When Swiss food writer Manuela Darling-Gansser headed for Piedmont, the lush pre-Alpine region that takes up most of Italy’s northwestern corner, she was in for a surprise.
“Travelling in Piemonte I found that many dishes I had thought of as a "specialità della Mamma" were in fact from this region,” she writes. “So I have been eating Piemontese food, and later cooking it myself, for a long time now, without knowing its origins. In that sense, my travels around Piemonte were a voyage of rediscovery rather than a trip into the unknown.”
But then Darling-Gansser, who was born just across the border from italy, had at least heard of Piemonte, which is more than most people did.
“As a child I heard stories of hillsides covered in chestnut woods, of high mountain peaks beyond, of life in fashionable Torino and of food that was particularly good,” she writes. “It has always been there on the edges of my imagination - a land of undiscovered delights that I knew I must, at some time, get to know.”
While there, however, she realised that Piedmont “is largely an unknown area to many people in Europe, even to many Italians. Considering that Piemonte covers some of the most beautiful and varied landscapes in Italy, this is definitely an oversight.”
And it is this oversight that she set out to correct with her book, Autumn in Piemonte, a chronicle of her travels across the region, which happened to take place at the best time to enjoy the fruits of the land. Because Piemonte is a place of truffles and fine wine, chestnuts and wild mushroom, fat rice and mountain cheeses and Darling-Gansser unearths them all.
She explores both the rich, peaceful Piedmontese countryside and the elegant, busy streets of Turin, revealing her favourite places, sharing her best Piedmontese recipes and taking the reader on a delightful journey of gastronomic discovery peppered with culinary legends and entertaining tales. Like, for example, the story of one of Turin’s best vermouths, Punt e Mes, which, says Darling-Gansser, owes its name to an overworked stock broker. The man once popped into the popular Carpano bar, then situated by the Stock exchange, for a quick pick me up drink and ordered a vermouth. But, wrapped up in his work as he was, he answered the barman’s customary “Red or White?” question with “Punt e Mes,” Piedmontese for a point and a half - presumably the rise or drop of the shares he was dealing with. The name stuck and so did that particular vermouth, which Darling-Gansser recommends to drink with just ice and lemon “and perhaps a dash of soda.”
Not all the stories she relates stand up to fact checking—Darling-Gansser writes that “a breakthrough in the history of chocolate occurred when the confectioners of Turin learned how to make solid eating chocolate” and that “they claim this as a world’s first” but the feat was actually achieved by the British in the 19th century (though the Torinese quickly caught on and their chocolate is indeed one of the world’s best).
Nonetheless the book is hugely entertaining, the selection of places to visit (and savour) is spot on, and the lavish photography by Simon Griffith will make you want to reach for the nearest piece of luggage and head for Piemonte pronto. And who knows, you too may discover, like Darling-Gansser did, that you have been eating Piedmontese without knowing it.
Autumn in Piemonte: Food and Travels in Italy's Northwest By Manuela Darling-Gansser, available from Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com through the links below.