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Episode #156: Experiences to try in Piedmont

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The beautiful northern region of Piedmont, at the foothills of the Alps, is where the Italian royals had their roots and is a region of intellectuals, palaces, castles, and industry, as well as exceptional food and wine. We share some of the incredible experiences you can enjoy on a visit to Piedmont.

Show notes

We are joined by Carlotta Muti of Torino Discovery. She shares some of the experiences you can enjoy in her region where you get incredible nature, culture, architecture, and exceptional food and wine. We talk mountains, hot chocolate, wine, and truffle-dog university.

What you’ll learn in this episode

  1. Piedmont (Piemonte in Italian) is in northwest Italy and is on the border with France. From Turin(Torino), the capital city of the region, you could get to France in just over an hour. If you travel eastbound you can reach Milan in 1/2 to 2 hours or just 45 minutes if you take the high-speed train
  2. Turin is not only a beautiful city but you can see the Alps in the background which adds an extra dimension you don’t get in many places in Italy. The name Piemonte comes from the words piedi, which means feet, and monte, which means mountains as Piemonte is surrounded by mountains – the Italian Alps. The highest peak of the Italian Alps is the Mont Blanc, or as they call it in Italian, Montebianco. It’s well known as a mountain in France but actually, half of it is in Italy and it’s only a couple of hour’s drive from Torino
  3. The mountain spreads into another very small region attached to Piedmont, the Aosta Valley. On the Italian half of Monte Bianco, there is a wonderful funicular that brings you up on several platforms where you have a breathtaking view of the surrounding peaks
  4. Piedmont is a very diverse region and you could easily spend ten days in Piedmont doing a lot of different types of activities. In particular, Piedmont is the land of totality, truffles, and wine
  5. Piedmont is the homeland of the white truffle of Alba. White truffle is a special kind of this subterranean fungi that has a very potent earthy smell. It’s almost like eating the woods and grows under trees like chestnuts, oaks, and hazelnuts (which are prevalent in Piedmont, where Nutella was created).  It’s a variety that you cannot farm which is what makes it so expensive
  6. Truffle hunting is an experience you can enjoy in Piedmont with one of the professional, certified truffle hunters and their dogs. The dogs are made up of a variety of different breeds and are generally younger dogs-  very active and very eager to find those truffles. They get trained by their hunters from when they are very young puppies. The first part of the training, the dogs get to eat the truffles as a (very expensive) treat. Eventually, the hardest part of the training is actually getting them not to eat the truffle (ie the profits), but instead to eat a different kind of treat
  7. The white truffles are hunted only during a very special time in the year, between October and December, but if you visit Piedmont in May, you are still able to go truffle hunting, but for black, not white truffles. Black truffles are a little less potent than the whites, but still delicious truffles and much more affordable
  8. It is lovely to see how the truffle hunter and their dog interact with each other and it’s very exciting when the dog eventually smells the presence of a truffle because the dog goes crazy. They start to dig very fast, and you have to be careful not to stand behind the dog, otherwise, you’re going to be covered in soil! The truffles are sometimes small, sometimes larger and it’s rare but sometimes they can be as big as a human head! 
  9. This year was extremely expensive for white truffles. They went from €5/600 per 100 grams. For a single portion, you eat between 10 to 15 grams, so that means €50 – 80 per dish. The black truffle is way less expensive than that and generally goes for around €50/60 per 100 grams – a 10th of the price of the white
  10. The prices depend a lot on the weather. If it’s a very humid year, then truffle prices are lower. But this year was very dry and they experienced a drought, so there weren’t that many white truffles to be had – driving the price up
  11. The usual way to eat a truffle is to shave it onto your dishes. Some of Carlotta’s favorite pairings are with eggs. You can make fried eggs with a very runny yolk and then you can shave the truffle into thin chips on top. Also on pasta – the typical pasta of Piedmont is the Tajarin, a fresh egg pasta that is a long noodle a bit like tagliatelle, but much thinner. You cook that, put in a little bit of brown butter, a little bit of Parmesan cheese, and then shave the truffle on top – delicious!
  12. In the Langhe area, there is a university for truffle dogs -a university course for the dogs where they get trained and graduate after an exam
  13. The Langhe hills are a very special area in terms of climate and soil. The environment is unique to there – it can’t be re-created elsewhere in the world, or even in the region. There is a river called the Tanaro River below which is the Langhe area. Langhe in the local dialect means a stretch of land, and there are different stretches of this land that are marked with wine names because Langhe is not only the land of truffles, but it’s also the land of the great wines of Piedmont
