At the Foot of the Moutain: The Ultimate Foodie Travel Guide to Piedmont

Imposing snow-capped mountain peaks form a silently dramatic background to the sequence of romantic rolling hills, fertile valleys and enchanting plains which unite themselves into the 8 provinces (Alessandria, Asti, Biella, Cuneo, Novara, Torino, Verbano-Cusio-Ossola, Vercelli) of Italy’s 2nd largest region –Piedmont (Piemonte).

Literally meaning “at the foot of the mountain”, Piedmont is gracefully seductive.

This is a region where nature, culture, tradition and epicureanism prevail.

Visit in the Spring or Summer and you will greeted with lush green rolling valleys, their fields just bursting with wildflowers, fresh herbs and cherry blossoms. The alps open their gates to a walking and hiking paradise. Late August welcomes the harvest of the world-renowned piemontese hazelnuts which then sneak their way into regional treats such as torrone, gianduiotti, as well as Gelato Nocciole del Piedmont, all of which you must try while you’re there!

 The autumn will embrace you with the nostalgia of a truly traditional Italian experience. Leaves on the vineyards will turn bright red, fiery orange and sun-blaze yellow. Foodie pilgrims will swarm for both the Vendemmia (wine harvest) and the Fiera del Tartufo Bianco d’Alba (white truffle festival). Try your hand at stomping on grapes before dining on truffle dishes of all sorts. For a break, drive around aimlessly and marvel at the picturesque autumn landscapes (particularly when the sun is setting) and just simply get lost!

Deep into the winter months, the region will be encased with a gorgeous blanket of fine snow, hibernating the life that is underneath. While the valley may sleep this time of year, the culture, heritage, and regional cuisine is still very much alive. If you’re looking for a non-edible thrill, you can dash over to the nearby slopes and try your hand at skiing or snowboarding. Or, for an alternative to your traditional holiday celebrations, why not celebrate Christmas or ring in the New Year, piemontese style!

Regardless of when you visit, there is one word you need to know: Sagra. A Sagra is a local festival or celebration, generally related to food (but could also be commemorating music, sports or a historical event). A Sagra will offer you the most authentic taste of local and traditional Italian life. If you see a sign for a Sagra della…  chances are you won’t be disappointed if you head straight there… (even if you have no idea what the word after della means…)

Regional Highlights:

 From the bustling cities to the quaint towns, from the mountains to the valleys, and everything in-between, Piedmont’s 8 provinces offer a no-limits experience; each season presenting a distinctive opportunity or delicious adventure. Some highlights include (but are definitely not restricted to):

  • Piedmont’s capital Torino, (Turin) is a host to many of the region’s “bests”

  • Food lovers will be in their element in the lovely town of Alba. October is the key month to visit, when the Fiera del Tartufo Bianco d’Alba is in full swing, celebrating the truffle mushroom, in all its glory. Return in the spring time, for the annual Vinum Wine Festival

  • Formerly the city of 100 towers (even though there were more) Asti will welcome you with medieval charm, and more

  • You’ll have to wander into one of the many underground havens in Canelli to find the best of what this small town has to offer; namely, notorious bubbles known under the name Asti Spumante. Take a trip to Gancia but don’t forget about some of the smaller cellars too!

  • No trip to Piedmont would be complete without a (very) decent stop in Barolo. Home to Barolo wine, which is often argued to be one of Italy’s finest wines, the Wine Museum should be your first-stop. To see how tradition has changed over the centuries, the adjacent Corkscrew Museum is worthy of a visit too. After bringing yourself up-to-date in both places, go for some wine tasting before dining on the regional dish of Bresola a la Barolo. Don’t leave town without a stop (and definite shop) in the Panetteria Fratelli Cravero on Via Roma

  • A majestic Cedar of Lebanon tree dominates the vista in La Morra and surrounding areas. Planted in the 1800’s by a married couple to symbolize their marriage, it serves as a beautiful reminder of true love

  • While Piedmont is certainly famous for its red wines, the ancient town of Gavi breaks the mold with its Cortese grapes which date back to the 1600’s and offer a delicate, elegant and versatile white wine which is not to be missed

  • Our visit to Nizza Monferrato was full of surprises, and we can’t wait to return! (check out why)

  • If you’d like to know what swallowing fire feels like (not literally), head over to Mombaruzzo which is home to a grappa distillery that will teach you all about the unique fermentation process of wine residue resulting in a fine and often sought-after Italian brandy

  • De-stress and also de-tox in the ancient Roman-founded spa town of Acqui Terme. Water, rich in minerals, flows out of the earth. By the way, sulfuric waters are said to cleanse the liver (not that you would need it?)

