Elide Cordero: Cultivating Culinary Perfection

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. 

Chef Elide Cordero of Ristorante Il Centro is equally at home in nature and her kitchen.
Chef Elide Cordero of Ristorante Il Centro is equally at home in nature and her kitchen. Photo courtesy of Il Centro.

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.

The rolling, vineyard covered hills of Piemonte lie within a stone's throw of the majestic Pennine and Cottian Alps.
The rolling, vineyard covered hills of Piemonte lie within a stone’s throw of the majestic Pennine and Cottian Alps.

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.

Chef Elide Cordero of Ristorante Il Centro.
Chef Elide Cordero’s uniform is a starched white chef’s jacket, black pants and  her ever-present strand of pearls. Photo courtesy of Il Centro.

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.

Lighting Strike

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.

A culinary love match - Elide and Enrico Cordero.
A culinary love match – Elide and Enrico Cordero. Photo courtesy of Il Centro.

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.

Piles of thin, egg-rich tajarin are created twice a week at Il Centro.
Piles of thin, egg-rich tajarin are created twice a week at Il Centro.

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.

Her expansive modern kitchen is Chef Elide Cordero's second home.
Her expansive modern kitchen is Chef Elide Cordero’s second home.

Elide’s dessert station was once her entire kitchen.

Il Centro - Kitchen 2

Below, in the belly of the building is a treasury of wines Bacchus would envy.

Il Centro cellar
Photo courtesy of Il Centro.

As it always has been, Il Centro remains a family affair.

The Cordero Family in the cellar at Il Centro
The Cordero Family in the cellar at Il Centro. Photo courtesy of Il Centro.

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.

Valentina Cordero
Valentina Cordero. Photo courtesy of Il Centro

Giampiero, a graduate in enology of the prestigious Alba enological school, now works in the front of the house with his father Enrico.

Giampiero Cordero
Giampiero Cordero in his “office.” Photo courtesy of Il Centro.

Together, they manage the impressive wine cellar and insure Elide’s beautiful cuisine receives the presentation it rightly deserves.

Enrico Cordero and son Giampiero in Ristorante Il Centro's lauded wine cellar.
Together, Enrico Cordero and son Giampiero manage Ristorante Il Centro’s lauded wine cellar. Photo courtesy of Centro.

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.

Il Centro front
Photo courtesy of Il Centro.

Alpine Adventures in Castelmagno

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.

One of Barolo's first women winemaker's, Chiara Boschis, at home amongst her treasured nebbiolo vines
One of Barolo’s first women winemaker’s, Chiara Boschis, at home amongst her treasured nebbiolo vines

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.

The fusion of old and new at Rifugio Valliera.
The fusion of old and new at Rifugio Valliera.

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.

Rifugio Valliera, nestled at timberline in the Commune of Castelmagno.
Rifugio Valliera, nestled at timberline in the Commune of Castelmagno.

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.

Undulating, vineyard covered hills of the Barolo Appellation with the Cottian Alps in the distance.
Undulating, vineyard covered hills of the Barolo Appellation with the Cottian Alps in the distance.

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.

Roadside Renaissance

Once the province’s capital Cuneo was behind us, the geography once again changed as we began our climb into the Valle Grana. Our first stop was the 15th century chapel of S. Sebastiano in Monterosso Grana.

Renaissance fresco of Piero da Saluzzo at the chapel of S. Sebastiano in the Valle Grana.
Renaissance fresco of Pietro da Saluzzo at the chapel of S. Sebastiano in the Valle Grana.

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.

Crumbly yet creamy. Young Castelmagno cheese makes the perfect accompaniment  to crispy, fresh bread and red wine.
Crumbly yet creamy. Young Castelmagno cheese makes the perfect accompaniment to crispy, fresh bread and red wine.

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.

Precarious, single lane road leading from the floor of the Valle Grana to Colletto and the alpeggi above.
Precarious, single lane road leading from the floor of the Valle Grana to Colletto and the alpeggi above.

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.

