Thursday, 9 August 2007

Sightseeing, Food and Wine in Piedmont, Italy

I Love Italian Wine and Food - The Piedmont Region
By Levi Reiss

Piedmont is located in the northwest of Italy. It borders on France and Switzerland and is surrounded on three sides by the Alps. The name Piedmont means the foot of the mountain. Piedmont is one of the most industrialized regions of Italy. It is considered the best organized region of Italy for wine tourism. Its population is about 4.4 million.

Piedmont was originally settled by the Celts. It was conquered by Hannibal and reconquered by the Ancient Romans. Piedmont was ruled by the French Savoy family for almost five hundred years. It was a center in the fight to unify Italy. Victor Emmanuel II, the king of Piedmont and Sardinia, became the first king of modern Italy in 1861.

Agriculturally Piedmont has it all. For example, meats include beef, kid, lamb, rabbit, and veal. Game includes hare, partridge, pheasant, and venison. Donkey meat stew is a local specialty. Another specialty is grissini, breadsticks that are a yard long. The region makes nine protected varieties of cheese. About the only food that seems to be a bit short is fresh fish, with the exception of trout.

Piedmont’s capital and largest city is Turin, a city of nine hundred thousand that is the capital of the Italian automobile industry and the site of the 2006 Winter Olympics. This city was the first capital of united Italy (from 1861 to 1865) and remains to this day the world capital of vermouth.

Piedmont devotes over one hundred forty thousand acres to grapevines, it ranks 6th among the 20 Italian regions. Its total annual wine production is about ninety million gallons, also giving it a 6th place. About 70% of the wine production is red or rosé (only a bit of rosé), leaving 30% for white. The region produces 44 DOC wines. DOC stands for Denominazione di Origine Controllata, which may be translated as Denomination of Controlled Origin, presumably a high-quality wine and 7 DOCG wines. The G in DOCG stands for Garantita, but there is in fact no guarantee that such wines are truly superior Almost 56% of Piedmont wine carries the DOC or DOCG designation. Piedmont is home to four dozen major and secondary grape varieties, somewhat more red than white varieties.

Widely grown international white grape varieties include Muscat (in particular Moscato Bianco) and Chardonnay. The best known strictly Italian white varieties are Arneis, Cortese, and Erbaluce.

International red grape varieties are not important in Piedmont. It is the center for Nebbiolo, felt by many to be Italy’s noblest red variety, the base of Italy’s world famous Barolo and Barbaresco wines. Other Italian red varieties include Barbera, Brachetto, and Dolcetto, some of which are grown elsewhere.

Before reviewing the Piedmont wine and cheese that we were lucky enough to purchase at a local wine store and a local Italian food store, here are a few suggestions of what to eat with indigenous wines when touring this beautiful region. Start with Cipollata Rossa Monferrina, Spicy Robiola Cheese and Scallion Spread. For the second course try Tasca Ripiena, Veal Stuffed with Salami and Scallions. For dessert indulge yourself with Budino Freddo Gianduja, Decadent Hazelnut-Chocolate Pudding.

OUR WINE REVIEW POLICY While we have communicated with well over a thousand Italian wine producers and merchants to help prepare these articles, our policy is clear. All wines that we taste and review are purchased at the full retail price.

Wine Reviewed Surì Rosso Barbera d’Asti Villa Giada 2004 Andrea-Faccio Viticoltore (Winemaker) DOC 13.5% alcohol about $10.90 plus tax

Unlike the other wines in this series, I purchased this bottle while on vacation in Seattle, Washington. Frankly I thought that I was drinking the cousin of a $40 bottle of wine. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if it were the equal of some $40 bottles. While three other Italian grape red varieties are authorized to a maximum of 15% in the Barbera d’Asti DOC, this particular wine is 100% Barbera.

I found the wine very powerful, perhaps too strong for pasta. Its tastes included tobacco, leather, cherry, and black cherry. An Italian wine site states: "An imposing wine that is always rather severe but richly and exquisitely perfumed and with a flavor that couples strength with finesse.” I agree except that I didn’t find it severe. I also drank it with a marinated, barbecued rib steak. The wine cut through the steak’s grease. Once again the flavors came out well.

Gran Padano is a classic Parmesan-type cheese made for a millennium in northern Italy including the Piedmont region. It is a cylindrical, cooked, semi-fat cheese which matures slowly. It has a grainy consistency and may be sliced or grated. Its taste is fragrant and delicate. I tried this wine with grated Gran Padano cheese on toast with a somewhat spicy Moroccan tomato and pimento based dip.The combination was excellent; I felt that both the wine and cheese flavors were accentuated. The term mouth-filling came to mind.

