Sunday 30 September 2012

Lyon & the Beaujolais, France - Gluttonous Travels (The wine trails, stop 3)

The market at Villefranche-sur-Soane

Our whistle stop tour of the wine regions of Italy and France would not have been complete without a soujourn in proximity to France’s oft cited “gastronomic capital”, Lyon.

Charcuterie at L'Epicerie

Just north of Lyon, the Beaujolais countryside is a pretty patchwork of amber and red vines, green woodlands, rivers, lakes and windy trails of neat, sandstone villages and grand chateaux. It has a totally different character to the high, rolling hills of Piedmont and the crumbling stone walls we would later discover in Bordeaux. The call of the famous Lyonnaise bouchons, cheese, charcuterie and Bresse chickens beckoned.

Where to eat:

The cheese platter at L'Epicerie

Our favourite traditional bouchon was L’Epicerie (recommended by our hosts) in the nearby town of Villefranche-sur-Soane. An easy going, lovely pot of Beaujolais Village will set you back a whole €4 as you soak up the character and charm of the bouchon, with its wooden décor, a clutter of pictures and posters on the walls and a menu filled with piggy and other meaty delights from charcuterie to boudin noir, to huge chickens and andouillette, to layer upon layer of cheesy gratin, quenelles and oozy cheeses.

Quenelles at L'Epicerie

As we explored the villages, we stopped for massive salad – a whole lettuce with bacon, poached egg and crispy croutons at Du Bouchon Beaujolais in Vaux-on-Beaujolais. The atmosphere is odd – dimly lit with music clips blaring from a TV screen in the corner – but the big plates of hearty, traditional fare are good.

Massive salad at Du Bouchon Beaujolais

We also tried Michelin Star chef George Blancs’s casual restaurant, Embarcadere, in Jassans Riottiere. Service is as you would expect in a fine dining establishment, but our food was disappointing – my beef was chewy and lacking in flavour (not a patch on the steaks we’d had at the agriturismo Ulivi in Italy a few days earlier) and despite packing some good flavour, for its hefty price tag TPG’s Bresse chicken breast was tiny compared to the size of the Bresse chickens we’d seen at the local market earlier that day, and compared to the fabulous meaty chickens of at least equal quality we’d already sampled for far less money on the trip. We could have eaten better for less elsewhere. Don’t bother with this one.

Exploring at the colourful markets

By the time we reached Lyon, we were almost all sausaged out but if you do want to eat in a bouchon there book well in advance and you might like to try Le Garet and Le Café Federations (recommended by Eat Like a Girl), Chez Georges, the huge Brasserie Georges, 2* Le Bec or L'Ourson Qui Boit. But in the end we stumbled fatefully across the fabulous little Bistro Au Bon Temps – which just hit the spot. Cosy, poky and charming, it was the perfect setting for our post shopping recuperation over a calamari and tomato salad, an endive salad, TPG's creamy chicken and my braised duck and lentils, finished off with an oozy St Marcellin cheese.

Duck at Bistro Au Bon Temps

Another good stop is the large Saturday morning market at Villefranche-sur-Soane where you can pick up local cheeses, charcuterie and baked items, while browsing the rows of giant, colourful vegetables, Bresse Chickens, ducks and other temptations.

This is clearly not an area to diet (although I did manage a run through the vines one morning, inspired by the hordes training for the local marathon). A lovely area to visit – and you might like to time your trip with the Beaujolais Nouveau festival, for the first release of wines in mid November each year.

Where to stay:

The welcoming view of Chateau de Longsard

We arrived after the long drive (and several painful road tolls) from Barolo, carving our way through the stunning French Alps, to the welcome and impressive sight of Chateau de Longsard, just outside Villefranche-sur-Soane.

Our spacious room with views over the gardens

Owned by the Count and Countess Olivier du Mesnil du Buisson, the chateau has a long history, dating from the 16th century. There are 3 spacious rooms like ours in the main chateau, although with the restored coachhouse, the property sleeps 36. The grounds are beautiful – I felt very Pride & Prej as I kicked back with a book by the window overlooking the French gardens with manicured box hedges, leading onto English style country gardens then onto the vineyards beyond. You can also take a turn around the property, past 250 year old cedars, lime tree alleys and an Egyptian obelisk given to previous owners in 1892.

The view from my armchair 

Our room fast became my happy place, with its soaring ceilings, ornate fire place, comfy armchairs, beautiful views, 4 poster bed, gorgeous white bathroom (complete with spacious bathtub) and a mixture of antique and modern furnishings.

