Pollenzo and Bra. Food culture
Pollenzo and Bra
On typically foggy November morning in Piedmont, the Pollenzo complex easily brings to mind the fantastic Gothic architecture of Hogwarts, the school of magic attended by Harry Potter. Here, the magic lies in the ancient foundations of the Roman town of Pollentia, and in the red-brick buildings of the former royal estate that house one of the region's most famous educational institutions: the Università degli Studi di Scienze Gastronomiche, or University of Gastronomic Sciences. In 1835, Prince Carlo Alberto of Savoy ordered the rebuilding of the ancient hamlet and its castle in spectacular neo-Gothic style, and the construction of the spires on the church of San Vittore. Today, the Pollenzo complex is a citadel of the noble arts of food and wine, and is thronged with young people of all nationalities, who attend courses in the University's classrooms and workshops. Its buildings also house the Agenzia, a huge model farm dedicated to crop improvement and agricultural trials. The Agenzia's immense cellars are also home to the Banca del Vino. An underground storage area containing more than 100,000 bottles, representing the choicest output of more than eight hundred wineries. Naturally, there are many guided tour options, as well as customised tasting sessions and courses.
Not far away is Bra, with the well preserved delicate baroque facades of its Town Hall and the Mathis and Garrone palazzos: there was once a fortress here, on the market square now known as Piazza dei Caduti per la Libertà. Under the arcades of the town centre, the importance of the area's food tradition is noticeable at once. Standing on the border of the Langhe and Roero districts, every two years Bra hosts Cheese, an event which lines its streets with the best cheeses from Italy and around the world, crowned by the local star: PDO Bra. The town, also the home of a distinctive veal sausage, is well aware of its gastronomic and food importance, and it was one of the four Founder Members of the famous Città Slow, or Slow Food Town, movement. The aim is to underline the importance of slowness as a symbol of quality and intelligent consumption with regard to food.
Alba, town of vermouth, wine and truffles
We now drive our camper along the River Tanaro to Alba, also closely associated with its choice food specialities, including wines and truffles. The town is well worth a visit, with its spectacular old town centre; between its Town Hall and Via Maestra, it also conserves the memory of one of its most famous sons, Beppe Fenoglio, with signs in the corners of the squares and along the streets recalling passages from his works. Fenoglio was born here in 1922 and wrote impressive tales about the Resistance during the Second World War, including The Twenty-Three Days of the City of Alba, his first work, published in 1952. With some of Fenoglio's descriptions of his native town as our guide, we stop at the Caffè Calissano on Piazza Risorgimento (or Piazza Duomo), and, overlooking the red brick facade of the 16th Century Cathedral of San Lorenzo, we enjoy a coffee and a chocolate amongst the plasterwork inspired by the Savoy royal style. Then it is time to set off in search of His Majesty, the Truffle. In October and November every year, Alba is a Mecca for truffle enthusiasts, tourists eager to taste the delicacy and the dedicated truffle-hunters, who search every cranny of the local hills with their dogs. The size of the crowds milling through the fragrant interiors of the International Alba White Truffle Fair is astonishing, and the food and craft stalls in streets of the old town are just as busy.
In the exhibition's main hall, the heart of the event is the truffle-hunters' stand, where they display and sell their best pieces, treated like sparkling hand-crafted gems on the velvet mountings of a luxury jewellery store. Some of the characters in attendance are distinctive in appearance, with little hats and chequered shirts, but very often they look more like the managers of large corporations. Around the booths dedicated to the local specialities, dozens of stands offer every gastronomic marvel produced in the misty, fertile lands that bridge the Langhe and Roero districts: cured meats and cheeses to suit all tastes, honey and chestnuts, jams and preserves. A triumph of colours, smells and flavours that no-one could resist.
Now we move on to nearby Cinzano, just below the old village of Santa Vittoria d’Alba. In the early 19th Century, Carlo Alberto of Savoy embarked on the construction of a massive network of underground cellars, which in 1887 became part of the production complex of Cinzano, the famous sparkling wine and vermouth firm. Wines which, as a period document states, "were specially perfected, and reduced to fine sparkling wines, which began to win fame for their bouquet and clarity". The company has a part in Italy's social history, partly due to its advertising, which was responsible for the use of the words "cincin" (pronounced "chinchin"), imported from China, as a toast.