  14. From the Nebbiolo grape, you can make different kinds of wines. The best of them is the super-renowned Barolo wine. Barolo wine is a strong, structured red wine that can age virtually endlessly. You can age it for a decade, two decades, or five decades even – if you store it correctly. It can be produced only in 11 little villages inside the Langhe area. Those villages, perched on top of the hills of the Langhe area with medieval castles and towers are very lovely to visit
  15. In the Langhe, they have a very special kind of soil that is perfect for growing the Nebbiolo grapes. It’s a chalky, clay, sometimes even sandy limestone soil that takes the flavors of the Nebbiolo grapes to a whole new level
  16. in some of the new wine-making countries like the United States and Australia, you can often just get in a car and zip around five or six wineries in a day, but it’s a little bit different in Piedmont – you can’t just to turn up,  you have to pre-arrange. A lot of wineries on this region, however, have digitized – so have online systems where you can book a slot. It’s easier to go tasting in Piedmont than many others
  17. A couple of wineries worth a visit are Fontanafredda, which is a 20 minutes drive from Alba, and then in the small village of Barolo (it’s the name of the wine, but is also the name of one of the eleven villages), at the entrance, there is a big wine producer called Marquesa de Barolo – another historical wine producer
  18. A smaller wine producer that Carolotta really likes is Cascina Sot which makes really good wine. When you book the wine tasting there, they generally give you also a little bit of food to taste – a few nibbles, a little bit of salami cheese, gristini (breadsticks that are typical of Piedmont) and hazelnuts as well, because hazelnuts pair well with Barola wine.
  19. In the towns and villages here you have a lot of wine shops that gather different labels from different producers. Sometimes they carry one specific year that is really good. If you go around, not only to the wine producers but also while you visit the villages, you are going to encounter many wine shops with great selections. They generally ship them also overseas, so wherever you live in the world, you are going to be able to get all the wine right to your doorstep
  20. People think that the Italian countryside has got so many vines, but the terrain is very different in the different regions and in Piedmont there are steep and dramatic hills, whilst in Tuscany, the hills are softer, so they have different techniques for harvesting
  21. The landscape looks very different in every season because of the vines. If you go there in winter, you’re going to see the hills sprinkled with some snow and the vines are cut down – they get pruned every year. Iif you go at the end of March/beginning of April, you can see the little buds of the vines starting to spring. Then eventually, if you go in mid-May to the beginning of June, the plants have developed a lot, so you can see a lot of greenery. Eventually, after summer, the grapes are full grown, so in September it’s harvesting time, so you can see people harvesting the grapes by hand. They have to have trained staff who knows how to cut and how to select the grapes that need to be pressed to make the must and the juice for the wine. During October and November, the leaves turn yellow and red and the panoramas are wonderful
  22. These steep hills are the reason E-bikes, electric bikes touring, has become so popular in Piedmont – a great experience and you can even go through some of the vineyards
  23. In the hills of the Langhe, the two highest peaks are La Morra and Diano D’Alba from which you can have a bird’s eye view – 360 degrees view down on the hills. There’s also the beautiful Grinzane Cavour castle. It is immersed in the vineyards and is not as high as Diano or as La Morra, which means still having 360 degrees view but you feel more immersed and you can see the castles of the other villages perched on top of each and every hill that surrounds you
  24. The castle is a Medieval castle that has been restored during the 18 hundreds and also in the 1960s and houses the Langhe Museum and the Wine Museum.
  25. Torino was the first capital of united Italy. Italy united only in 1861 as a whole country and the first capital was Torino. Torino was chosen as the capital because in Torino there was the family who actually united Italy under their crown -the Savoys. The Savoy family is one of the longest-living dynasties in Europe – a millennium-long history of the family.
  26. The Savoys ruled over the area of Piemonte from the 1500s consistently up until the unification of Italy and then they eventually ruled over the whole country. During those centuries, they had plenty of time to build the lovely palaces and castles we see today. Some of them are medieval and were reused by the Savoy family and others were built from scratch and boast wonderful baroque architecture –  rich, ornate, golden reliefs with grand, intricate statues.
  27. The very ornate style was intended to legitimize their power through the architecture and the Savoy family had a little bit of an inferiority complex, historically as they were initially regarded as a small Duchy then a small Kingdom – compared to other more famous dynasties in Italy and Europe, so they wanted to make up for this inferiority complex through the wonderful architecture
