WORLDFOOD – Glutton Run

17 Jan 2002

Piedmont’s hazelnuts are famous. They’re a wonderful, unique nut – I have only good things to say about them. Except this – don’t spend a day gorging on the things and expect to feel good at the end of it. I speak from experience!

As an Australian journalist currently working at Slow Food Editore based in the town of Bra, Piedmont, Northern Italy, I’ve taken to tacking myself onto the back of whatever outing may have been organized for, and by somebody else.

A British journalist, Joanna, was in town with her husband, Nick. She was researching a piece and wanted to know all about Piedmontese hazelnuts. I put up my hand and off we went. Among many other good things, Piedmont is famous for the round flavorsome hazelnuts that grow here. Only one variety of hazelnut is cultivated in the Mediterranean, Italy included. In certain, very precise areas of Piedmont, it grows to spectacular effect. Which is why the ‘Piedmontese’ hazelnut, nicely named Tonda Gentile, has been awarded PGI (Protected Geographic Indication) status by the EU and is generally considered to be one of the best in the world. It is rich in proteins, vitamin E and healthy fats. In fact, recent analysis of their fat content revealed a ratio of oleic and linoleic fats similar to that found in virgin olive oil, a product well known for it’s health- giving properties. It has an intense, woody flavor and a grassy, sweet, fragrant aroma.

Our day began at a meeting point in Alba, the affluent, medieval town in the Langhe area of Piedmont. It was one of those sharp, clear days – relatively rare in this part of the world, which is usually wrapped up in a thick layer of fog, or nebbia. But today the view was clean and the cold weather had burnt away any haze.

Waiting for our guide, Joanna, Nick and I noticed a faintly sweet, cloying smell – the Nutella factory roasting hazelnuts. In the forties, when Pietro Ferrero first mixed toasted hazelnuts with cocoa butter and vegetable oils to make Nutella, he had a network of growers supplying Tonda Gentile to the factory door. Although today the factory’s enormous output demands a larger quantity of hazelnuts than the area can provide, so they mostly come from abroad.

Gianfranco Carosso, from the Comunita Montana Langa Delle Valli tourism office, tells us all of this while we drive out of town, up into the hills. Compact valleys, forested hillsides, picture perfect vineyards and neat rows of hazelnut trees. Forming a backdrop to it all, a row of snowy Alps, looking sort of like the Paramount Pictures poster, blown up and stuck onto the horizon. Unnecessary really, because the scenery is already breathtaking. The snow-covered peaks just cap it all off, so to speak.

Our first stop is the historic Caffa family shelling factory in Cortemilia. a smallish village by in the Bormida valley. This is where the hazelnut growers come to sell their harvest. At the door to the factory, is a well-worn stone punctuated with round indentations, here the Caffas evaluate each delivery, scattering a sample handful of nuts onto the stone, pushing them into the grooves and evaluating uniformity of size and before weighing them before offering a price. In the impressively old Caffa building, the nuts are dried, sized, shelled and hand checked before being toasted and despatched.

We drive down the road a little into the old center of Cortemilia. An ancient village authentically suffering from centuries of flooding. The stone walls are mostly on a slope and the dark, covered walkways smooth and evocative. It’s a lovely place to be, but for us the attraction lies in a small bakery belonging to Guiseppe Cannobio. And here’s where the eating began.

Giuseppe has been baking torta di nocciole, hazelnut torte, for 38 years. His light, aromatic and moist cakes have become the stuff of local legend. The shop sells everything from dishwashing detergent to sausages, and while it won’t win any prices for turn-of-the-century charm, it has won plenty for its cakes.

Giuseppe bounds over to greet us, red-faced, rotund and bubbling. He takes a cake still warm from the oven and cuts us a slice. Soft, light and intensely aromatic – it’s something else again. We look around at each other, grinning and excited at our find.

While we munch, he tells us stories. Like the one about the recipe. It belonged to his mother. In Cortemilia and around, he tells us, most families had a hazelnut tree, so most mothers had recipes for hazelnuts. “When I was a child we only ever had hazelnut cake twice a year – at Christmas and Easter.”

