later visits, I thought the cantina seemed the sort of place the ghost of sainted Giulia Colbert Falletti, Marchesa di Barolo – the 19th century mother of modern Barolo – would be comfortable. I believe she would have enjoyed Chiara, the woman who burst through gender barriers to become Barolo’s first woman winery proprietor and winemaker. Chiara draws inspiration from the Marchesa. Perhaps Giulia’s spirit guides Chiara and all the women who are her oenological legatees. I like to think so. But I digress.
A woman to the rescue
Once a rarity, women winemakers are taking their place in the Piemonte wine industry, particularly in the Langhe and Roero regions. Famous last names previously associated with men are now brands belonging to women winemakers and proprietors such as Chiara.
In 1980, following the death of Luigi Pira, Chiara emerged as the first of her gender in her family’s nine generations in Barolo to tend the vines and vinify the noble Nebbiolo grape. Luigi was the last male heir of the renowned centuries-old E. Pira e Figli winery in Barolo.
At Chiara’s behest, her father, Franco for whom she had worked at Giacomo Borgogno e Figli, bought the winery from Pira’s two sisters. The vineyards, including parcels in the prized Cannubi, and the winery would become the launching pad of Chiara’s meteoric career.
Chiara possess an innate talent for growing high quality grapes and making luscious wines from her vines’ bounty. A combination of swimming in the right gene pool and on-the-job experiences spanning a lifetime prepared her to successfully assume control of the operation in 1990.
New generation, new philosophy
On that first visit, Chiara poetically described her winemaking philosophy with words like “joy,” “passion” and “love” garnishing her language. The biggest change in her generation was not only women entering winemaking, but also giving more attention to the vineyards. “You cannot abandon the fruit in the vineyard during the growing season,” she warns. The work in the vineyards is 80% of the process. The other 20% is in the cellar. It’s logical that without the best fruit possible, nothing in the cellar will change mediocre grapes into stellar wines.
Chiara was one of the first to conduct a green harvest – crop thinning – in Barolo. If done correctly, as she does, the process of cutting shoots and bunches during the growing season produces quality over yield. Chiara strongly believes quality cannot be achieved when the vine is preoccupied and stressed with too much growth. It’s a delicate process, however, that is sometimes done three or four times as she monitors the vines’ development and the weather between June and harvest.
Her first green harvest, however, brought calls to her father from locals saying, “Chiara is crazy! She is cutting the vines!” She admits her father was also skeptical, but the proof of her logic rests in the high quality of her elegant wines.
Meteoric Rise to Fame
The splendid 1990 vintage was Chiara’s first on her own. She downplays somewhat the significance of the Tre Biccheri the Gambero Rosso awarded her her maiden vintage declaring, “It was a fabulous vintage.” True, it was, but she need not be humble about her achievement with that vintage. Four years later, with the release of the 1994 vintage, Chiara proved she was no flash in the pan.
In Europe, rain and mud were the hallmarks of the second half of 1994. Long before vines surrendered their grapes, the vintage was branded as poor. Although it gave only two out of five stars to the 1994 Piemontese vintage, Britain’s Decanter magazine noted, “Prolonged rain caused serious problems, although a few producers still made good wines.” One of those wines was Chiara’s cru from the legendary Cannubi vineyard.
As the winner of the sole Tre Bicchieri awarded for Barolo that year, her 1994 Barolo Cannubi proved she could make great wines even when Mother Nature was cranky. “Consistency is most important to success,” Chiara asserts. Weather can be changeable, but winemakers must always be at the top of their game to achieve consistently high quality wines. Since 1994, Chiara garnered numerous accolades for her Baroli that exhibit power, but with a Burgundian-like elegance, finesse and soft tannins, the signature of her wines.
In its 2013 Duemilavini wine guide, the Italian Sommelier Association awarded its highest honor, “Cinque Grapoli” (five bunches), to Chiara’s 2008 and 2010 Barolo Cannubi. So I’d say that now, as she brings in her 24th vintage as the head of Pira, Chiara Boschis has proven herself worthy of her winemaking heritage.
Chiara’s wines continue to garner praise across the globe. Her personality, devotion and talent emerge from each bottle of wine opened in lands far from the humble Piemonte village of its origins. No doubt, most days someone meets Chiara for the first time by merely sipping her vinous creations.
Looking To The Future
Chiara bridges the past and future through her devotion to preserving Piemonte’s cultural heritage, insuring future generations remain connected to region’s land and the culture surrounding all it produces.
Chiara is married to the land and protects it as she would her own offspring. As a certified organic wine producer who never exposes her vines to pesticides, she guards the environment and the health of her clients and neighbors. Her ardent belief – a view many of her peers share – is vineyards can survive without chemicals. A healthy future and continuation of centuries of Piemontese viticulture depend on farmers such as Chiara to protect the terroir.
