The Other Barolo - Hidden Treasures
The Langhe in Piedmont, a region of rolling hills topped with ancient villages and interspersed with valleys; a patchwork quilt of vineyards and mini forests growing on a base of limestone. It’s less than a couple of hours from Turin or Milan and at this time of the year the winding roads can be busy, the restaurants aromatic and stuffed full of people.
Of course, the region is synonymous with Barolo, the town, the wine region and the wine itself, a complicated trilogy. And, not to be outdone, a few miles to the northeast along the Tanaro river and you find another hill topped by a tower, but here the same trilogy is for Barbaresco. If Nebbiolo reigns supreme, barbera and dolcetto (and a host of other more obscure red grapes such as ruche, pelavegra etc) offer more accessible wines both in terms of budget and ageing needs.
But for once, I am not really here to talk about the wine. Well, I am, but a trip to Barolo in October-November offers an awful lot more than mere vinous pleasure, as the Langhe is famous for two other foodstuffs that are every bit as delicious as the fermented grape juice from La Morra and Serralunga.
Timing is a balance. If you want to hit it right for a trip, you need to balance the weather and the season. For if you can forget your stomach for a second, the first thing that should strike you when you turn off the main road from the cities is the colour. Everyone thinks of New England for the ‘fall colours’, that profusion of orange, scarlet and yellow, but the copses here do a pretty good imitation. And if the trees are psychedelically bright, leaves shimmering in the breeze like jewels in an Arabian souk, the vineyards can follow on the same palette, the three main grapes maturing at different times so that you have ruby red, burnished golden yellow and more typical yellowing green vines, all in serried rows.
If Nature paints a pretty autumnal picture, as a backdrop it’s a matter of more elemental drama, the triangular peak of MonViso towering about the serried ridge of the Alps, looming over the hilltop wine town of La Morra, the sun setting in an orange glow behind it, until all you can see is the twinkling lights of the town under a dark silhouette of rock and ice as the fiery light fades into monochromatic darkness.
So, yes, timing (or luck) is of the essence. As you head into November you lose an hour, so the sun sets before aperitif time (there are worse ways to spend the early evening than with a glass of wine on your balcony watching Monviso seem to loom into brilliant focus and then slip into the night). And as the leaves wilt and drop, the Fauvist spectrum vanishes, leaf by leaf, leaving a starker, wintry landscape.
But, and it’s a big but to be weighed, the further you head into winter the more likely the Alps will be snow-capped as a backdrop and the ground wet. And that is of paramount importance here. Whilst most people stress over vintage conditions, bud set in the spring, heat and drought stress in the summer, rain at harvest, the locals with their dogs worry about rain.
I get it, I really do. Back in France in the forest in front of the house, I watch the forecast anxiously. I want wet soil but then an element of Indian summer warmth. Too hot and dry and forget it, too cold and wet, ditto. If you get it right, a walk under the chestnut trees can produce a risotto full of cepes, or porcini I guess if we are being Italian. If not, like this year where after a miserable damp summer we had an arid autumn, the crop is negligible. (Just to add to the pain, the chestnut trees here are now being attacked by a lethal pathogen – the maladie de l’encre – and the forestry authorities are planning to fell all the chestnuts and replace them with saplings of other species. Bye bye cepes. They have been here since Louis XIV planted chestnuts to feed the boar he so loved to hunt).
Truffles. Walk into a restaurant and as you open the door your senses will be overwhelmed by the smell. A few hate it, most love it. Damp limestone soil, holm oaks, linden, poplar and hazelnut trees and bingo, if you are super lucky you may just have some of the most precious of Nature’s gifts underneath them, for free. Humans can farm black truffles (tuber melansporum) by impregnating tree roots with mychorrizae and these days most of the truffes de Perigord in fact come from rows and rows of impregnated truffle oaks in Spain. If I was a landowner in southern England, instead of trying to grow Champagne grapes on my chalky soil, I’d plant truffle trees – much rarer and much more valuable if you can get it right. And no problems of frost, lack of European harvest labour and all the other multiple worries of a I wine grower. Not to mention cost, taxes and competition.
Aah, but magnatum. Hate to be racist, but the white Alba truffle is rarer, even tastier and, thankfully, cannot be domesticated – to find it you need luck, the right conditions and a specially trained dog. And a trifolau who not knows where to go and how to talk to his hungry hound, often in the local half- French, half-Italian Piemontese dialect. To watch man and dog hunt is fascinating, the dog going wild when it sniffs something and digging manically into the earth until his/her master calls them off (with a sad little biscuit as recompense) and delicately begins to excavate with a trowel. If the truffle is white and big, even a human can smell it once it is almost unearthed. The flavour can be affected by the tree it grows under, and this year, despite the drought, we found white, small black and a couple of weird little things I’d not seen before that you have to eat cooked and which smelled of very concentrated earth. Cook a white truffle and you kill it’s aroma stone dead, though black will survive better.
By the way, as tourism mounts, so do imposters who buy a truffle and bury it beforehand, then taking their dog to the exact spot and in front of a coachload of wowed tourists, finding the treasure in a fiesta of excitement that is really all fake news. We found our hunter through one of the region’s top winemakers, and he has a private forest. The real thing, a marvel to be watched and enjoyed.
Like so much Italian food, the best way to eat them is simply and plainly. The great French chefs will want to show off their culinary skills, but too much competition for your taste buds and you lose the point. Just grate your truffle over some buttery fried eggs or the local egg-egg-egg tajarin pasta and you have a meal fit for royalty (sadly at regal prices too, especially in a dry year).
And naturally you need to accompany it with something suitable. I find dolcetto too light and fruity, barbera a bit heavy and acidic-juicy, so my vote goes for a mature Barolo, not too tannic, maybe from La Morra or Verduno rather than Serralunga, but with age that has softened its patina. The floral rose bed of a great Nebbiolo and pungent aroma of truffle, bliss…
After this feast you need a cup of restorative espresso and another of the Langhe’s greatest hits. If you drive from Barolo to Barbaresco, you pass a large industrial complex. Nutella. Yes, that gloopy chocolate-nut spread comes from here, as do those Ferrero Rocher balls of chocolate nuts.
Hazlenuts. On the flatlands at the bottom of the wine slopes you will also see rows and rows of hazelnut trees. Talk to an Italian connoisseur (well, a patriotic one) and the best pistachios come from Bronte on the slopes of Sicily’s Mount Etna, and the best hazlenuts from right here. And when you taste them toasted, in biscuits or in the local nut cake, you will have to agree, crumbly, light, buttery and absolutely way too moorish. Leave your diet behind.
The wine can be marvellous, but there is so much more to enjoy…