August escape (Lago d’Orta, Piedmont)

October 7, 2018

Italy is one of those countries where a vast number of local shops and businesses close in August for a minimum of two weeks on average and everybody departs for a long and well deserved holiday. For us and many locals Rome becomes a very enjoyable city during this month, much quieter and very little traffic on the roads. There is a period of time however, when we choose to leave the city as well.
We love road trips and there are certain dates to be aware of to avoid the holiday chaos on the roads.
Bearing that in mind and foregoing the obvious most popular holiday destinations in Italy we planned our August escape a long time in advance this year.
Our final destination was Piedmont but we took our time to arrive there by stopping at the Tuscan coast for a couple of days first. It was a very easy drive especially as we know the route so well. We have our favourite places to stop at any time of the year. So we recharged our batteries by having a blissful time in the sun, eating gorgeous and delicate sea food accompanied to start with by a glass of very chilled (to my preference) Franciacorta sparkling wine and the sound of gentle sea waves (yes Tuscany is not all about wild boar stews, T-bone steaks, pasta and beans which are all delicious by the way).
So we were ready to cover the next leg of our journey. The route as usual took us via Liguria and the city of Genoa to our destination, the Roero region. The picturesque drive through Genoa is tricky at times due to increased local traffic, tunnels and bridges. Sadly on the second day of our Piedmontese trip we learned about the collapse of the Morandi bridge that we had just crossed (two days before).

Canale

We decided to stay at the same agriturismo next to Canale that we discovered on our first ever trip to Piedmont. The food was as wonderful as I remembered. Having been to Langhe, Roero and Monferrato, the most famous wine regions of North-Western Italy, several times (mostly in autumn and spring) by now we really enjoy returning to our favourite restaurants but we always leave room to explore new places. It is hard not to eat well here. One of the most exciting finds on this particular trip was a family run restaurant. Owned and staffed by a couple and one helper. We almost missed it while recovering after driving through the windy roads near Monforte d’Alba. I think there were only eight tables in the courtyard that was the garden of the house bordered by a small chapel on the other end. The village was so quiet when we arrived but we didn’t wait long for the place (clearly well known) to be completely fill up. The highlight of the meal was ”finanziera’ that the Dégustateur ordered. It is a poor man’s stew using the offal, less noble parts of the animal that were left for the peasants, elevated to an elegant dish and served in “agrodolce” sauce. We concluded the dinner with a panna cotta, the most delicious I have ever tasted. I still remember its light creamy texture and flavour. On my next trip to Piedmont I think I will be ordering panna cotta on every possible occasion, it was so good.
Our next stop and much anticipated was Lago d’Orta in the province of Novara. This small lake of just a few square kilometres with a small island in the centre San Giulio is such a wonderful and elegant place, fairly undiscovered yet by mass tourism as opposed to its more famous neighbours (Lake Maggiore, Lugano and Como). It has always been a lake popular with writers. Visiting or preferably staying in Orta San Giulio, a lovely and sweet village, referred to by some as a little gem, it is a must. It stretches along the shores with plenty of space to sit and admire the unspoiled view. Just a few small floating boats that is all you will see on the water. The heart and the meeting place of the “borgo” is Piazza Motta with its weekly market since 1228. The municipal buildings and pallazzi from the late Renaissance surrounding the square are so well kept and add to the atmosphere.
The lake, apart from having been known to writers has become a gourmet destination with Antonino Cannavacciuolo driving this movement. He settled from the Campania region of Southern Italy at the footsteps of the “borgo” in Villa Crespi transforming it into a luxury hotel with its two Michelin starred restaurant. I do watch Italian Master Chef every now and then and having seen his work I have grown very fond of Antonino. Michelin starred restaurants are not high on my priority list but this place I have always wanted to visit. And that is where we stayed on our last leg of the Piedmont trip having an amazing time. We dined at the Villa Crespi and the experience was beyond our expectations. The menu is a journey of classic Piedmontese dishes and the flavours of Campania, the chef’s home land.
There is another Michelin starred restaurant just behind the Motta Square, funnily enough run by one of Antonio’s former trainees.
Among many restaurants there is a great osteria Pan&Vino overlooking the Piazza Motta and we visited it almost every day during our stay either for lunch or dinner. It doesn’t serve any pizza or pasta but it offers a vast range of local produce served in the form of a beautiful and generous platters. Local food means local fish from the lake and at Pan&Vino we tried an outstanding fish platter served either raw or marinated and cooked. I still remember that delicate marinated eel which was an another highlight of the trip. We left some space in our gourmet Lago d’Orta trip for other nearby restaurants, mainly frequented by with the locals where is best to arrive on your small boat.

It is time to talk bout the “agnolotti del plin”, an iconic dish from Piedmont. Agnolotti are small ravioli, small pasta parcels stuffed with a meat (mainly) with vegetables or cheese based filling. They take their name from the dialect word meaning to pinch, to pinch two sheets of pasta together creating small pouches. They would usually be served just with butter and sage leaves or a dark roasted meat sauce. I had them in broth once, just heaven.
To start with here is my version of meatless agnolotti, simply because there are so many delicious meat fillings based on duck, veal, rabbit and so on and I adore them all, which makes the choice slightly confusing. We are still during the end of summer period therefore I found this introduction to these delicate ravioli more appropriate. A concoction of ricotta, spinach, parmesan and nutmeg never fails.

On our last visit to Alba I brought back a couple of ravioli/ agnolotti stamps. These are well made and heavy duty ones but the regular ones you find in a shop will be just fine. The larger size stamp is used for meatless ravioli, either cheese or vegetable. Very rarely, almost never, will you find in Italy a big raviolo with a meat filling. It is just too heavy.
In Piedmont fresh egg pasta has a higher concentration of egg yolks (also in the Emilia Romagna region) hence richer yellow colour of the pasta dough (use always organic eggs). The extreme is “tajarin” pasta, in other words tagliolini or taglierini (see my older post on Piedmont) that gets its profound yellow colour from that abundance of egg yolks. It cooks just in 2 minutes and that is my choice of pasta if I want to make a simple dish with butter and sage or delicious porcini, paired with a glass of Barolo or Barbaresco (“tajarin” belongs to the territory of Langhe).


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