With brother Giorgio who left Borgogno and joined her at Pira in 2010, she’s well into her third decade of creating beautiful, award-winning wines. Brother Cesare also left Borogono and now works with his sister and eight others in the “ethical” project to preserve the culture and production of Castelmagno in Rifugio Valliera. Together, the close-knit siblings are working to insure the region’s traditions remain a part of its fabric, leaving generations to come a bright future in Piemonte.
From far away, wine lovers romanticize about the process of making wine. They long to participate in a harvest, to experience the crush of vinous fruit and inhale a winery’s intoxicating, musty odors fermentation creates.
Yes, the transformation of fruit into fermented juice is a magical experience. For those whose connection with wine is primarily the vinous stream from a bottle poured in their homes or at a restaurant, it’s a bit of a fantasy. I urge wine lovers to experience a harvest, since to do so is to understand the high risks, the incredibly difficult, stressful work and the sheer joy that comes with producing wine. In short, it’s an experience that enhances appreciation of the men and women who toil in vineyards and wineries across the globe.
Since the mid-1990s, Giovanna Rizzolio has been welcoming visitors to her agriturismo by the same name. She was one of the first in the Langhe to provide lodging of this type. Soon, some of her guests – particularly Oregonians – began returning to help her bring in the grapes from her 3.6 hectares.
Twenty years later, Giovanna with her husband Italo Sobrino and their two sons, Davide and Riccardo, tend to Cascina delle Rose’s vineyards and make excellent wine below their home and the agriturismo’s rooms. Lots of life happening under one roof on three levels!
Giovanna’s captivating stories of her nonna Beatrice inspired me to begin an odyssey I’m still on: committing to paper many of the stories the Langhe’s and Roero’s strong women. Giovanna’s story is one of courage and unyielding determination in the face of Barbaresco’s patriarchal society buried like the vines deep in Langhe clay.
As the first woman to own and run her own winery in Barbaresco, Giovanna surmounted many obstacles and avoided trapdoors on her climb to success. But today, with her small family Giovanna, has succeeded in garnering accolades for her wines from across the globe.
This year, given the difficult summer growing season – cool and somewhat wet – I asked Giovanna to keep a “day-in-the-life” diary of the harvest. Mamma Natura is smiling on them now, giving them more sun and warmer temperatures. If she continues her generous gift of good weather, the increased hang time for the Nebbiolo grapes will yield a lovely crop from which Giovanna will begin to work magic in her cantina.
Since Cascina delle Rose only produces red wines, their harvest work in the vineyard begins a little later than those wineries with whites, but preparations have been underway to prepare for harvest when the grapes tell them it’s time to head home.
Vendemmia 2014 Begins
Here are the highlights of “harvest week one” that Giovanna shared with me. Much more to come:
Sunday, September 14th
16:00 – We finished sampling Dolcetto grapes from Tre Stelle and Rio Sordo crus.
17:00 – Samples are taken for analysis
Monday, September 15th – The Harvest Begins!
08:00 – The results of the analyses of the Dolcetto grapes arrived. We decided that today is the best day to start the harvest.
08:20 – The 2014 harvest begins with Dolcetto’s Tre Stelle vineyard!
Observation – The weather is great!
12:40 – We need a short lunch break!
13:00 – We return to the vines; the harvest continues.
14:00 – A couple of guests from the Agriturismo join is to experience the harvest
Observation – The afternoon is warm and sunny.
17:30 – We are starting good. Not much more to pick in the old vineyards of Tre Stelle.
18:30 – The vineyard is finished, so not the guys are collecting the boxes.
19:00 – We are preparing the entire staff for crushing process. Some clouds in the sky, but no rain yet.
19:15 – We are now ready to crush the first vineyard harvested in 2014!
20:00 – Crushing is finished. It’s time to sample the must (23°C – Babo 19.10). Not too bad at the end. J
21:00 – The Agriturismo’s guests are all out for dinner, so Giovanna starts cooking: pasta with home ragù and Dolcetto 2012 is on the menu this evening.
Observation – The first day ended with a thunderstorm in the Barolo area. Barbaresco was luckier since no rain arrived. Not so tired. The guys know that the hardest work will arrive within approximately 15 to 20 days when the Barbera and Nebbiolo will be ready to come home.
Note of the day – The grapes – that have very sensitive skins and stems – seem to have suffered a bit in the strange summer. But with no hail and great September weather, they will have a great balance, but sugar level is a little lower than in past years.
Tuesday, September 16th
06:40 – Our day starts early. Lazy Jack has difficulty waking up! J
08:00 – While Giovanna and Riccardo are busy with the Agriturismo’s guests, Davide and Italo start with the Dolcetto’s Rio Sordo vineyard, the only one located just a few meters from home. The guests will join the guys in the vineyard later.
12:20 – Lunch break! A few panini and a tiny bit of relaxing.
