If it is true that the cuisine of Piedmont is among the most varied and refined in Italy, it is also true that this variety and refinement are not due solely to the influence of nearby France, a country known everywhere for the complex elaboration and richness of its food and which has dominated European cookery since the eighteenth century.
Piedmontese cuisine is much more genuine with an understanding of how to preserve intact the wonderful tastes of the past and the ancient traditions tightly linked to local products.
Many of the recipes that make up the cuisine of Piedmont are inspired by farmers and peasants since they value the freshness of the genuine products of the country even if, as we will see, it is not immune to French influence.
The Piedmontese are by nature sober, but also lovers of good food, and therefore gourmets but not gluttons. In other words, they have simple tastes which have allowed them to preserve a cuisine which is honest, tasty and decisive in its flavours, without influences tied to fashion which might corrupt the traditions. This said, it is best to specify that the menus in the cuisine of Piedmont are very rich and articulated, made up of many different dishes. All culinary tastes and requirements can be satisfied with typical regional products of Piedmont. These products range from the aperitifs to the very varied hors d'oeuvres, the tasty first and second courses enriched with side dishes, accompanied by the famous breadsticks from Turin ('les petites batons de Turin' that Napoleon loved), and the flavourful cheeses (eight of which are D.O.C.). All of this is followed by fanciful sweets ranging from the famous 'bone't' (chocolate custard pudding) made of chocolate and amaretti (macaroons), the small 'bignole', fine pastries, hazelnut torrone (a type of nougat candy), and chocolates such as 'gianduja' (hazelnut chocolate paste), which is not the only chocolate and is still widespread in artisan production.
The distinctive characteristics of this cuisine are fundamentally the use of butter and lard (which has decreased in the last century since the discovery of cholesterol), the use of raw vegetables, the use of 'sanato' (the meat of a calf of only a few months of age and fed only milk, a type of meat found only in Piedmont and Valle d'Aosta), the variety of cheeses, the frequent use of truffles, the use of garlic, giving origin to the now famous 'bagna cauda' which has never left the Piedmontese territory.
A food distinctive in its production in Piedmont is rice, even if the cultivation is limited to a specific area of the territory. This territory consists of the plains which stretch out in a half-moon shape from Cuneo to Ticino, opening past the Dora Baltea and widening into the flat and green Vercellese, a land rich in agricultural resources which has found its agrarian unity in the cultivation of rice.
It consists of a large piece of the plains made up of about fifty towns and it stretches for over one thousand two hundred square kilometres and is defined as " the great artificial marshes." The water, present everywhere, is its dominant characteristic, differentiating it from the towns to the north and south, all agricultural towns but hilly, with vineyards and woods rich with mushrooms and truffles. The homogeneity of Vercellese was moulded only thanks to long work over centuries and to excellent use of the natural environment. Here man knew how to take advantage of the earth through methodical, constant and continuous work.
Looking out from the towers of Vercelli, you see countryside completely crossed by tongues of earth often made more evident by rows of poplar trees, between which the rice paddies are laid out as far as the eye can see, with their seemingly lifeless water, as in a lagoon. No other region in Europe produces as much rice. Even Japan comes to the Vercellese harvest to supplement its needs. So the title of "capital of rice" has been well earned in Vercelli.
In Medieval times, the Vercellese was a land of 'grange' or 'franai", that is large agricultural farms which Benedictine and Cistersian monks made their centre of drainage and land use. Since then, rice has spread, conquering the first pieces of tilled moors: the rice paddy took advantage of both the swamps and the "baragge," which also caused notable seasonal movement in the workers that came from the poorer nearby mountains. Rice cultivation adapted itself in a very particular way to the nature of Vercellese terrain, poor and too infertile for other types of richer cultivation. For this very reason, in spite of strong opposition especially in the 1500's and 1600's, the cultivation of rice kept expanding thanks to the multiplication of canals and natural and artificial canals, which meticulously sectioned the whole territory.