The cliff-dwelling village of Colletto. Last paved road on trip to Rifugio Valliera.
The cliff-dwelling village of Colletto. Last paved road on trip to Rifugio 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.

Lush forest on road between Colletto and Rifugio Valliera.
Lush forest on road between Colletto and Rifugio Valliera.

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.

View from Rifugio Valliera.
View from Rifugio Valliera.

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.

Tailgate "brunch" of fresh baguettes, Castelmagno and E. Pira e Figli by Chiara Boschis Dolcetto d'Alba.
Tailgate “brunch” of fresh baguettes, Castelmagno and E. Pira e Figli by Chiara Boschis Dolcetto d’Alba.

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.

Sunday morning aperitivo of the Italian "Holy Trinity:" Bread, wine and cheese.
Sunday morning aperitivo of the Italian “Holy Trinity:” Bread, wine and cheese.
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.

Beds with mattresses and clothes still hanging are some of the evidence of a culture gone by.
Beds with mattresses and clothes still hanging are some of the evidence of a culture gone by.

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.

Decades after the inhabitants moved to Torino, moth-eaten clothes still hang in Valliera's closets.
Decades after the inhabitants moved to Torino, moth-eaten clothes still hang in Valliera’s closets.

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.

With just a little renovation, this brick oven could be functional again as it was for generations.
With just a little renovation, this brick oven could be functional again as it was for generations.

Cheesemaker Ilaria Tomatis was busy draining forms of wet cheese.

Cheesemaker Ilaria Tomatis draining wet forms of Castelmagno cheese.
Cheesemaker Ilaria Tomatis draining wet forms of Castelmagno 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.

Ripe Castelmagno d'alpeggio ready for sale.
Ripe Castelmagno d’alpeggio ready for sale.
Wheels of fresh Castelmagno d'alpeggio beginning their nine months of aging in Des Martins' cellars.
Wheels of fresh Castelmagno d’alpeggio beginning their nine months of aging in Des Martins’ cellars.

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!

Dining al fresco at Rifugio Valliera is part of the hamlet's magic.
Dining al fresco at Rifugio Valliera is part of the hamlet’s magic.
Table set and ready for a traditional mountain lunch.
Table set and ready for a traditional mountain lunch.

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.

Antipasti including salami, lardo and frittata.
Antipasti including salami, lardo and frittata.

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?

My hubby Dani Hoffman and a bottle of Chiara Boschis' Barbera d'Alba.
My hubby Dani Hoffman and a bottle of Chiara Boschis’ Barbera d’Alba.

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.

Salsiccia in tomato sauce on polenta is a perfect Piedmontese lunchtime treat.
Salsiccia in tomato sauce on polenta is a perfect Piedmontese lunchtime treat.
Salsiccia on polenta served with fresh creamy butter and Gorgonzola.
Salsiccia on polenta served with fresh creamy butter and Gorgonzola.

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.

Gnocchi al Castelmagno is a speciality of the region not to be missed!
Gnocchi al Castelmagno is a speciality of the region not to be missed!

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.

Crostada with espresso was the perfect end to the alpine lunch.
Crostada with espresso was the perfect end to the alpine lunch.

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.

Great way to end a day of new experiences in Castelmagno - wine tasting in Barolo with Chiara Boschis.
Great way to end a day of new experiences in Castelmagno – wine tasting in Barolo with Chiara Boschis.

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.

Review: “The Mystique of Barolo”

Maurizio Rosso’s “The Mystique of Barolo”

In 2002, in only my third year of visiting Piemonte, I discovered the English translation of the recently published, “Barolo: Personaggi e Mito” (“The Mystique of Barolo”). It was a rare find in the under-discovered northwest Italian wine region: a book about the region’s people, in English no less!

A panoramic view of the Barolo appellation taken from Maurizio Rosso's family farm in Diano d'Alba
A panoramic view of the Barolo appellation taken from Maurizio Rosso’s family farm in Diano d’Alba

What a beauty I unearthed! A book filled with bewitching photographs, rich history and, most notably, captivating stories about Barolo producers told in their own words.

