HOW TO COOK ITALIAN, AND LOOK GREAT: PART II

AND THIS IS WHAT HAS MADE ROERO KNOWN

Vineyards from Mompellini, Canale, Roero
Vineyards from Mompellini, Canale, Roero
Rows & rows of fine grapes almost ready to become wine
Rows & rows of fine grapes almost ready to become wine
A grape of red Roero
A grape of red Roero
Vineyards from Mompellini, Canale, Roero
Vineyards from Mompellini, Canale, Roero
A grape of white Arneis, the most sought after wine of this area
A grape of white Arneis, the most sought after wine of this area

Let’s talk about the cuisine in Langhe and Roero, but mostly Roero, and why it is unique.

Roero is a small wine district in Piedmont, in the North West of Italy: it is squeezed between the cities of Asti (Monferrato), Turin (the Western Alps) and Alba (Langhe). Roero does not have an opening on the Mediterranean sea: the Maritime Alps, and the province of Liguria, stopped “Roerini” short of fresh seafood.

Roero borders two better known wine districts: Monferrato, home to the “Barbera d’Asti” and the “Moscato d’Asti”, and Lange, where Barolo and Barbaresco are made.

Roero is not very well known: most foreigners, and some Italians believe that Roero is part of the Langhe, which it is definitely not. It’s very distinctive cuisine, which Roero shares, with minor modifications, with Langhe and Monferrato, is also normally put in the wider pot of Piedmonts’.

We can only speculate on why this is so: most facts and figures of Roero’s past where passed on by word-of-mouth. The area has never been rich enough to warrant the permanent establishment of any important lord, and of its cohort of scribes, poets, artists and painters. So nobody bothered writing about Roero except to document some inheritances or bills of sale.

Thus we will guess, speculate, and freely interpret what other, more learned historians, may have written of Roero, to try to explain why the area is lo little known and, when it is, why its believed to be part of the better known Langhe, sometimes even Monferrato, and why some of its cuisine is unique.

Why is Roero only known by a few an how was its cuisine influenced: the introversion of its people.

One reason Roero is little known, but by no means the only one, is because its people are introvert, shy, unpretentious, and have a tendency not to bolster of their successes. Roero has left to others the glory of its products, and of its cuisine, content in the knowledge that foreigners liked it, unconcerned that this same people could take credit for their imagination, initiative and hard labour. Take the wines: Roero’s reds, generically called “Roero”, are not as well know as their cousins, Barolo and Barbaresco, even thought they shares the same grape variety, Nebbiolo; the “Barbera” produced in Roero is called “Barbera d’Alba”; and the best and smellier white truffles, for which Alba enjoys a worldwide reputation, are said to be found here, in Roero’s “Rocche” (abrupt, vertical cliffs of grey and blue limestone, mixed with sand). Ok, this may be pushing it a little, because the people being absolutely certain that the best truffles are found here, in Roero, are Roero’s truffle hunters, the “trifulau”.

When known at all, Roero is nowadays associated with the “Arneis”, its popular white dry, and sometimes with its once famous peaches.

The Arneis is a wine which has seen glory and hardship throughout its history: protected by law as an important local crop in Medieval times, it became a favourite sweet white in the late ‘700, than a vermouth of lesser importance in the ‘800, to being almost forgotten as a drink in the ‘900. Earlier in the last century its use was restricted to a few trees planted in vineyards because the Arneis sweet berries kept bees and other nuisances off the more precious Nebbiolo.

Only Sergio the owner of the “La Trifula Bianca”, a well known restaurant in Vezza d’Alba (which, notwithstanding its name, is located very much in Roero) kept producing its own Arneis in the sixties and seventies, and serve it to his guests. By luck, or because of the excellent reputation this restaurant head in those days, one famous Italian journalist, Veronelli stopped for dinner one evening, sampled the wine, and liked it so much that he could not stop writing about it. All of a sudden the fortunes of the Arneis were about to change, helped also by some prescient wine dealers, the occasional foreign wine lover, but mostly tourists (Swiss of German tongue) which, at about the same time, started visiting the area, and purchase all available tumbled down farm houses, refurbished them, and then spend their holidays in. In the process, not having to labour the land to sample its fruits (they had a job elsewhere after all) they enjoyed, loved, and talked about the local food and wines: they brought them home for their family and friends to taste, and made them famous outside of Italy. Roero Arneis fortunes changed to the point in which it’s name is now solidly associated with Roero, and the main source of revenue for its wine makers.

The “Peaches of Canale” are another crop which is specifically identified with Roero, but whose fortunes have faded in time: contrary to what has happened to the Arneis, though, this crop has not rebounded yet.

The origins of this great fruit, as it relates to Roero, are traced back to the end of the 18th century, when the wines grown here were hit pretty hard by a spell of bad weather which lasted too long, and by a disease, the phyloxera, who contributed to the obliteration of its wine’s rootstock (and of that one of almost all of Europe). “Roerini” were frantically looking for alternative crops to replace the lost ones. In 1885 their fortunes changed somewhat: Ettore Ferio, a lawyer, and an agronomist living in Vezza d’Alba, planted a few peach trees in his back yard. They grew fast, and successfully, and the resulting peaches were excellent. This had to be the crop everybody was looking for. Soon every living soul in Roero started planting peach trees and selling peaches, and by 1906 seventy plus Ha of land were dedicated to the growing of this crop. Their sale on the local market and their export to Switzerland and France soon resulted in this produce being renown all over Europe. They were called “Le Pesche di Canale”. By 1920 more than a million Ha were cultivated this way.

Roerini had then plenty of peaches but had to import the wine.

Unfortunately other farmers in Europe, started doing the same. The rest of Europe’s vineyards, also hit hard by bad weather and diseases, were dying, and had to be replaced: given the success of Canale, peach trees was the obvious answer for the rest of Europe. Different variety of peaches, which better met the changing demand of the consumers, and increased competitions coupled with lower transportation costs, resulted in a severe decline of Canale as the supplier of peaches for all of Europe. The production peaked in the early 30’s, then started to decline. The crop was progressively replaced by, you have guessed it right, vineyards. Which was and is what the people of Roero lunged to go back to anyway.

The peaches of Canale are characterized by their white pulp. The better one, as well as the more renown, are the “Borlotto” and the “San Pietro” variety. The first variety is named after the farmer who first produced them, Achille Borlotto; the second one after the namesake saint. These two varieties ripen in July.

The “Giallo del Porretto” variety has a very characteristic yellow skin as well as a yellow pulp. It ripens in early August. The “Krummel October” variety, also a peach with yellow pulp, ripens in late September and early October.

What remains today of the famous peaches of Canale are but few fruit orchards tended by a handful of farmers, and a delicious dessert: “Pesche Ripiene” (Stuffed Peaches).

So, Roero is left with at least one dessert, out of all this, which is specifically associated with it: if it is true than one can prepare this delicacy with any peach fruit that can be easily split in two halves, it also true that it is only with Roero’s peaches that you can taste the real thing.

So, should we attribute the fact that the cuisine of Roero is unique, very traditional and little known outside of its closest neighbours because “Roerini” are, by disposition, shy and un-pretentious? That is certainly the case, yes, but not the only reason: geology, geomorphology, and plate tectonics have had a more direct influence on the cuisine of Roero.

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