Piemonte is a region dominated by mountains, a large section of which is wine country. These beautiful undulating mountains and hills producing some of the world’s best red wines are different than the grand, mountainous vineyards of other Italian regions. They’re tighter, fuller and more private. You don’t see them from afar. You come upon them quite by surprise.
During the fall, around the time of the harvest, the hills are wondrous. A deep, rust-brown color dominates. Not necessarily a beautiful color on its own, but seen side by side with a rainbow of harvest hues and in contract to the still green of the trees, the blackish brown of the earth and the clear blue of the sky, it seems to be the very best of autumn colors.
My time in Piemonte for the most part has been accompanied by a haunting mist – somehow appropriate since the great grape of the region, the nebbiolo, comes from the Italian word, nebbia, meaning fog. I remember one trip especially where the fog cut the mountains in half horizontally permitting only their majestic peaks to glisten in the sun while the villages and valleys below lay encased in a dense blanket of heavy dew. “Mystical” is the word that comes to mind.
I returned to Piemonte often over the years – initially with Paolo and sometimes with Wanda exploring the charming towns and villages of its varied landscape. Some of the best meals I have ever eaten were enjoyed in this region’s completely out-of-the-way small, family-run restaurants. Menus were so enticing we often felt as if we had stumbled upon some secret stash of local ingredients waiting to be prepared just for us – plump porcini mushrooms, aromatic white truffles or local artisan cheeses oozing with flavor and character. Most often the menus were not on paper but recited verbally by the proprietor. And always we enjoyed wines of the region – not just those from the Nebbiolo grape which included world renowned Barolo, Barbaresco and Gattinara but food-friendly Barbera, soft fruity Dolcetto and two of the region’s most famous whites fragrant Gavi and crisp floral Arneis.
One of Wanda’s favorite dishes came from a simple trattoria in the Monferrato area near her hometown. The chef was kind enough to share his recipe with us. Rabaton, a delicious dumpling-like spinach and cheese combination was served in his restaurant as a first course. I also like to serve it as a side dish accompanied with a simple grilled veal chop or a pork roast.
Piemontese Spinach and Cheese Dumplings
Makes approximately 38 dumplings
Serves 6 – 8
1-pound package frozen chopped spinach, thawed, gently squeezed of moisture
1 1/3 cups breadcrumbs
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons fresh ricotta cheese
½ cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
2 garlic cloves, finely minced
½ teaspoon salt
1/3 cup all purpose flour
6 cups chicken stock
½ cup (1 stick) butter, melted
2 tablespoons fresh sage, chopped
Freshly grated Parmesan cheese
In a medium-size bowl, mix the spinach and breadcrumbs together. Add the ricotta and Parmesan cheeses, egg, garlic and salt. Mixture should be firm. Form into sausages approximately ½ by 2 inches.
Preheat oven to 350-degrees.
Bring stock to a rapid boil in large saucepan. Reduce to a simmer.
Roll the sausages in flour, shaking off excess. Carefully add dumplings to stock in 3 batches and cook until they float to the top, about 2 minutes. Transfer to a large baking dish using a slotted spoon. (Dumplings can be prepared ahead to this point and set aside at room temperature)
Pour melted butter over dumplings. Sprinkle with sage. Bake in a 350-degree oven until heated through, about 10 minutes. Transfer to individual plates, sprinkle with grated Parmesan cheese and serve immediately.
There is a unique spirit in this region – a spirit of individualism and pride. The Piemontese people are solid and reserved, steadfast and reliable – the Midwesterners of Italy. After Convito became known for its outstanding Italian wine selection, I was frequently invited to visit the region’s winemakers. I especially loved coming here with members of the Convito staff. It was always a privilege to meet the faces behind the labels and to see how and where the wines were actually made.
A winery I visited multiple times was Vietti based in the small medieval village of Castiglione Falletto in the heart of Piemonte’s famous “Langhe”. To me the Currado family, owners of Vietti now in their fourth generation of winemaking, embody the true spirit of this region. I can still picture the late Alfredo Currado out in one of his vineyards tending the harvest – sleeves rolled up, dark heavy eyebrows knit in deep concentration probably planning his next cru experiment or thinking of new ways to promote his beloved region’s amazing wines.
