Our car slows to a crawl as the driver points out the hidden castles and basilicas on the valleys round Gavi in Piedmont. In response to the bewildered honking drivers he replies, “Ech, these Piedmontese, always in a rush. Even when they have nothing to do!”.
This tour is part of the fanfare surrounding the official twinning of the Munich and Gavi Convivia. The German delegates are lucky to have Giovanni Norese, the Gavi Convivium leader, and Maurizio Fava, a collaborator of Slow Food and lecturer on the Master of Food spirits course, as their guides. They seem to know the history of every vineyard and monument this side of the Lemme river, which marks the confines of the Gavi wine region. We stop in the middle of a bridge to get a good view of the Forte di Gavi, a twelfth century fortress last used to hold German prisoners in World War II.
Piling back into the car, we head to the town center of Gavi. We stroll through the old streets till we arrive at the Macelleria Bertelli di Agostino Bertelli (Via Mameli, 23), one of two butcher shops that produce the Testa in cassetta di Gavi, a Presidium cured meat. This boiled salami utilizes the meat from the head of pigs along with the heart and other less prized parts of the animal. It is seasoned with cayenne pepper, fennel seed, pine nuts, salt, pepper and rum. That may sound a bit gruesome, but the grayish salami is quite delicious. As he serves customers, the son of founder Agostino Bertelli talks to us about the traditional salamis of the area. He offers us a slice of the unique Cima Genovese salami, made by stuffing veal stomach with eggs, carrots, zucchini, parsley, marjoram and the less prized veal parts and boiling the pocket. Bertelli also offers up some raw veal meat sausage. I never could stomach raw meat, but the Piemontese are very proud of this local delicacy. It is made from the Piemontese breed of cattle, which has exceptionally red meat, and is best eaten super fresh on the same day it is made. I willingly indulge in the Cima, but am relieved that we leave before anybody notices I haven’t tried the sausage!
Our next stop is a Gelateria/Pasticceria, and I am sure to make a better showing there. Pasticceria Bassano (Via Mameli, 41), has a bizarre décor that is matched by its owners’ personalities. It is dimly lit, the natural sunlight blocked out by the bottles of wine, liquor, and preserves displayed in the window. It is furnished with half a dozen marble-top tables and old wooden chairs. In the corner there is a huge covered pool table, a few newspapers carelessly flung on top. On the wall there is a coat hanger where a toddler’s plastic chair hangs precariously. Maurizio takes our orders but the little woman at the counter, the owner’s wife, says the gelato is out of stock and we must wait for the her husband to bring more. The arrival of a party of people in a small parlor like this can create havoc. The fact I’d checked out the dozen or so flavors in almost empty containers on my way in, didn’t mean they had as many waiting in the fridge!
Water arrives at the table, and, thankfully, a few minutes later come cups of colorful gelato for all. Though they don’t correspond to our orders, nobody is complaining. Actually it’s a good sign: only freeze-dried and semiprocessed ices are always available in the storeroom. The peach flavor tastes just like a juicy, perfectly ripe peach that got left in the freezer. The pineapple is almost too sweet and full of stringy pineapple fibers, a sure sign that this gelato is made from fresh fruit. Of the creams, chocolate is the most noteworthy. Dark without being bitter, it brought back memories of the famous, $4 a pop hot chocolate I enjoyed in my college days at L.A. Burdick (52D Brattle St.) in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Before we leave we taste the heavenly Amaretti di Gavi, light almond macaroons dusted with powdered sugar.
Earlier in the day we had a chance to visit the town of Novi Ligure, whose mayor officially welcomed the German delegates in the beautiful city hall. The delegates presented him with a case of Ayinger Beer, brewed with water from the crystal clear St. Andreas spring. The narrow streets and small piazzas of Novi Ligure are full of colorful flowers. From May 25 to June 6 they celebrate the “Dolce Terra in Fiore” (Sweet Land in Bloom) festival. School children decorate the squares with flowers and the town gives a prize for the most beautiful balcony arrangements. We visited the brand new ‘Museo del Campionissimi’, a cycling museum. It traces the evolution of the bicycle with old models on display as well as showcasing the bikes of champions who have won important races. There is even a bit of food history in the museum, in the form of an old bike with a stove for roasting chestnuts and a wooden box to keep them warm.
When hunger hits we move on to Il Vignale vineyards in the countryside of Gavi, where we are the lunch guests of the proprietor Dr Piero Cappelletti and his wife Wilma. Il Vignale is one of the smaller producers of Gavi wine. The tidy rows of light green vines get a punch of color from roses planted at the heads of many of the rows. Giovanni, explains to me that this is part of an ancient system for treating vines affected by a grape mildew, which dries out the leaves and, if left untreated, eventually kills the vine. The roses are planted by each infected row and serve as a reminder to the farmers to treat them after the harvest. I sip a glass of 2000 Gavi as I take in the landscape. The wine is fresh and fragrant and smooth. We enter a cool underground cellar, masterfully transformed into an elegant dining room. Large bouquets of lavender fill the room with their fragrance; a bowl of ripe cherries by the door invites snacking.
Though I don’t speak a word of German, one of the friendly delegates beckons me over to an all-German table. I am relieved to find nearly all the Munich Convivium delegates speak either Italian or English, many speak both. The local delicacies that emerge from the kitchen are as new to my tablemates as they are to me, and we embark together on this culinary discovery. Three excellent salamis accompanied by focaccia bread are followed by garlicky meat ravioli served completely without sauce. Not even a drop of butter or olive oil. I am confused but hungry and dig in, as do my tablemates. Before we finish Maurizio dashes over with a bottle of red wine, explaining the tradition of saucing ravioli with a splash of wine. We finish our ravioli in red wine soup and follow it with a selection of homemade cookies – my favorite, Brutti ma buoni (Ugly but Good), included. They are meringues full of almonds and hazelnuts, and in this case a dash of cinnamon. To round out our meal we pick sour Amareno cherries from the small grove growing outside.
My gorging for the day is over, but the Munich Convivium delegates and Gavi Condotto will feast yet again, at a benefit dinner jointly hosted by the Rotary Club and Slow Food. The proceeds will go to help a local school damaged in an earthquake in April. I must head home before the late night dinner commences but hope to see them all again in a place where frothy beer will take the place of mellow Gavi wine – where else but at Oktoberfest?
Sarah Weiner, a graduate of Dartmouth University in New Hampshire, currently lives in Italy, where she is a member of the editorial staff of www.slowfood.com
Photo: the central piazza of Novi Ligure (S. Weiner)