Monferrato and the Langhe

Monferrato is one of the most historic regions in Piedmont, lying almost entirely within the province of Alessandria; its borders on the south are defined by the course of the Tanaro, Belbo and Bormida rivers , and on the north by that of the Po. It is a relatively hilly region of moderate elevation, dotted here and there by small villages and also by some larger towns.
Within the valley of the Tanaro and Bormida are a group of hills known as the Langhe which abound with vineyards that produce famous wines such as Barbera and Nebbiolo: these terraced hills are in fact made of calcareous-marly soil which is ideally suited to the cultivation of vines. The Langhe are also criss-crossed by a number of valleys running parallel to the Belbo river which cuts through a plateau which is of a somewhat higher elevation (650mt/2,000 ft above sea level) than that of neighbouring Monferrato (350mt/1,000 ft above sea level).
The picturesque landscape of the Langhe is dotted with numerous villages and hamlets positioned high on hilltops that are marked with the ruins of old castles and watchtowers that lend the area a quite unique charm.
The two main urban centres to be found in Monferrato and the Langhe are Alba and Asti, both of which are located in the Tanaro valley.
Down through the centuries, Monferrato has been the theatre of a wide and varied series of historical events. The marquisate of Monferrato was founded toward the end of the tenth century by Oddone of the Aleramici family who controlled it until the last marquis, Giovanni I died without leaving a male heir, in 1305. The marquisate then passed to his sister Violante, wife of the Greek emperor Andronico Paleologo. The Paleologo dynasty ruled until 1633 when Giangiorgio died without an heir apparent, therefore opening a dispute for succession between the Gonzaga of Mantua (one of whom had married the niece of the last marquis) and the Savoia family who, besides a parental claim, also cited an agreement forged between themselves and the Paleologo family regarding succession in the event of the extinction of the male line. The dispute was settled by Emperor Charles V in favour of the Gonzaga who took possession of the marquisate after the treaty of Chateau Cambrsis(1559). The Gonzaga, much to the dislike of the people of Monferrato, began selling off large tracts of land to the highest bidder, most of which invariably fell into the hands of Mantovans, Genoans and Lombards, and never really tried to make Monferrato an integral part of their Mantuan state. The insistence with which the Savoia made claims on Monferrato provoked many wars that did not end until 1714 with the treaties of Utrecht and Rastadt which granted sovereignty of Monferrato to the Savoia. With French occupation it became the Department of Tanaro (1798) and from the congress of Vienna (1815) onwards it became fully united with the Realm of Sardinia and afterwards with Italy. Monferrato's history has therefore had distinct cultural influences; from the Greek of the Paleologo, to that of the Gonzaga, on to the French of the Savoia, the last of which today is, perhaps, the most clearly evident. The French as a culinary influence is illustrated by the use of giblets in such dishes as "Vegetable soup with giblets of fowl", which is prepared in the following manner: boil the following vegetables in just as much water as is necessary to cover them completely: dried peeled beans, double the quantity of peeled broad beans, tender new peas, small courgettes, courgette flowers, green French beans, a head of celery with its leaves, some basil, and a bunch of parsley. Cook well until soft enough to make pure and then pass through a vegetable masher. Put the resulting sauce in a frying pan with a little stock and, leaving to cook, season with salt, pepper, butter, Parmesan cheese and a few tablespoons of cream. In the meanwhile in a separate frying-pan, along with butter, sage and rosemary, saut the crest, liver, 'gricili' ( i.e. the stomach), kidneys and heart of fowl. Then mix with the vegetable soup in order to give the dish a certain freshness and consistency, and, thus, the soup will then be ready to serve. A way of preparation in many ways similar to that in older recipes to be found in books such as the "Libro de arte coquinaria" (Book of culinary art) by Maestro Martino, written in 1450: to make a pie of cockerel's crests, livers and testicles: "cut each one of the crests in three parts and the livers into four, and leaving the testicles as they are, chop some lard into small pieces, but do not crush it. Take some two or three ounces of good veal fat and crush it well; do the same with the marrow of ox or of veal; then take thirty or forty dry, sour cherries, cinnamon and ginger, a lot of sugar, a little 'rafiuoli' and mix well together. Form into a pie-shape and cook either in an oven or in a frying-pan. When at half-way in cooking take an egg-yolk, some saffron and some 'agresto' (white grape juice - from unripe white grapes), beat well and add to the pie and leave to fully cook".