Beautiful, old dictionaries

After waking from a replenishing sleep under the 18th century wooden beams, our hosts, the Count and Countess – Olivier and Alex - had prepared a scrumptious breakfast of fresh croissants and bread, fruit, Alex’s lovely home made jams, cereals, yoghurt, local hams and cheeses, OJ and a hot pot of coffee timed for our wake up. Although they have lived in the area for 20 years, Alex and Olivier are well travelled and relics from their many years abroad add interest and character to the traditional chateau.

The breakfast room

Antiques and relics from abroad,
by the fire in the drawing room

This is a really special place to stay, with its own small winery, and not only is it just 20 minutes from the bouchons of Lyon, but it’s right in the middle of the sleepy Beaujolais villages where your food and wine explorations can begin.

To get there:

We drove cross country, but you could fly or take the train from Lyon and then take the short drive to Chateau de Longsard and the Beaujolais villages from there.

Chateau de Longsard, 4060 route de Longsard, 69400 Arnas, Tel: (33) 474 655 512,

Greedy Diva was a guest of Chateau de Longsard. Rates start at €130 per night, including breakfast.

Saturday 29 September 2012

Barolo, Italy - Gluttonous Travels (The wine trails - 3rd stop)

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?"

Friday 28 September 2012

Valpolicella region, Italy - Gluttonous Travels (The wine trails - 2nd stop)

Top notch beef at Locanda Costa Degli Ulivi

From Venice, our road tour kicked off (via an Autogrill or two) as we drove about 1 ¼  hours to the Valpolicella region of Italy for a sip of some big boy Amarone on its home turf.

Our first taste of a great Amarone was a few years ago at a terrific little restaurant called 18-28 in Milan, recommended by a local Italian colleague (and now by me - great food). The cork was popped. The wine was poured. We swirled, we sniffed, we sipped. We looked each other in the eye. Then we clutched our glasses like mother cats guarding their young and ordered a full bottle. And then another.

Villa Monteleone - looking out onto the vines

This wine hails from the Valpolicella region, north of Verona and east of Lake Garda. Drive by row after row of leafy vines and hilltops dotted with soaring church towers and sleepy villages. The perfect base for your explorations is winery and B&B, Villa Monteleone, in the heart of the region. Owned by Lucia Raimondi, the villa is a traditional 17th century building overlooking the vineyards of Monteleone and Gargagnago. The villa has its own small, family run vineyard producing about 35,000 bottles a year (its first vintage was in 1989), and right across the road is the regional commercial giant, Masi, where you can taste some big hitting Amarones that will cost you hundreds of pounds to sample in London.

The vineyards just outside Villa Monteleone

But firstly, where to eat:

The big ' juicy lamb chops at L.C.D Ulivi

Our homely meal at Locanda Costa degli Ulivi ( could have set an example to a Michelin star restaurant or two. A ginormous platter of pumpkin risotto and a steaming bowl of handmade coccinelle pasta shells with local sausage, olives and tomato were fabulous, but even better were the mains – 4 perfectly pink and plump lamb cutlets, and generous thick slithers of delicious grilled beef. Serving sizes are large, great value and absolutely top quality. This is a place where they start with great produce and then cook it simply but perfectly to bring out its best but take nothing away from it. The room had zero atmosphere on the night of our visit (completely out of tourist season), but the food and wines (at about €4 for a decent Amarone or €2 for a Valpolicella) had us smitten. Our amazing feast cost about €40 per head for 3 courses, sides and highly enjoyable wines. Food wise, TPG rates it up there in best ever meal category. A total surprise package.

Hand made pasta with sausage, olives & tomatoes at L.D.C. Ulivi

It was far better than our slightly more expensive dinner the next night at Dalla Rosa Alda ( which gets rave reviews online, but apart from the lovely wines and a bit more buzz in the cave like room, our meal was only “so so”. Still, to be able to match 3 local wines (including a gorgeous Amarone) to each course for only €15 is quite something. There’s lots of horse meat on the menu – a local specialty – but TPG routinely cries in Phar Lap and Sea Biscuit so I thought better of trying it. Lamb and beef were good, but not up there with those at Ulivi. The slab of yellow olive oil cake (another regional speciality) was a little dry although the wobbly pannacotta brought flaming to the table, was lovely. About €50 per head.

Lasagne with radicchio & mushroom at Bottega de Corgnan

Better yet was our lunch at tiny, out of the way (seriously off the tourist trail) Bottega de Corgnan (, a super fun, casual hang out of the locals where you can feast on platters of local salamis and cheeses, bowls of pasta using only seasonal ingredients (or a radiccio and mushroom lasagne in my case), polenta, rabbit, steak, or lamb over a good selection of wines at very reasonable prices (about €10 per course and wines from €2). Opposite is the more upmarket restaurant, Grotto Corgnan, where you can linger over a longer, fancier meal which the locals also rave about.

