The platter that was set before me here in the Piedmont region of Italy was covered with what resembled small piles of leaves from a fall lawn raking.
The little brown, green and black heaps hardly invited sniffing, much less tasting. Yet sniff and taste I did.
Little did I know, before this introduction to “cheese wrapping,” that a gastronomic tradition in one corner of Italy is aging cheeses by encasing them in leaves.
Nor was I aware that there are highly respected professional “cheese hunters”.
Whose job is to seek out the best leaves in which to wrap locally made cheeses, and to know the exact amount of time each variety should be aged to bring out its best flavor.
Travel in Piedmont
The opportunity to learn about one of the most unusual professions anywhere is one attraction of a visit to the Piedmont (Piemonte) province of northwestern Italy.
Others include its lovely landscape of gently rolling hills blanketed by vineyards, and tiny towns that grew up around imposing stone castles in medieval times.
Adding to the appeal are an enticing history and the fact that Piemontese food and wine, while not as well known as world-famous cuisines like that of France, in my opinion, should be.
Piedmont derives its name from the phrase ai piedi del monte (at the foot of the mountains), and the towering peaks of the Swiss and French Alps soar above the area.
Travel in Alba, Italy
A perfect home base for traveling throughout the region is Alba, “the town of 100 towers.”
That claim dates to the 12th and 13th centuries, when noble families competed to build ever-taller fortified towers to provide protection from attack and demonstrate the family’s wealth and importance.
While only four of the original structures still overlook the town, the name has stuck.
Alba, Italy also boasts other enticing relics of its history. Among these are portions of the ancient city walls, fragments of frescoes and other remnants of Roman rule.
Outside of Alba, the scenery becomes etched in the mind’s eye like a series of paintings. Roads wind through tiny towns, in places so narrow that when two cars meet, one must back up to a wider spot so the other can pass.
Stone buildings line narrow cobblestone streets. Church steeples rise above a sea of red tile rooftops as if gazing out at the surrounding view.
Many a hilltop is capped by an ancient castle, whose massive walls and turrets recall times of past grandeur.
Along with their common attractions, each town in Italy also has its own unique appeals and stories to tell.
Serralunga d’Alba is one of only 11 villages where Barolo wine may be produced. Many connoisseurs rank it, along with Barbaresco, as Italy’s most prestigious red wines.
Grinzane Cavour, Italy
The town of Grinzane Cavour and 12th-century castle of the same name also has a strong connection with viniculture.
Among exhibits in the fortress is the Regional Piemontese Wine Cellar, which showcases and offers tastings of a sampling of the area’s vintages, plus several grappa brandies.
Also intriguing is the Masks Room, whose soaring ceiling is painted with portraits, crests and a series of fantasy monsters and allegorical creatures that range in countenance from droll to macabre.
One proud claim to fame of Cherasco is that Napoleon Bonaparte described it as “le plus beau coin d’Italie.”
Even those who don’t agree that the town is “the most beautiful corner of Italy” can appreciate the original star-shaped Roman bastion and the medieval architecture that abounds there.
The town’s elegant porticoed arcades continue to protect pedestrians from sun and rain, as they did in the past.
Among the sumptuous palaces is the Palazzo Salmatoris, where the ruling Savoy family spent many a summer holiday.
A graceful “Triumphal Arch” was donated by a citizen to give thanks that the plague which wracked the region in 1630 spared the citizens of Cherasco.
Anyone who travels to Italy’s Piedmont region is sure to leave with an appreciation of the importance of both wine and food in the lives of its people.
Probably with a few extra pounds as well. Cheese and truffles — especially white truffles — hold a place of honor on many a dining table and in the local culture and cuisine.
Cheese-making is closely identified with the region, having flourished there since the first century A.D.
Many farmers continue to follow traditional family recipes, which often call for a mixture of milk from cows, sheep and goats.
Italian Cheese Hunters
A visit with a “cheese hunter” turned out to be one of the more unusual experiences of my trip.
Gianna Cora described the local tradition of “maturing” cheeses by wrapping them in various kinds of leaves to both preserve and flavor them.
Foliage which is employed for these purposes includes leaves from chestnut and fig trees, as well as cabbage, cauliflower, and other vegetables.
I also encountered, but chose not to sample, cheeses wrapped in grass, tobacco leaves and goat hides.
Gianna reported that each year he gathers and uses over 100,000 chestnut leaves alone. (I didn’t inquire how he knows the number.)
Explaining that about three dozen of his neighbors share his unusual profession, he claimed — without embarrassment at the pun — that he is recognized as “the Big Cheese” among them.
It didn’t take long after my arrival in the area to observe and experience first-hand that the Piemontese people are as serious about enjoying cheeses as Gianna is about making sure they taste as delectable as possible.
Almost every restaurant serves a wide selection of locally produced types.
I watched as diners discussed their selections with their server, asked for small samples before ordering, then nibbled on their choices with an enjoyment that was obvious even from across the room.
Enjoyment of the magnificent countryside scenery, ancient towns and intriguing history of the Piedmont region might not be demonstrated so clearly.
But in this corner of Italy, it’s important to savor all the flavors it has to offer.
If You Go to Piedmont
For more information about Italy’s Piedmont region, log onto www.langheroero.it, then click on the small image of the British flag in the upper right corner of the screen to translate the site into English.
Author Bio: After gallivanting throughout the United States and to more than 75 other countries around the world, and writing about what he sees, does and learns, Victor Block retains the travel bug. He firmly believes that travel is the best possible education, and claims he still has a lot to learn. He loves to explore new destinations and cultures, and his stories about them have won a number of writing awards.