Friday, April 27, 2007

Piedmont, pt.3; The hills are alive!

The hill towns of Piedmont continue to impress, and the people just seem to understand the finer points of living. Apparently the people of Monforte d'Alba, which just might be my new favorite town in the world, understand this perfectly. If there is anything better than rolling out of bed, wandering down to the local café and slamming a quick espresso while standing at the bar, listening to the locals chatter away in Italian, especially after a night of yet more indulgence, I can't imagine what it could be. Then strolling down to the mercato, having the cute-as-a-bug girl behind the meat and cheese counter sample you on some mind-bendingly good local formaggio di Piemonte and house made salumé, which of course you have to buy in quantities you know you'll never get through. All of this remarkably taking place before 8:30! And did I mention the view out of the window while I type this......
So life is rolling along nicely on day four of our excursion. Yesterday was quite pleasant, the perfect vacation day. We left the Paitin's in Alba, and drove through various too quaint hill towns on our way to Monforte d'Alba. The sun is shining down, maybe 85 degrees, and we are on our way to a meeting with the Elio Grasso family, who not only produce some of Piedmont's finest Barolos, Barberas and Dolcettos, but who have also kindly offered to put us up for a couple of nights at a hotel in Monforte. Who are we to say no? Our hotel is spectacular, a brand new in a centuries old abbey kind of place, our "room" having a separate bedroom, kitchen, balcony, and brick terrace high on the hill, with an exquisite view of the vineyards and faraway hill towns (see above). Quite possibly the nicest hotel either w or I have stayed in. I would almost expect the next time I see this hotel to be in Travel and Leisure.

After settling into our room, we drive out to the Grasso's where son Gianluca and his mother Marina, two truly gracious and kind people, are taking us on a tour and tasting at their estate. If ever you want to see the quintessential Italian wine estate, this would be it.
Gianluca explaining nature to w.

The Grasso's cave, the only one of its kind in the Piedmont.

Gianluca took us into the winery, through their newly dug, and absolutely stunning cave, which winds under the hill above the house. The cave was a high tech wonder that looks like something out of a James Bond movie. We rounded one corner where there were stacks of unlabeled bottles. Looking at the plaque underneath, I see it says they are all 2003 Casa Maté Barolo. I have to say there is something very impressive about seeing ten thousand bottles of one single-vineyard Barolo piled up in one place!
"10,000 bottles of barolo on the wall, 10,000 bottles of Barolo, take one down, pass it around......"

Then it was a sit down with mama, who led us through a sampling of their reds. A freshly fruity Dolcetto, a much more serious Barbera, and their three single vineyard Barolos from the yet to be released 2003 vintage. Incredible juice!

We bid farewell to the Grasso's after making plans to meet Gianluca and his wife for lunch the next day (today), and took a much needed nap before the search for food continued. We had asked Gianluca where we should go for dinner, and he and Marina both recommended the restaurant run by the hotel we are staying in as probably the best restaurant in town. We dressed, wandered down to the place, checked out the menu which looked wonderful, but it was kind of expensive, a bit more formal than we wanted, so we took a pass and hoped we'd find something more suited to our mood. We passed by a tiny osteria whose menu looked enticing, but they appeared closed. At 7:45 not a light was on in the place and it was supposed to open at 8:00. Very disappointed, we decided to jump in the car and drive down the road to Dogliani, but as we were heading out of town, we took one last pass by the was open! Hooray!

The Osteria del Catari proves once again that in a country, and province, totally dedicated to the production and enjoyment of good food and wine, you don't need to spend a ton of money to eat really well. We wander in to Catari, which is housed in a five hundred year old building with atmospheric dark wood ceiling beams and stucco and brick walls, and are led upstairs to our table. Once again, even at 8:15, we are the first ones there, but the place quickly fills up. The menu looks fantastic, the wine list is once again stupidly affordable, so off we go. First up, a bottle of cold, fresh Arneis, quickly becoming my white of choice on this Piedmontese adventure. Our antipasti arrives, an artichoke gratin in a creamy, not-too-heavy sauce that is just the thing to rev up the appetite. Then comes two primis, one a maltagliati (broken) pasta with artichoke, wonderfully flavored. The star of this course though was a fabulous risotto di Barbera, a beautifully colored reddish-purple, rich, and savory plate of grainy goodness.
Risotto di Barbera d'Alba

Made with the local Barbera d'Alba and stirred with what I'm guessing was veal stock, this was incredible. Anticipating the arrival of the risotto, I also had ordered a bottle of Vietti 2001 "La Crena" Barbera d'Asti, a sensational single-vineyard Barbera that I had had back home, one of my favorite red wines in the world, a wine that wholesales for for $35 in Portland, and of course is on their list at about $28. Wow! And also just about perfect with the risotto.

w was questioning my wisdom at insisting on two secondis, reasonably postulating that maybe we should eat a bit less for one night. But things were rolling along promisingly, and what if we missed something really good....the horror! Besides, the thing in Italy seems to be that everyone eats a LOT. Tables around us, filled with people who weren't morbidly obese, were ordering an antipasti, primi, secondi, and dessert...per person! And yet nobody was grossly overweight, even though they seemingly eat like this regularly. If you don't order in this manner, your server looks at you like you're from Mars...or America. How can this be? How can they eat like this night after night? Why aren't there bodies stacked up outside the restaurants, people who had one last course, stepped outside, suddenly found their arteries in full revolt and collapsed on the spot? Oh, wait, that's right....the one thing you don't see in this picture is a pair of golden arches every few miles. No KFC, no BK, no Taco Hell. Just meat and produce picked from the land, people...young, old, in-between.... actually walking around their villages, up and down the hills from home to market and back, kids who still go outside to play rather than sitting zombie-like in front of their TVs. Gee, it all seems so simple, doesn't it?

Our secondis that were delivered were wonderful, particularly w's tender, meat-falling-off-the-bone duck leg. My pork was also good, but had an oddly mixed reduced sauce of small, somewhat bitterly seeded berries and a hint if vinegar in the reduction that fought with the richness that I'm sure they were looking for. For dessert we shared a somewhat ice-crystally vanilla gelato with fragoli (strawberries) that had obviously sat in the freezer a bit long. I suppose it can't all be perfect. But it was all pretty damn good!

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