Where to stay
Cascina Langa Located in the higher Langhe hills, known as Alta Langa, at an altitude of 720m, this former farm is surrounded by hectares of hazel groves and woodland. Famous for being a hiding place for partisans during the Second World War, as described by writer Beppe Fenoglio in his book Johnny the Partisan, the three original buildings form a courtyard with panoramic views, a spa and in-house dining facilities upon reservation. Doubles from £128. Via Cappelletto 36, Trezzo Tinella, 00 39 173 630537, cascinalanga.it
Corte Gondina Boutique Hotel Enchanting small boutique hotel in La Morra, one of Langhe’s prettiest little towns. There are 14 rooms, all individually furnished with great attention to detail, plus a garden, swimming pool and the possibility of a private spa with exclusive use – perfect for a romantic break. Doubles from £107. Via Roma 100, La Morra, 00 39 173 509781, cortegondina.it
Réva Resort Modern and sleek hotel surrounded by organic vineyards. Dinner at their Michelin-starred restaurant FRE –brainchild of chef Yannick Alléno – is a must. Make sure you order the game or one of the freshwater fish dishes – the chef’s true passion. Doubles from £213. Località San Sebastiano 68, Monforte d’Alba, 00 39 173 789269, revamonforte.com
Ristorante Albergo Dimora Storica Felicin Family-run restaurant with rooms in the heart of Monforte, boasting superb views of the Langhe hills. They offer four different types of accommodation, including rooms and apartments, but the most charming is the historical 18th-century villa, where everything is about old-fashioned opulence. The long list of facilities includes a lovely garden, sun lounge, swimming pool and a top-notch dining room. Doubles from £128. Via Vallada 18, Monforte d’Alba, 00 39 173 78225, felicin.it
Uve Rooms & Wine Bar The eight high-tech, sleek rooms –furnished by local craftsmen and artist Cristina Pas – are each named after a wine of the Langhe region. As well as the wine bar, there’s an in-house gourmet restaurant serving regional classics. Doubles from £143. Via Umberto I 13, La Morra, 00 39 173 50740, uvelanghe.it
Langhe is an hilly winemaking area of Piedmont in Northern Italy, which is flecked with pretty villages such as Monforte with its open-air auditorium, Serralunga, Barolo (home of the famous wine) and Neive, one of the country’s most beautiful. Alba, a medieval maze of brick towers and narrow alleys, is its main hub. Currency is the euro and time is one hour ahead of GMT. Flights from the UK to either Turin or Milan take just under two hours. From there, it’s one to two hours by car to Alba, and there is also a regular train service. A car is recommended for exploring and travel time between villages is around 20 minutes.
British Airways flies twice a day from London Gatwick to Turin (Torino) Airport and from Heathrow to Milan Malpensa several times a day.
easyJet offers daily flights to Milan from Gatwick and Luton.
Visit Langhe is the area’s official tourist office and has a host of information and suggested itineraries to help plan your trip.
Visit Italy, the national tourist board, is also worth a look.