12:40 – Back to the Rio Sordo vineyard.
13:00 – Davide’s wife Simona joined us for the harvest.
18:45 – Dolcetto 2014 harvest is ended and the guys will start to collect the boxes of grapes.
19:30 – We are now ready for crushing.
20:10 – Dolcetto crushing is finished and samples done (22°C – Babo 19.80) J!!!!
20:15 – It seems that the Tre Stelle vineyard is wanting to start with fermentation. Maybe tomorrow?
20:30 – Preparing to go out for the evening with Elizabeth Page (Giovanna’s “American sister” – our Dolcetto label is dedicated to her!) and Alan to celebrate his birthday. A totally relaxing evening tonight!
Note of the day: We had great weather. Quite chilly in the early morning, but the day developed very well; 25°C (77°F) in the afternoon.
Wednesday, September 17th
Observation – As expected, Tre Stelle vineyard grapes slowly begin fermentation.
Thursday, September 18th
Observation – The crushed Rio Sordo Dolcetto grapes begin their fermentation. Nice color and a great bouquet are developing. Three times a day, we conduct a soft and long pumping-over.
Stay tuned….much more to come from Cascina delle Rose in Barbaresco!
Long before the Cordon Bleu and Culinary Institute of America were founded, there were mothers and grandmas who taught their female offspring to cook, binding generations together with culinary traditions. In Piemonte, Italy, this “nonna culture” has cultivated many fine chefs. Elide Cordero, Chef/Co-owner of Ristorante il Centro in Priocca, Italy is a culinary offspring of that culture.
Piemonte, the large province located in northwest Italy, is home to a diverse landscape that yields a cornucopia of agricultural bounty, perfect for instilling in her inhabitants a rich culinary legacy. In the mountains, milk and cheese are the primary products. The region’s sub-alpine hills are home to Alto Piemonte’s vineyards. On the flatlands, fed by the Po River, cattle, rice and crops such as beans and other vegetables flourish. Finally, vineyards and hazelnut groves carpet the undulating landscape of Langhe, Roero, and Monferrato. That’s just a bird’s eye view of the region’s agrarian landscape.
It’s in that surrounding Elide’s grandmother and mother nurtured her culinary roots. At her family’s restaurant Il Centro in the Roero town of Priocca, Elide Cordero has blossomed into one of Italy’s leading chefs, although in her shy, modest manner she’d deny that stature. Her well-deserved Michelin star gives the Cordero family’s restaurant global notoriety, but Elide, like her cuisine, has remained humble and true to the region.
Unlike many of her peers who earned degrees at expensive private culinary schools, Elide studied at one of the oldest and most prestigious of all – the family kitchen. Her earliest memories were of a yearning to cook. Under her grandmother and mother’s tutelage in their farmhouse kitchen in Pocapaglia, 32 miles south of Torino, Elide fell in love with nature’s bounty growing just beyond their kitchen door. The two women she loved and admired most showed her how to coax delectable flavors out of the simplest ingredients. Those experiences set her on a path well-deserved fame.
Youthful Farm Life
The evolution of Elide Cordero’s culinary prowess began on her family’s farm. Growing up in the middle of nature instilled in Elide a solid work ethic and keen appreciation of the seasonality of food and the time needed to produce it. Elide finds the ability to buy strawberries from some distant land in the cold of December unnatural.
Food has a seasonality that should be respected. Gone are the days we pined for our favorite fruit or vegetable to be ready for harvest. Strawberries in spring. Melons in summer. Grapes in autumn. Today, Western societies have settled for “on-demand” food, available anytime of the year. As Elide notes, the demand may be met, but the price paid is quality and health.
On Elide’s parents’ farm, chemicals – a given in today’s industrialized farms – were eschewed. It was unheard of to alter a plant or animal’s development. Nature would take her time. She needed no interference from man’s chemicals. Fertilizer came from cows not a chemical plant miles away.
In the face of commonplace economic hardships, farmers like Elide’s father, Francesco Mollo, possessed a complete understanding of nature’s ways. They knew the origins of everything their families ate and respected nature for providing it. Sadly, industrialization of the food industry has tainted – perhaps forever – the land once so lovingly tended.
The knowledge transfer Elide enjoyed came each day after school when she and her brother Giovanni would tend the farm animals and harvest vegetables and herbs for dinner. She then would help her mother Francesca cook. It was a hard, demanding life, but in her words, “It was a life lived from the heart, so it wasn’t tough.”
Wood, not gas, fired the stoves of Elide’s childhood home. In winters, Elide would accompany her father to collect wood. The wood’s use was dependent upon its characteristics. Slow burn was obviously best for the kitchen. Rovere and Quercia – types of oak trees – are prized for their very slow, even burning characteristics. Elide’s daughter Valentina fondly remembers peering through a hole in the top of the stove while her grandmother added more wood to fire a slow-cooking dish.
