We’ve just returned from the Piedmont region of Italy, where it felt like we spent the entire week doing nothing but eating delicious meals and driving through breathtaking vistas. The name of the area comes from the Latin for “at the foot of the mountains,” an apt description of the terrain. The area is surrounded by the Alps on three sides and shares borders with Switzerland and France. Roads in every direction turned hairpins up and down the hills through vineyards and farms.
Our daily routine was to wake when the nearby church bells sounded and join our friends in the vast kitchen for cappuccino. Since there were 14 of us and only a six-cup moka pot, the earliest risers got their coffee the soonest. This traditional six-sided pot is designed for the stove top and has three components: a bottom chamber that holds fresh water; a middle perforated basket that holds the grounds; and a top chamber where the brewed coffee bubbles up and reamins. After some training, we learned how to brew a decent cup.
Breakfasts were usually granola and yogurt, bread and jam (there wasn’t a toaster in the house) or omelets filled with leftover tidbits of cheese and prosciutto. During the day we all scattered in different directions - local wineries, nearby medieval churches or longer trips to places such as Turin, Milan, Lake Como and Portofino. Lunches ranged from open-air cafés to three-course feasts.
One of the most memorable lunches was in the city of Bra, headquarters of the slow food movement. The organization’s mission is to promote local foods, and preserve traditional and regional cuisine through sustainable agriculture. In short, the opposite of fast food and commercial agribusiness. You can taste their intentions at the restaurant next door to their offices, Osteria del Boccondivino.
We were seated at a table in the courtyard surrounded by balconies, potted plants and an ancient wisteria vine with hundreds of lavender flower clusters. The menu featured traditional local fare: several varieties of pasta, fresh vegetables, various meat and fish dishes. I was the only one who ordered the three-course luncheon of vitello tonnato, pasta del giorno and panna cotta.
My first course consisted of thin slices of cold veal roast topped with a succulent, tuna-flavored sauce. The pasta of the day was casarecce (meaning “homemade” and resembling short, narrow, s-shaped tubes) served with tomato sauce studded with small eggplant and zucchini cubes. If you’ve never tried panna cotta, you’ve missed a treat. The name means cooked cream; it is made from cream and sugar thickened with gelatin and flavored with vanilla. Its origins are here because of the rich cream produced by the region’s dairy farms.
Dinner each evening was an adventure. Our friends Pat and Marie (organizers of the trip) planned the menus, shopped for ingredients and cooked fabulous three-course meals every day. Antipasti dishes were always served with olives and breadsticks, and the choices featured the freshest ingredients: fennel salad, prosciutto-draped melon slices, eggplant parmigiana, sausage and fontina polenta squares, bresaola and arugula salad.
Second courses or primo were often pasta (sometimes handmade by Pat), including a decadent carbonara, peppercorn fettuccine with zucchini blossoms and a surprising combination of orecchiette (little ears), sliced potato and green beans. The final courses or secondo were roasted or grilled meats served with contorno, a simple vegetable. The most memorable of these were succulent veal chops we watched the butcher trim at our request in his popular macelleria.
Some evenings we also shared a course of sweets, or dolce. Gelato vanished in a flash of spoons; cookies from the local bakery disappeared by the dozen and we had the regional specialty several times: hazelnut cake. Local groves are reputed to produce the finest hazelnuts because of the soil composition; it must be true, since the Nutella factory can be found in the nearby town of Alba.
On the final evening of our week in Cessole, we cleaned out the refrigerator and enjoyed a feast; everything was fresh except for the bread. Although we certainly ate a lot of bread each day, new loaves kept appearing, and by this time not all of it was still fresh. Rather than creating a problem, slightly stale bread was perfect for panzanella.
Panzanella, or bread salad, is a flavorful combination of tomato, cucumber, red onion, basil and bread cubes tossed in a light vinaigrette. The dish in the photo shows how we made it, although you’ll find variations that throw in capers or roasted vegetables or parmesan cheese. The bread should be chewy and substantial, but not fresh, or it becomes gummy and disintegrates. This isn’t a dish that can be stored overnight and served again, so make just enough to enjoy in a single sitting.
I’ve include my favorite recipes for panna cotta and panzanella for you to create the flavors of the Piedmont. And, if you’d like a sample of panzanella, stop by the Historic Lewes Farmers Market around 9 a.m. this Saturday, when I’ll be demonstrating how to prepare it at home.
1 T cold water
1/4 oz envelope plain gelatin
1 C heavy cream
1/2 C half and half
3 T sugar
3/4 t vanilla extract
Coat the inside of 4 ramekins with nonstick cooking spray; set aside. Sprinkle gelatin over the water in a small dish; set aside. Combine cream, half and half, and sugar in a heavy saucepan. Bring just to a boil over medium heat, stirring to dissolve sugar. Remove from heat and whisk in gelatin. Stir in vanilla and pour mixture into prepared ramekins. Allow to cool to room temperature, then cover and refrigerate until set, about 4 hours. Invert panna cotta onto dessert dishes, loosening around the edge with a knife, if needed. Serve with fresh berries Yield: 4 servings.
3 C 1-inch bread cubes*
1/4 C minced red onion
2 large tomatoes
1/3 C sliced basil
1/4 C olive oil
2 t balsamic vinegar
2 t red wine vinegar
1 minced garlic clove
1/2 t salt
1/4 t black pepper
Place the bread cubes and onion in a serving bowl. Cut the tomatoes into 1/2-inch chunks; add to the bowl. Pare the cucumber and cut into 1/2-inch pieces. Add cucumber and basil to the bowl; set aside. In a small bowl, whisk together remaining ingredients and pour over salad, tossing to combine. Cover with plastic wrap and leave at room temperature for about 20 minutes, stirring occasionally. Yield: 4 servings. *Note - select chewy, substantial bread, at least one day old.