On Wednesday we got out to the open air market that comes to Asti on Wednesdays and Saturdays. We had been told that it was in both the Campo dei Palio, which is a huge open area used for general parking. It is at least as big as the Costco parking lot, so you can imagine how huge a market is to take up even half of that, which it did. PLUS it spreads down a street and into the main piazza, which is larger than the Waterfront Park parking lot. The venders open at 0730 so I cannot believe what time they must have to get up to get it started. There are hundreds of vendors, selling everything you could possibly need, from paper towels, cleaning supplies and other household items, to shoes, underwear and every item of clothing possible. There are cooking supplies like pots, pans and utensils, table linens, yarns, fabric for sewing and quilting, and every single thing you could purchase in a hardware store is available at the market. There were farm implements for sale, including tractors and combines, hand bags and wallets, and everything you could find at a dollar store. Then there was the food. First there were the meat and cheese vendors: every kind of cheese made in Italy, not just Piemonte, was available. Raw meats, including every part of the chicken, cow, sheep, and pig. We saw brains, trotters and snouts amid the steaks, chops and roasts. They also had rotisseries and were roasting chicken and pork for sale right in the same ‘truck’ as the raw meat. Cured meats like prosciutto and salami, cooked dishes like lasagne and roasted potatoes, crackers, pastas (fresh and dried), breads, cakes, cookies and other bakery items, and on and on and on. There were produce vendors selling all manner of local produce and some imported fruits as well. Chestnuts, hazelnuts, and peanuts, fresh beans, dried beans, fresh flowers and dried flowers, everything you could need for gardening from the soil and plants to the pots, rakes and gloves.
This market was astounding at every turn. We walked through the entire thing and it took a very long time, so we got some lunch to go and headed back to the hotel so we could check out. We packed up and went to the lobby to eat our lunch and wait for Doumina and Fabio to pick us up around 2. We had a wonderful lunch of roasted chicken and a few other things we got at the market, enjoyed a lovely conversation, and then Doumina called to say they were running late. They arrived closer to 3:30 pm and we were off to check in with some wine makers. We were contacting a new one, La Ghersa, and we met Massimo and Anna, both very generous with their time. We also met Dave, who owns the wine store in Moscow, Idaho, and the woman who would be our guide on Friday, Corrine. After a very nice tour and tasting of some of their wines, we headed out to Poderi Elia, to connect with Federico Stella and his father Georgio. Those of you who came to meet our Italian winemakers last June may remember them as the very tall men who make fantastic wines. We spent some nice time touring their facility and visiting with them, and Georgio’s father Felice joined us for awhile as well. We got to our hotel apartment in Neive and went straight to bed, our heads whirling with the generosity of friends, new and old.
Breakfast comes with the room here so we walked up to the hotel for breakfast. We had not explored our digs the night before, other than to find our beds, so today is when we learned about where we are staying. The Hotel Castelborgo has an apartment a few blocks away. The literature for the town reads: “This is the most elegant Baroque palazzo in the town, set in a striking position at the entrance to the San Rocco gate. There is a fine doorway, an elegant cornice and a number of lovely rooms in pure Rococo style. The building was erected in the second half of the 18th century, designed by the local architect Giovanni Antonio Borgese.” The interior has stunning architectural details and the bathroom is very large, with a huge shower, which is really nice since our other showers thus far have been exceedingly small and annoying. The layout is a bit odd, where there is a very large master suite with a king bed, and then behind that (you must go through the main bedroom to get to it) is a small room with 2 twin beds. It would be ‘the kids’ room’, and since we are the kids, we are sleeping there. In Asti Mark’s parents were in ‘the kids’ room’ so it’s only fair… it is just awkward to have to walk through their bedroom to get out to the main area or the bathroom, but we will survive.
So we enjoyed a nice breakfast spread and waited for the rest of the group to arrive. Fabio picked them all up at the Alba train station and they arrived in time for to head out for the first winery of the day. Most of us walked and since it is just over a mile away, first down steep hills and then up a steep hill, a few folks chose to ride in Fabio’s little bus that is taking us all around. Tre Donne is situated on a gorgeous piece of land, towards the top of a hill, with wonderful views. We only saw a small part of it on our tour, but I know it is very big from the stories. Do you remember the story of Tre Donne? (Three Women is what that means.) Their father came from a long line of wine makers with a wonderful history of great wine, and when the 3rd daughter was born and he realized he would not have any sons, he cried. He knew women could not make good wine and he had no one to pass his life on to, and it made him very sad. Of course the girls grew up watching and helping him make wine, learning along the way, and but he was still hanging on to the hope that they would marry winemakers. When it came time for him to start considering retirement he decided to sell the vines, and the girls begged him to let them try. Papa was stubborn and only said that women cannot make wine, and they disappointed him first by being all girls, and second by not marrying winemakers. They told him they could do it and they kept working on him, until finally they made a deal. “Give us one year to make great wine. If you are not proud of us in that year, you can sell it all.” He agreed, and in that one year those three women won more awards than he had in his entire career. They made great wine! He is extremely proud of them and they have carried on the tradition in two ways: they continue to make award winning wines, and they have only had daughters themselves! A couple of them have married winemakers, who continue their own wine traditions as well as work on the Tres Donne legacy. It is a true family enterprise and they all live on the compound, in their own homes.