Where to eat
Prices are per person for three courses (excluding drinks), unless stated
Campamac Osteria Gourmet High-end bistro by chef Maurilio Garola and entrepreneur Paolo dalla Mora. Sicilian chef de cuisine Alessandro Capalbo’s terrine of guinea fowl and foie gras is worth a visit alone. Meat is the speciality, but a fish menu is available Friday to Sunday, with catches from Sanremo and the Adriatic Sea. From £38. Strada della Valle 1, Barbaresco, 00 39 173 635051, campamac.com
La Ciau del Tornavento Housed in a former nursery school in the village of Treiso, Maurilio Garola’s Michelin-starred restaurant is one of those essential addresses to get acquainted with the local cuisine. Try La Piemontese, lightly smoked milk-fed veal breaded in grissini, with Asiatic salad and hazelnut cream, or La Finanziera, a dish made with veal entrails, which is as Piedmontese as it gets. Ask to pop down to see their wine cellar, boasting over 60,000 bottles from some 450 winemakers. Five-course tasting menu, from £76. Piazza Baracco 7, Treiso, 00 39 173 638333, laciaudeltornavento.it
La Piola Traditional Piedmontese dishes are given a modern twist in this casual bistro led by chef Dennis Panzeri. Highlights include homemade agnolotti with roasted veal sauce, and hazelnut cake with hazelnut ice cream. Expect first-class ingredients: the suppliers are the same as for Piazza Duomo (see below) on the floor above, and the greens come from the same biodynamic garden. From £30. Piazza Risorgimento 4, Alba, 00 39 173 442800, lapiola-alba.it
La Terrazza da Renza A perfect spot for an alfresco lunch or merenda sinoira, the locals’ afternoon meal, with cold dishes such as bean salad and veal tartare. Selection of cold antipasti, from £23. Via Vittorio Emanuele 9, Castiglione Falletto, 0039 173 62909, laterrazzadirenza.it
Osteria da Gemma A meal at Gemma is a key part of any visit to the area – her earthy cuisine will leave you as happy as a kid. The only problem you might face, will be managing to finish everything included in the fixed menu, which hasn’t changed in over 30 years. Booking essential. From £25. Via Guglielmo Marconi 6, Roddino, 00 39 173 794252
Osteria More e Macine A wide variety of typical, fair-priced dishes, along with an excellent wine selection. There’s also a small outside dining area. From £21. Via XX Settembre 18, La Morra, 00 39 173 500395
Osteria dei Sognatori There’s no menu in this popular place in the heart of Alba – you get whatever is available from the kitchen. Be careful not to fill up on the antipasti as there’s plenty of deliciousness to follow. A place full of character, where walls are bedecked with football memorabilia and vintage pictures of wartime partisans. No reservations taken, but you can beat the queues by showing up bang on opening time (currently 12pm and 7.30pm) to secure a table. From £17. Via Macrino 8, Alba, 00 39 333 712 4121
Piazza Duomo Book a table in the soft pink dining room, decorated with dreamlike frescos by artist Francesco Clemente, and let chef Enrico Crippa deliver you the meal of a lifetime. From a series of creative finger-food options to his famous signature salad, the herbs, flowers and plants of his biodynamic garden will accompany you throughout the meal. Everything is impeccable – as you would expect from a three-star Michelin restaurant – but also very unpretentious, and that’s the pleasant surprise. Restaurant manager Vincenzo Donatiello also happens to be one of the Italy’s top sommeliers, so let him guide you through their excellent wine list. Choose between two degustation menus: Eight-course Viaggio (Journey), £228 (excluding drinks), or the new ten-course Barolo, £423 (including wine pairing). Piazza Risorgimento 4, Alba, 00 39 173 366167, piazzaduomoalba.it
- Agnolotti del plin
- Plin means ‘pinch’ and these tiny stuffed pasta parcels are made with flattened dough, which is pinched to enclose fillings that vary from roasted meat to vegetables, particularly cabbage
- Italian wine par excellence, obtained solely from nebbiolo grapes (see below). It requires three years of ageing, of which a year and a half must be in oak wood. The wine is pleasant to drink after being aged for four to six years; it’s at its peak after ten and remains excellent even after 20 years or more
- Dessert made with amaretti biscuits, eggs, milk, sugar, chocolate and hazelnuts that was served at banquets as far back as the 13th century. Its name comes from the Piedmontese word bonet – hat – probably because of the copper mould it was cooked in
- Carne cruda all’albese
- Hand-chopped, tartare-like antipasti. The best is made with the local Fassona beef
