HOW TO COOK ITALIAN, AND LOOK GREAT: PART III

Why is Roero only known by a few an how was its cuisine influenced: the influence of plate tectonics.

Roero is a very hilly place: geologists tell us that the great plate of Africa, fighting for space with the other great plate, the European one, was responsible for the shape Roero is in today. Firstly, these plates deeply wrinkled an otherwise flat countryside, content, once, to be under a very shallow and salty sea, and inhabited by fishes, urchins and shells; secondly, they caused a major split in the land, dividing Roero in two very different landscapes: the divider, a long and impressive gulch, called “le Rocche”, is really an abrupt cliff made of hard clay, sometime mixed with fine sand: it was apparently caused by a receding sea, and the resulting erosion of its beaches, and by the incoming rush of the waters of the Tanaro river. Here we must say that one of the author of this “How To” is a geologist: he does not concur with this interpretation about the formation of the “Rocche”. He believes that this abrupt cliff, more than forty kilometres long, and which beginning and end can not be associated with any brook, mountain river, flood or high rain, was caused by a major earthquake. But this is an “How to” cuisine book: we will leave this geological controversy for another time and, who knows, maybe another book.

East of the Rocche, the land is sinuous: craggy valleys, abrupt ravines, steep hills covered by vineyards, by orchards or by the occasional small, tightly packed, forest (and then, only where the land is too steep to bear anything but bushes and trees). Local farmers have made the best out of this land: whenever it could be done, they grew vineyards; when it was not possible to grow vineyards, they grew hazelnut trees (ever heard of “Nutella”?); when it was unfeasible to grow either, they planted vegetables gardens or fruit orchards. The land is too rough and jagged to have been ploughed with anything other than small tools: hoes, shovels, pickaxes, which had to be stored close to where they were needed. So each small plot had its own “Chabot” (tool-shed) who’s size and material’s gave a good indication of how wealthy the owner was: small, one storey, clapboard walls: pretty poor chaps; large, two storeys, bricks walls and tiled roofs: pretty well off people, gentry or even blue blood. The hills are dotted by small plots of land of every imaginable shape, but a regular one. Each of these plots was (and still is) owned by a different family, and was cultivated according to that family needs in time. Each hill becomes a season related, multicoloured patch-worked piece of art unique to this very small wine district. You will not see this beautiful a landscape nowhere else: not in Burgundy, not in Toscana, not in Umbria, and not even in Monferrato and Langhe (where the hills are gentler, the plots bigger, and all you see there are vineyards). You might see something beautiful elsewhere, but not like here.

West of the Rocche the hills are gentler: few vineyards there. Mostly vegetables and fruit orchards, hazelnut crops, some graze and grassland, the remnants of enormous, thorny, secular chestnut woods, bearer of chestnuts, and, in September and October, dark-brown ceps, true delicacies, and the fish ponds home to the “Tinca Gobba Dorata” (Golden Hunchbacked Tench).

These ponds, and the fish they sustain, are a demonstration of how inventive the “Roerini” could be given the land they had to live off. The land, being so rough, sustains no lakes nor rivers. Only man made ponds could hold the rainwater the peasants needed in times of drought. But if ponds could provide water for the crops in times of drought, why not provide their table with fresh fish as well? So they did farm fish, found out, experimenting, that the “Tinca Gobba Dorata” loved their ponds better than any other species, and a flock of new recipes were born using this fish as the main ingredient.

So, should we attribute the fact that the cuisine of Roero is little known outside of its closest neighbours because of plate tectonics? That is certainly the case, yes, but not the only one: Roero’s history is also to take some of the responsibility.

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