We spent a nice 3 or so hours with Rosanna (one of the famous sisters) and her husband Pier, and we even got to meet their little girl Chiara (one of the 4 granddaughters!) They put out a jaw-dropping spread of regional foods: cheeses, meats, breads, veggies, fresh tomato sauce, pesto, more cheese and more meat… it was a huge array of locally produced and hand made foods to go with the 6 or so wines that we tasted. (It was early yet so I ended up using the dump bucket a bit, for their pours were exceedingly generous.) A few of our group is freshly here and jet-lagged so we dropped them off for naps and went on to what we call The Slow Food University. It is the first ever university program for grastronomic sciences, and the focus is more on food production and cultivation. It is a non profit organization which has taken over ‘the agency’, where the farmers used to go to pay taxes. It is not supported by the government at all and they are trying to preserve heritage foods and biodaynamic and organic ways of growing it. Therein also lies the Wine Bank. This is a beautiful old cellar full of wine from all over Italy. Small production wines that are typical to each region and being produced the old way (by hand and with respect to the earth) are here. They export some of it, sell some of it and some of it will remain here ‘forever’ in a kind of museum, or library for future generations to know about it. We also got a tour of the student gardens (much smaller than one might think) and the hotel that is on the grounds. It’s a beautiful campus with ruins and a small river, and it was a perfectly clear day so it was nice to walk around it. When we left we agreed to stop at Dolce Nieve, a sweet shop, sort of a cross between a candy store and a bakery with pastries and cookies in it. It is a little jewel box of a space and we enjoyed stopping in even more because when we did Rosanna, from Tres Donne, was in there with Chiara, so she introduced us and we got some samples of their delicious creations!
Afterwards we had an hour or so before we needed to leave for dinner so I hurried back to write this out for you. Unfortunately the cell service here is very poor due to the thick walls around us in this town, so I am unable to send it or check in with anyone. I will take my computer up to the hotel today as soon as I can and use their service if mine won’t work up there, either. Dinner was at the hotel San Georgio (our itinerary has changed and we are not staying there) and it was delicious. Our table was set in the wine cellar (there are 17 of us) and it was beautifully done: white linens, white dishes, silver utensils, clear wine glasses, and only the water glasses had a bit of color. They were really pretty glasses, hand blown glass of all different translucent colors. The menu was printed out at each seat and whoever wrote it looked up the literal translations of the dishes, and it is the most precious thing we will see on this trip. I will write it out for you exactly as they did and then explain… it is very funny and very sweet:
Raw meat beaten with a knife
The taglietelle with sausage sauce of Bra
The braised in wine Barolo with vegetables
The small tasting sweet
Good eveningn from the inn
Now mind you, I did not make any typos there! The ‘Apertif’ was a glass of prosecco (sparkling wine from the Veneto region that I love!) and on the plate was a small appetizer of fresh, creamy cheese (I believe it was cow’s milk) wrapped in a very thinly sliced bit of eggplant which may have been roasted until just soft enough to roll it around the cheese, and it was dressed with a touch of fresh tomato. Elegant in it’s simplicity, the flavors of the cheese really came through. The second course, which came with the regional wine ‘Dolcetto’ (it is a medium-light bodied red that is the general table wine for this area) was very interesting. The meat is not raw of course, it is lightly cured in herbs, wine and salt, to make it very flavorful. I think it was pork, and it did actually look like raw pork that was done in a course grind. It was placed carefully on the plate in a small round shape, and gently surrounded by super thin-sliced zucchini, and topped with a lovely little lettuce that we think was mache, but aren’t positive. It had a wonderful flavor and while a few folks were understandably standoffish about it, Mark and I loved it. ‘The tagliatelle’ (pronounced ‘tall-ee-yuh-tell-ay’) is a fresh pasta that is thinner and less dense than fettucine, though similar in shape. It did indeed have sausage, that I think may have been from wild boar, and the ‘sauce of Bra’ is not a boiled up article of underwear, but rather a sauce done in the typical style from the city of Bra, Italy. It was a light tomato style sauce, the fresh pasta was the star, with bits of sausage throughout. It was my favorite part of the meal. ‘The braised in wine Barolo with vegetables’ turned out to be a thin slice of veal (veal is very different in Italy-no baby cows in boxes over here!) braised in Barolo wine sauce (I wanted to lick the sauce off of my plate, though I refrained) with roasted carrots and potatoes. This course was served with a Nebbiolo, my favorite wine of the dinner and also a classic from this region. ‘The small tasting sweet’ was a trio of small desserts, beautifully presented on the first colorful plates of the evening. They were different translucent colors, just like the wine glasses, with pretty swirls around the outside. One dessert was ‘panna cotta’, or cooked cream, which is much like a vanilla pudding. It was set into a little clear plastic box and topped with a jelly of berries, and it was, surprisingly to me, my favorite of the three. There was a rich dark chocolate mousse-like dessert which was placed on the plate like a little slice of cheese cake without the crust. It looked dense at first glance, though actually it was very light and not too sweet, which made me happy. The third treat was sort of a bar, with a crust that seemed like a shortbread, and a gelee on the top that had fruit in it (perhaps currents) and it was the one I could leave alone. They served a Moscato d’Asti, a sweet and lightly effervescent wine that is famous in this region. Even the folks who were not drinking wine with dinner enjoyed that one!
We didn’t get back until after 11 and we were very ready for bed! Today holds new adventures and I can’t wait to tell you about them. I just hope I can get online and get in touch with you! Until then… ciao for now!!!