- The Washington Times - Friday, February 10, 2006

TURIN, Italy — The capital of Italy’s Piedmont region, home to the Fiat automotive manufacturer, has a reputation as a somewhat drab industrial city, but it also has Roman ruins, baroque palaces, outstanding museums, wines, cheeses and truffles. Since yesterday, it also is home to the Winter Olympics.

Turin is the fourth-largest city in Italy. The Roman Emperor Augustus Caesar ordered a fort built on the site; it was called Augusta Taurinorum.

The Piedmont region is known for its lovely landscape of gently rolling hills blanketed by vineyards planted in perfect rows and small towns that have been surrounded by imposing stone castles since medieval times. This corner in northwestern Italy, bordering France to its west, has much to recommend a visit.

The Italian Piemonte aptly derives its name from the phrase “ai piedi del monte,” at the foot of the mountain. Indeed, the towering peaks of the Swiss and French Alps are often visible. Though many locals are reluctant to admit it, the outstanding food of the region — and, perhaps, the focus on preparing and enjoying good food and wine — has been influenced positively by the proximity of France.

Adding to the appeal are an enticing history and the fact that Piedmontese food and wine, though perhaps not as well known as the fare in other sections of Italy, certainly should be.

A perfect home base for traveling throughout Piedmont is Alba, about 45 miles from Turin and known as “the town of 100 towers.” That claim, always somewhat hyperbolic, dates to a period of prosperity in the 12th and 13th centuries. Noble families of the time competed to build ever-higher fortified towers to demonstrate their wealth as well as provide protection from attack. Just four of the original structures retain their original height, but the name sticks.

Alba also is interesting for other relics of its history. Among these are portions of the ancient city walls and drainage system, fragments of frescoes and other remnants of Roman rule. The town hall and several imposing churches are reminders of medieval times.

The sense of moving through history also extends outside Alba. Life slows down measurably in the rolling countryside. Scenery becomes etched in memory like a series of paintings.

Roads wind through tiny towns in places so narrow that when two cars meet, one must back up to a wider spot so the other can pass. Stone buildings line cobblestone streets. Church steeples rise above red tile rooftops as if gazing out at the surrounding view. Many a hilltop is capped by a castle, whose massive walls and turrets recall times of past grandeur and power.

Each town has its own appeals and stories to tell. Visitors often are attracted to Serralunga d’Alba as one of the 11 villages where Barolo, one of Italy’s greatest wines, may be produced. Many connoisseurs rank it and Barbaresco as Italy’s most prestigious red wines.

A good introduction to this noble beverage is available in the villa and historic cellars of Fontanafredda, which has been producing wines since 1878. Several casks bear a small plaque with a coat of arms, indicating that they were used for aging favorite vintages of Italian royalty.

The town of Grinzane Cavour and the castle of the same name also have a strong connection with viniculture. The castle’s sturdy square tower was part of a small fortress built in the 12th century. Among several exhibits there, the Regional Piedmont Wine Cellar is of special interest. It showcases and offers tastings of the area’s best wines plus several grappas.

Also intriguing is the Masks Room, whose soaring ceiling is painted with portraits, crests and — of greater interest to me — fantasy monsters and allegorical creatures that range in countenance from droll to macabre.

One claim to fame of Cherasco is that Napoleon Bonaparte called it “le plus beau coin d’Italie.” Even those who may not agree that the town is the “most beautiful corner” of Italy can appreciate the star-shaped Roman bastion and the abundance of medieval architecture.

Elegant porticoed arcades protect pedestrians from sun and rain. Sumptuous palaces include the Palazzo Salmatoris, where the dukes of Savoy spent many summer holidays. A graceful triumphal arch was donated by a resident in thanks because the people of Cherasco were spared in the plague that devastated the region in 1630.

Anyone who travels to Italy’s Piedmont region is sure to leave with an appreciation of the importance of wine and food to its people, and probably with a few extra pounds as well. Cheese and truffles, especially white truffles, hold a place of honor on many a dining table and in the local culture and cuisine.

