Forgotten images and a birthday in Piedmont

April 16, 2023

Photographs, hidden in drawers, tucked in between pages of old books, or left somewhere in between paperwork on a desk top. The memory is like a drawer. You put something in, close it and most likely forget about it.

To open the drawer again means to bring the memories back to life, to tell a story and let those images left in disorder spark and start a new narrative.
My disorganised collection of images that I stumbled upon recently was in a form of a memory card the I hadn’t fully forgotten. I’d rather say that I had left it for the right moment.
I haven’t even glanced yet at the whole set of the higgledy piggledy pictures taken here and there, but I knew that there were a few moments saved from my birthday a year ago.

More often than not, we celebrate our birthdays by going away for a couple of days, just the two of us. A convivial sharing of a birthday cake comes afterwards.
It was end of March and that year we were undecided between The Amalfi Coast, Sorrento, and a little medieval town in Piedmont called Guarene. During the period after Christmas and before Easter very few places are open on the Costiera Amalfitana, and the hotel we wanted to stay at was waiting for Easter to open its doors to welcome its guests. Usually at this time of year the weather is rather unsettled and after having checked the weather forecast, we abandoned the idea of Sorrento and left for Piedmont instead. We had chosen to stay at Castello di Guarene, an exquisitely renovated and restored 18th century former summer residence of the Counts of Roero, built where in the Medieval Era a fortress used to stand. Guarene is perched on a hilltop and the castello boasts unparalleled views over the vine growing hills of Langhe and Roero. Its gardens are very elegant and vast, landscaped in the Italian style in the first half of eighteen century. Guarene was also just a perfect base for us to go to Alba, Canale and Bra on our last day.

We ventured to Alba for my birthday, a little seafood lunch followed by the purchase of some local specialities to take home with us. I’d always buy some carnaroli rice, hazelnuts, tajarin pasta, ganduiotti and some wine. We also ended up with a bag Corinth raisins (sold per weight) which I love baking with, deliciously looking big jars of tuna in oil (perfect for salads) and a couple of bottles of Tuscan wine, only because the price tag was more attractive (which is often the case).

After an afternoon spent at leisure in the spa and a few lengths in the swimming pool, we were set for an intimate birthday dinner in a private dining room, where we relished some samples of the best known Piedmontese classics. Then a morning walk in the gardens, more of the spa (as it started to rain) a dinner in Canale, our much loved and happy place. I think it’s perhaps because it was in Roero where we started our relationship and appreciation of Piedmont, in a lovely agriturismo a few minutes outside Canale.

Just after our last breakfast in the most stunning room with high ceilings, Murano chandeliers, hand painted walls and secret doors we drove to Bra. I managed to quickly run to the nearest butcher and get some Bra sausage literally two minutes before all the shops closed for their lunch break. In Italy closing lunch times are sacrilegious.

A delightful surprise and a present for both of us was Fulvia, my friend from Turin, joining us for lunch at Osteria Boccondivino. A very warm, joyous and laughter filled time spent together, an absolute highlight and a perfect ending to this trip.

And that is exactly how this untold story and almost forgotten pictures have shaped my recent cooking and dictated what recipes I would like to share with you.

First is the La Focaccia della Befana (La Focaccia Dolce Piemontese).
I came across this particularly appealing recipe whilst searching for a way of making the focaccia dolce I once had in Southern Italy, in Basilicata to be precise. It was a form of a slightly sweet sourdough and olive oil bread with a sugared crust.
Instead I found this almost forgotten Focaccia Dolce Piemontese, studded with raisins and candied orange peel which has a beautiful and heart warming story behind: it used be prepared for the Christmas festive season all the way up until Epiphany, but it was also baked on occasions when people just wanted to gather to spend some time together, share a meal and enjoy each others company. I baked it twice in a row as our pre-Easter treat. It’s also a dream toasted with lashings of butter and cheese or a marmalade.

Also for Easter I made us Uova Ripiene alla Piemontese, hard boiled eggs with tuna and anchovy filling. A delicious and slight deviation from they way we would normally have them.
Recently I’ve been spending some time in London, in our pied-à-terre. As you can imagine, the markets, which are few and far between, or grocery stores don’t offer the same array of produce as we have gotten used to in Italy. Whilst I’m here however, I conjure up meals and work with what’s available, but still lean towards Italian cooking. So I’ve got reacquainted with jerusalem artichokes and cooking them with garlic and parsley is a loose adaptation from a cook book I bought recently in Turin. This side dish couldn’t be any simpler: peeled and sliced topinambur stewed in olive oil with a few cloves of garlic, then tossed with freshly chopped parsley and seasoned to taste.

Patate alla Savoiarda, buttery potato and Fontina cheese bake, is another cosy, very enticing and comforting dish from Piedmont, that you need very little to go with, perhaps some grilled vegetables or just a crisp green salad.

I remember the first time I baked the hazelnut and chestnut cream tart. Chestnuts and hazelnuts are a timeless and delicious combination which I’ve grown deeply fond of, and I have to thank Piemonte for this as well as the Ristorante Tre Galline in Turin. I tend to use a shop bought sweet chestnut puree (or cream) for the sheer ease, spread it inside the buttery pastry case and finish it off it with a generous layer of whipped egg and ground hazelnut topping. I find the traditional torta di nocciole slightly too dry for my personal liking, but this tart is a perfect matching of the shortcrust pastry, creamy filling and a moist crunchy layer of hazelnuts. I’ve baked this tart for us for Easter to pair it with chocolate Easter eggs, in a nutshell the essence of Piemonte flavours and a very delectable way to unearth some sweet birthday memories.