I’ve just returned from a place that uses $50 bottles of wine to cook beef for hours at a time, eats raw meat with the same gusto as the French, uses butter liberally, has almost no idea what olive oil is, takes pride in dishes that use the most unappealing parts an animal has to offer and then washes it all down with some of the very best red wines in Italy and, this is not an exaggeration, the world. Oh yeah, they also have a thing for white truffles that at present are going for a cool 4,000 euros a kilo.
Of course this could only be Piedmont, that huge Italian region tucked into the country’s northwest corner on the border with France (hence the raw meat and butter). More specifically, I was in the Langhe, an area of Piedmont that includes Alba – probably the most foodie of all Italian cities, edging out a few other finalists that include Bologna – as well as Barolo and the other ten towns where Barolo wine is produced.
I tried bollito misto, mixed boiled meats, only because I pride myself on trying everything once (and then if I don’t like it I try again in five years). This is not something that is easily appreciated, to be honest my stomach turned when I got my first whiff. Ingredients in a traditional recipe include: 800 grams of beef tongue, 1 kilo of calf’s head, half a chicken and sausage. For 6 kilos of meat the recipe also calls for four carrots and three onions so rest assured that you have your veggies covered.
Then there is the finanziera, which for the uninitiated makes eating bollito misto seem downright enjoyable. It’s a stew of sorts the ingredients of which include: 1 calf’s brain, 200 grams of a chicken’s crest, 500 grams of various calf glands. I’ll stop here because I’m still hoping to work up an appetite by dinner time. So as a rule I do try everything, but there are some things I don’t try so I can have an exception that proves the rule. Not sure I understand the logic, but it seems that if you have an exception it makes the rule stronger. Anyway, for the finanziera I opted for the exception. Even I have limits.
Fortunately Piedmontese cuisine is not only about boiling, stewing or frying (fritto misto, I’ll spare you the details of this one) those parts of the animal that really are not meant for eating.
It’s not often that most of us open a $50 bottle of wine, unfortunately. On the other hand, if you live in southern Piedmont where Barolo flows from the taps you can be a bit extravagant and make Brasato al Barolo. I’ve had it and can say it lives up to the hype. If you want to try at home, which I haven’t, mostly because I drink my $50 bottles of wine, here is a great recipe. It’s in Italian but for those not versed in the language, there’s a video that includes some holiday music to get you in the mood (in case the crowds in the stores haven’t already done that for you).
Barolo is worth a visit if just for the views of the surrounding countryside and to have a glass of the good stuff in its namesake town. I had the fortune – misfortune? – to arrive in time for a sagra dedicated to bollito misto. Ever wonder what happens with retired military have a bit too much bollito and cheap wine on a nippy afternoon in Barolo (nobody gets hurt):
Insider tip: when you go to Barolo, give the wine museum a pass. And if you must go, make sure it’s after several wine tastings (the type where you don’t spit out). Two good parts of the museum, though alone they don’t merit a visit, are a series of film clips where wine is part of the scene and a slide show of pieces of art that feature wine.