When traveling, there are two things I will stop dead-in-my-tracks for: anything culinary and anything vintage.
For me, a souvenir does not have to be something new. That means no magnets, shot glasses or “I heart____” t-shirts. Instead, I set out to collect trinkets or hand-made knick-knacks or vintage pieces which hold a story about the place and its people.
Several years ago, we were driving around Piedmont aimlessly on a clear sunny day. Aimless driving is one of my fortes – even in Italy – a country famous for erratic driving habits. I am assured that this is the best way to get to know a place. The less you plan, the more just comes your way.
We passed through a town named Nizza Monferrato, which we knew was famous for some of the best Barbera vineyards in the area.
Like a hawk, I spotted a large yard and what looked like a factory space, decked out with copper bathtubs, marble statues (the romantic kind; with heads or arms missing), vintage cooking utensils, wooden carriages. And more. There was *stuff* everywhere.
My eyes lit up like a Christmas tree and I convinced my husband to pull the car over so we could go in.
Two delightful looking elderly Italian men were chatting with each other at the gate and they hand-gestured for us to pass through.
So we did.
I peeked inside the first possibly-converted-factory hall and caught sight of treasures and trinkets as far as my eye could see. We meandered through the aisles. Relics from old churches and cathedrals, a knight in shining armor (ok, just the armor, not the knight), swords, scales, flags, posters, vintage illustrations and engravings of herbs and their medicinal values (originals, might I add!), vintage champagne bottles, helmets, random memorabilia of all sorts, old signs, wooden African statues, masks, a Kodak photo of Padre Pio (when he was still alive) – the list just goes on and on – a completely fascinating and utterly random, immense collection of *stuff*.
Somewhere between amusement and amazement we heard a lovely voice say “Benvenuti!”. A familiar face, one of the two men who were standing at the gate before, greeted us with a huge smile and a handshake.
He introduced himself as Pietro and started to explain some of the things he had collected over time. Yes. He – himself – personally. A lifetime worth of intriguing and rare things. A lil’ something from every continent he has set foot on, which also seemed as though this included every country in the world.
Pietro continued on in Italian. It’s a language that I always wanted to learn but never got around to learning, and it’s times like these where I regret not speaking it. Luckily for us however, between our common languages (of Spanish, German, French, and English) – and the non-official language of ‘hand movements’ – we were able to get by just fine. We understood Pietro, and we think Pietro understood us.
At the end of the grand tour, we reached what seemed to be the Foodie Holy Grail – a tasting room for fine liqueurs.
Only then did we learn that Pietro actually produces, distills and bottles his own liqueurs, bitters, brandy’s, spirits and syrups. China d’Asti – Aromatic Elixir being a specialty of the house.
We took a tiny taste of almost everything – Coffee liqueur, Genepì, Rhubarb, Amaro, Walnut liqueur, Limoncello – just to name a few.
In fact, Pietro Balestrino, the entrepreneur behind this “Distilleria Erboristeria Balestrino” also happens to be in the city council and dabbles in local politics. A man of many colors.
A good sobering multi-lingual-conversation, and a few hours (yes, hours) later, Pietro invited us to see the inside of his home.
And this is another thing I love about Italy – almost everywhere you go, you are never really a stranger with the locals. For the most part, people are quite open and make you feel welcomed with their famous Italian warmth and jovial sense of hospitality; a concept that sadly doesn’t exist everywhere in the world (and definitely not in the places that I have most recently lived) (a story for another day).
Pietro’s wife is an artist and the inside of their home is adorned with her paintings – one after the other – hung from the ceiling to the floor in patchwork style. His wife was cooking in the kitchen, and Pietro took us to the dining room and even showed us the inside of his china cabinet. We really got the full tour.
I have always cherished those bottles of homemade liqour we bought the first time we stumbled across his place. They hold a special place in my heart – and my liquor cabinet.
This past year in October we found ourselves back in Piedmont, and could not resist re-tracing our steps and re-taking the grand tour which magically ends in a homemade-liqour store.
We left with a few more cases (for special occassions. only. of course) and new memories – the highlight of which was finding my entry in his guest book dated from two years prior. I added a new entry this past October and I hope to add yet another in the coming years.
Truth be told, we haven’t seen anything else in Nizza Monferrato yet. If you ask me, this is actually the only thing worth seeing. On the two occassions we have visited, it has truly been una bella sorpresa (a nice surprise). And such nice surprises are exactly why I love Piedmont so much. The culture, the cuisine, the peacefulness of the rolling hills graced with castles and vineyards. And of course, the people we have met there. Because after all, it is very often the people that make a place so gratifying.
If you’re interested in purchasing some of these fantastic liqueurs, the store can be found on:
DISTILLERIA ERBORISTERIA BALESTRINO
Corso Acqui 176
14049 Nizza Monferrato (Asti)