The long period of the irrigation canals which is linked to the utilization of this terrain was crowned by an important work: the construction of the Cavour Canal in 1863. The canal was above all to increase the irrigation in the Novarese and Lomellina, in addition to bettering the natural environment of the Vercellese. Therefore, a large part of the agricultural economy of the Piedmontese plains rests on the cultivation of rice which occupies an important position in the cuisine of Piedmont and is put to many uses, especially in the cities. For example, Novarese Rice Salad, the flavour of which comes from truffles, or Risotto Piedmont Style, or 'brudera Vercellese' (a cross between risotto and soup) or rice soufflé. There are many excellent dishes made from the rice which, since medieval times, has been a staple in the cuisine in this zone of rice cultivation. Even though the Piedmontese knew how to preserve authenticity and take advantage of its products, it was inevitable that the cuisine of Piedmont be touched by the influence that France developed on all of Europe in the 1700's. It is made clear by the anonymous document entitled Il Cuoco Piemontese Perfezionato a Parigi (The Pidmontese Chef Perfected in Paris), which may be considered among the first effects of the influence of French gastronomic culture, in its time - as already seen - evolved in the wake of this Italian from the sixteenth and seventeenth century.
Il Cuoco Italiano Perfezionato a Parigi is a collection of recipes for soups and first courses, the method for cutting meats, the way to cook beef, veal, pork, mutton, lamb, poultry, game, and also fish (remember that Piedmont has no access to the sea therefore fish is reluctantly introduced into the cuisine of Piedmont through importation). Vegetables, legumes and eggs follow, then the use of milk and its derivatives, the use of spices, desserts, sauces, fruit, drinks, jams, syrups, etc.
It is an exhaustive document which well reflects the culinary situation not only of Piedmont but also of many other Italian regions. As an example of Piedmontese recipes, remember the 'Subbriche' Piedmont style, vegetable fritters prepared in the following manner:
"Boil the swiss chard, squeeze out the liquid and finely chop it, then place it on the fire in a casserole dish with a piece of butter, salt and ground pepper. When it is well browned, remove it from the fire and add two egg yolks and two egg whites, two handfuls of grated Parmesan cheese and some ground cinnamon. When the mixture is dense, allow it to chill, then add three more egg yolks. Warm a cake pan in the fire with melted butter. Place the mixture in the pan with a spoon, forming it into several portions. When they are cooked on one side, turn them over and allow them to cook and become very firm. Serve them very hot."
In the 1800's Giovan Felice Luraschi wrote about the cuisine of Piedmont in his work published with the title Nuovo Cuoco Milanese Economico (The New Economic Milanese Chef). Obviously most of the book is dedicated to meat. Remember the recipe for "Manzo ristretto alla Piemontesa" (Reduced beef Piedmont style), a rich dish similar to braised beef, certainly well suited to the rigours of winter.
"Take four pounds of rump and flatten it well. Prepare large fillets of lard and dress them with a small amount of salt, and pepper. Prepare some finely chopped bay leaf. Add all of this to the lard fillets and tie the beef with string ('ficeler' in French). Brown a finely chopped onion in butter, add the meat and allow it to brown. In the meantime, prepare the liquid in which the meat will be cooked. Take a small amount of butter, some chopped beef fat and some slices of lard, some onion, celery and carrots, all chopped, and place them in a casserole dish to take on some colour. Mix all of this with a spoonful of wheat flour and add a pint of aged red wine and a pint of good broth. Allow to boil together for fifteen minutes, then pass through a strainer and pour it over the beef and allow to cook over low heat for approximately five or six hours. When it is cooked, skim the fat and serve it its sauce."
Trattato di Cucina Pasticcera has a fundamental part in the culinary publications of the 1800's. It was written by the Piedmontese Giovanni Vialardi, who was head chef to Carlo Alberto and Vittorio Emanuele II, a serious gourmet, and a man of many appetites, both secular and pleasure loving. His meals based on game were famous and include the recipes of the beautiful Rosina which still appear today in many Piedmontese recipe books even if, in our opinion, they seem without the refined charm of the cuisine of this land, which makes us think that Rosina had many other charms which tied the first King of Italy to her. It is a work which gives a rich repertoire of recipes both Italian and not, handing down some fundamental recipes from the cuisine of Turin and Piedmont. And so we find 'risotto alla Piemontese' (risotto Piedmont style) "per de'jeuner" (for breakfast).
"Pu two litres of good broth on the fire to boil, throw in half a kilogram of cleaned rice, cook for eighteen minutes on a high flame. In the right measure, adorn it with sixty grams of good cheese, sixty grams
of fresh butter, sixty grams of white truffles washed well and cleaned of any black marks and cut
into thin slices, a little nutmeg, spices and salt; add a little meat sauce if required, remembering
that it should be quite a liquid risotto. Serve in a soup tureen with a little meat sauce on top. For those
who prefer a more solid risotto, put it into a mould and up-turn on a plate.