From this respect for nature that cocooned her budding culinary skills, Elide learned how to coddle a product, developing its best flavors. It’s the essence of her philosophy in her kitchen at Il Centro. The best products cooked in the correct manner – usually slow – yield the best dishes. That philosophy, engrained in Elide long before she became a chef, drives her creative cuisine that pays homage to the rich Piemontese culinary heritage.
Journey to Il Centro
Elide’s journey to Il Centro began in her early 20s. Her workweek consisted of 8-hour days in a garment factory followed by evenings helping on the farm. Fridays didn’t signal an end to work. Weekends presented another work opportunity when she would travel about 16 miles to work as a server and a barista at a bar in Priocca.
In early 1980s’ Piemonte, restaurant excursions were primarily weekend events. That’s when bars such as the Cordero family’s Il Centro would be transformed into restaurants serving patrons celebrating birthdays, weddings, christenings and first communions. Elide had little interest in serving. Cooking for restaurant patrons was closer to her heart.
The alchemy of cuisine energized Elide and filled her dreams. An encounter with a “coup de feu” when she met Enrico Cordero helped make those dreams come true.
Love at first sight is often viewed as a cliché. Not for Elide and Enrico. Within 6 months of love’s lightening strike, they celebrated their nuptials. Once again, Elide’s culinary education was in the hands of two women, her mother-in-law Rita and Enrico’s grandmother Lidia, each with a love of cooking. A year later, they welcomed their first child Valentina into their lives.
Mornings found Elide in Il Centro, behind the bar, making coffee. Afternoons she moved to the small kitchen for her cooking education. With no formal culinary background, Elide stressed over the dishes she prepared.
Her first task was learning to make pasta. Piemonte is famous for its traditional pasta – agnolotti di plin, small ravioli; and egg-rich tajarin, a tiny version of tagliatelle only 1/12” wide. Making each is time-consuming and challenging, but Elide mastered the techniques. Then came desserts. Although happy to be cooking, she yearned to expand the bar-restaurant’s menu.
A few years after Valentina, her brother Giampiero was born. The little family was complete. Six years after her wedding, Elide realized she needed to venture to other restaurants to absorb knowledge from seasoned chefs to achieve her full potential.
Elide’s first culinary experience beyond Il Centro was a 3-day stage with Georges Cuny, a French chef in Piacenza she discovered through a long-time customer. The short stage yielded a wealth of knowledge that helped her better organize and operate Il Centro’s kitchen. But since she believed “the hand of woman is very different than that of a man,” Elide wanted to continue her education under the guidance of a woman chef. She found that opportunity in the medieval hilltop town of Montemerano, halfway between Florence and Rome.
Chef Valeria Piccini’s restaurant Da Caino is located in an agricultural zone much like that surrounding Elide’s beloved childhood home. Here Elide reveled in learning new techniques under the guidance of the Michelin two-star chef. Having enhanced her culinary repertoire, Elide now had the confidence she needed to take Il Centro to the next level. Chef Piccini urged her to take the plunge. And plunge she did.
Creating an Epicurean Center of Excellence
Enrico Cordero’s chef-father Pierin bought Il Centro in April 1956. For 100 years before and in years since he purchased Il Centro, it had always been a bar first, restaurant second. The restaurant concept didn’t fit Elide’s vision. The pool table and pinball machine certainly weren’t suitable furnishings for a white linen restaurant. The tiny kitchen was woefully inadequate. Changes were needed.
In the late 1980s, the transformation from bar to world class restaurant began. Although the entrance is still a bar where patrons can enjoy a coffee or something a bit stronger, the pool table and pinball machine are gone. In their place is a small, discrete private dining room with soft lighting under the original vaulted brick ceiling, giving guests a feeling of renaissance dining. The elegant, but non-pretentious main dining room is bright and airy with pale yellow walls and stately white molding.
The kitchen more than doubled in size, becoming a stage for Elide and her team’s epicurean performance six days a week.
Elide’s dessert station was once her entire kitchen.
As it always has been, Il Centro remains a family affair.
Valentina, now a journalist in New York City, spent her childhood with her brother Giampiero working with and learning from their parents. Even now, when she visits from New York, Valentina joins her family in the restaurant.
Giampiero, a graduate in enology of the prestigious Alba enological school, now works in the front of the house with his father Enrico.
Together, they manage the impressive wine cellar and insure Elide’s beautiful cuisine receives the presentation it rightly deserves.
The road from the farmhouse kitchen in Pocapaglia to the heady atmosphere of Il Centro, where people from around the world flock to enjoy her cuisine, has been a long, but happy one for Elide. Her smile and her delight at creating simple but sumptuous dishes out of Mother Nature’s bounty are key ingredients in Elide Cordero’s cuisine. Her successful journey from farmhouse to world class restaurant kitchen where she cultivates culinary excellence is now complete.
