Monday, October 29, 2007

Day 12 - Pollenzo-Serralunga d'Asti

Whoever said that youth is wasted on the young never met these two guys.

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It is our second full day in Piemonte and when we arise the past several days’ drizzle has been replaced with a cool autumn sun. Our room, on the second floor of the Albergo dell’Agenzia (Via Fossano, 21, Pollenzo, tel. 0172.458600), looks out over the hotel’s grounds, which form a large enclosed park. In the center of the park is a huge mass of stone which stands solitary watch over this vista, an ancient Roman funerary monument that is part of the ruins of ancient Polentia, the town on which modern day Pollenzo has been built.

The hotel occupies a part of the complex which was built in the late 1800s by Emperor Carlo Alberto and which was called the Agenzia di Pollenzo. The Agenzia was a sort of government funded farming complex, replicated in other areas of Italy, housing workers, administrators and scientists, who applied their efforts at improving the agriculture of this area, particularly in the area of viniculture. Based upon the wines we have been drinking over the past several days, the experiment has worked.

Since the unification of Italy, the Agenzia fell into disuse and disrepair and was essentially being used as stables and storage areas for the local populace until the last decade or so. At that time the Slow Food organization, which was born only a few minutes away in the town of Bra, determined to rehabilitate the structure in order to house its Universita degli Studi di Scienze Gastronomiche (the Gastronomic University). That project was completed in 2004 and the university opened its doors to approximately 200 students annually beginning in that year. Today the university offers a three year course of study leading to an undergraduate degree in gastronomic sciences, covering such diverse topics as molecular science, sensory analysis, history of cuisine, food business economics, food and wine tourism and food law. It makes me drool just to think about getting academic credit for studying these topics.

In addition to the university, the Agenzia houses our hotel, the Ristorante Guido (at which we ate last night) and the Banca del Vino. The Albergo is a grand hotel, and our room, a standard double, is very spacious and with all the modern amenities, yet retains a traditional warmth. The bathroom is very nice and it is the first shower we have been able to use in the past ten days that does not spray water all over the floor. If you have read my trip reports in the past, you will know how obsessed I am with the utterly ridiculous, illogical designs used in Italian bathrooms, the result of which is nearly always a flooded bathroom floor. Here at the Albergo, the shower is in a bathtub, using a telephone-type shower head, but there is a glass partition that runs at least partially along the top of the tub, deflecting most of the water back into the tub rather than onto the floor. Nonetheless, I have two words for Italian bathroom designers and vow to spend the rest of my days shouting them from the mountaintop. “Shower curtain.”

So we wake this morning and light is peaking through the heavy curtains of our second floor room. I part the curtains and am nearly knocked down by the jolt of cool, blue light that pours into the room. We have not experienced this phenomenon for several days and perhaps the constant drizzle and cold temperatures has begun to take its toll on us. We feel an immediate surge of energy, which is augmented when we down some excellent Italian coffee at breakfast a short while later. Before heading down to breakfast, however, we notice for the first time where we are located. Ringing the hills which are home to numerous Piemonte hill towns as far as the eye can see (Piemonte means piedmont, or foothills), are the snowcapped peaks of the Alps. For two days the rain has hidden this fact from us, reducing and constricting our point of view. This feeling of expansiveness, of a world without borders, as well as the warming sun and the autumn colors, give our spirits and immediate lift.

We have just one activity planned for the day (in addition to meals, which are, as you as readers know, to us activities unto themselves), a late afternoon appointment to visit the Banca del Vino for a tour and wine tasting. Suzy looks over some brochures and we decide to head back in the direction of Barolo, which we visited yesterday, and to visit Serralunga d’Alba. We call ahead for a lunch reservation and in a short while we are in our car, meandering down the winding road that will take us to Serralunga.

Today’s drive is a meander. It really is quite remarkable how the change in weather has improved our moods, and today, in contrast to the frenetic pace of the past several days, we are in no rush to do anything. So we meander through the valley, our windy road flanked with steep hills that are covered with row after row of grape vines turned brilliant yellow, red and brown. In fact, the fall colors, which have not been much in evidence in central Italy, are bursting from the hills here, and on this day in particular the effect is to give us a feeling of serenity and contentment. Calma, as the Italians say.

We stop several times along the road to Serralunga to take pictures and to enjoy the vistas. It is, simply, a lovely day. But perhaps we meander too long, as it is approaching two o’clock and we will have to drive directly to our restaurant for lunch if we are to be able to return in time for our appointment at the Banca del Vino. Aided by Marky Mark, our trusty GPS, we negotiate the narrow, windy road as it ascends the hills until we can see Serralunga in the distance, its ancient castle, bizarrely misproportioned to be extremely tall and thin so as to look like the castle of an evil king in a Hollywood movie, stabbing the sky on a distant hill.