Cheese-making has a long history in Piedmont. Writings of Pliny the Elder, the Roman scholar who lived in the first century A.D., refer to cheese production in the region. Many farmers and small producers still make cheese following traditional family recipes, which often call for a mixture of milk from cows, sheep and goats.

Cheese-wrapping — aging cheeses after wrapping them in leaves — is a gastronomic tradition in northwestern Italy. There even are cheese hunters, experts who seek the best leaves and use them to envelop some of the best local cheeses. They also know how long each variety should be aged to bring out its best flavor.

The opportunity to learn about and meet members of what must be among the most unusual professions anywhere is but one attraction of a visit to the Piedmont region.

A visit with cheese hunter Gianna Cora turned out to be one of the more unusual experiences of my trip to Piedmont. Mr. Cora described the local tradition of maturing cheeses by wrapping them in various kinds of leaves to preserve and flavor them. Part of his job is to know when the cheeses have aged to their peak of perfection.

Leaves employed for this purpose range from chestnut and fig to cabbage, cauliflower and the leaves of other vegetables. I also encountered, but did not sample, cheese wrapped in grass, tobacco leaves and goatskin.

Mr. Cora said he had gathered and used about 110,000 chestnut leaves during the 2005 production season. Explaining that about 35 of his neighbors share his unusual profession, he said — without embarrassment at the pun — that he is recognized as “the Big Cheese” among them.

It wasn’t long after my arrival in the area that I learned that the Piedmontese are as serious about enjoying cheese as Mr. Cora is about making sure the cheeses taste as good as possible. Almost every restaurant where I ate lunch or dinner served a wide selection of local cheeses. Invariably, customers would discuss their selections with the waiter, ask for small samples before ordering, then nibble on their choices with a pleasure that was obvious from across the dining room.

In the Piedmont spring and summer, the sun warms visitors and wine grapes alike and lights the landscape like a series of lovely paintings.

There are no direct flights from Washington to Turin, but Alitalia flies from Washington Dulles International Airport to Milan’s Malpensa airport. It can take five hours to drive from Milan to Turin and another hour to Alba.

If budget is a primary concern, it might be worth seeking out the limited number of bed-and-breakfast accommodations in Piedmont. Many charge from $80 to $100 a night for two persons.

Those seeking a combination of Old World charm with more plush accommodations have a greater choice. Typical is the Villa Tiboldi in Canale, a small country hotel furnished with antiques and perched on a hillside providing grand views of surrounding gardens and vineyards. Enjoying breakfast on the outdoor terrace and relaxing in the calm of the setting, I wrote in my notebook, “Why would I want to be anywhere else?”

The price for a double room starts at about $75, depending upon the exchange rate between the dollar and euro.

Casa Pavesi, near Grinzane Cavour castle, is a restored early 19th-century home whose 14 rooms offer comforts and amenities in keeping with its four-star rating. Rates begin at about $170. It’s hard to go wrong when choosing a place to dine in a corner of a country where good food is held in such esteem. Even modest restaurants take pride in the output of their kitchens.

Snails, a local favorite, are featured on the menu of Osteria della Rosa Rossa in Cherasco. I ordered them in two preparations — with risotto, tomato sauce and parsley, and steamed — and found them slightly chewy but tender, with a subtle flavor. My meal, including mixed antipasto, the ubiquitous selection of cheeses and dessert, cost about $35.

A personal favorite was I Bunet in the town of Bergolo, which is popular for serving a type of pasta made just at a handful of nearby villages. Accompanied by a selection of imaginative appetizers, roast hare with herbs, the cheese trolley and my choice of hazelnut-chocolate mousse, the dinner tab was about $40.

For more information about fine dining, truffle hunting or enjoying other attractions of Italy’s Piedmont region, visit www.langheroero.it or send e-mail to [email protected]

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