A visit to Piemonte is not all wine. Piemonte is famous for chocolate, cheese, truffles and castles in addition to the obvious wine. It’s rolling hills are dotted with countless castles and palaces. Yes, the countryside is a patchwork quilt of grapevines, but every aspect of life in Piemonte is about living a high-quality, local lifestyle full of good food, good wine and good life. During our trip we visited many memorable places, but some left more a mark than others. As with everything we did, these had aspects that appealed to the adults and children in our group, but these were the stand outs. These places were exceptional.
Conquer a castle
Our second full day in Piemonte kicked off with a stellar visit to the imposing Castello Grinzane Cavour. This castle is a Unesco World Heritage Site and is everything you want in castle visit. It sits at the top of a hill and is the crown jewel for the picturesque town of Grinzane Cavour below. Oh, and it’s surrounded by the loveliest countryside you could ever imagine. Neat concentric lines of grapevines blanket out across the fields past the hills of the Langhe region of Piemonte.
The castle dates back to the 1300s and was most famously home to Count Cavour who helped to unify Italy. It is now home to the Museum of the Langhe which tells the story of wine and truffles in the region. Your kids won’t care, because they will be too busy exploring a real castle. There are lots of narrow stone stairways, interesting windows with jaw-dropping views, an idyllic courtyard, throne-like chairs to try out and enough information about castle life to keep older children interested as well.
Oh, and there just happens to be a wine tasting enoteca on the ground level for the grown-ups. The idea here is to divide and conquer. Have half the adults take the kids on a tour of the castle while the other taste a few of the regions best barolos, barberas or barbarescos. After about a half hour switch and have the kids lead the second group of adults on a kid-guided tour of the castle. Everyone will leave happy (and you’ll probably take a few bottles of wine with you too). In addition to wine, the enoteca sells local specialties like vinegars and chocolates including a vinegar made from honey. After your castle tour, make your way to the bottom of the hill into the town for pizza at the delicious Pizzeria Bargiglio Rosso to dive into a pizza or ten.
Castello di Grinzane Cavour – Via Castello, 5, 12060 Grinzane Cavour, CN
Pizzeria Bargiglio Rosso – Via Garibaldi, 154 – 12060 GRINZANE CAVOUR (CN)
Go on a truffle hunt
La Casa del Trifalau in Costigliole d’Asti doesn’t look like much from the road. In fact, you’ll have trouble taking your eyes off the vinyard-laced scenery long enough to find the entrance. However, once you do, your day will turn from just another pretty view into a day your family will remember.
In the States, most of us don’t know much more about truffles than the artificially flavored bottle of truffle oil poured on our pizzas and pastas (sorry to burst your bubble, but that oil is not real truffle flavor). But in Piemonte the white truffle is king. The Piemontese town of Alba is the center of the white truffle world.This musky-scented tuber is prized as a topping on pastas and pretty much anything, and is one of the most expensive ingredients in the world. You only need a few grams thinly shaved on top of a dish for its scent to transform a dish, but these tubers cost around two thousand dollars a pound. Unlike most foods, the taste of truffles is almost entirely scent and not something detected by taste buds.
Truffles are a local ingredient in Piemonte. Expensive yes, but local and common. People in the region know that fall is the time for the local white truffle (when the tourist season peaks), and that summer is the time for the subdued mushroom-scented black summer truffle. Our truffle adventure began when we were greeted by brother truffle hunters (trifulau) Natale and Giorgio Romagnolo whose ancestral home in Costignole d’Asti was the base for our truffle hunt. During our two hour stay we had plenty of time to explore the homestead and see the dogs, the equipment and the stunning view. Of course we also learned about the different types of truffles, how they differ and when they are harvested.
After a brief lesson on truffles and truffle hunting we took off into the woods with Giorgio and two of his truffle hunting dogs, Brio and Diana. Brio, the son of Diana is the young pup with an uncanny nose for truffles. He scours the forest floor for the scent, and then when he finds it starts digging. But Diana is the dog with the finesse. Giorgio brings her in once Brio finds his truffle and she carefully digs at the ground until it is exposed. Then Giorgio uses special equipment to dig out the truffle.
Once back at home, Natale serves cheese with fresh truffle shaved over the top, bread with house-made truffle oil, salumi and local wine. As he shaves the truffles weaves together stories about former trifulau, his family and what it was like to grow up in a family of truffle hunters. He is quite the storyteller, and he sells his book on truffles at the house as well. His gracious nature and hearty smile instantly makes us feel at home, and even the children taste the truffles (not big fans – yet).
Summer black truffles are black outside with a creamy white interior, and there smell is of strong mushroom with just a hint of the classic truffle musk. Still these truffles are elusive and their scent and flavor entrancing. The experience of hunting for truffles in the woods of Piemonte at the “Casa del Triulau” is something that will stay with all of us and remain a favorite memory of our trip. If you want to see more, you can watch them in action in this great video produced for Expo 2015 Milan (in Italian). There are other interesting videos on Piemonte on the same site.
