A Passion for Piedmont: Italy’s Most Glorious Regional Table by Matt Kramer (New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1997)
With the winter Olympics coming up in February 2006 in Italy’s Piedmont region we thought we might suggest some reading for the epicures. The Piedmont is, of course, Italy’s most "French" region. The culture, the history, the food, and, above all, the wine bear French influence from centuries of contact with French culture and society despite, as Matt Kramer writes, the wall of mountains surrounding the Piedmont on three sides.
This wall of mountains surrounding the Piedmont provides an interesting example of how mountains can be both a barrier and a link to those societies on the other side of the barrier. Kramer has a wonderful essay about the Piedmont’s signature dish, "bagna cauda," a fondue made of garlic, anchovies, olive oil, butter and milk . Of course, neither anchovies nor olive oil are indigenous to the Piedmont region. They both come from Liguria, just over across the Marrittime Alps . But both traveled well and were in demand to afford variety to the diet in this landlocked region. So over the centuries, the Piedmont adopted these ingredients as their own and anyone who denies they aren’t genuine Piedmont "artifacts" would likely find themselves in a genuine argument with Piedmontese, both young and old. Bagna cauda, if you’ve never had it, is truly a culinary delight. Served with all manner of vegetables, bread, and grissini (bread sticks), it warms the heart and palate in late fall and winter. (Be sure to try it if you get to Turin this winter!)
Truffles further distinguish Piedmontese cuisine. If you are ever here in truffle season (October) you need to splurge at least once to have tajarin (tagliatelle or tagliarini) with butter and white truffles. The traditional way of serving this in restaurants is to weigh the truffles before they are brought to the table and then to allow the customer to slice them fresh right onto the pasta. You pay by the gram and the truffles are then weighed upon completion of the meal. You’ll likely never enjoy a better $50 or $100 plate of pasta!
Italy’s Piedmont is one of Europe’s largest rice growing areas. In fact, the risotto you are familiar with from Italy probably grew in the Po Valley in the eastern Piedmont around Vercelli and Novara. Our bicycle tour of Piedmont pedals right through this area on a long, flat day marked by vast expanses of rice paddies. Kramer has a wonderful essay on the origins of Piedmont rice cultivation before he launches into a grand expose on how to make a perfect plate of "risotto al parmigiano."
Besides Piedmontese wines, the cheeses of Piedmont set this cuisine apart and make it a close cousin to French traditions. Piedmont is the only region in Italy where your last course before the dessert will be a selection of cheeses. This is not to say that they won’t serve you cheese all over Italy. Indeed, they will, but in the Piedmont you’re likely to have a plate of six cheeses arrayed in circular fashion around a small plate. Your instructions will likely suggest that you begin at 12 o’clock and progress clockwise from mild to sharp cheese. Some of the cheeses will be served with a fig jam or a particular single flower honey. For cheese lovers you could spend days chasing down your favorite flavors in the Piedmont. Kramer’s cheese essay is a great place to start in exploring Piedmont cheeses.
Kramer ends his book on Piedmontese food with a brief chapter on wine. He does so apologetically, writing that ". . . it is nearly impossible to write persuasively about both food and wine at the same time." This is from the pen of a writer who is primarily a wine critic and not a food writer. Indeed, I’m surprised that we haven’t seen a book on Piedmont wines from Matt Kramer. Writing about wine is his primary claim to fame. Not being a wine snob, myself, I find Kramer’s foray into food writing, especially with his essays on the history and geography of the Piedmonteses culinary traditions, quite delightful. Maybe we can hope for more contributions of this sort in future.
(Thanks to ExperiencePlus! customers Bob and Penny Fink for calling our attention to this book by Matt Kramer)