The tight financial constraints of rural life, which can still be felt today, have gone to create such traditional recipes as the following: "wash and clean a veal's brain, five hundred grams of spine marrow (from back) and five hundred grams of sweetbread. Boil two hundred grams of cockerel crests, the spine marrow and the sweetbread for about a quarter of an hour. Boil the brain for about an hour and allow both to drain well. To one side, mix together two hundred grams of minced meat, an egg Parmesan cheese, a little salt and a pinch of nutmeg. With the palms of one's hands, form the mixture into meatballs and fry in a pan. Chop the veins, sweetbread, brain, and cockerel crests into large cubes and fry a little at a time. Then put all together in a large pot with a little butter, add some dry Marsala wine, leave to reduce and then serve. Serves six persons".
But without doubt the prince of piedmont cuisine is the truffle which can already be found in the recipes in the book "De onesta voluptate et valetitudine" (About true voluptuousness and worth) by Bartolomeo Platina, who intitled a chapter, appropriately enough, "Truffles". "Truffles which we could rightly call the hard patches or corns of the earth, are not connected to it by way of fibres of any sort, being completely covered and surrounded by earth. Neither do they branch out from the ground in which they've grown. They grow mainly in dry areas of sandy soil that also abound in fruit. By the time they come to weigh a pound they are often already the size of a quince. There are two types of truffle, one grainy and quite hard on one's teeth, the other smooth and pure. It is possible to distinguish them from one another by way of the colour, red and black, and white inside.
The most prized come from Africa; the Roman magistrate Licinio, while eating them completely broke off one of his teeth. From which it would appear that it is possible for a single agglomerate, together with the earth, to be formed in the interior part of a truffle. Those found around Damascus in Syria or on Mount Olympus in Greece are considered to be more 'fleshy' and plump. They grow at the beginning of the autumn rains when thunder storms are at their most frequent, and last little more that a year. Those in springtime are considered to be more tender. Quite remarkable is the ability of the Norcia sow, which not only manages to find where truffles grow, but gives them up fully intact and undamaged as soon as its owner ruffles its ear!
The truffles are cooked in hot ashes after being washed in wine. When ready, they are cleaned again and sprinkled with pepper, and presented still hot to guests, usually after a meat dish. This is an extremely nourishing dish, as Galeno liked to think, and is an excitant of lust. As result it is frequently served at the titillating meals and banquets where refined gentlemen wish to be better prepared for Venus's romantic pleasures. Obviously, if this is done for purposes of procreation it is something to be admired. If, however, its aims are simple lust (as is usually the case with many lazy and indulgent individuals), it is something detestable, to say the least!".
Though as ever present as it may be at banquets in many regions and areas of France (although in France, as in many countries, the type of truffle that grows is of a lesser quality), the truffle known as Tuber Magnatum Pico is most prominently found in Piedmont. In the area around Monferrato, Val Cervina, The Langhe, Valle gru, Val Turone, the white truffle, also known as the Alban truffle, is found in abundance. In these areas the search for truffles is something of an age-old profession: in Renaissance times the truffle reached the height of its popularity, creating a psychological dependency on the part of many Italian Signori, given also that any self-respecting banquet could hardly do without the presence of truffle on its menu. In those days the greatest "masters of cuisine" engaged in a sort of contest to see who could create ever newer and greater recipes based on truffles.
Already by then Francesco Petrarch (1304-1374) had immortalised the truffle in a sonnet with these words: "E non pur quel che s'apre a noi da fare, / le rive e i colli, di fioretti adorna, / ma dentro, dove giammai non s'aggiorna, / gravida fa di se' il terrestre umore: / onde tal frutto e simile si colga...". ( "and not only that which beholds itself to us, / the rivers and hills, florally adorned,/ but within, where daylight never breaks, / is born by itself the earthly mood:/ where such a fruit and its like are yielded...".).
The profession of those who search for truffles in synchrony with their dogs is remembered by various chroniclers from Piedmont who relate stories of skilled "trifolau" (trufflers) who, at the beginning of the seventeen hundreds, were employed by the Savoia family in large truffle hunts. The trufflers were often followed by a parade of noblemen who had come from every corner of Europe to take part in the "hunt". For these refined gentlemen, no doubt of high pedigree, taking part in the search, even as mere spectators, was considered something of an exciting passtime, very " la page". Gastronomic literature of the seventeen hundreds had its revival due to the work of an anonymous cook from Piedmont entitled; " The maturation of a Piedmontese cook in Paris", which constitutes something of a testimony to the first influence in Italy of French cuisine (inherent also in the title), which in turn had evolved from that of Italy in the XVI and XVII century. Needless to say, the truffle appears in many recipes and which, for the most part, have remained unchanged right up to the present day: from the famous truffle fondue, to the potato gnocchi in truffle and cheese sauce, to the famous Piedmontese risotto, to name but a few of the more widely known dishes. In second course dishes, the truffle is mainly used with wild game, liver, egg, filet or with a variety of other foods.
