A recent study on neurobiology shows what common sense has always known well: our memories are connected with smells and tastes. Nowadays, science knows why the scent of a particular perfume can remind us of a former lover, or the fragrance of a pudding can trigger the memory of a Sunday roast with our family. These memories are often set off by the simple food we used to eat in our childhood. A plate of dumplings, or a roast beef, a Nicoise salad, or a hazelnut gelato can help us revive old memories forgotten in a corner of our mind. I am from one of the most famous wine regions in the world, Piedmont, and wine has therefore charmed me. My grandfather’s wine canteen, the annual harvesting in September, the many bottles consumed in winter nights, in spring evenings or summer days – ok, you get it. Lastly, wine is the main focus of my magazine: MOSTO! Combat Wine Zine.
There is nothing like the smell of red wine that brings me back home. No joke, every time I am homesick, I open a bottle of Barbera, close my eyes and travel with my mind. It is then that I jump away from the misty streets of Islington, from cloud to cloud above the Channel, over yellow France, white Alps, to land, then, on a rattan chair in my house between the green hills of Monferrato. This is the power of comfort drinking – my very personal version of comfort food: travelling through space and time. Like in front of a white canvas, with every sip of wine, I splash some colours over the scenarios in my mind: one sip and I see my nonna cleaning green fagiolini, another sip and I am with my father reading the Gazzetta Dello Sport, another one and I am playing tennis with my brother, last glass and I am cooking porcini with my mother.
Although it was a hideous year, I was able to spend the whole of August, September and a bit of October 2020 in my hometown Acqui Terme, in the Monferrato area, where I managed to cure my never-ending thirst for wine (I had to stock it up before the winter of our discontent, after all). Monferrato is one of the wine regions of Piedmont, with an outstanding diverse selection of indigenous grapes. Here Nebbiolo, Barbera, Dolcetto, Ruche, Grignolino, Bonarda, Pinot Noir, Brachetto Moscato, Cortese, Chardonnay, Erbaluce, and Timorasso represent the renowned grape varieties, while a few other indigenous grapes, still not fully explored, are making things a bit more exciting for wine enthusiasts and connoisseurs. Overshadowed by the flamboyant fame of Langhe, the hometown for Barolos, Barbarescos, five stars hotels and mass tourism, Monferrato stands quiet and still in its wild, vibrant and bucolic landscapes. Luscious vegetation of silent forests go hand in hand with well-groomed vineyards and ancient castles providing chestnuts, porcini, white truffles and, of course, vino! A lot of it.
Biodiversity is a word that can rightly be used to describe Monferrato, as the region is literally divided between forests, cities, natural reservoirs and vineyards. The balance of this culture and agriculture works perfectly, providing a dream destination for a niche but an attentive form of tourism. “We have a different kind of tourism” explains Tessa Donnadeu, Export Manager of Vinchio – Vaglio Serra, the most famous wine coop of the Monferrato. “Our tourism is made of people who respect nature, who love natural reserves, who like sports and hiking”. This is due to the perfect relationship between natural landscapes and human intervention, such as small villages and wine canteens. Vinchio – Vaglio Serra produces bold wines with respect for Nature and Humans – it is the local associated wine company, working with 192 families of winegrowers over 450 hectares of land. Their Tre Vescovi Barbera is a fresh dark fruits jolly wine, perfect with some local pasta or meat dishes.
When I am in Acqui Terme, besides losing myself in the forests for mushroom picking and wandering looking for majestic orange sunsets in the vineyards, there are a very few places I love to enjoy tipples with friends. La Loggia is one of these places. There, history and charm coexist among XVIII century saloons, XVII and XVI century lodges, a beautiful XIII century tower with a small Italian garden casually set up with wrought iron tables and chairs. It’s there where we have celebrated friends’ weddings, Christmas lunches, family dinners, and where I take my partner every time I come back from the Big Smoke.
The cuisine is classic Piedmontese with a posh twist. Cardoon flan, Stocafisso alla Acquese, Porcini Salad, outstanding Ravioli (here called Agnolotti), Brasato al Vino, Cannelloni, among many others local foods, are served with punctuality and a certain Piedmontese savoir faire. The religious respect for a seasonal turnover of the ingredients matches a family-driven passion for hospitality making this little spot unique. During the 70s, La Loggia was the very first restaurant to open in the historical centre of the town, a tortuous labyrinth of Roman thermal spots, XIV century Monferrato Marquisate palaces and Romanic churches. Since then, La Loggia has been turning on a classy and vibrant nightlife with music and booze: late-night jazz piano for confidential talks and night drinks. Nowadays the area is full of bars, trattorias, Michelin restaurants, but La Loggia still stands out for style and sobriety, perfectly managed by the owner Matteo. Not to mention that the place offers three rooms in the style of the restaurant, just in case those tipples were too many…eh?
Together with Acqui Terme, the nearby village of Nizza Monferrato is another important pole for ones never-ending thirst. In Nizza, tourists can find renowned winemakers, such as the brilliant Antica Casa Vinicola Scarpa – home of good wines. The Maison, whose reputation has grown since Mario Pesce took over in the 1960s, has been producing wine since 1854, developing refined skills in winemaking; each of their bottles is hand labelled and some of them have a handmade wax sigil over the cork. Among their vast production, I adore their Barbera La Bogliona. These grapes and vineyards surround the street that links Nizza to Acqui, up to 400 meters above the sea level, explains Andrea Riccione, export manager of the Maison, on a sunny yet cool morning of October 2020. On that day, I was lucky enough to be invited for a wine tasting, enjoying the wide selection of wines: from their perfumed Rouchet to their Barolos and Nebbiolo. In respect of another tasty tradition of Monferrato, the company also produces Vermouths, both white and red: perfumed, gentle, bittersweet well-balanced aromas.
Just outside Nizza, there is a country house, with XIX century features, quite hidden from the limelight and the main roads. Inside this cascina, you can find a lovely 129 year old restaurant: Da Bardon. On my most recent trip to Da Bardon in the beginning of October, I ordered Finanziera and poached pears with Moscato, two classic dishes from the Piedmontese traditions. Finanziera is leftover offals stew cooked in vinegar or Marsala – not for everyone’s taste, but certainly, a dish rooted in the farming tradition of this region.
I met Alessandra Bardone, the great-granddaughter of Mr. Bardone, who opened the business in 1891. At 27, she is the head chef of the restaurant: “My family opened at the end of the XIX century, and we have been running the business since then”. When I ask about the cuisine, Chef Alessandra fiercely talks about her style of cooking, made with “local, sustainable producers, who provide excellent meat and vegetables of the season”, and she rightly takes pride in the “eleven suppliers I use to source my fresh products”. Their menu is traditional, but constantly evolving, to satisfy the needs of the current customers: “we just came up with a new recipe for the Cardoon, a new take on the classic Parmigiana with goat cheese”. The Primi selection is the classic Ravioli al Plin, Agnolotti, Tagliolini, secondi follow the tradition with a tasty choice of Piedmontese standards such as Bollito, Tripes, Braised Beef in Barbera, Guinea-Fowl, Rabbit. “The Carrello dei Secondi (a trolley full of 11 different types of meat) is definitely one of our special offers where the customers can choose from”. And my beloved Barbera? “Definitely the right choice for our food, we have 1600 labels of different wine in the canteen, I am sure you can find something for your palate” laughs the Chef.
As Chef Bardone, who’s hoping to soon reopen her business, we really hope to be able to enjoy all these food and drink experiences in Monferrato. Sadly, to date, we can only open a bottle of Barbera, close our eyes, and let our dreams make us feel closer to home.