Travelling up and down the rolling hills of Barolo, it is impossible to ignore the abundance of culinary delights growing all around you. From vineyards and hazelnut trees, to little patches of woodland famed for their truffles...
As we travel through the region, our guide Giacomo points out a spot good for white truffles, another more renowned for the black variety. And he should know. His brother has three well-trained truffle-hunting dogs who are kept busy throughout the season, unearthing these buried treasures for all the local restaurants.
However truffles are very seasonal and don’t keep well - like many other culinary delights of the region. For instance lamb is only served here for a two week period around Easter. After that, the meat is too tough and it’s off the menu until the following year. Having such short time-frames for these delicacies only makes you appreciate them more, and let’s face it, they have plenty of other wonderful foods to replace them.
BUON PADRE, VERGNE
Our first restaurant visit is to the historic Buon Padre restaurant in the sleepy village of Vergne in the Barolo region, run by the Viberti family for the last 126 years. The youngest son Claudio is our host for the weekend and not only does he have this fantastic authentic restaurant where his mother has been making fresh pasta every day for the last 50 years, he makes some of the best Barbera d’Alba in the entire region. Hugely passionate about the varietal, and its growing popularity in both the US and Europe, he is becoming one of the leading lights of the region and grape. What better way to enjoy it than sitting on the outdoor terrace of Buon Padre tucking into a wide array of local specialities.
The Ravioli del Plin is awesome. Small pasta parcels filled with veal and spinach and dressed in butter. Next is squid tentacles, fresh baby asparagus and a wild garlic yogurt. We then have the local lamb which melts in the mouth and is the perfect match for the selection of Barbera we are trying, thanks to the palate of crunchy red fruit and refreshing acidity.
Before long the chef has come to sit with us, as have the waiting staff, and they all chat about the politics of the day among themselves. Claudio's mother pops over and introduces herself. We congratulate her on the pasta - something she must of heard a million times in her 50 year career. His father then suddenly appears with a decanted bottle of Mount Veeder Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon dating back to 1980. Not what you would expect to find all the way out here! Amazingly, the acidity was still there and although past its best, a fascinating experience and an unplanned detour from our Piedmont masterclass. The business really is a family affair and even with a wider team of staff, they still give the appearance of being an extended family.
VINOTECA CENTRO STORICO, SERRALUNGA D'ALBA
Another culinary highlight of the weekend was found in the beautifully peaceful, hilltop village of Serralunga d'Alba, on the other side of the amphitheatre that is Barolo. The restaurant Vinoteca Centro Storico is run by the larger-than-life Alessio, whose fascination with Champagne has led him to having the biggest champagne selection this side of Milan. With such a reputation, a bottle of Egly-Ouriet seemed only appropriate and led me to realise just how good aged vintage champagne is when paired with Burrata. You have to try it!
This was followed by vibrant raw tomato, courgette and asparagus, salad all diced and served with a balsamic and olive oil dressing. I love baby asparagus when it is this fresh and young. More pasta followed - this time local Macaroni with tomato and Parmesan, again so simple, so brilliant. The simplicity and freshness of the meal had already superseded expectations but what was about to follow is one of the most memorable culinary experiences I have ever had.
A perfectly-formed Panacotta. Again - so simple but jaw-droppingly good. It’s hard to describe how something that is literally just chilled cream/milk can be so outrageously delicious, but it was a revolution in my mouth. I pleaded for the recipe to no avail. Claudio believes the magic may lie with the cows of the region. Langhe cows graze on the higher hills of the area where it is too cold for vineyards, hazelnuts or truffles. It is here where the cows on the high ground produce the most stunning milk that can can make magical desserts such as this one. It was more than just the cows though, as I had other Panacotta in the region and they didn’t have the same touch of the divine. It really is worth seeking out...
Other classic Barolo dishes we tried and loved on our visit include: Vitello Tonnato (thinly sliced veal with tuna mayonnaise); Tajarin (thin tagliatelle-style pasta served with minced veal); Carne Cruda (raw beef tartare, olive oil and thinly sliced raw fennel) - the local beef here is famed for its high quality and low fat content. We also had rabbit cooked at low temperature with cardamom, which was exceptional.
For food and wine lovers like myself, Barolo really has so much to offer and the scenery is quite simply breathtaking. To really understand the region, the wines and the cuisine you simply must visit - any gourmand will be justly rewarded.