The Irish Mail on Sunday
The birthplace of a nutty spread
Lured by the promise of fine wines, Michael Kealey tours northern Italy where he finds foodie paradise and…
Driving into Alba, a modest-sized town in northwest Italy, the faint chocolatey smell is both strange and familiar. Its source is soon revealed as an enormous factory on the banks of the Tanaro River. This is the birthplace of Nutella, the staple of a thousand Irish children’s lunchboxes.
Alba is in the Langhe, part of southern Piedmont, about an hour’s drive south of Turin. Chocolate on bread has long been a treat for children here. During World War II, cocoa powder, the basis for chocolate, was in short supply. The Langhe is known for its hazelnuts and they, fortunately, remained prolific. A local baker got the idea of using ground hazelnuts to make the cocoa supplies go farther. In the 1960s, the Ferrero company – also purveyors of pyramid stacked trays of treats to the diplomatic corps – turned this into a spread and Nutella was born.
However, it wasn’t Nutella that drew us to the Langhe. It is the spiritual base of the Slow Food movement and home to two of Italy’s greatest wines, Barbaresco and Barolo; the latter is known as ‘the king of wines and wine of kings’. Like many wine producing regions, the Piedmontese keep the best back for themselves.
Our daughter was a guest lecturer at the University of Gastronomic Sciences. The campus and accompanying four-star hotel, the Albergo dell’ Agenzia, are housed in a restored neo-Gothic country estate built by King Carlo Alberto in 1835. Sleepy hardly does justice to the adjacent village of Pollenzo, which feels at times like it is awakening from a coma.
The Slow Food movement was founded in 1989. It advocates the production of food in a way that does not harm the environment and supports the right of farmers to get a fair deal. It is also involved in efforts to save animal breeds, vegetables, fruit and grains that are disappearing due to intensive farming.
It helps that, by embracing this philosophy, the Langhe has become a foodie’s paradise with restaurants ranging from simple to plush affairs. For the Irish carnivore the good news is the area does great grilled meats. Less good, perhaps, is the local delicacies of uncooked veal sausage and a version of Italian steak tartare.
The wine lists in most restaurants are as appetising as the menu. Reds rule the roost here, although drinking cheap glasses of bubbly, Prosecco or the local Asti Spumante, in the afternoon heat has much to recommend it.
While predominantly flat, the Langhe has its share of pretty hilltop villages. La Morra has great views and Cherasco seems to have more churches than an people. There are also so the hamlets of Barolo lo and Barbaresco, after er which the wines are re named.
Special mention n must go to Saluzzo. o. Don’t be fooled by y the modern town at t the foot of the hill. A climb reveals exquisite narrow streets. At the top –because you’ll deserve it after the walk – stop for coffee and cake at the San Giovanni hotel hotel. This is on the restored site of a 14th-century chapel and monastery. Its café is in the cloister. Resting here is good for the soul and feet alike. It’s few hotels that have a 15th century fresco in their conference room.
If this rural idyll gets too much, Turin, Italy’s fourth largest city is on your doorstep. It is unpretentious, friendly, relatively free of tourists and easy to get around.
It also has several terrific museums. A must see is the Egyptian museum and the hugely popular National Museum of Cinema which is in the towering Mole Antonelliana, Travelling to the top in a glass lift reminds me of a space craft docking in 2001 A Space Odyssey.
However, I must end as I started, on the subject of food. As a special treat, we ate at La Ciau del Tornavento, a Michelin-starred restaurant in Treiso. Finding it will challenge either your map reading skills or GPS, but, boy, is it worth it. The floor-to-ceiling windows offer stunning sunset views.
After our meal, the wine waiter showed us the cellar; it holds 60,000 bottles. I asked if I could hold the most expensive, a Dom Perignon champagne worth €10,000, for a photograph. While he agreed, the waiter looked worried. I couldn’t work out if he thought I was going to drop it or drink it.