I met Barolo winemaker and nature lover, Chiara Boschis, on a research trip to Piemonte in March 2013. One of the first woman wine producers in the Langhe, Chiara is the proprietor and winemaker of E. Pira e Figli, a 30,000 bottle annual production winery in Barolo.
In that first interview, she told me the intriguing story of the Des Martin ethical project in Castelmagno, a commune high in the Valle Grana in western Piemonte.
In 2007, Chiara and nine others, including her brother, Cesare Boschis, embarked on a mission to procure and renovate a portion of Valliera, an abandoned timberline hamlet in the commune. Their goal: resurrect Valliera to preserve a dying cheese making tradition.
The project embodies Chiara’s passionate dedication to honoring nature and preserving tradition. The intersection of her enthusiasm for the project and my love of the cheese prompted me to ask her to take my husband and me to Valliera for a firsthand experience. Chiara promised to do so. Chiara makes no empty promises. Early in the morning on the last day of June 2013, our exploration of this bit of history began.
Not really a day of rest
Three months of relentless rain and cold nights stymied Piemonte’s vines in the early growing season. However, two weeks of warm sunshine in early June coaxed tendrils to reach for the sky and begin their summer grape-making chore. Developing vines demand attention and already Chiara had her own chores in the vineyards. Nevertheless, she willingly dedicated her Sunday to guide us on a unique mountain adventure few visitors – and locals – have experienced.
It certainly wasn’t a “day off” for Chiara. Truth is I’m not certain if such a thing exists for someone easily described as “The Energizer Bunny of Wine.” She volunteered to drive to Valliera, nearly two hours to the west of Barolo. Given her pickup was more suited for the rough mountain roads to the alpeggio than our low-to-the-ground rental car, I ceded driving responsibilities to her.
Chiara’s longtime Belgian friends, Willy and Marie Therese Van Riel, joined us at her winery in Barolo early that morning. For the past 17 years, the Van Riels have returned to Piemonte at least twice a year. This was their first trip into the Occitane valleys that lie along Italy’s western, alpine border. Together, we piled into the double cab pickup like excited kids on a field trip.
Traversing Varying Landscapes
Piemonte consists of three geographically distinct areas – mountains, plains and hills. Our drive west at Chiara’s leisurely pace – unusual for a Piemontese under the age of 80 – took us through all three. First, we drove along winding roads through rolling, vineyard carpeted hills in the southern reaches of the Barolo appellation. The lush, green canopies were in stark contrast to the barren vines of winter and spring, and vibrant gold and yellow leaves of autumn I’m used to seeing.
Soon, the hills were behind us as we reached the flatland between the Langhe and mountains. Here, instead of grapevines, the earth nourishes crops such as fruits, particularly apples and kiwis, vegetables and Cuneo’s famous climbing beans. Chiara gave us a lesson in all the crops, the increasing climate change issues, particularly hail, and the history of the region’s many frescoed churches and chapels. This really was a school field trip! Like sponges, we absorbed Chiara’s wisdom and knowledge.
Earlier, as we drove across the plain, Chiara pointed out churches and chapels that house frescoes painted by 15th century artists who roamed from town to town. The wealthy House of Savoy ruled the region from the 11th century until the end of the Italian monarchy in June 1946. The noble family commissioned artists from Italy, France and beyond creating what today is a fresco museum of sorts spread across Piemonte. The chapel of S. Sebastiano is one of those hidden-in-plain-sight gems.
Located steps away from the busy road, adjacent to a cemetery, the chapel’s nondescript exterior belies the art treasure that adorns its ceiling. Only a simple sign on a tilting post provided hints of the chapel’s significance.
Pietro da Saluzzo was one of the prolific traveling Renaissance artists. We peeked through the large viewing window cut into the exterior wall and marveled at his incredibly detailed and well-preserved fresco, described by some as “remarkable and witty.” It was a bit surrealistic viewing this five century-old painting while standing beside a road, with cows grazing nearby. This is what I love about Italy. Not all its treasures are locked away in traditional museums. Had Chiara not stopped there, my ignorance of Piemonte’s Renaissance fresco painters would still exist.
The field trip continued as we piled back into the truck and continued our drive along the Grana River. Chiara was now on a mission. Next stop, a small bakery where sought-after baguettes are baked daily.
Two Baguettes, Cheese and a Smile
This bakery – sorry, didn’t get the name – is legendary for its crusty baguettes, an unusual bread in Italy, no doubt a result of French influence in the valley under the Savoys. Buying one, however, is challenging.
As we approached, people leaving the shop clutched their treasured baguettes and glanced sideways as though suspicious we would snatch their bread.
Chiara was not only determined to buy baguettes for a late morning snack at our destination, but to coax a smile from the aged, rotund and rather grumpy woman who ran the shop. Smiling is something Chiara has mastered. Her throaty laugh combined with her broad smile that easily spreads across her face, could make anyone grin. Except this woman.