Mystique of Barolo

For author Maurizio Rosso of Cantina Gigi Rosso on Via Alba Barolo in Castiglione Falletto, it was a labor of love. Rosso, whose own roots are buried deep in Barolo’s clay soil, gives us a unique opportunity to read the personal accounts of Barolo producers he lovingly chronicled.

Maurizio and Mia Rosso
Maurizio and Mia Rosso

Although born into a rich winemaking tradition in the heart of the Barolo appellation, Rosso pursued an education in foreign languages and literature at Università di Venezia Cà Foscari and Anglo-American literature at University of California Santa Cruz.

Rosso penned many historical novels, including the award winning “Il Castello dei Catari” (The Cathar Castle). His is a fictional account of the burning in Milan of over 1,000 Cathars from Monforte d’Alba in 1028, nearly 200 years before the much studied, frenzied annihilation of heretics in France.

Labor of Love

So why did this journalist-author turn from history and captivating tales he wove from it to a wine book? Rosso provided an answer in own words, “In those days [late 1990s] most press on Barolo was about the wines and hardly about the people.I wanted to stress the human factor and I gave the producers a chance to speak for themselves.”

During a two-year period from 1998, Rosso conducted extensive research and interviews, compiling what is more than a “mere” wine book. It’s akin to a compendium of love letters from vintners to the noble grape they collectively popularized across the globe and the land in which its vines are anchored.

Not only does Rosso capture the essence of the Barolo men, but also provides one of the few (if not only) English language accounts of Juliette (Giulia) Colbert Falletti, Marchesa di Barolo. Because of her vision, this aristocratic French saint-on-earth made it possible for today’s Barolo producers to provide the world with a noble wine from a humble land.

Historical Significance

Given some of those whose stories Rosso captured and visages Chris Meier photographed belong to men who sadly left us in the years since the book’s release, it will be treasured for generations as an historically valuable tribute to the hard work, dedication and unfailing love for the appellation by those whose families for centuries made Barolo their home.

When I first read the book, I thought perhaps it was written in English. It was not despite Rosso incredible language skills. Josephine Taylor’s translation perfectly captures the essence of Rosso’s introduction of the land and its wines that spans the first 73 pages of the book and makes accessible to Anglophones the winemakers’ words.

Stuttgart-born photographer, Chris Meier shot his beautiful photos in each season of the year. Meier, a gifted photographer specializing in gastronomy and still-life, is also a gastronome fond of Italian food and wine.  He has a penned several books about his travels including books featuring the cuisine of Sicily and Piemonte.

The product of Meier’s magical work behind his camera is intertwined with historical documents and photographs, many of which the producers provided from their family archives.

 “The Human Factor”

The “human factor” is crucial to the viability of this land and its greats wines. Yet, scores and vintages are often discussed in near sterile terms, devoid of recognition of the humanity behind the labels.

Yes, many oenophiles and journalists know producers, but do they know the stories of their families’ triumphs, tribulations and aspirations? Do they know the sacrifices made to acquire and retain their precious crus? What about the family schisms that divided centuries’ old wineries?

With Rosso’s help, we can all discover the rich human spirit needed to create these luscious wines. “The Mystique of Barolo” has been an invaluable research resource for my own book on Piemonte and the women of its wine families. It’s a must-read for every lover of food, wine and the indominable spirits of these Piemontese winemakers.

Monforte d'Alba against a backdrop of clouds and mountains.
Monforte d’Alba against a backdrop of clouds and mountains.
Sidebar: Where to find the book? Unfortunately, in the U.S. it is a pricey proposition on Amazon. My best suggestion is to jump on a plane to Malpensa (or the European gateway of your choice), hightail it to Barolo and purchase your own copy at Cantina Gigi Rosso on the main Alba-Barolo road in Castiglione Falletto. Not only will you have the opportunity to purchase this treasure, but also to taste the lovely wines of the estate and have the author sign your precious possession.