Rather than take the easy way south to Turin (why would we want to do that?!), we found a route in one of our guide books “Back Roads Italy” that went over St Bernard’s Pass and via France. The views were simply stunning – and well worth the extra driving time on the small, twisty roads. The route took us via La Thuile, Val d’Isere, Col du Mont Cenis and Susa and also the highest point in our journey so far Col de L’Iseran at 2,770m. We could feel the additional strain the altitude was putting onto Charlie going up those steep roads, so we really felt for those people struggling up them by pedal power. Although only for a few minutes until we reminded ourselves that they were the ones putting themselves through it! Still, it must be a fantastic feeling to finally reach that pass and be rewarded with not only the views, but the adrenaline rush of the downhill.
Having filled up with fuel just before heading back into Italy (much cheaper in France), we headed to a campsite in Avigliana, near Turin. The town is set near two lakes, with the campsite between them. Although we didn’t quite have the lakeside spot we were hoping for so, having got there a bit late, we used the excuse to go to a nearby pizzeria that did for dinner and were able to watch the sun set over the water.
After a day of catching up on a few jobs (writing the blog, sorting photos etc!), we headed into Turin to see what it had to offer. After wandering around for a few hours, we have to say we were a little disappointed. We’d come across a few nice piazzas, the palace and the tower that gives it its name was certainly pretty, but it wasn’t really giving us the “wow” factor. It is also, obviously, where the Shroud of Turin is kept. However, dare I say it, this was also a bit of a let-down as it’s not as though you actually see it – just the conservation case that it’s kept in. I’m sure it’s a different story on those few occasions where the shroud itself is displayed though. One thing that struck me was what looked like, and was then confirmed to be, a “royal box” above the tomb. This is apparently where the Savoy family used to sit and worship. An odd concept for a church, but it goes to show what money and influence can do.
Having said all of this, on our walk back through the side streets to the train station we stumbled on more and more leafy piazzas, interesting frescos, older buildings and arcades and realised that we’d actually missed a lot of what makes Turin an interesting place to visit. Another reminder for us that doing your research and lugging that heavy guide book with you is well worth the effort!
From staying on the east side of Turin, we then continued along the “Back Roads” route to the south of Turin. Here we stopped in Alba, which is close to Barolo, the home of the “King of Italian wines”. How could we drive so close and not stop?! Barolo itself is quite small and dominated by a castle overlooking the many fields of vines. Housed in the castle is the WiMu – yes, they’ve actually used that acronym themselves! – otherwise known as the Wine Museum. Having increased our knowledge of the history of wine since time began and amused ourselves with the moving puppet displays (obviously to keep the kids entertained!), we decided to be sensible and fill our stomachs before going to a tasting. We had a lovely al fresco lunch where we tried one of the local white wines, as well as some of the local speciality of raw meat (similar to steak tartare)! We then went to try the “King” and his compatriots at the Marchesi Di Barolo. As well at a Barolo itself, we also tried Nebbiolo and Barbera. Not to take away from Barolo, as we’ve had some lovely bottles in the past, but we were actually more impressed with the white we’d had at lunch than the 38 euro bottle we tasted at the cantina! It may have felt like an insult but our budget, and taste buds were happy.
Having tasted some wine, we felt it was only fair to test out some food, so the next stop was the Emilia-Romagna region. We realised we didn’t have a lot of time and really wanted to see how the region’s main produce was made, so after a quick online search we found a tour that covered the big three – parmigiano reggiano, prosciutto de Parma and balsamic vinegar – in one day. If you’re in the area, or doing something similar appeals to you, we can highly recommend this tour. (http://www.guided-tours-italy.com/index.html) For those that are interested, we’ve tried to cover some of the main points below, but we’ve tried not to go into too much detail as we probably wouldn’t do it justice or necessarily get it right!
Guided by the very knowledgeable Gabriele, who luckily for Karen also spoke very good English, we first went to a dairy just outside Parma. Two things that particularly struck us about the process was that the binding of the initial cheese ball (admittedly after blending the previous evening’s milk, which has been skimmed, with the morning’s full fat milk; heating; breaking up the curd and other steps have taken place) only takes 45 minutes. The other was that ricotta is a by-product of making parmesan. Having seen the cheese balls collected, cut in half and packed into wooden crates, we then saw the various temperature rooms they’re transferred into, how the rind is made by floating them in just salt and water and finally where they’re stored for at least 12 months until they’re tested to see if they’re good enough to be sold as parmigiano reggiano – not Grana Padana! They are then matured for at least another six months or even up to a further 24 months. In times gone by, parmigiano reggiano was deemed so valuable that it carried the same, if not more, worth as money and was used to pay the rent. With the number we saw in the dairy, the owners certainly wouldn’t have had any dwelling issues!
From here we went to a producer of balsamic vinegar. Traditional balsamic production is something that’s passed from generation to generation and even considered a dowry. This is because the process takes so long: the minimum aging time is 12 years! The initial grape concentrate, which is boiled down to 30 per cent of its original content, is split between five to seven decreasingly sized wooden casks. Each year, the contents of the casks, having naturally evaporated through an opening left in the top, is topped up from the larger cask before it. Only after at least 12 years can any vinegar be taken for selling from the smallest of the casks. We were lucky enough to try vinegar that had aged for 12, 18 and 24 years – each increasingly sweeter and thicker and you can definitely taste the difference from even the more expensive of the commercially-produced vinegars.
Our final stop was to see the process for Parma ham, where Gabriele explained that the pigs used must be reared in the region and fed in a specific way. The pigs used each weighs between 150-180 kilos before they give up their back legs to the antipasti cause – each of these between 17-22 kilos. One of the big differences between prosciutto di Parma and normal prosciutto is the amount of salt used in the curing process. The salt is kept to a minimum and takes the professional that salts the hams ten years of training to qualify. The hams are salted on arrival, left for 24 hours, then washed down and salted again. They then go through various stages of hanging in different temperature and humidity-controlled rooms for 12 months, before being checked for quality and, if passed, stamped with the Parma branding. They are then cured for a further six to 12 months before being sold. Again, when you taste the difference between true Parma ham and normal prosciutto, you can definitely taste how much sweeter and less salty the more rigorously controlled product is.
And so to the end of a very educational and enjoyable day, and our time in the region. We couldn’t have asked for a more knowledgeable, or nicer, tour guide, and we leave appreciating the finer qualities of each of the cuisines even more.