Chiara pleaded with her to sell us two baguettes. It wasn’t an easy task since the day’s allotment of this caviar of bread was dwindling fast. I couldn’t quite understand the exchange between Chiara and the guardian of the bread, but whatever she said worked. We scored two loaves, but no smile.
Delicious, crispy bread with a somewhat salty crust deserves something very special to go with it. Since we were in the land of one of the most revered cheeses in Italy, Castelmagno was a no-brainer choice for Chiara to add to her bread purchase.
As we climbed back into the truck, Chiara offered a loaf to us to try. It was still warm. Had we turned around and driven back to Barolo, the drive for the bread and cheese would have been worth it. However, waiting up the valley were more delights to tickle our senses.
Walk, Don’t Drive
In late autumn 2008, Dani and I explored Castelmagno’s villages. Therefore, when we began climbing the excruciatingly narrow and steep road to Colletto, the tight 180-degree switchbacks didn’t worry me. Well, at first that is.
The truck’s poor turning radius and difficult gearbox weren’t suited for the road. Chiara had to turn, shift gears, roll backward, shift, and turn again to navigate the tight switchbacks. The flimsy metal-pipe guardrail offered no solace to the terrified. Remember, I told you the road’s steep. Little did I know, this was child’s play compared to what awaited us between Colletto and Valliera.
As we reached the tiny, cliff-side village of Colletto, I finally exhaled. My easy breathing and lowering heart rate lasted all of 10 seconds. We began the final climb up the rocky, even narrower and steeper road – if that was possible – through the forest to Valliera. Cows and herders walk this road twice a year. Now we were driving it. I vowed to walk down, if we made it up.
Taking the metaphorical high road is often fraught with perils. The real ones can be risky, too. The steep gravel road with sharp turns and switchbacks was just that, risky. I trusted Chiara with her dogged determination and experience with the road, but my fear of heights plagued me.
Although I sat in the front passenger seat, I thought perhaps the back of the pickup may have suited me better, preferably under a blanket with my eyes squeezed shut. The lovely view ahead through the thick forest captivated us, but it was the absence of any road to my right and the sheer drop down the tree-lined mountainside that opened the door for fear to creep in.
“Don’t look,” I kept telling myself. Unfortunately, the plunging landscape mesmerized me. Chiara tried reassuring us that we weren’t really high up. Given the valley floor was 1,500 feet below, down the near vertical mountainside, I found no solace in her words. The chicken in me would not rest.
Finally, we were out of the forest. Valliera appeared like the Emerald City. As we parked in a clearing above Valliera, I released my death grip on the door handle and took my first easy breath since we left the valley floor.
In the distance, we could see tiny Colletto far below. Through breaks in the forest, I could see the steep road we traveled. Chiara jumped out and quickly set up an aperativo of Italy’s holy trinity – bread, cheese and wine.
The scrumptious late morning snack consisted of the crispy, slightly salty baguettes from the frowning lady’s shop, soft, flaky Castelmagno cheese and a bottle of Chiara’s own exquisite Dolcetto d’Alba. It beat any tailgate party I’d experienced.
Torino’s Siren Song
As we stood savoring Chiara’s treats, I felt haunted as I looked down at the ghostly hamlet Des Martin is bringing to life and thought of the centuries-old mountain culture that came to an abrupt halt in the 1950s and 60s.
For countless generations, the inhabitants of these high mountain hamlets tended their cows, sheep, goats and gardens in the summer and, with the animals, retreated indoors when the snows arrived. They made good use of the long, solitary winters. While barricaded in the hamlet until the spring thaw, they whiled away the hours repairing tools and making furniture. It wasn’t an easy life.
In the 1950s and 60s, the lure of jobs at Fiat and promises of the good life prompted mountain dwellers to abandon their villages and head for Piemonte’s capital, Torino. People simply took what little they needed, left the rest and fled their alpeggio life for the unknown – but promised – riches of the city. Valliera, like other hamlets in the Castelmagno commune, was abandoned.
For five decades, the abandoned hamlet endured Mother Nature’s high country winter wrath on its own. When the members of the Des Martin consortium arrived, the hamlet, though decaying, was mountain life frozen in time.
Tattered, moth-eaten clothes still hung in closets. Empty plates lay on tables. Stained, musty mattresses were on rickety beds. Chiara likens the exodus to the California Gold Rush when people abandoned lives they knew for promises of riches in a different world. They simply vanished, blending into Torino’s population.
For an hour, we explored the dwellings before arriving at Des Martin’s renovated buildings – modern on the inside, rustic on the outside – that housed the consortium’s living and cheese production quarters.
Cheesemaker Ilaria Tomatis was busy draining forms of wet cheese.
