|There's lots of cheese, salamis, mushroom and truffley goods to be had
at the Truffle festival market in Alba
We were on our way to dinner at Nelle Vigne, a restaurant perched on a cliff top just outside Diano D’Alba in Piedmont. Thanks to Jane, our trusty GPS, we had already been bogged on a tractor path. TPG had jumped out into the rain to push me out of a ditch as I accelerated backwards towards a cliff face at approximately 100 miles an hour. In pitch darkness.
As we navigated hair point turns through the cover of night and a thick, impenetrable blanket of fog, our vision extending approximately 2 mm past the windscreen, the last thing on my mind was the fact that “nebbiolo”, the name of the local grapes, means “fog”. But later, it all fell into place.
Still, Barolo country, and our dinner at Nelle Vigne, was worth it.
When the fog lifts, Piedmont is so stunning you will want to stop the car and take a panoramic shot at every turn. If you like Tuscany, you will love Piedmont. It has the beautiful vistas of rolling hilltops of vines and crumbling hilltop towns, with enotecas and homely trattorias scattered throughout the villages and the countryside. You could throw a dart a land it on a good plate of lamb chops and a fine drop of hearty red. Everything is easy to access (there are degustations aplenty) and everything’s so beautiful that even if you get lost, you can’t really go wrong. In October/November, this is prime season for the prized white truffles of Alba, for chestnuts and for big bags of sweet nocciolia that leave your previous impressions of supermarket bought hazelnuts lying in the dust. We timed our stay with the annual truffle festival in Alba, loaded up the boot, and subsequently spent the rest of the week with the intoxicating, heady smell of white truffle wafting through the car.
|White Alba truffles
We have been before, in summer, when we stayed at the excellent Castello di Sinio (I said a few words here). The region provided one of our favourite Italian holidays, so we couldn’t leave Europe without a return visit. Autumn may not offer the same opportunities to lie by the pool soaking up views of the sunbaked vines, but it is equally satisfying – the reds, yellows and fading greens make up a colourful patchwork under the moody skies. It’s good weather to get cosy and find somewhere to tuck into a hearty meal.
|Tagliolini at Il Cantinetto in Barolo
|Gnocchi with ragu at Il Cantinetto
While part of the fun is to roll up where you end up, if you find yourself doing degustations in Barolo when the church bells ring at midday, you will do no better than to stop in for an hour or 2 at Il Cantinetto (not to be confused with Il Cantinella in the same village). We sat in the GD happy place that is the front room surrounded by shelves loaded with wines and local shop owners meeting up for their lunch break. It is the essence of everything you dream of finding in a little Italian trattoria but which can sometimes evade you. The back room is equally gorgeous, if more like a traditional restaurant in style. Either way, the service and food are the same – perfecto.
|Lamb cutlets at Il Cantinetto
The traditional styles of pasta here are plin (tiny pinched meat filled ravioli) with rosemary and butter, or thin, spindly taglioni with a beef and tomato ragu. I indulged here in the latter, while TPG wolfed down an awesome gnocchi ragu – the gnocchi tasting like the quintessence of potato. To follow, TPG’s lamb chops with buttery spinach and lentils and my vitello tonnato were equally excellent.
|Vitello tonnato at Il Cantinetto
Our little old, silver haired charismatic waiter guided us away from the Mascarello Nebbiolo – which we have loved previously – on the basis that we can get better value for money (this is a wine that costs around £50 in London but was €28 here) in favour of an elegant bottle of Elio Grasso for €20. He then also insisted on providing us tastes of a peppery tartare in between courses and, ignoring our pleas that we couldn’t fit in dessert before our espressos, insisted on us sharing an amazingly creamy panacotta freebie anyway. My kind of fellow. A wonderful experience for a grand total of about €55 for 2 people plus wine.
|The plin with butter and thyme at Nelle Vigne (a serving platter for 1)
Il Cantinetto will be on my must do list every time I visit the area. But a great place to start for an incredibly cheap way to sample an enormous volume and range of the traditional local fare – with killer views of a vista of vines to match – is at Nelle Vigne, in Diano D’Alba. This was our second visit. For a grand total of €25 each (plus drinks) we had 8 hefty courses (you get what you’re given, and it’s not a place for vegetarians) comprising big salty anchovies topped with a nocciolo and lemon paste, donutty fried balls of bread topped with delicious shaved salami, a peppery beef tartare, a heavy platter of chicken salad (a surprisingly addictive local mix of chicken with mayonnaise, carrots, potato and onion), a clay pot filled with baked leek and topped with oozy gorgonzola and then (as TPG wasn’t eating pasta) a massive serve (for 1) of plin with rosemary and butter – no need to show you what a serve for 2 looks like.
|Wild boar at Nelle Vigne
But that’s not all. To follow, a choice of delicious braised rabbit with huge baked peppers and tomato sauce (just like the one they often have at Zucca) or cinghiale (chunks of braised wild boar) with crisp roast potatoes. You will be stuffed before you even start mains – indeed you can stop right there for €20 which even we (not often defeated by food quantities) had to do last time as we didn’t pace ourselves - amateur hour. This year, we came prepared. After mains, we had a divine nocciola semifreddo and – TPG again – a panacotta with caramel sauce. Our gorgeous half bottle (I was driving home through the fog again) of Serralunga D’Alba Barola was a steal at €18.
For wine tastings, all the main towns bear the names of famous wines (Barolo, Barbaresco etc) and most of them have caves for degustation. Last time we visited, some of the villages had locals walking around the streets, wine glasses in hand between stalls, for wine festivals. We also did a tasting of the gorgeous wines at Pira & Figli with the lovely winemaker, Chiara Boschi.
How to get there:
Barola was on a clear path from Venice to Bordeaux, as part of our wine trail road trip. However, the easiest way there is to fly to Turin, Genoa or Milan, and it’s an easy (and picturesque) drive from there. Stay at Castello di Sinio, or you could try Hotel Barolo. All the towns are gorgeous, and many are named after the wines you wish you could afford on restaurant menus back home.
For other restaurant recommendations, see my earlier blog post here. You might also like to try Trattoria Della Posta, which has been recommended by 2 separate sets of locals, but we had to cancel our reservation - long story. If you want more inspiration about eating in the area (and travel gluttony in Italy generally) I recommend you have a read of Tamasin Day Lewis’ “Where shall we go for dinner?"