The French influence that is widely found in the recipes of this region can best be represented by a dish that is, perhaps, a little too rich for today's tastes: the famous " Brains queen Antonietta style" which is symbolic of the cuisine of this area: "Place a pot of water onto the stove. When water starts to boil, immerse the brains into the pot and leave to cook for around five minutes. Then remove and cut into pieces the size of a small mandarin. Clean the mushrooms well under running water to remove any earth that may be on them, then cut in to medium-sized slices. Clean and gently brush the truffle. Then prepare a bchamel sauce with thirty grams (one ounce) of butter and the flour in a pan over heat; when these are well amalgamated in a creamy form of a slightly golden colour, add some cold milk and stir continually until it begins to boil (always maintaining a moderate temperature), cooking for another three or four minutes. Once the sauce has been salted and peppered add the pieces of brain, the mushrooms, the ham cut into small cubes and the truffle which has been thinly sliced. Mix everything together, and after having quartered the pig's caul or net of fat, place at the centre of these a spoonful of the mixture obtained.
Roll each of these into small bundles ('involtini') and dip into a bowl containing a beaten egg and then cover in flour. Fry the 'involtini' in the remaining butter and serve while still hot". Many dishes with truffle are to be found in the work of the "modern Apicio" of the XVIII Century which offers us a recipe for "Truffled Quail" which can be prepared even today.
Not forgetting, of course, the many recipes created by Giovanni Vialardi who was head-chef to Carlo Alberto and to Vittorio Emanuele II.
Besides the aforementioned fondue, other dishes still in use are the Langhean omelette, the 'Cipollata Monferrina', Gnocchi 'alla bava' ('bava' = dribble - so called because the gnocchi are served with melted 'toma' cheese), Risotto al Barbera (with Barbera wine), and the "il Tapulone", the recipe of which is included as it constitutes a dish that is very traditional to the area.
"Ingredients: 600g (1 lb 5 oz) of not too finely minced beef, 30g (1 oz) butter, 30g (1 oz) of finely chopped 'pancetta' (Italian spiced bacon), two tablespoons of olive oil, two garlic cloves, half a bay leaf, two glasses of dry red wine such as Ghemme or Boca, a cup of vegetable stock, one clove, salt and pepper.
Preparation: place butter and olive oil in a large casserole dish and saut the 'pancetta'.
When it becomes transparent, add the chopped garlic and the bay leaf.
Wait until the garlic starts to colour, then add the meat, breaking it down gently with a fork. Season with salt, pepper and add the cloves.
Stir well until such time as the meat has almost started to dry out. Pour in the wine and leave it to evaporate completely. At this point add the vegetable stock and cook at a moderate temperature until the liquid is almost completely gone; then serve".
Another traditional recipe of note is that with artichokes and semolina.
"Ingredients: 8 artichokes, two tablespoons of lemon juice, a teaspoon of extravergin olive oil, 40g (1 oz) butter, half a litre (1 pint) whole-milk, 100g (3 oz) semolina, an egg-yolk, four tablespoons of grated 'Grana' cheese (similar to Parmesan), a pinch of nutmeg, salt and pepper to taste.
Preparation: butter an oven dish. Remove the hard outer leaves from artichokes, clean the tops and insides of the mossy residue; cut the stems and, with a small, sharp knife, even-out the bottom of the artichokes. One after the other, place them in a bowl of cold water with a tablespoon of lemon juice so that they don't blacken.
In a saucepan, mix the flour with a little cold water, add the remaining lemon juice and the olive oil; pour in two litres (3 pints) of water, adding both salt and pepper.
Add the artichokes and bring slowly to boil, letting them cook for around ten minutes. Then drain and turn them upside down on a dish-cloth. In the meantime boil the milk in a casserole-dish; add the semolina, salt and pepper, add a pinch of nutmeg and leave to cook for around ten minutes, stirring continuously; remove from heat and add the egg-yolk, 20g (1 oz) of butter and two tablespoons of grated 'Grana' cheese. Mix well with a wooden spoon until the ingredients are well amalgamated.
Open the artichokes a little and fill them with the semolina mixture. Using a pastry-brush cover the artichokes with the remainder of the melted butter and sprinkle with the remaining grated cheese. Place the artichokes in the buttered oven dish and cook in an oven preheated to 190C/375 F/Gas Mark 5 for seven or eight minutes. Serve hot. Finally, another dish typical of the Langhe, though also to be widely found all over Piedmont; the 'PLIN', a raviolo which is made in the most traditional of ways, and whose name is taken from the manner in which the pasta is made by hand; as PLIN stands for "pizzico" or pinch. This is a raviolo which has many variants: from the refined truffle to the sweetness of the fondue, from the strong flavours of the braised beef with Barolo wine, to the delicate and aromatic 'funghi porcini' (gourmet 'Porcini' mushrooms) as well as many more besides.