I've always had a fascination with the way some people obsess with the notion of matching wine with food. During one memorable discussion long ago, I was told that lobster and wine don't really go together because the claws and tail call for different wines. Not everybody thinks this way and several recent meals in Italy's Piedmont region seemed to prove the point.
As so often happens in places where there's a long and historic wine tradition, the Piemontese don't really bother with wine matching at all. Instead, they choose a bottle—often one that brings up fond memories—and drink it with everything. This attitude was on proud display at a food festival in the small Alpine resort of Entracque. On a Saturday night, they held a dinner called "Bollito in Mercato." It was simple enough; several hundred people—a mix of locals and tourists (mostly weekenders from Turin and Genoa)—gathered in the market square for a meal of bollito misto, the classic Piemontese feast of boiled meats and sauces.
If the American wine gurus I knew had been there, the varied courses of salty, sweet, unctuous, and lean—not to mention the closing course of a soup made from the broth the meats were boiled in—would each require a different wine. No such luck. There was one wine, a Barbera from nearby Langhe, and it went with everything. In fact, it went really well with everything, even the piece of fruit that finished the evening. I became convinced that the wine had magical powers, what some commentators call "food friendliness."
The following Friday night, I had the chance to observe the Italian lack of interest in wine-and-food matching in a much more formal environment. My wife and I were joining a group of her high school friends at a fine-dining establishment in the hills above Turin. At La Taverna di Fra' Fiusch (don't try to pronounce this sober) our party of seven dined on refined versions of Piemontese classics. The meal had a timbale of ox testicles (yes!), roast onions stuffed with salt cod, venison in chocolate sauce, ravioli stuffed with donkey meat (another yes!), bell peppers in a garlic and anchovy sauce, and a cheese risotto, all with a magic wine, this time a Dolcetto. When we emptied a bottle, we ordered another of the same. And why not? It went with everything.
Are there any foods that the Piemontese wouldn't wash down with a five dollar bottle of Dolcetto? I pondered the question at my favorite area winery, Cantina Clavesana. This is the sort of place that Americans dream about—a cooperative of local grape growers that happens to be in one of the worlds' best wine regions. Stand back and watch as crowds of people who've brought their own containers buy seriously good stuff for a few bucks a liter. As people filled their cars with case after case, they talked about everything except wine pairing. Clavesana's customers would have drank the stuff with granola.
Trolling for a Magic Microbrew
All that pondering recalled one other meal; dinner at Brew Pub Troll, a microbrewery in Vernante, not far from Entracque and higher in the mountains. While brewing has a long history in northern Italy, high-end micros are a whole new trend. At Troll, the menu is simple: meats grilled on a fireplace in the center of the dining room, sandwiches, fries, and salad. The beers on offer were fairly average by microbrew standards yet there was a big issue of what beers went with which foods. In the Piedmont, there is not yet any magic beer.
Locations and Resources
La Taverna di Fra' Fiusch is at Via Beria 32 in Revigliasco di Moncalieri, a well- heeled suburb of Turin; 011 860 8224; frafiusch.it. Reservations are recommended and you'll almost certainly need a car to get there.
Cantina Clavesana is just down the road from Barolo, in the heart of Piemonte's wine country, at Frazione Madonna della neve 19 in Clavesana; 0173 790451; cantinaclavesana.it. It has parking, American-friendly restrooms, free tastings, and accepts credit cards.
Brew Pub Troll is in the hills above Vernante at Via Valle Grande 15; 0171 920143; birratroll.it.
If you want to find out more about Piemontese cuisine, I'd urge you to check out Cucina Piemontese from Hippocrene Books. Written by my wife and I, it has complete recipes for bollito misto and many other classics.
Finally, you can get more information on the great little town of Entracque, located about half way between Turin and Nice, from entracque.org.