- French term for a vineyard or group of vineyards of superior quality. Although Italy has no official cru system in place, in recent years an added geographical mention has been allowed to be included on the wine label. In Piedmont, Barolo and Barbaresco have mapped out their grand crus by geography to create vineyard delineations similar to the French system
- Medium-sized sheep breed found in the higher Langhe hills. Almost extinct at the beginning of the 21st century, langarola is popular again thanks to the effort of the Slow Food organisation, which promotes local produces such as Toma di Murazzano cheese, made from their milk
- Merenda sinoira
- An afternoon meal so rich that it can substitute dinner. It originates from an old rural tradition that goes back to the times when farmers would work in the fields until well after sunset and women would arrive with something to eat around mid-afternoon, to keep them going
- The oldest indigenous black grape variety in Piedmont. Its name comes from nebbia, a mist that frequently cloaks the Langhe hills, especially in the autumn, when nebbiolo is harvested. Late-developing and hyper-sensitive, this is a prima donna vine that requires constant tending. Barolo and Barbaresco are its most famous offspring
- Handmade, yolk-yellow egg noodles that are fabulously rich and topped with melted butter, meat sauces or porcini mushrooms
- Tonda gentile trilobata
- The Piedmontese hazelnut, so-called because of its perfectly round shape. It’s easy to peel and can be stored for long periods without losing its character. Used in a variety of confections, from Gianduiotto to torta di nocciole (hazelnut cake)
- Vitello tonnato
- Sliced cold veal and tuna sauce, one of the most popular dishes of the area
Food and Travel Review
The first impression of the Langhe region is an indelible one: postcard-pretty medieval villages and castles, like islands in a rolling sea of hills and vines. The effect is only reinforced by the colours of early autumn – the yellows, the reds – and mist known as nebbia slowly curling through the vineyards.
This corner of Piedmont is an enclave that is virtually self-contained. To the north and west you have the dramatic backdrop of the Alps, with the distinctive shape of Monviso standing out on clear days. To the north-east, the flatlands of the Vercelli province, home to one of Italy’s main rice-growing areas. To the south, the peaks of the Apennines and, beyond, the Ligurian Sea.
It takes very little time to learn that food is a serious affair here. It’s a land of plenty, whose culinary richness goes back to the sumptuous banquets of the days when Italy had a royal family. The Savoy dynasty first got a foothold in Piedmont in the 11th century, leaving a legacy of earthy dishes with a distinctive, French touch.
In more recent times, the area has given birth to a series of enlightened entrepreneurs who have each had a big impact on the culinary scene. In the 1980s, food and wine journalist Carlo Petrini founded the Slow Food movement in reaction to the creeping influence of the fast food way of life that was seen to be threatening Italy’s traditions. Twenty-one years later, Oscar Farinetti opened the first Eataly in Turin – not just a store, but a place to learn about food, which now counts 40 locations worldwide, including London. And not forgetting the late Michele Ferrero – father of internationally appreciated delights from Nutella to Kinder Chocolate – who is still regarded with the utmost pride and affection by locals.
No wonder these people are so particular about what’s on their plate – and in their glass, of course. The charming little towns of Barolo and Barbaresco are famous the world over for having given their names to two of Italy’s finest reds. The area’s viticulture expertise goes back to pre-Roman times, when these hills were a place of trade and exchange between the Celts and the Etruscans.
Wineries are as diverse as the wines they produce: there’s the aristocratic allure of Marchesi di Gresy, whose Martinenga cru is regarded as one of the Langhe’s finest, producing a spectacular Barbaresco; then there’s the design extravaganza of L’Astemia Pentita, ‘the repentant teetotaler’, where the tasting rooms resemble two gigantic wine cases. The futuristic L’Acino is another unmissable one: a large transparent bubble on an oak platform, dramatically suspended over the vineyards below, in the Monsordo Bernardina estate belonging to the Ceretto winemaking family. Not to mention Barbaresco’s magnificent Enoteca Regionale, housed in a former 18th-century church, which is possibly one of the most beautiful wine shops in the world.