We arrive at the restaurant, La Rosa dei Vini (Localita Parafada, 4, Serralunga d’Alba, tel. 0173.613219), a handsome white building on the edge of town and built on the edge of the promontory overlooking the valley below. The sky is even clearer than it had been earlier and the main dining room, an enclosed outdoor patio, shares this view. When we try to enter the restaurant the door is locked but there are voices coming from the patio. We notice a sign that says to ring the bell and we do so, and a moment later a young woman opens the door, not inviting us in, but asking us if we have reservations. Thankfully we have called ahead or we might have been completely spooked by this odd way of greeting diners. She looks as though she doesn’t want to allow us to enter, but given our reservation seems to have no alternative. The whole thing is reminiscent of our difficulty getting in the front door of Ristorante Guido the night before.

But almost immediately we are glad that we have persevered. The dining room is a simple, clean white room with a dozen tables spaced with ample distance between them, giving it, when combined with the beautiful view of the countryside outside the windows, a relaxed, comfortable feel. Our waitress and the other wait staff that look after us this afternoon begin to warm to us as we start by ordering local specialties and inquire about various items on the menu, and especially when we ask them to recommend a local white wine, as we are not familiar with the excellent white wines produced in this area. Of particular note is a seasonal specialty of fried egg topped with white truffle, which is shaved onto the dish at tableside using a small wooden slicer. We try a few other local specialties that we have put off until now, including tajarin, the local thin egg pasta and vitello tonnato, thin slices of rare veal served with a tuna sauce. These dishes, while excellent, are truly regional, and due to our lack of travel in this region we are not as familiar with them as we are of the regional specialties in central Italy. For our main course we split a plate of fried porcini mushrooms, which Suzy has been dreaming about and salivating over for days. They are served lightly fried, piping hot and their strong but pleasant aroma sends us over the edge. It is a wonderful meal on a wonderful day.

Time is running short, however, so we hop in our car and return to the Agenzia where we have a 4:00 appointment for a wine tasting and tour of the Banca del Vino. When we arrive we are not quite sure what to make of the Banca, which our brochure describes basically as a vault for the preservation of superior Italian vintages, once again the brainchild of Slow Food and its visionary founder Carlo Petrini. We arrive on time, but the rest of the English speaking tour, which in reality is made up of a bunch of rude English speaking foreigners who, through their boorish behavior throughout the tour demonstrate a complete lack of interest in this project, is late. When they finally arrive a half hour later we are taken through a series of underground vaults, actually little more than renovated stables, where wooden crates, each comprising a case of wine, are stacked according to region, producer and vintage. According to our guide, a friendly and extremely articulate and knowledgeable German lad who, we find out later, is a student at the Gastronomic University, Slow Food invites the best wine producers in Italy to deposit what they consider to be their best vintages each year in the vault. The cases are marked to show the producer, which is apparently quite an honor, and the wine remains the property of the producer. Over time, most producers release a portion of the vintage that they have stored to the Banca for sale to the public, but at least one case must remain on deposit in perpetuity. This way, the public can purchase the finest vintages at a time that the producer believes they have reached their absolute maturity, and a sample of each vintage is retained for posterity. While this all may seem a bit cooky or self aggrandizing, walking through the vault and seeing the names of the various producers and vintages brings back a flood of memories of evenings spent drinking this vintage or that, enjoying a wonderful meal and engaging in a nice conversation with friends. I suppose that it is something that you must experience for yourself.

After the tour, our guide opens a bottle of Barbaresco for us to sample. The guided tour has arranged for a tasting of a single wine, and this is an outstanding wine to sip. None of them seems particularly interested, however, the most impressive comment or reaction being a question by one gentleman as to whether Barbaresco or Barolo is stronger. Ugh.

The horde, mercifully, retreats from this sacred place and for the next half hour Suzy and I have a private tasting of wines with our guide. During that time we taste just two other wines, but his passion and knowledge about the small details and the large give us a greater understanding and, more importantly, appreciation for what we are tasting. He speaks, too, about the course of study he is undertaking at the Gastronomic University, about organized bicycle trips into the countryside in order to better understand the relationship of the farmer to his land and of his encounters with Carlo Petrini. A world of possibilities awaits him after he leaves the university – anything from buyer at a supermarket chain to restauranteur to vintner to government official.

Our conversation with this nice young man recalls another encounter we have had on this trip, with a young man named Steve, the tour leader of our bicycle trip to Fiesole on our second day here. We came away from that day not just tired and saddle sore, but impressed with the passion with which he threw himself at life, moving to Italy from his native Missouri, learning the language, leading tours but with a truly profound understanding of the various points of interest along the way, from the production of olive oil and wine at the estate where we stopped for a visit, to the art of the renaissance masters.

Whether or not our guide at the Banca del Vino or our bicycle guide Steve settle into lives relating to the work they are now doing, one thing is sure. The passion they have shown about the things they are involved in today, a passion which has impressed Suzy and I to the core, is a rare and precious gift. And it is a quality that, when transferred to whatever you happen to be doing at the time, ensures both happiness and success. It takes most people a lifetime to discover such passion, if they are lucky enough to find it at all. For these two young men they have been given the gift of discovering their passion while they are still young enough to really enjoy it. In their cases youth has truly not been wasted on the young.

A presto,
Bill and Suzy

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