  28. There are some palaces within the borders of the city of Turin, but the Savoy family loved the countryside as well, so there are other ones scattered through the countryside, and they have as one entity called the Crown of the Delights, been awarded as a UNESCO heritage site
  29. Carlotta’s favorite is Stupidigi – a late Baroque and Rococo hunting lodge located just outside in the outskirts of Turin. Hunting lodge might make you think rustic, but this is not the case in Stupinigi – it’s a wonderful elegant Baroque building with different wings off a center point of a Baroque double-height hall, in a sort of a star shape. When Napoleon, conquered Italy at the very beginning of the 1800s, he chose Stupiniji as the only place worth for him to stay in Turin as well as for his sister, Pauline Borghese
  30. Turin/Torino is a big city, being the fourth most populated city in Italy at just a bit below 1 million, about 900,000. It boasts wonderful architecture and has the nickname Little Paris because of its elegant architecture. It has about 18 arches/porticos, so you can walk in a covered path, so whether it’s wintertime or summertime – you’re protected from the rain or the scorching sun
  31. There are some palaces inside the city, most famously the Royal Palace. Outside the architecture is a bit imposing and serious, but as soon as you enter inside, it has ornate architecture with richness in detail. There is the Royal Armory, which looks like a Harry Potter hall with the knights on the horses, armor and weapons
  32. Turin is very famous for chocolate making. There are two kinds – they are very big on dark chocolate and then there is the special gianduja chocolate. Gianduja chocolate is a mixture of chocolate and hazelnut paste – when you eat it you get a very rich and velvety kind of feeling in your mouth. There is a special kind of treat made with the gianduja called gianduiotto. Gianduiotto is a small chocolate ingot wrapped in golden foil – the typical historical and very decadent chocolate of Torino
  33. Bicerin means in the local dialect, little glass. This special drink comes in a little glass filled with a secret recipe of a mixture of a very rich and decadent dark hot chocolate. Don’t imagine a milky beverage but imagine something that is almost the consistency of a pudding. You have this thick chocolate and then you put in espresso coffee and then you top it with a layer of semi-whipped cream which is not completely solid but not liquidy. The typical way to drink it is in layers – you don’t want to mix it because you want to taste all of the consistencies and even the temperatures because they are served at three different temperatures in the glass. It’s the go-to drink on a Sunday morning after mass
  34. Across the city there are some beautiful, old, stylish cafes that serve the Bicerin. They are really rich in terms of decorations. The oldest ones, they date back to the 17 hundreds. But then we have some that were opened in the 18 and even early 19 hundreds. And we are the Torinese people, the locals here, we are very traditional, so we really like to actually go in one of those historic cafes. There are 5/10 different cafes scattered around the city center where, with those marble counters, wood paneling mirrors, crystal chandeliers, the waiting staff all with the uniform – black and white,  bow tie, and gloves. And as you said, not only you can go chocolate and be sure you’re in tasting in the city,
  35. They always say that the history of united Italy wasn’t done in the palaces or in the political halls, but it was done in the historic cafes because that’s the place where the intellectuals actually met and the politicians actually made the deals in front of a nice hot glass of Bicern (or a nice glass of Barolo wine)
  36. Turin has one of the most important Egyptian museum in the world, outside Egypt. The collection boasts over 30,000 pieces inside and the layout was re-designed in 2015. It’s an enjoyable museum, even though the topic is quite intense – ancient Egypt and archaeology
  37. Turin is the home of the Holy Shroud of Turin. The Holy Shroud supposedly is the piece of fabric that wrapped the body of Jesus Christ after his death and before his resurrection. To this day, people experts in shroud studies are debating whether the shroud was the real fabric that wrapped the body of Jesus or if it was an artifact made in the Middle Ages
  38. The shroud is not usually on display – only on very special occasions, on Jubilee years, once every 25 years, and the next display will be in 2025, plus some special occasions decided by the Pope. So you can’t expect to be able to see the shroud when you visit, but you can for sure see where it’s kept where they have a replica
  39. Lake Orta (Lago di Orta) is a beautiful lake in Piedmont which does not get very busy (or much attention) compared to the other big lakes. This gorgeous lake with hills and mountains in the background, has a little island in the middle with a monastery on it. The nuns that live there have taken a vow of silence, so if you go over there on the little ferry, you need to be respectful to them and keep quiet. Even if you don’t go over to island, the lake is wonderful to visit
  40. There are wonderful villas right on the bank of Lake Orta. There is also the only three Michelin star restaurant in Piedmont – run and owned by chef Cannavacciuolo (a star chef in Italy and one of the judges of the Italian version of MasterChef) at the Villa Crespi
  41. If you’re intrigued by all that Turin and Piedmont have to offer, take a look at our Untold Italy Piedmont tours