Other dishes include "Canavese style soup"(called Tognaque locally) or pumpkin soup Monferrina style or green bean soup Piedmont style or "white truffle fonduta" (a word of dialectical origin which comes from the Piedmontese word fondua -fondue) which is almost a symbol of the table especially in the Langhe but also in the whole of Piedmont:
"Take four hundred grams of fatty cheese called 'fontina', remove the rind and cut into pieces. Place it in a pot with cold water, drain the water and melt the cheese slowly over a low flame mixing energetically until it is melted and smooth. Add one whole egg and three egg yolks, or three whole eggs beaten with half a cup of cream and sixty grams of fresh butter. Mix these ingredients with the 'fontina' cheese and beat energetically until the strings formed by the liquefying 'fontina' have dissolved and it becomes thick and smooth as cream, without ever coming to a boil. Add salt and pepper and serve with 60 grams of good white truffles, cleaned and thinly sliced, some added to the 'fontina' and some sprinkled on top."
Stuffed shoulder of mutton Piedmont style is also very particular:
"Bone a shoulder of mutton and form a pouch. Marinate it for two hours in oil, vinegar, onion and parsley. Make a stuffing of four hundred grams of mutton with the fat, skin and nerves removed, two hundred grams of lard, some garlic and parsley. Chop and crush these ingredients, add one whole egg, salt, pepper, spices, two tablespoons of rum and an egg sized ball of the soft part of bread dipped in cream. Mix together and place in side the shoulder which has already been dried. Stitch it closed shaped into a round shoulder. Place it in a pan with the marinade and vegetables and one hundred grams of butter, allow to brown, add half a litre of broth or water and half a litre of white wine and some salt and cook slowly for approximately two hours. When it is soft after being slowly cooked, remove the string and cut it into thin slices and serve over choucroute (cabbage preserved in brine, a French word for the German sauerkraut), or with a sauce made with the cooking juices. Salted tongue and cubed black truffles may also be added to the stuffing."
"Eel fillets Piedmont style" is also worth noting, since it is similar to the recipe for "Eel in fine herbs" which is still used as part of traditional Piedmontese cuisine. It is an historic recipe which is used in some of the best restaurants:
" Clean and cut the eel into pieces 6 to 7 centimetres (2 ½ to 3 inches) long, sauté them in a pan with a good amount of oil, bay leaf and a chopped onion. Dry off the excess oil with absorbent paper and set the eel aside in a warm place. Prepare a "green bath" in the following manner: Chip a large bunch of parsley (if tender you can also include the stems, which are particularly flavourful) with a few sage leaves, some spring onions (the white and green parts) and some cloves of garlic. To add some more green to the mixture, add a celery heart, a handful each of spinach and swiss chard. Wilt these fragrant greens for five minutes with some oil, butter and lard, then add two spoonfuls of chopped capers, a fine chop of marjoram, time and wild mint, two or three spoonfuls of tomato sauce and two or three fresh anchovies, just de-salted. When the anchovies have softened, place the pieces of eel in the sauce, add half a cup of water, adjust the salt and pepper and finish the cooking. Ther sauce should be abundant, light green in colour, not overcooked, and you should be able to dip bread or polenta into it."
Again from Vialardi's tract are "Tomatiche" (tomatoes) stuffed with Novarese rice, which entered into culinary use in many other areas of Italy, "Charlotte of apples or pears," whose name comes from the French charlotte (a dessert of cooked fruit) and many other recipes including marrons glacés (candied chestnuts) which conquered all of Italy after the war, becoming a product created on an industrial level.
"Take some good sized chestnuts, peel them and cook them slowly in simmering water. When they are soft, drain them and remove the internal shell. Place them in a bowl and add a syrup made of sugar equal in weight to the weight of the chestnuts, dissolved and boiled a moment with an equal quantity of water. Leave them in this syrup for twenty-four hours then drain over a sieve. Replace the chestnuts in the bowl and boil the syrup again. When it is slightly reduced pour it over the chestnuts. Repeat this operation for six days. For the last operation reduce the syrup 'gran piuma' (an expression which probably means very slowly), throw in the chestnuts and allow them to boil for twenty minutes. Pour the entire mixture into a bowl and when chilled, cover."
In the twentieth century the cuisine of the cities has begun to differ from that of the country in that it tends to use less fats and to take diet into account while that of the country remains solidly tied to the more ancient traditions of genuineness and the richness of condiments.