I left for a week in Piedmont with high gastronomic hopes. I still recall some of the magnificent food I ate last time I was there (which was over a decade ago, in November, the beautiful and mysterious time of fogs and white truffles). It wasn’t just the truffles, though. I adored the Italian respect for raw materials, and the way Italian chefs were prepared to serve a beautifully grown, simply prepared vegetable as a course on its own.
This is beyond the French. Everything in France, food included, is over-complicated. The unfortunate result is that too many modest French restaurants trip themselves up by trying to produce the kind of food which Michelin inspectors crave. They don’t, though, have the resources to do the job properly. They fail. Most French chefs need to cook less, and source better. (And sauce less, too.)
This time, though, it was Piedmont’s turn to disappoint. Ok, it wasn’t truffle season; ok, the primary purpose was wine, not food. I did enjoy two good meals (at Osteria Battaglina in Dogliani and Osteria La Madernassa in Guarene), but several dismal ones, too, where the rot had set in, and the patronage of tourists could be taken for granted. (A magnificent view from the dinner table seems to inspire laziness in the kitchen.) The lesson of the good meals was the same one I had taken home a decade earlier. Buy the best ingredients you can, and render them edible in the simplest manner possible.
That same lesson can be transferred to Italy’s three most famous gastronomic gifts to the world: pasta, pizza and risotto. If you were to weigh the amount of sauce served with any particular pasta dish in Italy, I doubt it would exceed 100 g per portion. Great pizza (a southern dish, of course, not Piemontese) is an exercise in restraint, and true Neapolitans must rub their eyes in disbelief when they see the ludicrous concatenation of ‘toppings’ ladled onto carpet-deep dough around the world in grotesque parody of this archetypical dish of the poor. On my last day in Piedmont, Dr Alberto Arlunno of Cantalupo in Ghemme offered me a quick lunch after a tasting. The local restaurant sent up a saucepan full of risotto. It was plain, sauced rice, the flavours those of stock, butter and cheese. Nothing else. Perfect.
Oh yes, and coffee too. Coffee in France nowadays tends to be what the French call jus de chaussette, or ‘sock juice’. The standard has plummeted, even in outlets (like the Paul chain) which should know better. On French motorways, they don’t even bother to make sock juice any more, but simply install banks of vending machines, the effusions of which deserve less polite description still. In Piedmont, though, I didn’t drink a single bad coffee, and the best (in both cappuccino and ristretto format) were sublime. Even the tourists haven’t spoiled that.