We popped our heads into the two refrigerated rooms where 5-kilogram blocks of precious alpeggio cheese were aging. The short, five-month season yields 500 forms of Castelmagno. Obviously, much more is needed for economic viability. However, for now, the owners are content with saving the hamlet and starting up the operation.
By 1:00, Chiara ended her intriguing guided tour of the Des Martin project. It was lunchtime!
Finding Refuge at the Table
Huts of all sorts dot the high mountain landscape throughout the Alps. In Italy, rifugi alpini (Alpine shelters) provide resting spots for trekkers across the mountains. Rifugio Valliera provided us a place to sit and enjoy a typical Occitania lunch al fresco.
At the long picnic table, we joined Flavia Arneodo, manager of the Rifugio, Ilaria, Flavia’s father Piero, workers and Des Martin’s cow herder. It was a feast!
As with every Italian meal, antipasti were set out on wooden boards – frittata, lardo, and salami with the obligatory grissini. Travel in Piemonte is not a time to watch your cholesterol. Besides, this was fresh food, free of chemicals.
Small pitchers of house Dolcetto were set out, but Chiara produced another bottle from her cellar – Barbera d’Alba. What can I say about her wines other than each one, even those from the humblest grapes, is stellar?
First course was salsiccia with fresh tomato sauce over polenta, the starch of choice for meat in Piemonte. On the table were plates heaped with Gorgonzola and creamy, fresh butter to add to the dish, as though additions were needed. What the heck? Cheese is one of my favorite food sins so I happily sinned on the region’s famous soft blue cheese.
Flavia then offered gnocchi with a rich, creamy fonduta of Castelmagno. This was an epicurean no-brainer. Despite having gorged myself on salsiccia, a meal in Castelmagno is incomplete without the most typical of dishes – gnocchi with a silky sauce of melted Casltemagno. It’s really a splendid dish that, despite what you may think, is not heavy. It was as though we’d come upon the pot of culinary gold at the end of the rainbow.
Dessert of crostada and panna cotta perfectly punctuated the meal. Cost of this feast? A whopping $15 per person. Just the view and the delightful ambience of sharing a meal with the locals were worth far more.
It was now time to say our good-byes and head down the road. The wine had done nothing to assuage my fears, so my husband Dani and Marie Therese Van Riel joined me for the steep hike down to Colletto. Chiara tried, but failed to convince Marie Therese’s husband, Willy, to drive the truck down so she could walk. Hiking gave me a chance to safely view the steep drop from the narrow road. Just as scary walking as driving, but the awe I felt gazing at the splendid vistas quickly replaced my fears.
Marie Therese perfectly stated the experience of visiting Valliera with Chiara and those dedicated to preserving this cultural gem, “It was an exclusive experience money could not buy.” Chiara mentioned we were probably the last to see the buildings as they were left decades ago. Renovation continued all summer during which time the ghostly remains of clothes, furniture and bedding were removed.
The high road we had taken lead us back to Chiara’s cellar. Sipping her beautiful wines while she wove stories about their production was the perfect finish to an intriguing day.
Chiara and her brother, Cesare Boschis, who is director of Des Martin, possess an infectious passion for the project. Their vision is for Des Martin to have both cheese-making and lodging facilities, making it an agriturismo experience connecting old with new. I can’t wait to check in, but I think I’ll walk up next time.
Note: Des Martin’s agriturismo at Rifugio Valliera is scheduled to open in August 2014. Stay tuned for more details on these lodgings in the sky.
I’m in Piemonte now, spending a month wrapping up final interviews and research for my book project on the wine women of the Langhe and Roero.
It’s mid-May, a time when the weather can be unpredictable, but is generally kind to visitors and vintners. Although snowstorms still plague my home in the Colorado Rockies, here the sun is shining. At my agriturismo in the countryside, I am suspended between Heaven and earth, azure blue skies and rolling green hills.
Unfortunately, my experiences haven’t always been like today. The shyness of the sun in those early trips nearly foiled later adventures to the region. How I came to love this land and find a connection so deep that I am consumed with writing about it is something that did not come easy.
Since so many of my storytelling-moments involve Piemonte, people often people ask why I’m drawn to the province, particularly the Langhe and Roero, the two most prominent wine districts (my apologies to Montferrato and northern Piemonte wineries). It’s a fair question and actually quite easy to answer. This region in the northwestern corner of Italy is an endearing amalgamation of people, culture and natural beauty that literally bewitched me.
A year passed before I experienced a sunny day in Piemonte and saw for myself what I had only seen in photographs – vine-covered rolling landscapes peppered with medieval hilltop towns against a backdrop of snow-covered alps far away on the western and northern horizons.
In early November 1999, I set out on my first Piemontese adventure with my mom and my mini-Schnauzer, Otis.
