Another week has gone by and the release date for Labor of Love: Wine Family Women of Piemonte has inched ever closer.
This week I’d like to introduce you to the four fascinating Roero wine families who shared with me their family histories and their stories of love, tragedy and triumph. There are still many more stories to discover in the land of Arneis, Nebbiolo, Rocche and the masche(wicked witches of the forests) that lies north of the Tanaro River from the Langhe.
Roero, my friends, is not poor relative of the Langhe. It is a rich, vibrant region waiting to beguile the most diehard Langhe-phile! All you have to do is cross the bridge and explore.
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!
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’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.
Writing this article about Ornella Correggia for an upcoming Matteo Correggia wine dinner at Zino Ristorante in Edwards was a warm up for Chapter 2 of my book, “Under Discovered: Piemonte through the eyes of its women.” Ornella is a humble, kind and serene woman whose innermost courage and strength helped her endure the unimaginable loss of her husband, Matteo, 12 years ago. She is a woman who is easy to spend time with and hard to say “good-bye” to as I discovered in March when I visited her at the winery outside of Canale in the Roero district of Piemonte.
I hope you enjoy this glimpse at a woman I greatly admire.
Sara Palma of the Roero’s stellar winery, Matteo Correggia, will be in Australia next week showing their beautiful wines. There are two dinners – Sydney on the 29th and Melbourne the 30th. Thirty days hath April, so I can’t think of a better way to end the first full month of spring (or fall) than attending a Matteo Correggia wine dinner.
You ask, why would I highlight this event? Simple. Ornella Correggia is one of the fascinating, courageous women profiled in my upcoming book “Under Discovered: Piemonte through the eyes of its women.” Needless to say, the wines are beautiful and Sara is a delight. Her knowledge of the wines and effervescent enthusiasm makes for an entertaining and educational wine experience. Not to be missed!