Levi Reiss has authored or co-authored ten books on computers and the Internet, but to be honest, he would rather just drink fine French or other wine, accompanied by the right foods. He teaches classes in computers at an Ontario French-language community college. Presently his wine websites are http://www.theworldwidewine.com and http://www.theitalianwineconnection.com

Friday, 3 August 2007

Sightseeing in Central Sardinia

I Love Touring Italy - Central Sardinia
by Levi Reiss

If you are looking for a European tourist destination, consider the island of Sardinia, a region of southern Italy. Depending on your interests, this beautiful area can be an ideal vacation spot. You can get classic Italian food, and wash it down with fine local wine. Some parts of Sardinia remain undiscovered by tourists, while other sites are favorites of Italian and international jet setters and are priced accordingly. This article presents central Sardinia. Companion articles present northern Sardinia and southern Sardinia. Before we give you our itinerary you must realize that central Sardinia is hardly flatland. Sometimes to get from point A to point B you must pass by point C; the actual distance traveled may be much further than your initial estimate. Enjoy the trip, and drive carefully (or even better let the pros drive you.)

We’ll start our tour of central Sardinia at the interior city of Su Nuraxi. Then we head to the city of Giari di Gesturi to its north. We next go southwest to the main road and then north to Oristano near the coast. Then we proceed north and west to the coastal city of Tharros (can you believe an Italian city whose name does not end in a vowel?). From Tharros we go to nearby San Salvatore, and then travel northeast to Nuoro and finally south to Fonni.

Su Nuraxi, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, lies near the village of Barumini. It is the finest and most complete example of a nearly four thousand year old stone defensive structure called nuraghe found only in Sardinia. Nuraghe are typically shaped like a beehive, built with huge square blocks of stone, but with no foundations or cement. Yet they stand and have stood for millennia. Their name comes from the Sardinian word nurra that means both mound and cavity. They are mounds containing a cavity transformed into one or more rooms and perhaps a courtyard. Each structure may be over sixty feet (twenty meters) high. Some complexes include enough towers to englobe and protect a small village.

Sardinia is home to more than 8,000 nuraghe, all that remains of the original 30,000 plus. Few nuraghe have been studied scientifically and we are far from understanding their full meaning. But for an unforgettable experience go to Su Nuraxi and explore the nuraghe and the ruins of the surrounding Bronze-Age village.

Giari di Gesturi is a 28 square mile (45 square kilometer) basalt plateau. It’s home to dwarf wild horses and wild sheep with beautiful curved horns that have turned them into an endangered species. See these magnificent animals while there is still time.

Oristano, population thirty thousand, is the biggest town in these parts. It includes several churches worth visiting. Little remains of the original Twelfth Cathedral of Saint Mary; most of what you see comes from either the Seventeenth Century restoration or the Nineteenth Century renovation. You should also visit the French-Gothic Fifteenth Century Franciscan Church of Santa Chiara, the recently restored Fourteenth Century Gothic Church of St. Clare, and the Eighteenth Century Baroque-Piedmont Church of Carmine.

Oristano houses the Antiquarium Arborense Museum, with its important Nuraghic and Roman collection from the old cities of Tharros and Cornus. The city is not far from the Torre Grande (Large Tower) beach and resort area named for Sardinia’s tallest tower, which is now a lighthouse.

Tharros was first inhabited by the Proto-Sardinians, then by the Phoenicians before the Romans got there. Its setting Capo San Marco (Cape St. Mark) is beautiful, lying between the sea to the west and the Gulf of Oristano to the east. Tharros was first excavated during the Nineteenth Century. A lot of its artifacts were exported to the British Museum of London and the Borely Museum in Marseille. You can see some artifacts in the Archaeological Museum in Sardinia’s capital Cagliari and others in the mainland town of Cabras about six miles (ten kilometers) east. The site itself contains some ancient Roman columns, baths, and mosaics.

You’re not far from the little town of San Salvatore, the location for filming many spaghetti westerns in decades gone by. The first Saturday of September it hosts the Festa di San Salvatore (Festival of San Salvatore) in which hundreds of barefoot runners, each carrying an image of the Saviour, run five miles (eight kilometers) to commemorate saving the Cabras Church of Santa Maria Assunta’s statue of San Salvatore from Saracen raids. This church was built on an ancient Nuragic underground temple.

