Since the mid-1980s I’ve been an unofficial, self-appointed ambassador for the Piedmont region – a devoted visitor to and promoter of this unique piece of Northwest Italy.
The rolling hills of the Langhe are perhaps Piedmont’s most famous asset. ‘Barolo country’ – as we somewhat misleadingly call the whole Langhe area – offers the visitor the complete package.
Once almost unknown (to us) the Langhe in Piedmont has – through its wonderful features – gradually joined the big league: Tuscany, Rome, Venice and the Amalfi coast, as Italy’s leading tourist destinations.
If you haven’t yet been to Piedmont and the Langhe, it should become a magnet for you next time. I’ll explain why, initially, in this introductory and more general summary. In subsequent blogs, we’ll take a closer look - more specifically, by commune, town and village.
I’ve now made some 30 visits, learning more every time. I almost always base myself within the actual DOCG Barolo zone; often in either Barolo village itself (and its Hotel Barolo) or in Alba, the ‘capital city’ that’s actually just a large town. Many people refer to ‘Alba’ to describe the region, so, as a starting point, I’ll make beautiful Alba the centre of attention.
Alba is centrally convenient: just one hour’s drive south of Torino (Turin) and less than two hours from Milan; only one hour and 20 minutes to the French border, and two hours to Nice. All easy driving that will take even less time if your driver is Italian!
From Alba, it’s not far to the Mediterranean – just one hour 20 minutes to Savona. It’s only four hours to either Florence or Venice; and also to Lyon, in France. Now there’s a thought – Barolo and Burgundy on the same day, hmmm?
After only some 15-20 minutes driving, albeit on sometimes winding roads, you’ll be experiencing the famous villages of Barbaresco, Neive, Treiso, Barolo, Serralunga, La Morra, Monforte.
Other attractions within easy reach from Alba include Bra, founder and international headquarters for the ‘Slow Food’ movement, Cuneo, Alessandria, Asti (heart of the true Moscato zone), Cherasco and many more.
Moscato vines covered in snow
Wherever you go, the views – from your car, out walking or cycling (if you are so inclined), from your hotel window, winery lookouts, or even from a balloon or chopper – are extraordinary!
Everywhere, you’ll encounter history and its architecture; localised views of rustic buildings in scenic landscape, many still in productive use, and the expansive vineyards, with ever-present backdrops of rolling hills and the Alps in the further distance.
You’ll meet the locals – real people in real villages. It’s pretty cool just being amongst pretty accepting people in their own unspoiled villages, with and specialist shops to browse and cooking schools to supplement your skills.
The stunning aerial views of Monforte d'Alba
And the food?
No other local cuisine – anywhere on the planet – is any better! Here is the region of food genius, great dishes based on few, fabulous ingredients, creative invention from a ‘make-do’ heritage. It’s easy to eat well here, and at modest cost. But if you do splash out, it’s invariably worth it. Standards are high.
Some of Italy’s greatest restaurants are here; from the great Bovio in La Morra (with18 pages of Nebbiolo wines alone) to the simplest panino bar, you’ll almost always likely be left a bit bemused at the conto (bill) at the end: frequently heard: “That’s all they charged for that food!”
Culinary genius? Just try vitello tonnato! What the chefs and cooks of Piedmonte do with multi-egg yolk pastas (tajarin)! Or tease your taste buds with raw beef (carpaccio); a sauce made of leeks and butter (sugo di porri); and salt cod (baccala) – all dishes of few ingredients that are marvels of the culinary world.
Of course, ‘Piedmont’ also spells ‘white truffle’ and Alba – home annually to an international festival celebrating the fabulous fungus – is its indisputable capital. If one is silly enough to even mention others’ truffles; for example from Umbria or France, the locals contemptuously refer to these “imposters” as “patate”. Hard to argue.
They might also be patronising about Tassie or Margaret River tubers, but I wouldn’t mention China. The tartufo season, starting late September, and headquartered in Alba, is a special time.