La Casa del Trifulau – Strada Canelli, 1 Costigliole d’Asti (Asti)
Learn about cheese while the kids play
Bra, Italy is the epicenter for the Slow Food movement. Slow Food’s founder, Carlo Petrini, also founded the University of Gastronomic Sciences in the province of Bra. In this town, as in all of Piemonte, they take food seriously. However that doesn’t mean your kids will not enjoy it. We found Bra to be particularly kid friendly. In fact, kids were everywhere. We stayed out of the historical city center, instead focusing our stay on the oh-so-amazing Giolito Formaggi. Next door to the famous cheese shop was a lovely small playground where the kids happily played while we took turns tasting (and buying) our share of Piemontese formaggi.
Giolito Formaggi is one of the best cheese shops in Italy. It’s a family business and 3rd generation owner Fiorenzo Giolito is a bit of a rock star in the world of cheese. His passion for local cheese permeates every aspect of the business from his own cheese aging rooms where he ages cheeses from small local producers to his connection with other area food and wine producers and his job as an external consultant to Eataly. He helped found Cheese, the Slow-Food fueled cheese fair held in Bra. Cheese brings local cheeses to the world in a marketplace fair that attracts buyers from around the world (in the Boston area, Formaggio Kitchen is a participant). You can read more about the store and Fiorenzo in this well written piece at Serious Eats.
When you first enter the shop, it doesn’t seem like more than any cheese shop, but then you start to talk to staff and sample your way through the cheeses and you discover the special nature of the place. No t only does the staff know more about cheese than the entire staff of most cheese shops, but they can tell you the story of each cheese. What types of milk it is produced from and what grasses the animals ate. They tell stories and a few jokes with us as we tasted our way through the cheeses of Piemonte. My favorite was the Castlemagno (see Risotto), other people’s favorite was the Bra Duro that the shop has made famous.
Giolito Cheese was not the only delight in Bra. After leaving Giolito and the delightful little playground behind we took the short walk over to Ascheri wine’s restaurant Osteria Murivecchi. Here the menu is thoughtfully constructed, with everything perfectly paired to Ascheri’s famous wines. The Barbara d’Asti paired perfectly with the arugula pesto tajarin and the Dolcetto brought out the bright flavors in the stewed rabbit. While we enjoyed our delicious and different spins on the Piemont cuisine, the kids happily munched away on handmade pastas, fresh bread and lots of Italian olive oil. After lunch we passed a much larger shady playground where the kids ran off all those carbs and we happily lazed away a little of our lunch before heading back to charming Viarigi our own sweet Villa Carlotta and her warm and inviting pool.
Giolito Formaggi – Via Montegrappa, 6 a Bra (CN)
Ascheri and Osteria Murivecchi – Via G. Piumati, 23 – 12042 Bra (Cn)
Torino for another day
I have not written at all about Torino. Turin, as it is called in the States, is a quintessential Italian city. Much like Florence and Milan, Turin is full of churches, museums and mouthwatering restaurants. We, however, saw almost none of them. We did spend one day in the city, but were able to do very little because of logistics of getting three children and four adults in and out of a strange city via a train system we were unfamiliar with. Most of our day in Turin was spent walking around trying to find things. We did enjoy the on-and-off bus tour of the city as well as the magnificent chocolates of Barrati & Milano. Alas, Turin is not a one day affair. I enjoyed the city and found it not only lovely, but clean and welcoming. I hope to return to Turin and stay in the city for a few days so I can finally see many of the sights I wanted to see like the Mole Antonelliana, The National Museum of Cinema, The Egyptian Museum, Valentino Park, Juventus Stadium, Basilica di Superga and of course the food, the chocolates and the Bicerin.
The rest of Piemonte
We saw only one small part of Piemonte. We made a decision that we would not travel more than an hour to any location while we were there. This was not only to maximize our sightseeing time, but also to minimize the strain on the kids. Children like to run and play. They do not like to sit in cars for hours and look at pretty scenery. There were so many things we wanted to see but just refused to spend our precious time in a car. Perhaps next time we will explore the area past Turin with the Fortress di Fenestrelle and the Sacra San Michele, or travel north to Val d’Aosta’s alpine splendor, or perhaps we will settle in and take our time eating and drinking our way around the area between Alba and Turin with it’s promise of Michelin starred restaurants and more delicious wine.
What I found compelling was the unspoiled and non-commercialized nature of Piemonte. My last trip to Italy was to Tuscany. While Tuscany was lovely, the towns seemed exploited – a caricature of their true selves, with every little store selling the same souvenirs and every wine shop selling the same labels. Piemonte has escaped that – for the most part. Lovely small towns all have their individual charm yet there is a unifying nature to the regional cuisine. It is a land of slow-paced charm, slow food, slow wine and that will win over anyone from three years old to ninety.