EN VOYAGE – The Snails Of Cherasco

24 Apr 2002

Finding a role seems to be the destiny and, often, the particular skill of Cherasco, a small town in Piedmont that throughout history has witnessed crucial dates and outstanding personages under the ceilings of its many aristocratic buildings. The town was built in the 13th century on the Roman castrum model: a quadrilateral cut through with orthogonal streets and defended by ramparts. It sloughed its skin and changed regents until the Treaty of Cateau Cambrésis (1559) when it became a favorite haunt of the Savoy court. After the Acaja, Angioini, Visconti and Orléans, the Savoys remodeled the city, embellishing it with many of the buildings that can still be visited today, transferring the court here during the plague which broke out in Turin and many other areas of Piedmont in 1630. Then, after almost three centuries of Savoy rule, Cherasco became infatuated with the myth of Napoleon, and on each of his victories the citizens hurried into the churches to sing the Te Deum. They had welcomed him before he became Emperor, sending the mayor ahead to greet him with the keys to the town and accommodated him in Palazzo Salmatoris, where he dictated the conditions of surrender. The ‘Armistizio di Cherasco’ became a document to show off like a noble title, and theday of its signing, April 27, 1796, marked the beginning of a passion that was to last beyond 1814, when the Savoys returned. Then ‘great history’ turned elsewhere and left the city weighed down by the past and bereft of celebrity. It would take an invention to bring the tourists and money (not to mention the important role of spinning-rooms in the Giolitti period) back into the ramparts, but this occurred in 1972 thanks to the young chairman of the local tourist office, Gianni Avagnina, and an elderly retired military man from Alba, Captain Carboni. Two pages appeared in the ‘Domenica del Corriere’ about the latter’s passion for snails, and the present mayor of Cherasco, Avagnina, invited him to the town to hold a conference on the subject. It was an immediate success and marked the beginning of that other history, without emperors and armistices, that has made Cherasco the Italian snail capital and Avagnina the director of the International Edible Snail Breeding Institute.

So let’s take a stroll round this little town (population about 7,000). Many of its treasures are still hidden behind the artistic doors of private houses. In via Vittorio Emanuele II, the main street, are many period buildings, like Palazzo del Carretto, the offices of the Italian Edible Snail Breeders’ Association (tel. 0172 489382) and above all, the famous building in which peace treaties were signed in 1631 (by Vittorio Amedeo I after the second War of Monferrato) and in 1796. Despite its bland façade, the interior of Palazzo Salmatoris has fine interior work by the local painter Sebastiano Taricco from Cherasco, whose 17th-century frescoes in the ‘saletta del Silenzio’ have a strongly scenic effect. The street is closed to the south by the simple lines of the 18th-century Porta Narzole and to the north by the Piazza del Comune, with the huge, 36m Torre Civica, and the Arco del Belvedere, built to Boetto’s design as a votive building after the town was spared by the plague of 1630. Alongside the arch and also designed by Boetto is the church of Sant’Agostino, which the confraternity of the Disciplinati Bianchi had built in 1672. Those with a sweet tooth can make two stops in via Vittorio Emanuele: at Pasticceria Barbero at number 72 to buy the famous ‘baci’ of Cherasco (Langa hazelnuts toasted and covered with fine dark chocolate) and Gelateria Da Renato to enjoy homemade ice-creams sitting outside or strolling along the street.

In the parallel street, Via Ospedale, the Palazzo Gotti di Salerano is worth visiting for Taricco’s masterpiece, a series of frescoes on the topic of Wisdom. Inside is the Museo Adriani with areas dedicated to archeology and collections of medals, seals, Savoy portraits and Papal medallions.
Before heading towards the outer perimeter of the city, there are still other splendid examples of Cherasco’s ecclesiastical architecture to be visited, such as the churches of San Pietro, San Gregorio and San Martino, all with older structures but rebuilt in the 18th century. The churches of Santa Maria del Popolo, consecrated in 1709, and Madonna delle Grazie (which echoes the charm of Vittone’s S. Chiara in Bra) were both built in the 18th century.
Then we move on towards the Viale dei Platani, overlooked by the 14th-century Visconti castle which was restored, or rather, rebuilt, to Alfredo D’Andrade’s design in the last century, and into the romantic Passeggiata dei Bastoni, with its splendid view of the Langhe and the Tanaro and Stura rivers, which meet at the foot of the plateau.

After your stroll, you may wish to sit and enjoy local specialities in one of Cherasco’s two top quality local restaurants. At the Osteria della Rosa Rossa (tel. 0172 488133), at via San Pietro 31, you can taste the famous snails, fried or stewed, with a good choice of wines, all at reasonable prices (about 25 euros, not including wine). At La Lumaca (tel. 0172 489421), you’ll find good traditional dishes from Cherasco and Piedmont in general, as well as wines sold by the glass, and a good selection of local products – cheeses, jams, snails, cakes – available in a shop next to the Osteria, at Via Cavour 8. If you come to Cherasco when one of the frequent markets is being held (seven per year, three of which are for antiques), we advise you to book your lunch in advance and arrive in the early morning. These markets (books, pottery, furniture, junk, and a range of old items) transform the calm, discreet nobility of Cherasco into a huge old-fashioned fair with over 600 traders and large numbers of customers, all to the accompanying hum of haggling and negotiation. This is yet another face of a town which is now experiencing a very lively period of cultural and tourist interest.

1999 was declared the ‘Year of the Snail’ by the organizations concerned with these lucrative creatures, and the first International Snail Breeders’ Meeting – two days of conferences, debates, good food exhibitions and displays dedicated to snail breeding – was held in Cherasco. The meeting was promoted by the National Association, of which Avagnina is the chairman, by the Snail Confraternity, and by ‘Snail Cities’.It served to reiterate Cherasco’s central role in this expanding sector. It also emphasized that the national snail breeding system is still unbalanced and requires greater investments to fulfill the growing demand.
Snails have experienced varying fortunes during the course of history, passing from poor tables in periods of famine to those of the rich in times of plenty. In France, cooked in the bourguignon or alsacienne styles, they have almost become a national dish. Snails are an extremely nutritious food source, very easy to digest, low in fat and rich in protein and mineral salts. The problem of whether they should be considered meat or fish by the faithful during Lent seems to have been solved by a Pope who adored snails: when the cook objected that he should not eat meat just before Easter, he declared ‘Estote pisces in aeternum!’.
A vast range of snail varieties exist in nature. Among those selected for breeding, the most common types in Italy are helix adspersa (vignaiola) and helix pomatia (Borgogna). In Cherasco these can be found at heuro helix (via Sant’Iffredi 20), where you can be sure of buying organically-reared snails.

Alessandro Monchiero,a journalist, works for Slow Food Editore

Adapted for Sloweek by Ailsa Wood

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