Cheese, Truffles, History and Wine in Piedmont, Italy

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A vineyard in Piedmont. Photo by Victor Block
A vineyard in Piedmont. Photo by Victor Block

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 Wrapped cheeses. Photo by Victor Block
Wrapped cheeses. Photo by Victor Block

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.

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