My mom was visiting and my husband Dani was in China overseeing a shipbuilding project at Jiangnan Shipyards in Shanghai, so this was a great opportunity to take mom on a reconnaissance mission to learn about this under-discovered region. We lived in neighboring Switzerland, so I loaded up mom who was visiting from south Louisiana, and Otis who enjoyed the benefits of Europe’s enlightened pet access rules into our white Ford Explorer for the nearly 5 hour drive south from Zurich.
Anyone who knows Piemonte knows Mother Nature usually unleashes her foul mood on the region in November after (hopefully) holding rains in abeyance through the autumn harvest. At a minimum, there’s always fog. But there is also rain. We had rain. Lots of it. Walking a dog in the pouring rain through sticky mud was not the experience I sought. Frankly, I was miserable.
In those days before bloggers and writers began spreading the gospel of Piemonte, there were few travel resources in any language much less English. A few of my colleagues at Swiss Re gave me tips, but for the most part, I didn’t know where to go or what to eat. I was just told it was hard to make a bad choice. My mom was along for the ride. Normally someone who wanted to be in full control, she happily ceded control to me. You might say it was a classic case of the blind leading the blind.
I discovered agriturismo Villa Meridiana on the outskirts of Alba. Perched on a west-facing slope high above the town with a view, I was told, of the Roero to the north and the Langhe to the west, it was one of the few agriturismi in existence at the time. As I had discovered when I booked, it was full. No one had told me early November was still high season when gastronomes across Europe descended on Alba to dine on and purchase tartufi bianchi d’Alba.
Fortunately, the owners had two vacant apartments in Neviglie, a hilltop hamlet in the Barbaresco appellation about 10 minutes to the east. We were delighted, but the terrifying drive on narrow, winding roads in pouring rain in what we would in later years dub the “wine panzer,” proved to be an unexpected stressor. Wine was needed.
We spent four rainy days and nights there, only once venturing outside at night. Although we didn’t discover very much beyond the apartment’s door, each day we had a delightful time buying grissini, bread, salumi, cheese and, of course, wine from the mercato d’Alba and small salumerie, panetterie, alimentari and enoteche.
The experience connected me to the region and I knew I would return if for no other reason than to see the sun shining on the vineyards.
Still Seeking the Sun
During the first February of the new millennium, I made my second trip to Piemonte, this time with Dani and my ever-present companion, Otis. Still not the best seasonal choice, but at least the persistent clouds didn’t rain on us. Although we didn’t see the vistas the Langhe was known for, the abundance of medieval villages, seemingly ghost towns in the mid-winter cold, held gastronomic secrets we soon discovered – excellent, family-owned restaurants.
We couldn’t have asked for a more appropriate introduction to classic Piemontese cucina. It was as it should be: simple, fresh and made with love. Needless to say, the concept of eating food grown within a few miles of the restaurants was a fabulous discovery.
The warmth of the food and those who prepared and served it made us long for more. We still hadn’t seen the landscape nor had we truly experienced the wine culture. That would soon change in a – positive – seismic way.
Discovering a part of New Zealand in Barbaresco
It wasn’t until later that year, again in November, when I saw the bright sunshine and what the clouds and fog had hidden from me. The trip began as expected: foggy days and even foggier nights. On the third day, an early season snowstorm blanketed the near naked vineyards with snow so that when the clouds surrendered to the sun, we discovered the landscape in all its splendor.
Snow-covered vineyards, azure blue sky – we call it “bluebird skies” in Colorado – and soaring mountains on the horizon made the wait worthwhile. Perhaps it was Mother Nature’s way of making visitors to the region worthy of witnessing the splendor she could unveil.
On that trip, we not only discovered what fog and clouds had hidden from us, but it was the beginning of our adventures in wine. After the brief period of sun, the snow melted and the fog returned. Piemonte was once again shrouded in her foggy winter mantle.
Nestled on the slopes of the Martinenga ampitheatre, it’s not an easy place to find, particularly when the pea-soup thick fog obscures signs. But we persevered and our lives changed forever. We quickly discovered it wasn’t just sun that had been missing, but an anglophone wine sage to guide us through the exciting world of Nebbiolo, Barbera, Dolcetto, Arneis and all the other varietals that make their home in Piemonte.
At Home – Briefly – in Piemonte
Fast-forward 15 years and over 20 trips to this morning in the Langhe. Once again, I’m rewarded with deep blue skies above, but now it’s lush green below my feet that dominates the colors of the landscape. Nascent grapes are profiting from warm, sunny days and vines are growing fast to produce leaves that will capture the nurturing sun’s rays.
Another vintage is dawning in the heart of Piemonte. I’m here to witness it and share with you stories of Piemonte’s wine families and their region.
Come back in the days ahead as I share stories and guide visitors to some of the under-discovered places that enchant us. Needless to say, I will introduce you to many people who have become dear friends, including Jeffrey, the tall Kiwi of Martinenga.