1950s Archive

A Gastronomic Tour of Italy


Originally Published May 1956
The birthplace of bread sticks and Vermouth offers robust rewards to the inquiring epicure.

It would be logical to assume that Piedmont, the corner of Italy closest to France and Switzerland, might share heavily in their tourist trade, and that it would be the first stopping point for wide-eyed travelers about to explore the Italian peninsula. This is so, to a limited extent. But it is amazing how many people skip Piedmont entirely in their headlong haste to visit Florence, Venice, and Rome. Such hurry is unseemly, to put it stuffily, and it is downright disgraceful in the case of anyone interested in mountains or skiing, in good provincial food and wines, or in the idyllic prospect of vacationing on the shores of an Italian lake. The uninformed passenger who crosses Piedmont at night on the Orient Express is missing something. We hope to prove it in the paragraphs which follow and to coax him off the train either at Stresa or at Turin. If he descends at the former, he is in the plushiest resort in the Italian Lakes. If he chooses Turin, he will find one of the most civilized of cities—cheerful, clean, and urbane.

But the summer traveler with a car has the best of it in Piedmont. Crossing the Alps by the Simplon or through one of the St. Bernard passes over the mountain roads is a breath-taking experience. The beauty of the Alps captivates the motorist. The most magnificent mountains in Europe tower over him—Mont Blanc, the Matterhorn, Monte Rosa. He is suddenly in the Valley of Aosta, a highly individual corner of the Italian Republic where the people speak both French and Italian. The valley is dramatic and picturesque, spotted with storybook castles and unexpected waterfalls, It has many comforte hotels too, particularly in Courmayeur, Breuil, and St. Vincent. In summer they cater to the placid vacationer. In winter they are thronged with skiers.

It the highlights of Piedmont are the mountains, the lakes, and Turin itself, much more can be unearthed by an intrepid sight-seer—towns such as Susa, Rívoli. and Chivasso, for example. There are wide stretches of Piedmont which arc dull and monotonous, we must admit; the wine country around Asti and Alba, for example, is uninspiring 10 the passing visitor. Yet it is in the realm of wine that Piedmont makes its greatest contribution to gastronomy, gourmets agree,

Barolo, the prince of Piedmont red wines, comes from Alba, whose vintages were praised by Caesar, Pliny, Henry II of France, and many another bon vivant in his time. It is a robust, generous wine, ideal with roasts and game. Its lovely ruby red turns to an equally fine russer as the wine ages, and it is clear to the last drop.

Barbarcsco is a slightly less forceful younger brother of Barolo, reseing it in every way except that it reaches full maturity at the age of three. Both are pressed from the ne Nebbiolo grape, which also is the source of Cattinara, Carema, Ghemme, and a few local wines that take this grape name—Nebbiolo d'Alba, Nebbiolo di Custellinaldo, and others. Gringnolino, Freisa, and Dolcetto, the latter a red dessert wine, are other vintages worth trying.

Along with Barolo, Barbera is the outstanding pride of Piedmont. It comes from an immense territory in the Alba-Asti sector and varies somewhat in quality. At its best it is a soul-warming, sturdy red with a fresh, hearty bouquet — a cheerful companion for pasta or poultry. But a word of warning! There are two vastly differenr Barberas. The one which simates your spaghetti is Barbera asciutto. The other one is red but sweetish, highly fragrant but fizzy, and is called Barbera amabile. If you wish to avoid the disaster of having such a sweet “ friendly” wine with your bistecca alla fioreutina, look for that word “ asciutto” on the label and insist upon it!

The statistics are surprising, Red wines represent about nine-tenths of the Piedmont crop, yet the whites are famous, Asti Spumante is the most celebrated sparkling wine in Italy and is known throughout the world, Sometimes labeled Moscato Spumante, or Moscato di Canclli, it is a fixture for festivities, from baptisms to wakes. It is very low in alcoholic content, but its aroma makes your head swim. The sweeter sparkling Astis are the best known, but there are a few delecte dry ones. Cortesc might be called the Chis of Piedmont. It comes from Alessándria, and is dry, fragrant, green-gold in color—wonderful with Piedmont's lake trout.

On top of these viticultural accomplishments, Piedmont can claim the distinction of being the birthplace of vermouth. An ingenious citizen of Turin, Aniònio Benedetto Carpano, began it all back in 1786 when he experimented in combining the fragrant wine of Piedmont with aromatic essences and herbs. The name Carpano (the accent being on the first syllable) is still seen all over Italy, but there are other famous names springing from this region—Cinzano, Martini & Rossi, Gancia, and Cora, for example, which are household words among bons vivants the world over. Martini lovers owe Turin a little visit, we feel. They'll find the site of Signor Carpano's discovery right in the heart of the city. Of course, there arc plenty of other vermouths, from Tuscany and France in particular, but Torino did it first!

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