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FOR GOURMET ONLY: HOW TO WINE AND DINE AND DON'T GET FAT IN ROERO
Roero, Southern Piedmont, Italy, is a small wine district squeezed between the cities of Asti, Turin and Alba.
It borders two better known constituencies: Monferrato, home to the “Barbera d’Asti” and the “Moscato d’Asti”, and Lange, where “Barolo” and “Barbaresco” are produced.
Roero is little known because it has always left to others the glory of its products, and of its cuisine. For instance, Roero’s red wines, generically called “Roero”, are not as well know as Barolo or Barbaresco even thought they shares the same grape variety, Nebbiolo; its “Barbera” 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 or blue soft limestone, and loose clay: home to the world best white truffles, according to Roero’s truffle hunters, the “trifulau”), and Vezza d’Alba, a small Roero’s village of 2,000 people.
When known at all, Roero is associated with the “Arneis”, its popular white dry. This wine, and the once famous peaches of Canale, are the only two things specifically identified with Roero. The Arneis has allowed every wine producer in the area to survive, and then prosper. Imagine how rich the place could be if its Barbera was called “Barbera del Roero”, or if the Truffle’s festival was held in Canale, instead of Alba.
Roero was discovered in the ’60, together with the Barolo and Barbaresco districts, by some prescient wine dealers, the occasional foreign wine lover, but mostly by German-speaking Swiss nationals, who did purchase all available tumbled down farm houses in the ’60 and ’70, to refurbished them and 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.
Still, even with the help of the Swiss, Roero is so little known that no city, village, camp or temporary settlement has yet been named “Roero” in the United States, a country where at least one “Rome” and one “Venice” is to be found in every one of its 50 states, and where the State of Texas has one city named Alba (renown, by the way, for its barbecued hog’s ribs).
LANDSCAPE AND FARMING
Roero’s hilly landscape is cut in two by le “Rocche”. Geologists tell us, that they were sculpted by the erosion caused by the a rapid receding sea, and the concurrent tumultuous coming of the Tanaro river, which happened around fifteen millions years ago.
The landscape is dotted my small plots of land of every imaginable shape, but a regular one. Each of these plots 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 it is here.
East of the Rocche, the land is sinuous with craggy valleys, abrupt ravines, steep hills covered by vineyards, by orchards or by the occasional small, tightly packed, forest (and then, only where the ground is too steep to bear anything but woodland). 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 threes (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.
West of the Rocche the hills are gentler: few vineyards here. Mostly vegetables and fruit orchards, hazelnut crops, some graze and grassland, fish ponds home to the “Tinca Gobba Dorata” (Golden Hunchbacked Tench). and the remnants of enormous, thorny, secular chestnut woods, bearer of chestnuts, and, in September and October, dark-brown ceps, true delicacies.
Thus, as far as the Roero cuisine is concerned we might expect to eat a lot of veggies, now even some bio-grown one, and to drink excellent red and white wines.
HOW TO MOVE AROUND AND HOW TO GET HERE
Be it politics, bad luck or, rough landscape, Roero has never been properly linked to the rest of the world. Its roads are narrow and windy, and, most often than not, lead to dead ends, or vineyards, except, of course, the Canale to Alba two lane paved thoroughfare. The area has been so isolated and forgotten that Internet almost passed by Roero ( eventually it got high speed internet access only in 2007, when 98% of Italy had already been wired, including the South).
There are no railway links in Roero, except between Alba, Bra, the most populated urban agglomeration in this part of the country, and of course, Asti.
To give you an idea of how bad getting here could be, try to go to Turin by train, from Canale, Roero’s most important village (with more than five thousand inhabitants), and the ideological centre of Roero’s wine business. You’d have to go to Alba first, by other means of transportation than by railroads, such as by bus, take the train to Bra, Cavallermaggiore or both, and connect to Turin. You will get to Portanuova, the main railway station in Turin, in about 11/2 to 2 hours, save any delays, for about € 9.00, return.
Getting in and out of Roero by train is not recommended.
Travelling by bus would be a better choice, but again only if the itinerary is between villages or bigger cities. For instance the trip from Canale to Turin would take no more than 1 hour, and you would get to Portanuova for less than € 6.00, return. Unfortunately, time tables are not available on internet, nor on the local newspaper, and bus stops are not well indicated. To know when and where to take the bus you’d have to speak a bit of the local language, enough to get understood anyway, and get the information from the local newspaper stand or tobacco shop: The owner will sell you a photocopy of a timetable, for twenty five cents of Euro, and will guarantee that this was photocopied just a few days ago, therefore a valid timetable.
So moving around by bus is not recommended either, nor are taxis, un-available, except in major centres such as Bra or Alba.