Meat & 3 Veg at Bottega de Corgnan

On the road from Venice to Monteleone, we also stopped off in the beautiful walled town of Soave (I can’t resist a sign post bearing the name of a good drop), where we shared a magnificent lunch of cured meats, local cheeses and grilled vegetables with some local Soave wines (ranging from €1-€4!) for around €15 per head at the fabulous Enoteca Del Soave. Delightfully simple.

Food on the road at Enoteca del Soave


We did a tasting of Villa Monteleone’s own gorgeous wines with friendly cellar master, Raffael. If you don’t want a quick lesson, look away now.

The tasting room at Villa Monteleone

The main wines of the region are:
  •  Valpolicella Classico - the light, easy table wines of the region.
  •  Ripasso (or Valpolicella Classico Superiores) - can be a thing of beauty, made when the partially dried grape skins left over from the fermentation of Amarone or Recioto (dessert wines) are added back to the Valpolicella, adding complexity and depth.
  • Amarone - bigger, full bodied wines made from late harvested, very sweet, ripe grapes which are then dried out for several months. The wines are then aged in barrels for several years (3 in the case of Villa Monteleone’s own lovely version).
  •  Recioto – sweet wines. Villa Monteleone’s Recioto is glorious – of only light to medium sweetness (unlike some of the more cordial-like wines we tasted).

Raffael in the grape drying room

If you are lucky enough to come across Villa Monteleone wines in your country (they export 90% of their wines), I highly recommend them – some of the most enjoyable of our trip, and at excellent prices (from €10 for the Valpolicella Classico to around €30 for the Amarone). All the grapes at Villa Monteleone are picked by hand, to create wines faithful to the tradition of the region.  Our tasting included a private tour of the vines, the small cellar and the grapes being dried for the Amarones. Thirst inspiring stuff. I believe they may also be able to put on a rustic lunch for you.

Where to stay - more details on Villa Monteleone:

Our room was one of only 3 at the villa, and was traditional (except for the added bonus of a sauna - gold!), spacious and comfortable, with views out over the vines. Guests are provided with a lovely breakfast each morning of coffee, juice, pastries, freshly baked bread, jams, granola, cereals, yoghurt, fruit and local hams and cheeses. (Although save some room for lunch - they don’t hold back on portion sizes ‘round these parts). There’s WiFi in the main lounge area and lots of books to nerd up on the local viniculture. You’ll also be provided with maps and lots of tips on where to eat and drink from Lucia and her friendly and helpful right hand woman, Sara. This place is all friendliness and charm - we loved it. 

Our room at Villa Monteleone - with separate spa/sauna room  bathroom

There are tonnes of places to eat or taste wine within easy access – some only a few minutes away (and some restaurants will transport you to and fro so that you can indulge in the wines thoroughly).

While in the area you can also lunch in Verona (30 minutes drive) or by the shores on the stunning Lake Garda (20 minutes away), where we took a stroll and coffee. The outdoor opera season at the famous Arena in Verona is in July and August, but November is also a beautiful time to visit for crisp sunny days and the magical Autumnal colours.

The high vines at Villa Monteleone

Travel details:

We flew to Venice where we stayed a couple of nights, and then drove for about 1.25 hours from there. Alternatively, you could fly to Verona which is only about 30 minutes away from Villa Monteleone.

Greedy Diva was a guest of Villa Monteleone – I wholeheartedly recommend it as a place to stay or at least get in touch with Lucia to taste the wines - at via Monteleone 12, 37015 – Gargagnago, VR (Tel: 045 770 4974) Rooms are €90 and €95 per night, including breakfast.

Thursday 27 September 2012

Venice, Italy - Gluttonous Travels (The wine trails - 1st stop)

The rather nice view from our hotel room
at the Hilton Molino Stucky

Goodbye London, Helloooo Venice.

To mark the end of life in London and the start of life in Melbourne, we decided to take a road trip through the wine trails from Venice to Bordeaux. First stop – Venice.

Venice makes you feel like you are floating on a fairy tale island of grandiose palaces and colourful, dilapidated villas, as the tourists float by in gondolas and the espresso machines whirl in the alleyways. It may be heaving with tourists, but something about being surrounded by so much calming water, where even taking a taxi involves an Angelina Jolie style cruise past domed cathedrals, brings an instant feeling of serene other worldliness.

It's all part of the fun, getting lost wandering among the bright blue canals

Venice was going to provide the freshest seafood of our trip before the trek inland to the wineries – think plump, salty little clams with spaghetti in a white wine sauce, grilled razor clams in olive oil, branzino, huge plates of delicate fritto misto, and big, sweet fleshy prawns.  Jet black squid ink pasta and calamari stewed in a tomato sauce with creamy polenta were other favourites. Eat sugary whipped cream sandwiched between meringue, rich chocolate salami, life giving coffee gelato, seafood bruschetta and thin pizza slices the size of your head.

