Autumn in Piedmont

by M. L. Longworth

It was an unplanned mini-break; one of those last minute trips that turn out fantastic—not life changing, but almost. Inspiring, relaxing, good for the soul and body.

I had just turned in the manuscript for my eighth book and our daughter, Eva, who works in diplomacy in Paris, called to say she had a week off at the end of October. Should we do a quick trip somewhere? I was waiting for the copy edits to arrive from New York, so the timing was perfect. It was also a chance to spend a week with Eva, who, as a busy Parisian, has friends with whom she normally travels. Yes! I answered. We decided on Piedmont.

We love Italy, and can drive to Piedmont from our house in Provence (the end of October is the Toussaint holiday in France—All Saints’ Day). But here it’s a two week school vacation which makes it really hard to go away last minute. The French are VERY organized at vacation planning and they line things up months in advance, a lesson we found out the hard way years ago when we booked a last-minute apartment in Rome that smelled like cat pee (now we only reserve in Rome with an outfit called Romeloft.com. Highly recommended).

But our bible for travelling in Northern Italy is Faith Willinger’s 1998 book “Where to Eat in Italy.” I got it out and tried to reserve a few places near Alba, but guess what, it’s the white truffle season on top of being the Toussaint, and everything was booked. I re-read her chapter on Piedmont, and saw that she loves a place further north, in the Monferrato hills, a bed and breakfast, Azienda Agricola Il Mongetto, in the village of Vignale Monferrato. I contacted them and they had one room left. Hurrah! We drove most of the day, as we made a stop in the hills near Barolo, south of Alba; but those famed villages, although beautiful, were swarming with tourists (including Italian tourists), so we arrived in Vignale only around 7:00pm. Here’s the dining room, just before dinner:

For dinner it was candle-lit.

Our dinner, in typical Piedmontese style, was about eight courses (at the ravioli we realized that we were only half way through the meal, as it was only the pasta course!). Carlo, who runs the place (it’s his ancestral home) also makes very good Barbera wine. Sylvia, a woman from the village, works in the kitchen. The place was packed, with Italians (multi-generational at the big tables), the two of us, and a group of British wine enthusiasts. One of the desserts (there was also Sylvia’s chocolate cake) were these mini rum babas soaked in limoncello:

Our bedroom:

and our kitchen the next morning (we were given an apartment on the top floor) :

 

 

Talk about rustic charm! We were in love. Carlo made us an excellent breakfast (his bright-yellow scrambled eggs are the best I’ve ever had; he makes them using mostly the yolk—as Sylvia had used the egg whites the previous evening in her artichoke flans, covered in local melted cheese. That was course three…or four?)

We decided to walk that day, skipping lunch. Neither of us are very sporty, but the day was so warm and sunny, the fall colours so beautiful, that we decided to walk from Vignale to the next town, Camagna (a distance of about eight kilometers; it took an hour one way). The views:

Camagna in the distance, with its monumental church spire.

Walking into the village.

By the time we got to Camagna we were thirsty (still not hungry). Luckily, the village’s only bar was open and we each had a glass of Prosecco for three euros, with some peanuts. We sat outside and watched the villagers go about their business, and yearned after this lovely house across the street:

This is their terrace, through the blue door, with views off onto the Monferrato hills).

Back on the road, just past the cemetery…

…we came across a man picking crab apples. He waved and ran across the road and gave us a handful, explaining that the tree was on communal village land. We had snacks for our walk home, although bitter ones. This man would be just one of the very kind people we met that week, and we would run into him a few days later, on the same walk.

Back in Vignale we made friends with a local shop owner who sells local wines, food products, and vintage clothes! Eva tried on a few stellar leather and suede coats from the sixties, long and very fitted. Think Catherine Deneuve, or Jane Birkin. We also visited Vignale’s “Infernot,” a centuries-old cellar built into the rock cliff under the village; it was used for storing food and wine, or for the villagers to hide from attacking neighboring townsmen.

After another glass of Prosecco served, as with most aperitifs in Italy, with a generous selection of local cold cuts and focaccia, we wandered into a strange premises with a sign on the window: Biblioteca Privata. Enter Franco, owner of this private library, who has catalogued over five thousand books, some dating back to the 1600s. He doesn’t loan them out, but loves showing people around.

Eva and Franco (Eva’s face was still flushed from our walk, and the surprisingly sunny day!).

Franco’s wife is a psychiatrist, hence the Le Corbusier lounger next to his books! And, Carlo told us later that night, Franco is Vignale’s mayor.

Vignale may be our new favourite small town in Italy! Warm friendly people, a few local eccentrics, beautifully preserved architecture, and a good choice of trattorias and cafés. Perfect.

A street leading into town.

The view from Vignale’s highest point, the Belvedere.

The next day we decided to explore the surrounding villages, including visiting a few wineries. We were not disappointed and ended up meeting yet more great people (partly thanks to their excellent English, or French, and Eva’s Italian!). One of our most enjoyable stops was at a family winery called the Cascina Gasparda (Cascina is local dialect for ‘domaine’ or ‘farm’).

Brothers Roberto and Mauro make red wines out of the unsung varietals of Monferrato, including the more well known Barbera, but also light and fruity Grignolino and the even lesser known, and delicious Freisa that has a violet/rose bouquet. Roberto, who was a graphic designer in Milan for fifteen years before coming back home, spoke very posh English, thanks to a stint working in the UK, and later, Australia. Here he is with his wines:

And again the Piedmontese hospitality hit us, with Roberto’s mother who kept trying to feed us chunks of Parmesan cheese and bread sticks, even though we had pulled up in front of their house unannounced. The same thing happened the next day, when we visited, by chance, the winery Canato, where the wine-maker’s 91-year-old father had just celebrated his 72nd harvest. He was in fine form, and kept calling us bella donnas.

Wine and food are all-important in the Monferrato hills, and the cuisine somehow feels so autumnal (in its richness and warmth?). And most of the restaurants we went to, even small ones, offered dozens and dozens of local wines, which is a real joy:

In a nearby village, Calliano, at the Osteria L’Antico Granaio. One of our best meals; very refined. All local ingredients and products.

Inside the Osteria L’Antico Granaio, featuring the red-brick vaulted ceilings present in many Piedmontese interiors:

We didn’t just eat and drink! Honest! One day we drove to a medieval abbey, Santa Maria at Vezzolano, but Eva took the photographs that day. And on our next-to-last day we re-did our walk to Camagna, where our crab-apple friend pulled over his car so that he could properly chat with us, and the vintage clothing boutique owner did the same when she drove by, and the waitress and cook at Camagna’s only restaurant, La Rocca, chatted with us for a half an hour after our lunch, amazed that we had walked there, and so charmed by a young blond Parisian who speaks Italian. Mama (me that is) looked on, beaming! and once again, with a very full stomach. But most of all, so happy to have spent a week with my daughter in such a beautiful part of the world, where people know true generosity and kindness. Piedmont, you are amazing.

One last view on the road between Vignale and Camagna:

Our favourite places:

To stay:

Dré Castè, Azienda Agricola Il Mongetto: www.mongetto.it

Azienda Agricola Cascina Gasparda: www.cascinagasparda.com

To Eat:

Dré Castè (especially if you have a room there) in Vignale.

Trattoria Serenella on the main square in Vignale.

La Rocca di Camagna in Camagna.

Osteria L’Antico Granaio in Calliano.

Wineries:

Il Mongetto

Cascina Gasparda

Canato