Innovation is not restricted to contemporary design and landscape architecture, though. It is also about the way a new generation of winemakers is managing their estates, with an increasing desire for sustainability. ‘Wines should tell more about the vineyard they came from, rather than the winemaker. We want to achieve a result that is as close as possible to nature,’ says Federico Ceretto, one of the most prominent producers of the area. The Langhe’s noble reds have a strong bond with the earth, with the ability to capture the scents of the land they come from, from the summery fragrances of rose petals and red berries to the autumnal smell of hazelnuts and mushrooms. It’s all in the glass.
For a parable of this territory’s recent history look no further than the Ceretto family’s constant strive for excellence. Around 60 years ago, Federico’s father Bruno embarked on his first journey to America with 12 bottles of red in his suitcase. Nobody really knew Barolo back then – and it was far from being the harmonious, luscious wine it is today. Twenty years later, he and his brother Marcello were crowned the Barolo Brothers, appearing on the front cover of Wine Spectator. Not that international recognition meant they could rest on their laurels. It was time to set about reshaping the region to create new landmarks, unleashing their passion for architecture and art. One example is the Barolo Chapel, which was being used as a storage space; it was turned into a work of art thanks to the vision of artists Sol Lewitt and David Tremlett. ‘Sol did not want money. He asked to be paid in Barolo, so a bottle was delivered to his place every Sunday for the rest of his life,’ recalls Federico, while pouring us a glass of his rich and enveloping wine. ‘This is the magic of our territory, I guess.’
Food was the last piece of the puzzle
With Bruno setting off again, this time on the hunt for the right chef for the restaurant he had in mind, housed in a palazzo on Alba’s cathedral square. The quest ended in Lombardy, where chef Enrico Crippa was working at the time. The first dish he put on the table was enough to persuade the entire family they had found ‘the one’.Piazza Duomo’s first Michelin star came just a year after its opening. Since 2012, it’s been Piedmont’s only three-starred restaurant.
Enrico is a man of few words – completely absorbed in his own magical world, as you might expect an artist to be. His routine starts at the crack of dawn with a trip to his vegetable garden, a wonderland of over 400 plant species, where he carefully selects the ingredients he needs for the day ahead.
His signature 21…31…41…51… salad is quite extraordinary, its name deriving from the number of greens it contains. When we had it, there were around 100 herbs and flowers, but the figure can go up to 126, depending on the season. There’s no need for additional seasoning – all the flavour is in the vegetables, from the tangy taste of sorrel to the piquancy of red mizuna and peppery nasturtium. The delicious contrast of salty, bitter, sweet and fresh is pure pleasure for your taste buds. Only when you reach the bottom do you find the umami dashi, which you can drink to refresh your palate. Enrico himself describes it best: ‘It’s like falling face down in a meadow. First you see the flowers, then the herbs. Then you feel the earth, you go deeper and you reach the sea.’
Apulian chef Pasquale Làera is the new kid on the block to look out for. Immersed in the peaceful countryside near Monforte (a 30-minute drive south of Alba), his restaurant Borgo Sant’Anna was awarded its first Michelin star last autumn, a year after its opening. A former sous of famed Piedmont chef Antonino Cannavacciuolo, Pasquale combines his passion for the south with an insatiable desire to explore the culinary treasures of his adoptive region.
‘I want to evoke memories and emotions,’ he explains while serving his Langhe-inspired chef’s welcome.
And what a beautiful homage to this territory it is, from ‘grape leaves’ made with peas and sharp Castelmagno cheese to a ‘caper’ that is actually a soft and moist Bra sausage, and a little truffle made with liver pâté and porcini powder. Then there’s his delicious Piedmontese fritatta, his own version of a traditional cold chicken salad: a full-flavoured and yet delicate pudding that is beautifully presented inside an egg shell.
Felicin is another go-to in Monforte. This family-run restaurant with rooms has been a reliable address for the past four generations. ‘Some of our customers come here because their grandparents used to. I don’t know how many people must have sat there,’ says chef Leonardo Rocca, pointing at the upholstered chairs in the red dining room. The mountainous swirl of tajarin (Piedmontese for taglioni) served with the most delicious of tomato sauces is possibly the best in the region. Their pasta is thinner than usual, of a melt-in-your-mouth consistency, and requires expertise in the making – ‘just a brief contact with boiling water to rehydrate it,’ explains Leonardo.
