Cheese, Truffles, History and Wine in Piedmont, Italy

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Piedmont. Castello Grinzane. Photo by Victor Block
Castello Grinzane. Photo by Victor Block

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, and 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.

Piedmont Cheese hunter sniffing leaves. Photo by Victor Block
Cheese hunter sniffing leaves. Photo by Victor Block

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.

Piedmont Cherasco - Porticoed streets. Photo by Victor Block
Cherasco – Porticoed streets. Photo by Victor Block

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.