  • Let loose in Ivrea during its annual orange throwing festival (usually held in February or March).

  • Prior to giving birth to the Slow Food movement, Bra was not much more than an often bypassed medieval town. Today it’s worth a quick stop, as is the Banca del Vino in neighboring Pollenzo which presents a cellar full of some of Italy’s best wines, and offers several courses, guided tours, or wine tasting seminars. If you happen to visit in September, the Bra Cheese Festival is a requirement!

  • Believed to be one of the oldest cities in Northern Italy, Vercelli also happens to be one of the world’s leading rice producing regions (think: Vercelli risotto with the truffles you just picked up in Alba? Hmmm). Pay a visit to the medieval center as well as soaking in the scenic views of rice paddies – but don’t leave without trying a slice of Tartufata

  • If you’d like to witness the loveliest hazelnut be awarded a prize, then head toCastellero in October for the Sagra della Nocciola where you can not only race in hazelnuts but eat anything and everything hazelnutted

  • If all this cheese and wine seems a bit redundant, perhaps the stockfish-hurling contest at the annual Sagra dello Stoccafisso (stockfish fair) in Melazzo will do the trick for you (usually held in the spring)

  • If you’re in for the thrill of walking across the world’s longest suspended bridge running over a gorge, then head to the Ponte Tibetane (Tibetan Bridge) in Claviere sometime between May and September. Or, just walk off the food-related debauchery on one of Piedmont’s many walking and hiking trails, all year round. In fact, the mountains offer so many interconnected trails that it would literally possible to walk and hike the entire length of the alps! Lace up!

  • Headed to Piedmont in the autumn? Then check out events in the commune of Castagnole Monferrato which celebrates the wine harvest in a cheerful and time-honored way. After stomping on grapes, family’s get together to the tune of music, song and dance, and dine on traditional vendemmia dishes such as polenta in anchovy sauce or braised hare (rabbit).

  • Last but definitely not least, one of the crown jewels of Piedmont is the lake area. The two most famous characters are Laggio Maggiore and Lago d’Orta – however this area is so rich in culture and scenery that it deserves an article of its own.

Places to stay (experience):

  • Being a guest in Mauro’s home and B&B Ca dil Fra in Rocca Grimalda was not only a real treat but also a genuine experience of what true Italian hospitality feels like. He also makes small quantities of his own wine and will serve you a fresh and local breakfast each morning, after you wake up to the charming crow of a rooster

  • Albergo Ristorante Giardino da Felicin is in the center of Monforte d’Alba. We stumbled across this place on a sleepy weekday afternoon. The restaurant was actually not open, but since this place also doubles as a hotel, the chef welcomed us to sit down for a meal anyway. We were so appreciative and have wonderful memories of his home-made dishes and his generosity at feeding two hungry travelers.

  • For all you ladies that missed your calling as a princess, there’s still a chance. Some of the castles you see dotted along the countryside are also boutique hotels or guest houses. We have a castle which we return to at least once a year, but sometimes, some things in life need to remain a best-kept-secret (*wink*)

  • Agriturismo is the concept of combining traditional and local agriculture with tourism. Some agriturismi will be rustic and very basic, while others may be quite luxurious and romantic. There is something for everyone – families with children, groups of friends and couples alike – and I believe that this form of tourism is not only sustainable but will also offer you the most authentic and memorable experiences

For year-round visits to anywhere in Piedmont, consider the following:

  • Walking tours are a good alternative to those who would prefer to see the scenery on-foot with a guide who can explain the history to you! Biking toursare readily offered also in the spring and summer months. For an eagle-eyed view over the countryside, a hot-air balloon ride is just your ticket and there are several companies that specialize throughout the region

  • Markets: even the tiniest of towns will host a market at least once a month. Depending on the time of year that you visit, do some research or ask a local. These markets are really a haven for local delicacies, vintage and antique treasures, or just plain people-watching!

  • The kitchen is the heart of the home and cooking is something that unites all of us. I believe that Italy might just be the best place to learn and indulge in the beauty of truly traditional and regional cooking techniques. Many smaller hotels and castles will also offer you cooking classes in their own kitchen, so make sure to ask! We have taken a class on making Italian pasta by hand, the old fashioned way. Not only have I basked in trying it out at home, but I was made aware of the many pasta-cooking-sins which I used to indulge in (such as draining: big no-no).

The possibilities in this region, are truly endless. In fact, I am quite convinced that you could return every year for the rest of your life and still not be able to see, taste or experience everything that Piedmont has to offer. Regardless of when you decide to visit, be prepared to fall completely and utterly in love.

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