A vineyard landscape
A vineyard landscape
The products of the land are therefore fundamental to an understanding of the heart of Alba and its hills. It should be no surprise that UNESCO includes the vineyard landscape of the Langhe, Roero and Monferrato districts as a world heritage site: “an outstanding example of the relationship between man and nature for more than two millennia. The lines of vines of the area's traditional grape varieties, the growing techniques, the rich system of production locations and traditional settlements, all reflect a living landscape, in which all developments take place with constant respect for an equilibrium between tradition and innovation".
As we leave Alba behind us and follow the road that gently winds up the hillsides described by Beppe Fenoglio, the vineyards become the dominant feature in the lines of the landscape. The seductively curved rows of vines create seemingly infinite striped patterns on the foggy crests. Amongst the great local wines, Barolo is particularly esteemed. Surrounded by vineyards, the houses are dominated by the rectangular bulk of Faletti Castle, erected around the year one thousand and extended, damaged and renovated several times until it eventually became a sumptuous residence in the 19th Century. Inside the Castle, where Silvio Pellico was librarian for years, the amazing WiMu (Wine Museum) adopts unusual approaches and innovative ideas as it guides visitors through the local wine-making history, culture and landscape. The visit starts with an introduction to the natural history of Piedmont - with a carousel that carries us through the seasons on the hills - and then moves on to wine production.
The Castle of Grinzane Cavour is also largely focused on the history of wine, and it is here that Camillo Benso, Count Cavour, the hero of Italian unification, lived occasionally for twenty years or so (he was also Mayor of the town). On his estates, Cavour experimented with and promoted quality wine-making, and he and the Marchioness Vitturnia Colbert Falletti, who resided in Barolo Castle, were largely responsible for the glory of today's DOCG wine. Visitors to the Castle can take in the Lange Folk Museum and the large winery on the ground floor, where they are able purchase wines from the great Piedmont tradition.
But wine is not the area's only feature of interest; it is only a few kilometres to Bene Vagienna, where we can immerse ourselves in ancient history. This charming little town, with its many arcades, derives its name from the Latin Augusta Bagiennorum, which the Romans called it after they defeated the Ligurian Bagienni tribe and gained control of the area. Our encounter with ancient and more recent history starts from Palazzo Rorà, and the rooms of the tiny but impressive archaeological collection it houses, and moves on to the Casa Ravera complex, where there is another small museum next door to the tourist office. A short walk out of the town centre takes us to the Roman excavations, with the ruins of the theatre and the forum, dominated by the base of its main temple. The surrounding countryside also contains the ruins of a magnificent amphitheatre, the baths and many other buildings, which stand on the edge of the meadows and very close to the first rows of the grapes for which these hills have been so famous and revered worldwide for more than two thousand years.
Stops and Camping Sites:
Alba Camping Alba Village, Corso Piave 219, San Cassiano, tel. 0173 280972, www.albavillagehotel.it, email@example.com. Equipped parking area on Corso Piave, opposite Alba Village.
Barolo Agri Camping Sole Langhe, Vergne, tel. 0173 560510 or 339 7834506, www.campingsolelanghe.it, info@solelan ghe.com. Open from 1 March to 30 November.
Bene Vagienna Agricampeggio Tibi Dabo, Prà 2, tel. 0172 655358, 347 2582665 or 340 5582987, www.agritibidabo.com, firstname.lastname@example.org. 10% discount on restaurant prices.
Parking area at Cascina Bric, Frazione Podio 94, tel. 0172 654264, 333 3476170 or 334 6169168, www.cascinabric.com, email@example.com.
Grinzane Cavour Equipped parking area on Piazza Ugo Genta; camper service 50 metres from the castle.
Ente Turismo Alba Bra Langhe e Roero [Tourism Office], Piazza Risorgimento 2, Alba, tel. 0173 35833, www.langheroero.it, firstname.lastname@example.org.
Ufficio del Turismo di Bene Vagienna [Tourism Office], Casa Ravera, Via Vittorio Emanuele 43, tel. 0172 654969 (closed on Tuesdays).