While Alfredo labored in the vineyards, I enjoyed many a delicious lunch with his lovely wife Luciana who traces her family’s wine roots back to the mid-1800’s. The Currados are not only known for their outstanding wines and inventive winemaking but also for their warm and generous hospitality. Luciana was as proud of Piemonte’s special dishes as her husband was proud of its wines.
Another winemaker I visited several times, especially later in Convito’s history, was Angelo Gaja often described as “the undisputed king of Barbaresco” and whose wine is considered a status symbol on a par with Chateau Lafite-Rothchild. He was one of the first winemakers to visit Convito. Our wine director at the time referred to Gaja as “The Italian Rock Star”. He did look like a rock star, always impeccably dressed often in Missoni with the commanding presence of a revolutionary – which in the wine industry, he certainly was.
When Convito first opened its doors, a bottle of Gaja Barbaresco was still affordable. I purchased many a bottle for my cellar. Years later while hosting a Piemontese dinner for Convito managers, I decided to open a 1978 Sori Tilden single vineyard Barbaresco. The price tag of $19.99 was still on the bottle. One of the managers present was Al Cirillo, Convito’s current wine director, professor at Northwestern and Italian wine expert. After pouring a glass for each guest, I raised my glass in a toast to Piemonte while explaining Angela Gaja’s contributions to the wine world.
As we all took our first sip, I casually asked Al what the price of this wine would be in today’s market. After all we were retailers and interested in that kind of thing. “About $1,000.” he answered. There was an audible gasp around the table. The wine was unabashedly delicious, modern in style and as we just learned, breathtakingly expensive. It certainly was a flamboyant and intense ending to our meal reminiscent of the winemaker himself.
The dessert I prepared was Barolo Poached Pears based on a dish I had with Angelo Gaja in a charming castle-like hilltop restaurant just outside of Barbaresco. The poached pears can be prepared ahead of time, then filled with the mascarpone and finally garnished with the pecans and sauce at serving time. I have made this elegant dessert with other full-bodied red wines less expensive than Barolo. I usually selfishly save the Barolo for drinking.
Barolo Poached Pears
6 Bosc pears with stems
2 cups full-bodied red wine
2 tablespoons lemon juice
Grated rind (colored part only) of 1 lemon
1 cup granulated sugar
1 stick cinnamon
1 vanilla bean, split
¼ cup pecans, chopped, toasted
Peel the pears without removing the stems. Combine the wine, lemon juice, lemon rind, sugar, cinnamon, and vanilla bean in a saucepan large enough to hold the pears comfortable. Add the pears and just enough water to cover the pears. Heat the mixture to a boil; reduce heat and simmer very slowly until the pears are just tender, 10 to 20 minutes.
Remove the pears to a plate and cool completely. Rapidly boil down liquid until it is reduced to 1 cup; strain.
To assemble, slice each pear in half vertically and scoop out seeds, leaving a small circular hole. With a spoon, fill each half with mascarpone. On each serving plate, pour some of the reduced wine sauce to form a pool in the middle of the plate. Place two pears halves on each plate. Sprinkle the mascarpone with pecans. Drizzle the remaining red-wine sauce over the pears.
Those experiences in Piemonte were truly life changing. The food, the people and in particular, the wine burrowed deep inside me and left me obsessed with learning as much as possible about the region and its wines. I decided that if I was to become a real wine expert, the absolute only place to begin was with the grapes of Piemonte.
Upon my return from Italy, each night at my kitchen table I would pour three glasses of wine made from nebbiolo grapes – Barolo, Barbaresco, Gattinara, Nebbiolo d’Alba or even Ghemme. Mastering appearance was easy, but aroma was more complicated. The variations were incredibly subtle to a neophyte, but after sticking my nose into glass after glass of wine and inhaling deeply, I was able to identify and actually name some complex components. In mouth sensations (certainly I had them) and finish (aftertaste) were even more challenging and in the end I simply never got the hang of swirling wine around in my mouth and spitting it out. I like to think I was never able to make peace with tasting these incredible wines and then having to spit them into a wine bucket, but if I’m more honest with myself I just don’t think I had the palate. Instead I decided that I would continue to learn about and enjoy wine, but would leave the serious “swirling” and “smelling” to the wine aficionados.
My first serious foray into learning about wine remains a fond memory. The nebbiolo was my first – and as with all firsts; first crush, first kiss – it occupies a special place in my heart. As it does in Convito’s wine department.