I roam through the Piedmont capital in search of nourishment
Having a husband whose dream is to watch his childhood love contending a sphere on green turf in black and white stripes is a blessing, especially when, Turin is the home of his innamorata. Hence, our first time in Turin was the fruit of my husband’s desire to watch La Vecchia Signora play in their new iconic stadium. I must admit I got a kick out of the two hour football game, and a greater one in the successive three days of culinary pursuits.
I consider myself not to be much of an urban animal; I’d rather wander in the countryside or in some quaint village but Turin has become one of my favourite Italian cities. Away from the ant-like hordes of tourists who invade Rome or the fashionistas parading in Milan, Turin is somewhat more tranquil. Its’ huge piazzas adorned with historical statues and buildings, with tables and chairs, forgathered in the shade, or under the archways, are the perfect points to get an eyeful of the surrounding architectural beauties. And if you are in Piazza San Carlo or Piazza Castello, sometime between six and nine in the evening, I suggest you sit down to enjoy an aperitivo in one of the monumental cafes, maybe at Mulassano or Caffe Torino. This ritual of pleasure, consumed in the hours before dinner, has been the tradition for over 200 years in this city where Punt e Mes and Vermouth originated, following a recipe invented by the Carpanos, a family from Turin. Order a Martini, Campari or Negroni and stock up with the nibbles on display which will be free as long as you pay for the drink.
Strolling in the centre of Turin is an orderly process. Its’ streets, like a chessboard, all meet at right angles. As soon as you take your first steps you will perceive that this city is in love with chocolate. Elegant cafes with their luscious array of chocolate heaven on display in the windows say it all. You are in the city of the Giandujotto – the notorious ingot like chocolate, wrapped in gold or silver foil, made from a silky concoction of cocoa and the Tonda Gentile hazelnut of the Langhe area in Piedmont. Not only! In its plethora of cafes you will find a vast pick of other sweet delights like the amaretti, baci di dama (hazelnut biscuits with chocolate filling), marron glace (candied chestnuts), and many more. Many of these cafes produce their own pasticceria. If you prefer ice-cream, go to the historic gelateria in Piazza Carignano with the name of Pepino. There you cannot say no to the ‘pinguino’, an ice-cream lollipop covered with chocolate, offered in a variety of flavours including, obviously enough, gianduja.
But, I believe that your trip to Turin should start with a bicerin at Caffe al Bicerin. Situated in Piazza della Consolata, this tiny spot is regularly chock-full. Al Bicerin dates back to the 18th Century with wood-panelled walls, graced up with mirrors, and white marble-top tables. At the back, there is a solid, upstanding counter with an array of jars filled with colourful sweets. on the side, a display of freshly baked croissants, brioches, biscuits and torte rests appetizingly staring at you. We ordered the famous bicerin – a drink originally known as Bavereisa but changed its name when it started to be served in a stemmed glass with a metal base and a handle known as bicerin. This delectable drink is made from three gratifying layers – thick, melted, bitter chocolate;,an espresso shot and fresh cream. As you take your first sip, the cold fresh cream meets your lips then the hot chocolate follows. As the aromatic coffee invades your mouth a burst of gratifying sensations ensues. The bicerin is simply unique. So is the zabaione, I’ve learnt. The ladies at Bicerin beat fresh egg yolks at the moment, add marsala wine and cream and serve it with biscuits. It’s on my to-do-list for next time.
Turin is not only about chocolate and sweets. Its culinary charms served in the myriad of restaurants which populate the centre are a reflection of Turin’s love for home-bound cooking and its association with the Slow Food movement. The list of their speciality dishes is endless but I would start with the home-made pasta as it is divine and deserves priority. There is the tajarin al tartufo – fine and thin tagliatelle served with the pungent but aromatic white truffle from Alba, the tajarin are also served with a sausage ragout or chicken livers. Also the small pinched ravioli, known as agnolotti del plin, filled with a meat mixture and served with the gravy of roasted beef or simply with butter, sage and grated parmesan.
Tradition requests that meat is served either not cooked at all or slowly braised for hours in wine, like the enriching dish Brasato al Barolo where the beef is marinated and cooked in the chic Barolo wine. Or the Coniglio al Arneis, rabbit cooked in this indigenous white wine typical of Piedmont. You may frown at the thought of eating raw meat but the battuto di carne, served in many restaurants, is impressively flavourful. The meat, generally veal, is minced by hand and served either simply seasoned with salt and pepper and extra virgin olive oil, spring onions or a radish sauce. For the most adventurous, it can be enjoyed with a raw egg yolk on top. Good to remember, if you are reluctant to taste the raw meat, that the meat from the Piedmonts cattle (Fassone breed) is renowned as a fine product, and with very low cholesterol content too.
Other dishes worth attention whilst browsing through the inspiring menus in the restaurants of this gastronomic jewel are the bagna cauda – a creamy mixture of anchovies, garlic, olive oil and butter served hot with raw sticks of vegetables to dip in. Very popular is the vitello tonnato, cold veal slices drizzled with a tuna, mayonnaise, anchovy and caper sauce and the bollito, boiled meat served with salsa verde. Don’t miss to taste a risotto and grind with the crunchy grissini into some of the cheeses of the area like the Toma, and the Castelmagno.
Turin is also a heaven for wine lovers with areas in the Piedmont region producing a variety of wines including the Barolo, Barbaresco, Dolcetto d’Alba, Nebbiolo d’Alba, bubbly Asti, and the white Gavi and Arneis. I am not delving into the wine tasting routes and tantalizing cellar experiences this time round because of obvious article length limits.
Yes, excellent wines and ambrosial food make this Italian capital a place of culinary beauty. Stunned with history and culture, fit to be the residence of the Royal House of Savoy, Turin truly merits a visit!