Nuoro, population about thirty-five thousand, overlooks the mountains. In the eyes of many the real Sardinia is found here, and not in the coastal resorts. Natives of this remote area feel a special pride that neither the Romans, nor Carthage, nor any other foreigner has ever conquered them. Traditions are very much part of the local daily life. You can see the traditional clothing during the numerous festivals and to some extent day to day in the villages.

Rural Sardinia’s traditional lifestyle seems to agree with people. Relatively many of its residents are centenarians or even supercentarians (those who live to age 110). Antionio Todde from the village of Tiana about twenty miles (thirty kilometers) southwest of Nuoro made it to three weeks short of age 113. His diet was pasta and soup with some pork or lamb each day and a glass and a half of red wine. The first time he saw television was in 1954 at age 65. Every night he would cycle thirty miles (forty-five kilometers) to see fuzzy images of dancing girls on the tiny screen. Antonio was wounded in World War I and died as the world’s oldest proven combat veteran.

Nuoro is proud of its captivating landscapes, walking and riding paths along old shepherd’s trails, and extravagantly romantic places with rare species of birds. If you’re interested in archaeological finds or in fascinating folklore and legends, you won’t be disappointed with Nuoro. Yet the city is far from an intellectual wasteland. In fact it has been called "the Sardinian Athens" because of its large number of poets, writers, and intellectuals including Grazia Deledda, the second woman to win a Nobel Prize for Literature (1926), born and raised in Nuoro.

Fonni, population about four thousand, is the highest town in Sardinia. It is a winter sports center with ski lifts but also has many spring fountains as befits its name. Be sure to see the Eighteenth Century Baroque Sanctuary of the Vergine dei Martiri with unusual paintings by local artists. Don’t miss the Eleventh Century Church of San Giovanni Battista (St. John the Baptist) the village’s patron saint. The best day to visit is on June 24th, when in his honor the villagers are decked out in full splendor. The men wear linen trousers and black gaiters. The women wear a white chemise, a very small corselet, and finally a red jacket with blue and black velvet facings. Their accordion-pleated skirt is brown and red with a blue band between the two. Some wear two identical skirts, one above the other. The married women wear black kerchiefs and the unmarried ones wear white. This is the most traditional part of Sardinia, and consequently one of the most traditional parts of Italy and all Western Europe.

What about food? It is said that there are more than 500 types of bread in Sardinia, one for each village. The most famous is the pani carasau that resembles thin pita. It is also called carta di musica, as it supposedly rustles like a music manuscript. This bread is baked twice and consequently is quite dry. No problem, some including the shepherds moisten it with water before filling it with goodies such as the local pecorino cheese. The white kokkoi bread is considered a real treat and is proudly served at life cycle events.

Let’s suggest a sample menu, one of many. Start with Spaghetti ai Ricci (Spaghetti with Sea Urchins). Then try Quaglie Arrosto (Roasted Quail). For dessert indulge yourself with Aranzada (Candied Orange Peel and Toasted Almonds). Be sure to increase your dining pleasure by including local wines with your meal.

We’ll conclude with a quick look at Sardinian wine. Sardinia ranks eighth among the 20 Italian regions in acreage devoted to wine grapes and twelfth in total annual wine production. About 57% of its wine production is red or rosé (not very much rosé) leaving 43% for white wine. DOC stands for Denominazione di Origine Controllata, which may be translated as Denomination of Controlled Origin, presumably a high-quality wine. The G in DOCG stands for Garantita, but there is in fact no guarantee that such wines are truly superior. The region produces 19 DOC wines and one DOCG wine, Vermentino di Gallura. About 15% of Sardinian wine carries the DOC or DOCG designation.

Arborea DOC is produced in a relatively large area of west central Sardinia. The red or rosé wine is produced from the well-known Italian red Sangiovese grape. The white wine is produced from the well-known but more pedestrian Italian white Trebbiano grape and may be still or naturally fizzy. The Vernaccia di Oristano DOC wine is produced in a small area near the city of Oristano from a local white grape of that name. This wine may be dry or sweet and depending on its labeling must be aged for a minimum of 29 to 48 months. According to legend the vines come from the tears of Santa Giusta, patroness of Oristano and the wine helps fight malaria. The sweet wine resembles Sherry, quite good Sherry in the case of the best offerings.

Levi Reiss has authored or co-authored ten books on computers and the Internet, but to be honest, he would rather just drink fine Italian, French, or other wine, accompanied by the right foods. He teaches classes in computers at an Ontario French-language community college. His major wine website is www.theworldwidewine.com and his major article website is www.travelitalytravel.com


Find out more about sightseeing in Sardinia
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