The platter before me was covered with what resembled small piles of leaves from a fall lawn raking. The little brown, green and black heaps hardly invited sniffing, much less tasting. Yet sniff and taste I did.
Little did I know, before this introduction to “cheese wrapping,” that a gastronomic tradition in one corner of Italy is aging cheeses by encasing them in leaves. Nor was I aware that there are professional, and highly respected, “cheese hunters” whose job is to seek out the best leaves in which to wrap locally made cheeses, and to know the exact amount of time each variety should be aged to bring out its best flavor.
The opportunity to learn about one of the most unusual professions anywhere is one attraction of a visit to the Piedmont (Piemonte) province of northwestern Italy. Others include its lovely landscape of gently rolling hills blanketed by vineyards, and tiny towns that grew up around imposing stone castles in Medieval times. Adding to the appeal are an enticing history, and the fact that Piemontese food and wine, while not as well known as world-famous cuisines like that of France, in my opinion should be.
As many in Central Virginia’s Piedmont region know, Piemonte derives its name from the phrase “ai piedi del monte” (at the foot of the mountains), and the towering peaks of the Swiss and French Alps are visible in the area. A perfect home base for traveling throughout the region is Alba, “the town of 100 towers.” That claim dates back to the 12th and 13th centuries, when noble families competed to build ever-taller fortified towers to both provide protection from attack and demonstrate their wealth and importance. Today, only four of the original structures still overlook the town, but the name has stuck.
Alba also boasts other relics of its history. Among these are portions of the ancient city walls, fragments of frescoes and other remnants of Roman rule.
Outside of Alba, scenery becomes etched in the mind’s eye like a series of paintings. Roads wind through tiny towns, in places so narrow that when two cars meet, one must back up to a wider spot so the other can pass. Stone buildings line narrow cobblestone streets. Church steeples rise above a sea of red tile rooftops as if gazing out at the surrounding view. Many a hilltop is capped by an ancient castle, whose massive walls and turrets recall times of past grandeur.
Each town has its own unique appeals and stories to tell. Serralunga d’Alba is one of only 11 villages where Barolo wine may be produced. Many connoisseurs rank it, and Barbaresco, as Italy’s most prestigious red wines.
The town of Grinzane Cavour, and castle of the same name, also have a strong connection with viniculture. The castle’s sturdy square tower was part of a small fortress that was built during the 12th century.
Among exhibits there is the Regional Piemontese Wine Cellar, which showcases and offers tastings of a sampling of the area’s vintages, plus several grappas. Also intriguing is the Masks Room, whose soaring ceiling is painted with portraits, crests and a series of fantasy monsters and allegorical creatures that range in countenance from droll to macabre.
One claim to fame of Cherasco is the fact that Napoleon Bonaparte called it “le plus beau coin d’Italie.” Even those who don’t agree that the town is “the most beautiful corner of Italy” can appreciate the original star-shaped Roman bastion, and the medieval architecture that abounds there.
The town’s elegant porticoed arcades protect pedestrians from sun and rain. Among the sumptuous palaces is the Palazzo Salmatoris, where the ruling Savoy family spent many a summer holiday. A graceful “Triumphal Arch” was donated by a citizen to give thanks that the plague which wracked the region in 1630 spared the citizens of Cherasco.
Anyone who travels to Italy’s Piedmont region is sure to leave with an appreciation of the importance of both wine and food in the lives of its people, and probably with a few extra pounds as well. Cheese and truffles – especially white truffles – hold a place of honor on many a dining table, and in the local culture and cuisine.
Cheese-making is closely identified with the Piedmont region, having flourished there since the first century A.D. Many farmers continue to follow traditional family recipes, which often call for a mixture of milk from cows, sheep and goats.
A visit with a so-called “cheese hunter” turned out to be one of the more unusual experiences of my trip. Gianna Cora described the local tradition of “maturing” cheeses by wrapping them in various kinds of leaves to both preserve and flavor them. Among the kinds of foliage which are employed for these purposes are those from chestnut and fig trees, as well as cabbage, cauliflower and other vegetables. I also encountered, but chose not to sample, cheeses wrapped in grass, tobacco leaves and goat hides.
Gianna noted that each year he gathers and uses over 100,000 chestnut leaves alone. (I didn’t inquire how he knows the number.) Explaining that about three dozen of his neighbors share his unusual profession, he claimed – without embarrassment at the pun – that he is recognized as “the Big Cheese” among them.
It didn’t take long after my arrival in the area to observe and experience first-hand that the Piemontese people are as serious about enjoying cheeses as Gianna is about making sure they taste as delectable as possible. Almost every restaurant serves a wide selection of locally produced types. I watched as some diners discussed their selections with the server, asked for small samples before ordering, then nibbled on their choices with an enjoyment that was obvious even from across the dining room.
Enjoyment of the magnificent countryside scenery, ancient towns and intriguing history of the Piedmont region might not be demonstrated so clearly. But this corner of Italy has much to recommend a visit to savor all it has to offer.
For more information about Italy’s Piedmont region, visit www.langheroero.it; click on the image of the British flag in the upper right corner of the screen to translate the site into English.