Since Roero’s villages and isolated farmhouses are today well connected by windy, narrow, but paved roads, a car is the recommended mean to move around. Contrary to common knowledge “Roerini” drive relatively well, are polite with fellow drivers, and are respectful of road rules. Except of course, speeding. As a matter of fact it is pretty easy to guess who’s driving a car: 90 miles per hour in a 30 miles per hours speed zone: Italian driver. 25 miles per hour in a 60 miles per hour stretch of road in the middle of nowhere: a tourist.
For one day’s tour of the area, one excellent way to visit Roero and Langhe on a sunny and warm day, is to rent a bike or a “Vespa” (a scooter). Vespa can be rented €100.00/day.
Should you choose to reach Roero by air, land in Turin or Milan and rent a car there. Turin’s airport, Caselle, is closer, 75 Km from Canale, but low-cost airlines may not fly there. Milan’s airport, Malpensa, is 170 km away. Most low cost airlines fly into and out of Malpensa.
Because of its isolation, Roero, inhabited since Roman times, has been invaded and conquered pretty late by historical standards; and has been mostly ignored by foreign powers.
Asti’s rich, powerful lords conquered the land in medieval times. The name, Roero, is associated with one of these families whose name was .. Roero. Most castles and “rocche” (watch towers) were built then, and are still here today, although in a worst shape they used to be then.
Only the French have deemed Roero important enough to be worth a fight. In the process they were beaten twice by Montà’s peasants before sending one of their most brilliant generals, Nicolas Catinat, in the late 1600’s, to kill everything in sight, and subdue the local population. Needles to say, historical revivals of these heroic times, recall only the first two attempts the French made to conquer the land.
When not fending off usurpers, lords, royalty, tax collectors, and the likes, “Roerini” were busy fighting the “Masche” (witches in the local dialect). In truth they were, and still are, ambivalent about them: both proud and in awe of their “Masche”. They remember their deeds, and celebrate the most popular of them every year.
A few “Roerini” have been irreverent with their “Masche”, have contributed in scaring kids off with dubious jokes and tricks, and may have been the precursors of the now famous “Halloween Parties” celebrated in North America and all over the place. It is well known that one of them “Roerini”, who lived in Canale in the early 50’s, used to carve large pumpkins, drill holes in them to make them look like humanoid, and then lit a candle inside. He would put this thing, surreptitiously and at night, at cross roads, and would make strange and frightening noises when people would pass by. Kids where nowhere to be seen in Canale the evenings and nights of 31st of October, and so were most adults.
Because of their isolation, Roero’s inhabitants have enjoyed more freedom than most; but they have also been less informed of events outside their immediate territory. This has left them wanting for information, as well as warmer than most toward foreigners who could let them know what it was that was happening elsewhere.
Visitors are always surprised by the warm greetings of “Roerini”, by their curiosity, their curtesy, and by their helpfulness.
Forced isolation also meant boring evenings which were spent most of the time with the same people telling one another the same boring stories. So, it was customary to meet friends and extended family members on Saturday evenings, especially during the cold days of winter, in the stable, which was the warmer place in the farmhouse, and sing. Some sang well and some sang out of tune, but sing they did. And at the end of the cold days of winter, right after Easter, the end of the fasting period, they would go out and “sing the eggs”.
WHAT TO DO IN ROERO
There are a number of good reasons to spend a week or two in Roero with family or friends: the place is beautiful, its people are warm and hospitable, the food is great, the wine’s excellent, and every season has something different and equally enticing to offer. To top it all, Roero is a very affordable place to spend one’s holidays.
Depending on the season, and, of course, the weather, one can trek, by foot, bike or motorbike, visit churches, castles and towers, go truffle hunting, mushroom picking, grape harvesting, wine tasting, get tanned, enjoy the scenery, go shopping, cook, eat and drink. Since some historic town, such as Alba, Asti and Turin are close by, a daily visit is a valid option.
As every village worth its name in the rest of the country, every Roero’s village has a castle, or an historic mansion, a watch tower, and at least one church. Each of these historic buildings may be in various state of preservation, that is, from almost complete ruin to good restoration. Furthermore they may be only seen from the outside, and, when possible to visit, check for opening and closing time, before embarking in your journey, because opening hours are not standards and sometimes subjected to whims of the keeper.
But history in Roero is not revisited as you are used to: the place was too poor, and too isolated, and too much out of the most important trading routes to have attracted poets, architects, lords, of any national or international fame, let alone scribes, or educated people, who could have documented in writing the passage of kings or the completion of master pieces. History in Roero was made by its peasants, their imagination, their fantasy, their hard work; it has been passed on by hearsay, by songs, some of which had been written down by some educated priest, who landed here by accident or bad luck, and most of which have been documented, recently, out of memory, and by the few commercial papers which have survived fires, and wars, and the inquisition, setting the rules for planting and harvesting of the most important crop, the grape, or the inheritance of land bearing the same.