About our guest – Carlotta Muti

Tour guide Carlotta Muti is 100% Turinese and loves to show people the best Turin and its surroundings have to offer. She is a qualified tour guide and tour manager, with over 10 years of experience (having left a previous career in neuropsychology) Curiosity and the inexhaustible desire to learn has sparked her interest in art, local history and conservation of the artistic, cultural, gastronomic, and folkloric heritage of her region. 

Torino Discovery is her creation, the result of her enthusiasm for discovery. It is a small company, where she works with trusted colleagues who share her passion and curiosity. They offer private tours for every need, each tour is tailored to the guest’s interest – so no tour is the same! Some of their best-sellers are the chocolate tour and the Royal Palace tour, as well as many other guided visits in the other wonderful Royal Residences of the Savoy family.

You can find Carolotta on these channels:

Places mentioned in the show

  • Torino/Turin – the capital city of Piedmont
  • Mont Blanc – Monte Bianco in Italian, this is the famous mountain that is half in Italy/half in France
  • Aosta Valley – small, mountainous, northern region in Italy
  • Le Langhe – a hilly area in the province of Asti in Piedmont, northern Italy
  • Tanaro – river in Le Langhe
  • La Morra and Diano D’Alba – peaks in Le Langhe
  • Grinzane Cavour Castle – medieval castle in Le Langhe with incredible views
  • The Crown of Delights – the royal residencies, castles, and palaces within Turin and the surrounding areas – UNESCO heritage sites
  • The Hunting Lodge of Stupinigi – the Palazzina di caccia of Stupinigi is one of ther of the Royal House of Savoy, built as a royal hunting lodge in the early 18th century, it is located in Stupinigi, a suburb of the town of Nichelino
  • Chapel of the Holy Shroud – a chapel within the royal palace of Turin were the Holy Shroud is kept
  • Royal Armoury of Turin – a huge hall housing incredible weaponry and artifacts
  • Lake Orta – gorgeous lake in Piedmont
  • Cannavacciuolo – Michelen star restaurant on Lake Orta at Villa Crespi

Food & Drink

  • nebbiolo – grape variety
  • Barolo – famous Piedmont wine
  • Fontanafredda – wine producer not far from Alba
  • Marchesi Barolo – wine producer in Le Langhe of Barolo  
  • Cascina Sot – smaller producer 
  • Tajarin pasta (Tagliolini in Italian) – a ribbon pasta, halfway between spaghetti and tagliatelle (great with a ragu)
  • gianduja – paste mix of chocolate and hazelnut
  • gianduiotto –  chocolate ingots made from gianduja, individually wrapped in a gold or silver foil cover
  • bicerin – hot drink from Turin made of espresso, drinking chocolate, and milk

Resources

Resources from Untold Italy

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