A quick plate of pasta with fresh seafood at Fantasia

Londoners might go looking for cool little bacaro bars a la Polpo, but while there are exceptions, mostly the real deal cichetti bars look like old man pubs with blinking pinball machines and a few ham paninis on the counter top. Polpo is probably more Brooklyn than Venice. For wines, you have the choice of all the local Valpolicellas, Ripassos and Amarones the beautiful Veneto region has to offer.

Steamed lobster at the Aromi restaurant

Risotto with botargo, candied lime and crushed hazelnuts at the Aromi Restaurant

A couple of restaurants we would have liked to have tried were closed for both days of our trip, being a Monday and then a public holiday. Try Corte Sconta and check out the recommendations of An American in London and Mark Bittman. However, the best meal of our trip was at the Aromi restaurant at the Hilton Molino Stucky where we stayed.

The hotel has several restaurants – the Aromi restaurant has the option for a meal on the terrace, with panoramic views over the Guidecca canal, over summer. The fare combines simple, seasonal ingredients in creative Venetian dishes.

Cheese dumplings with crab, sea asparagus and summery black truffle

We tried the degustation menu (€95) - steamed lobster served with vegetables cooked in salt; cottage cheese gnocchi style dumplings with crab, sea asparagus and black truffle (TPG substituted this for the squid ink risotto which was gorgeous); creamy risotto sectioned into thirds with each of botargo, candied lime and crushed hazelnuts; a platter of fresh scampi, monkfish, prawns, sea bream and eel; sweet, caramelised polenta with milk ice-cream and a white and dark chocolate stick;  caramelised polenta with milk ice cream white chocolate pure and dark chocolate stick. On the a la carte menu, pastas are around €25 and mains are about €35, so it's at the pricier end of the spectrum as you would expect at a luxury hotel.

Our excellent waiter matched the first few courses with an Livio Felluga Sauvignon Blanc – I don’t normally go for Sauv Blancs at all, but boring old Cloudy Bay this was not. A Lamo Cabernet Sauvignon/Shiraz/Merlot gave us a sublime taste of the very reason we were here to explore the wines of the Veneto. We finished with a lovely Recioto over dolce. Although the room was quiet on a Monday night, I recommend the restaurant for elegant and delicious creative takes on traditional fare and excellent service.

For us, it was an easy toddle back to our room at the Hilton Molino Stucky, created from the restoration of 13 buildings that constituted a 19th century flour mill. It’s gigantic (we got lost on our way to our room a few times!) and some towers feel like being inside a castle. Situated on Guidecca Island, the view across the canal when you pull back the curtains in the morning is one of the hotel’s main draw cards. Check out the view from our hotel room in the headline shot above.

You can then take a free shuttle ferry across to San Marco in under 15 minutes. The trade off for the fabulous views is the inconvenience of having to time your comings and goings with the ferries, which leave for San Marco every hour or for Zattere every half hour, but it has to be said that travelling by boat in Venice feels rather glamorous so it’s hard to begrudge it. The last ferry returns to the hotel after midnight.

The Hilton Molino Stucky - a former flour mill
(This photo was provided by the hotel)

Each room has a king sized bed (or 2 singles), satellite TV, high speed wireless (not free) and elegant, sumptuous bathrooms and fittings.

The view from the Skyline rooftop bar and the rooftop pool (yes I’m collecting them) across the canal towards San Marco Square is also fabulous – the perfect spot for an Aperol spritz at sundown (Venice is its birthplace afterall). There’s also a gym, spa, Turkish bath, jacuzzi and sauna.

Guidecca consists of 8 gondola shaped interconnected islets, and is a quiet escape from the tourist hordes. It houses many grand historical villas, avant-garde lofts and warehouses that now host art exhibitions and other cultural activities. Probably not worth a special trip if you’re staying in the throng, but a lovely place to stroll around, and worth a stop at Harry’s Dolce just a few minutes along the canal from the hotel.

Here are some more snap shots of Venice for inspiration:

This is what the late night taxi home looks like in Venice...

A Venetian petrol station

Another grand canal

Peak hour

From Venice, we head towards the vineyards outside Verona for some serious guzzling. Stay tuned.

Greedy Diva was a guest of Hilton Molino Stucky. Rates vary and you can get some great deals - the standard rates at this time of year are around €169 per double which is great value for this quality in Venice - and with those views.

You might also like...

Related Posts with Thumbnails