This article was originally published in Tidings Magazine.
Sometimes, a visit to a place leaves a lasting impression. Barolo is such a place. The people, food and architecture imprint so profoundly that one’s real home begins to feel distant and unfamiliar. Luckily, experiencing Barolo is easy no matter where home is. Whenever I feel memory tugging at me, I might descend the steps to the cellar and pull a bottle from my collection. We have a few Barolos – two of which are pretty special – a 1961 (an exquisite vintage) and a 1967. The latter wasn’t such a great year, except that it is the one in which I was born. So, I’m sentimental about it.
It’s easy to feel that way about Italy, too. There are so many small towns throughout the Italian countryside that one might pass them off as being all the same. That would just be wrong. Known primarily as the home of some of the most revered wines on the planet, the town of Barolo remains distinctive and endearing. Go see for yourself.
Bread. Better yet, breadsticks. There’s a story that the king who ruled the court of Savoy in the 1600s was so concerned about a guest whose stomach contorted at the mere thought of bread that he ordered his bakers to produce something infinitely more digestible. And so were born grissini. Long, thin and crunchy, you’ll find the best in Barolo.
Grissini bear little resemblance to the boxed breadsticks available in Canadian supermarkets. The artisan-made type has a natural sweetness that pairs perfectly well with prosciutto and a slice of Testun Occelli di Barolo cheese. Bet you can’t stop at just one; I certainly can’t. Make your way down to where Via Roma intersects with Via Gioberti. There, with its green awnings and potted plants is Panetteria Fratelli Cravero. The Cravero family’s hand-stretched breadsticks measuring about 30 centimeters long (sometimes even longer!) are legendary. The grissini come in nine different flavours: those with olives or nuts make me swoon. Don’t leave the Panetteria without purchasing a box of crumbly, sweet Paste Di Meliga. These cornmeal cookies are made from a centuries-old recipe that has since been listed under the Slow Food Protection Act.
You’ll find few restaurants featuring tourist menus here. In fact, you’re likely to find restaurants featuring no menu at all. Whatever’s simmering in the pot is what’s on offer. Braised beef in Barolo, wild boar or rabbit over polenta are local specialties worth the trip up the hill into town. While you’re there indulge, as the Italians do, in Tajarin, the Alba-Style Tagliatelle dish served in a butter and Parmigiano sauce adorned with shaved white truffles and paired with a glass of Barolo wine, of course.
Recipe courtesy of Daniela Di Giovanni of Ente Turismo.
500 g sifted flour
4 egg yolks
1 tablespoon oil
A pinch of salt
1. Knead the ingredients. Dip a clean white cloth in cold water, wring it and wrap the dough. Let the dough stand for about two hours, then knead it again and roll it out with a rolling pin so as to get very thin sheets. Let the sheets stand for about ten minutes, then dust them with a little corn meal.
2. Roll up the sheets and cut them into very thin strips to form noodles. Place the noodles loose on a tray lined with a floured cloth and leave them, approximately 1 to 2 hours, to dry out a bit.
3. Bring a large pot of salted water to the boil. Drop the pasta into the water and cook for 3-4 minutes.
Eat with the locals
– Locanda nel Borgo Antico, 4 Via Boschetti
– La Cantinetta, 33 Via Roma,
– Ristorante del Buon Padre, 30 Via delle Viole
From the top of Barolo Castle, vineyards upon vineyards planted with Nebbiolo are visible as far as the eye can see. Something else is in the air. It’s nothing that can be seen or touched. There’s an aura of mystique that surrounds and envelops this whole area. It’s something that’s inextricably linked to this mythic wine named after the eponymous town.
The king of wines and the wine of kings was not always so. Barolo underwent a pretty miraculous transformation in the 1840s at the hands of royalty. Before then, Barolo was a sweet wine thanks to Nebbiolo’s high sugar content. The Marquise Juliette Colbert-Falletti together with star French winemaker, Louis Oudart, introduced the refined modern winemaking techniques already in vogue in France. The result was a dry and complex wine bursting with aromas and flavours of chocolate, plum and spice that immediately captivated the hearts of European royalty.
Follow the steps down to the depths of Barolo Castle to see the place where the magic happened. The cellars have since been turned into an enoteca (wine bar). Sidle up to the bar to sample Barolo from the neighbouring wineries. Hoping for a souvenir? Shelves displaying countless bottles available for sale stretch the length of the long hall.
The Cioccolato alla Corte del Barolo Chinato (Chocolate in the court of Barolo Chinato) is something you’re sure not to find anywhere else on your travels. This event, taking place in March, is an opportunity to sample exquisite Italian chocolate. If that’s not enough, the festival also gives visitors the chance to pair chocolate with wine. To top it all off, you’ll have a chance to try a drink called Barolo Chinato (Barolo with quinine!). Originally, the mixture was a way to make the malaria medicine easier to swallow. Now, enjoying it as a digestif is all the rage.
Barolo runs the gamut in price point depending on supply, demand, reputation of producer, scores awarded by critics, whether the planets are aligned…. Regardless, all Barolo is DOCG and adheres to strict production guidelines. No matter which one you choose, you’re still getting a great wine. Look for balanced acidity, notable tannins, and a full-bodied mouthfeel with aromas of tar, roses, leather, tobacco and truffles.
– Fontanafredda Barolo
– Marchesi Di Barolo Barolo
– Paolo Conterno Ginestra Barolo
– Ceretto Bricco Rocche Barolo
Talk about great expectations. How can such a small town possibly live up to the greatness of the wine? I guess it’s easy when history takes the wheel. Barolo should be a tourist trap. Yet, this town of approximately 750 citizens seems to respect and promote its traditions as much as it revels in the popularity of its wine.
You’ll need to drive into Barolo from Alba; but the town’s entrance is as far as your car will take you. Unless you’re driving a cute, new Fiat 500, you’ll find that the streets are much too narrow for most cars. Park it at the entrance of the town and explore on foot. Barolo is a place of stories. There seems to be a museum on every corner. So, pack a pair of comfy shoes and a serious hunger for local history and culture.
The town can be walked in about an hour, including the time it takes to stop in at the many shops that feature local artisans’ work. Hop on a bike and follow the pathways that take you down the hill and through the vineyards. That’s the best way to get a close-up look at the grapes that have made this town famous. The most popular thing to do in Barolo, and the reason why most people visit, is to taste the wine, of course. Come in September for the Barolo Wine Festival. You can sample upwards of 60 Barolos over the course of the three-day event and enjoy live music and dancing to boot. Above all, don’t forget your camera. The ancient architecture and panoramic views from the top are worth the steep climb into town.
What to do
– WiMu (Wine Museum), Barolo Castle
– Museo di Cavatappi (Corkscrew Museum), 4 Piazza Castello
– Fiera Internazionale del Tartufo Bianco d’Alba (throughout October and November), 3 Piazza Medford, Alba
Where to stay
– Locanda della Posta di Barolo, 4 Piazza Municipio
– Cà San Ponzio, 7 Via Rittane
– Hotel Barolo, 2 Via Lomondo
*I purchased the wine myself, but enjoyed with friends!