This was around the time of World War II, when flour was a commodity. “Now,” Giuseppe says, “it’s the other way around, hazelnuts are expensive and flour costs next to nothing”. The recipe is fairly simple, and though it remains a family-only secret, he does tell us the ingredients; flour, baker’s yeast, sugar, just a little butter and, of course, the hazelnuts which he toasts himself, slowly and gently.

After we polish off the cake, Giuseppe swings back into the kitchen, emerging with a giant silver baking tray – brutti ma buoni, ugly but good – and they really are good. Warm, generous chunks of toasted hazelnuts held together with toffee meringue. They’re light, intensely flavored and disappear in a mouthful. Then it’s the baci, hazelnut kisses, which are smaller than you usually find here in Piedmont, but seem to be fresher and much more delicious. Tiny buds of crumbly, nutty biscuit squished together with soft chocolate.

Reluctantly we leave Giuseppe and Gianfranco takes us to Osteria Locanda del Camino, a friend’s restaurant in Bossolasco, a hilltop town with an impressive sweeping Alpine view, all the way from Liguria up to France right around to Switzerland.

Lunch was an all-star line-up of the region’s typical dishes. For antipasto there were flan di carciofi, small artichoke cakes draped in a cheesy fondue sauce, and vitello tonnato, thinly sliced roast veal under a thick, creamy, eggy sauce blended with tuna and then peperoni con bagna cauda, roasted, soft capsicums drenched in a warm sauce of olive oil infused with garlic and anchovies.

For primi piatti, we had bright yellow tajarin, tossed with butter and crispy rosemary pricks, and light lumps of gnocchi swimming in a Raschera cheese sauce. By this time we were starting to feel full, so prudently skipped seconds going straight to dessert, bonet. The Langhe’s most wonderful pudding, bonet is a dense, wobbly arrangement – like a mousse but smoother, just milk, eggs, cocoa, amaretti, sometimes rum (today yes) and sugar, cooked in a bain-marie.

We leave walking slowly, taking our time. But Gianfranco is relentless, allowing a brief walk on a saddle allowing a view of Cortemelia’s valley, bright orange with hazelnut groves and the late autumn leaves hanging on till the very end and the mountains on the other.

Back in the car, we drive down the road to Pasticceria Truffa in the village of Bossolasco. A temple to chocolate, Eugenio Truffa’s pasticceria exploits the region’s hazelnuts, smashing them into pastes or simply pushing them through his amazing chocolate coating machine whole, so they come out brown, shiny and delicious. It’s full of people selecting chocolates to be placed on little gold trays, wrapped in gold paper and tied with gold ribbons. Or standing at the bar with coffee and perhaps a few chocolates or a brioche. We join them, throwing back coffees and picking at the beautiful selection of hazelnut chocolates put before us.

Nick, Joanna and I are impressed; all this in a small country village. I think of the counterpart in the town near my parents’ home in rural Australia – the most exotic confection they make is cinnamon toast with the crusts cut off. Oh, and there are sometimes a few Lindt balls floating around the cash register.

The end – at least, the end of the tour. It’s late, and Gianfranco has shown us everything on the itinerary. On the way back to Alba, he tells us about torrone, nougat, another local product showcasing the hazelnut; a crunchy white confection made with whole hazelnuts, egg whites and sugar. He points out the factory of a well-known brand but, deep down, I think we’re too full to feel at all sorry for missing out on seeing it.

It’s been a great day, full and filling, though we’re all feeling a little ill from an overdose of hazelnuts and rich, excellent food. The Tonda Gentile really is worth all the fuss, but as Mae West once said, “too much of a good thing, can be wonderful,” unless of course, it’s just too much.

Address Book

Pasticceria Canobbio Guiseppe
Piazza Molinari n.1 -12074 Cortemilia CN
Tel. 0173 81262

Osteria Locanda del Camino
Corso Travaglio, 22
Tel. 0173 799033

Pasticceria Truffa
C.Paola della Valle 23
12060 Bossolasco (CN)
Tel: 0173 799031

Sophie Herron, an Australian journalist, previously a features writer for Australian Table magazine, is a member of the Slow Food Internet Office editorial team<

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