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Comments - L'Anima's Gal Zohar looks at Piedmont's culinary and winemaking synergies

Published:  20 February, 2009

L'Anima's Gal Zohar examines the reasons why Piedmont's culinary tradition and changes in winemaking techniques are inextricably interwoven.


L'Anima's Gal Zohar examines the reasons why Piedmont's culinary tradition and changes in winemaking techniques are inextricably interwoven.

It may seem unfair, but some of us have it all while others have nothing at all. It's just the way things are. When you apply this to humans, you tend to talk about beauty, talent or brains, while wine regions benefit from weather, soil and grape varieties.

One region that certainly has it all is Piedmont - there are just so many factors working in this region's favour. Apart from its excellent terroir, winemakers are only constrained by relatively simple rules (in Italian terms), so there is little confusion or protest about the legislation.

Given all that, why would any winemaker in the Langhe feel the need to change his winemaking style from the traditional to something more international? After a recent visit to Piedmont I have come to the conclusion that the answer lies in changes to the culinary tradition of the region.

When it comes to food, as with vines, Mother Nature has blessed Piedmont with amazing natural resources. There are Alba's famous white truffles, of course, but there's also a wealth of traditional vegetable crops: the square pepper of Motta di Costigliole d'Asti, or the horn-shaped variety from Carmagnola, leeks from Cervere, onions from Ivrea, asparagus from Santena and the round cardoon of Nizza Monferrato. Piedmont is also blessed with a breed of cattle known for its superb quality. For generation upon generation, Piedmontese gastronomy was based on these unique ingredients, and although there were hints of a French influence, the emphasis was on rich, complex flavours rather than presentation.

But, from the evidence of my visit to Piedmont a fortnight ago, it was clear that French culinary traditions have brought a new set of rules to Piedmont's plates. Meals at La Ciau del Tornavento and Locanda nel Borgo Antico set me thinking. Both restaurants benefit from huge terraces that showcase the breathtaking beauty of the surrounding landscape, leaving the dinner in no doubt that they are in the heart of Piedmont. But the evidence on the plates contradicted the evidence of our eyes. The menus themselves listed all the region's classic dishes, from antipasti of vitello tonnato and carne cruda all'albese to primi piatti of local white truffle risotto and secundi of filetto di vitella con funghi. But while the dishes were made from Piedmont's indigenous ingredients it looked totally French. When I asked the chefs why they presented their food like this, they told me that, in recent years, this has been the fashion. Piedmontese food in French clothing. Why on earth would anyone do that?

The truth is that Italy still hasn't learned that it can stand its own, gastronomically, against any country in the world. There is still a perception that the heights of haute cuisine can only be reached by adopting French aesthetics.

Fifteen years ago, many wine producers were trying to reach these same heights while labouring under the same illusion. Rather than highlighting the uniqueness of their vineyards, some chose to adopt French aesthetics by introducing new techniques into their cellars. I don't believe that this has ever worked out: uniqueness comes from heritage and tradition. Today, thankfully, fashion in winemaking is turning back towards more traditional practices, and a balance between new and old is now developing. New techniques are not banned, as long as the soul of each wine comes from the land. We can only hope that the same will be true for Piedmont's culinary future.