You don’t need to book into fancy eateries to taste the best of the region, and the less formal trattorias are arguably the places to eat if you want to say you’ve really been to the Langhe. Osteria da Gemma in Roddino, a village some 20km south of Alba, is one of these institutions, and Gemma Boeri is one of the region’s most beloved women. Her strong arms have been kneading pasta dough every Thursday for the past 40 years. ‘I cook the same Sunday meals my mother used to make,’ she shrugs while serving us a generous portion of yolk-yellow agnolotti del plin, comforting little pasta parcels. In times when menus change at the speed of light, Gemma’s has always been the same, a comforting fact that is clearly appreciated: the waiting list is months-long and the ubiquitous photos of celebrities and politicians reveal this simple establishment is in great demand.
La Terrazza da Renza in Castiglione Falletto is another customary stop. Renza has been serving cold starters on checked tablecloths for most of her life. The magnificent view from its terrace is perfect for a merenda sinoira, an afternoon meal (in case what you had for lunch wasn’t enough!), and Renza’s carne cruda (steak tartare) is just delicious, especially when it’s topped by precious truffle shavings – another Langhe obsession.
It’s easy to see why. The musky aroma and earthy flavour can turn any traditional dish into a gourmet experience. That’s why locals shred it on anything from eggs to Fassona beef tartare. Extremely expensive (last year, a lot weighing 900g was won by a Hong Kong entrepreneur for the incredible sum of £85,000), tartufo is also short-lived. ‘It only lasts the time of a rainbow and it has to be enjoyed like one,’ cautions Mauro Carbone, head of the National Centre for Truffle Studies.
If you find yourself in Piedmont during the autumn, you should be able to catch the annual Fiera del Tartufo, the world’s oldest truffle fair, where the hypogeal mushrooms are auctioned in the finely decorated Hall of Masks of the Grinzane Cavour castle. The white variety is harvested from September to December with the help of truffle dogs that have completed their training in Alba’s Truffle Dog University. Yes, that’s right – that’s how passionate these people are about the truffle business. Indeed, the century-long orally transmitted knowledge behind truffle hunting has been nominated for Unesco Intangible Cultural Heritage status, with the decision due to be made in Paris this coming December.
There is, however, an even more expensive delicacy that is harvested in October: saffron, the ‘red gold’. It first started to bloom in a little field in the heart of the Langhe thanks to the efforts of Roberto Lembo and Furio Dutto. ‘It’s rather because of my craziness,’ exclaims Roberto, laughing. ‘Only a crazy person could think of growing saffron in the land of Barolo!’
In fact, it all happened by chance. Roberto purchased a small plot of land in 2011 that was too big to be a vegetable garden and too small for everything else. ‘My wife wanted to plant some tulips, but as it turned out, I bought the wrong bulbs,’ continues Roberto.
I had actually met a saffron producer during a journey to Alsace and his story intrigued me. Then, a few months later, I found I’d grown saffron flowers instead of tulips. So it was probably meant to be.
This is how Safranum was born, and these ‘amateur saffron growers’, as they modestly refer to themselves, produce over 1kg saffron per year – around enough for 100,000 risottos – which involves planting 90,000 bulbs and hand-picking 150,000 flowers. Apart from the backbreaking work of the harvest, their saffron is otherwise low-maintenance for the rest of the year, and the soil is so rich in minerals they don’t need to fertilise it. Tried and tested by the likes of René Redzepi of Noma in Copenhagen, the quality of the saffron is said to be outstanding. Like just about everything else growing out of this land, in other words.
Words and photography by Marina Spironetti.
This feature was taken from the October 2021 issue of Food and Travel. To subscribe today, click here.
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