So do not expect to visit a castle, and have the luxury of a guided tour by some erudite. Do not expect to be able to read the history of Roero from some miracle pocket book.
Expect the people of Roero to recount their history the best way they know how: by throwing a party, and by eating, drinking, singing and acting. And rest assured of one thing: “Roerini” know how to throw a party.
Since almost every village has something to tell or to show, whether it is the telling of a tale, the revival of customs and deeds, of victories or of defeats, past or present, some very special recipe you can truly enjoy “only here”, or some crop which taste or smell is unique, and is uniquely cooked, almost every village has a good reason to celebrate. And all locals are very, but very, proud of what they have to tell, and show, and offer. And they delight in assisting visitors; they want to make sure that you enjoy their bash, especially when you, the visitor, come from afar, speak a different language, and stutter a few words of Italian.
The festivities are generally set up by the “pro loco”, local organizations of young and older people whose scope in life is making you, the visitor, enjoy their village, their wares, their history. Locals take the opportunity to enjoy the festivities as well: by singing, dancing, dressing with costumes of the past, revive historic events significant to their village, serving you food and drinks from tents, stalls, caves, mobile houses, including brick built mobile ones, tractor’s carts, and cow-towed chariots. And, of course, by eating and drinking with you: because most of the time, not knowing what they have on offer, you will end up asking a local what it is that they are eating. They will then make sure that you seat with them, and by gesturing and mimicking, they will also make sure that you enjoy both your meal and your stay.
These events are truly unique and fun because, contrary to what you might expect elsewhere, they are organized, first, for the enjoyment of those making them happen, not for the money. And since locals are so proud of what they have done, they want to make sure that you, visitor, love it and will speak well of them, their hospitality, their village, their food, and their wines, and will come back.
Attendance is generally free of charge including parking. A nominal fee, in the order of four to five Euros is demanded for eating and drinking. Your contribution makes up most of the budget these people have available. Keep in mind that these happenings tend to take place in the evenings and are extremely popular: sometime you will have to park your car pretty far and then walk a kilometre or two to reach the centre of things. You get there late, there may be no food left. So make sure you arrive early enough not to have to walk a marathon or end up hungry and thirsty, or live late and bring your pick nick with you.
So, partying is one of the recommended ways to spend your time in Roero.
Also visiting wine cellars, sampling Roero’s wines, understanding why and how they are made, and aged, and how different or better they are with respect to our neighbours’, going to a local restaurant or “osteria” (old fashion, family owned, restaurant made famous worldwide by their chequered red and white tablecloths’, where older people play cards in the afternoon while drinking red wine) and sample our cuisine, possibly the very best and varied in Italy, trek in our vineyards or le “Rocche”, and get thoroughly lost in the process, feeding off the occasional cherry or apple or peach tree, or go window shopping in any of Roero’s open-air markets, go truffle hunting with our expert “trifulau”, attend to every one of our villages’ “feste patronali”(patron saint’s holiday and most of the time late evening parties), or learn how to make pasta, do it yourself, and then check how good you are at it by returning to a good restaurant, is a strongly recommended way to spend one’s time in Roero.
And you can still enjoy a day trip to the beach or the mountains, Roero being less than two hours away from both,
WHEN TO VISIT ROERO
Contrary to most vacation spots which offer one, but only one, good reason to be visited, such as ski spots, or beautiful sunny beaches, Roero has something different to offer every season of the year.
Late winter is when wine is bottled, whether it has aged 32 months like the “Roero Riserva”, a red variety, or just one winter, like the “Arneis” or “Favorita”, Roero’s white and dry wines.
So, sampling freshly bottled wine is one excellent way to spend one’s time in winter.
Spring is also when local start eating lighter food, such as “carne cruda” (Veal Carpaccio), and fresh vegetables. So going to your favourite restaurants is another excellent way to spend one’s time. Easter marks the end of the period of fast and the beginning of the pagan festivities: most villages have a good reason to throw a party in the street.
Summer is a quieter time of the year: “Roerini” go on vacation too. This is an excellent time to tour the area by car, foot, bicycle or motorbike. The few Roerini who spend their days off here will spend their time organizing village parties and partying. So you will not be able to rest, even in summer.
Autumn is when grapes are harvested, and truffles and mushrooms are found. A unique opportunity to check how your best wine maker, the one you buy the best wine from, is actually harvesting the grapes and preparing to make the juice become wine.
Read a few more stories about Roero on my next publications
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