Piedmont Has Hills… and Ridiculously Good Wine and Food.
Homemade tajarin, which is the Piedmontese name for taglierini, served here with porcini, spinach, and a poached egg. The garnishes are salted capers, caperberries, toasted and chopped pine nuts, and chopped olives. Although the many dishes of tajarin I had in Piedmont were made with fresh pasta, dried “nests” of these noodles where available for sale all over the region. The pasta is an egg dough, but specifically egg yolks, which lends the pasta its color. It appeared mostly hand-cut to various thin widths nearing fettuccine. It almost came exclusively as a simple yet richly flavorful dish, served with only butter and Parmesan for a sauce, thinned with a little pasta water (I imagine), and either shavings of black truffles or asparagus or with wilted spinach. This dish pictured served as the “primo piatto” for my first Piedmont inspired meal. I tried to evoke tajarin’s substance in this homage to the nests of dried pasta.
“Good poets borrow; great poets steal.” That nice morsel of a statement—attributed to T.S. Eliot and continually reanimated by creative writing workshops—has all the roundness of an aphorism that makes it just sound like wisdom. It’s a piece of advice I’ve enlisted on more than one occasion when trying to impress upon my students that it’s okay to have influences; it’s okay to be inspired. And I have to admit that the rhetoric of unapologetic thievery usually has enough rebellion in it to start shifting those self-identified individual geniuses over to the position that our art doesn’t come from some pure internal wellspring. When it comes to art, you get the ideas for your ideas somewhere.
Cooking, for me, is an art like any other. It is one for which I am an amateur, although enthusiastic, practitioner. I am always looking for inspiration, searching for what flavor combination, texture, or technique I can steal. The challenge for home cooks is how to incorporate inspiration into meals that feel natural and effortless for our limitations in skill, ingredients, and equipment. I don’t need to try to recreate the dish coyly but aptly called English Peas I had at Alinea, which was an absolute orgy of textures, temperatures, and techniques. (I found some pictures of what I ate here, and here, and here; it was a three-part dish.) I only have to take what I need, which in the case of English Peas was a lesson in using an ingredient in different ways on the same plate, highlighting various pleasures in mouthfeel.
The Piedmont nostalgia meal started with this cantaloupe, tomato, and tomatillo gazpacho. While the flavors are not truly Italian, we did have a chilled spicy tomato soup with pepitas on our last night in Monforte d’Alba that I was conjuring up, yet with a Texas flavor. I used three tomatoes and three tomatillos peeled and seeded. I seeded the tomatoes in a wire strainer over a bowl to catch all of the juices. I used a quarter of a cantaloupe; a quarter each of seeded red, orange, and yellow bell peppers; a quarter of a red onion; the juice of one lime; one jalapeno seeded; one cucumber peeled and seeded; 1/4 cup of olive oil; and a tbsp of chopped basil and a tbsp of chopped mint. Those ingredients were blended smooth and seasoned with kosher salt and white pepper. I topped the gazpacho with heirloom tomatoes, toasted pine nuts, salted toasted pumpkin seeds, and mint and basil.
What T.S. Eliot actually said was this: “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different. The good poet welds his theft into a whole of feeling which is unique, utterly different from that from which it was torn.” For the amateur, this is all relative. When I make a meal, my only hope is to be inspired enough to challenge myself, to make my cooking exciting to me and those I cook for, and hopefully tastier. I don’t need to take on the whole history of the art. That, unfortunately, is the kind of hubris I reserve for poetry.
This long preamble is all to say Holly and I went to Italy. We went to bike and eat and drink our way through Piedmont. The whole time, I was taking note of what I could steal for my own cooking. That contraband became this meal shown here in the spirit of Piedmont I made when we returned, a meal that was as much a celebration as it was a lament for the fact we were no longer sitting in village restaurants, drinking local Barberas and Barolos, while eating local cheeses and house-made pastas and salumi.
“Local” really was the theme of our gustatory pilgrimage. Many of the incredible wines we drank came from vines we could see out the windows of where we were imbibing them or had only recently passed on our bikes. The food was no different. When we turned down a steep road in the Langhe hills, following our guides to the beautiful and rustic restaurant, La Casa Nel Bosco, ristorante in famiglia of the gracious Gianni and Mina (Gianni serves the wine and food that Mina skillfully prepares) surrounded by gardens and tucked into a forest containing chestnuts, it was no shock to find asparagus and spinach from the garden incorporated into dishes and chestnuts poached in honey smartly garnishing a plate of beef carpaccio that opened the meal. Piedmont, after all, is the epicenter and origin of the Slow Food movement with its locavore ethos. Our guide Arien mischievously joked that to call it a “movement” there is kind of inaccurate, since local is just how things are done. I should add that Arien and our other guide Jimi were incredible, and the cycling trip the DuVine company created for Piedmont is spectacular. I can’t say enough wonderful things about DuVine. We were in excellent hands.
Our meals in Piedmont were always long affairs with many courses and many wines. The porcini tajarin was our second course, accompanied by a nice Arneis, a white wine not in much abundance here in Texas, which is sad. It’s a great wine and can drink like a light Chablis. I made the tajarin with four egg yolks to a 3/4 cup of “double zero” flour. The pasta is tossed in butter, a little pasta cooking water, grated Parmesan, cracked black pepper, and chopped porcini mushrooms. I wanted the poached egg to act as an additional layer to the sauce, which would be seasoned by the garnishes.
Piedmont is known for braised meats, and we enjoyed many such dishes. One in particular was a braised pork shank I ate in Monforte d’Alba that had a delicious crust of a glaze. It came with a simple side of perfectly fried cubes of pillowy potatoes. Most of the second piatti we had would just be the meat and a vegetable. Asparagus was abundant on our trip, and we ate family-style many times. This course reflects that. I couldn’t find pork shank on the day I made this dish, so it is pork shoulder, but a small 3 lb bone-in shoulder. I braised the shoulder at 285 °F for 4.5 hours, and then finished it with the glaze at 450 °F for 10 minutes. The glaze is just a reduced cup of pomegranate juice mixed into a paste with kosher salt, brown sugar, and black pepper.
Piedmont is also known for hazelnuts, and with its hazelnuts, Nutella. A common dessert in the region is a hazelnut cake, and we had the extreme pleasure of eating in a family-run renovated farmhouse restaurant in Acqui, and the sweet and talented chef, Clara, gave us a demonstration on making homemade Nutella and even enlisted me in preparing a hazelnut cake. That night, we ate overlooking the vineyards where Clara’s son Guido grows Dolcetto, Barbera, and Muscato, and makes excellent wine, which he served us. I tried to recapture a little flavor of the area by making a chocolate bark with hazelnuts, pumpkin seeds, and sea salt. I got the idea for this bark from the wonderful food and poetry blog, Eat This Poem.
I served the chocolate bark over white chocolate mousse with a cherry compote for an end to the meal. We left Piedmont just at the start of cherry season. I wish we had had more time. To make the mousse, I found a very helpful video on YouTube.
The view from Clara and Guido’s restaurant.
Helping Clara with the hazelnut cake. She supplied the hat and the Muscato. Nice way to cook.
And yes, homemade Nutella in Piedmont with local hazelnuts is ridiculously tasty.