Six Places to Explore Slow Food and Wine in Northern Piedmont
Did you know that the famous Slow Food Movement was born in Piedmont almost 30 years ago? Everywhere you go in Northern Piedmont, the restaurants will proudly advertise their allegiance to slow food. And they have something to brag about! During my trip to Lake Maggiore and the surrounding Ossola and Valsesia Valleys, I visited many outstanding places committed to the slow food concept. My slow food experience in Northern Piedmont was possible thanks to the invitation of the Distretto Turistico dei Laghi und Turismo Valsesia Vercelli. I hope you enjoy the slow food tour of the Northern Piedmont region with me!
1. Bettelmatt Cheese: one of the rarest cheeses in Italy
What could be a better combination, than hiking to a beautiful lake at Alpe Devero National Park with a gourmet cheese tasting stop? Especially when this cheese is one of the rarest cheeses in Italy. The Azienda Agricola Albrun run by the Malti Family in the heart of the Alpe Devero National Park, is definitely worth that hike. Albrun is located in the village of Crampiolo offering visitors a tasting of typical cheeses and yogurt of the Ossola Valleys. The Malti Family are also one of the few that produce the Bettelmatt Cheese (also called Albrun in their shop), one of the rarest cheeses in Italy.
The cows that produce milk for the Bettelmatt are kept exclusively at seven certified pastures in Piedmont where an herb “muttolina” that gives the cheese its specific taste is growing in abundance. Cheese production takes place twice a day, during 7-8 weeks at high altitudes of about 1,800 meters. The Bettelmatt cheese wheels are then brought downstream on the backs of mules or even by helicopter. This famous cheese dates its origins back to the thirteenth century, as a cheese of excellence used as a bargaining chip, for the payment of rent or taxes.
I am very intrigued to taste the Bettelmatt cheese. But this precious cheese a little too bitter for my taste. So I opt for a delicious freshly made yogurt with some wild blueberries from the nearby forests.
2. Agriturismo La Tensa: Self-Sustainable “Kilometer Zero” Estate
Do you like enjoying beautiful nature in a rural eco-sustainable village paired with gourmet cuisine? Then Agriturismo La Tensa should be a definite stop on your slow food itinerary of Northern Piedmont.
La Tensa: the Village
La Tensa was rural village on a hill above Domodossola inhabited until the 1950s. After the last residents abandoned the village, the houses stood empty for nearly 50 years. In 2000, the present owner Leponzia Company, has initiated complete recovery of the village and the agricultural activities around it. After 10 years of rehab work, La Tensa welcomed its first customers in 2010. La Tensa is completely eco-sustainable: the entire village is heated by a small wood chip and solar heating system. The houses of La Tensa are of traditional Northern Piedmont stone design on the outside and of modern elegance on the inside.
La Tensa: Slow Food and Wine
Osteria La Tensa is open to the guests and to the general public. On a beautiful terrace overlooking the main Ossola Valley, guests savor their meals watching their food grow within a stone’s throw from the restaurant. La Tensa is an example of a “kilometer zero” eco system, an almost entirely self-sustainable estate. A few meters from the restaurant, La Tensa’s own farm hosts cows, pigs and bees. Meat from their livestock as well as cheese and wild flower honey are served at the restaurant. Genuine fruit and vegetables are cultivated around the estate and used for jams, juices and chutneys.
In 2019, the first batch of 150 bottles of “Volitivo”, a chardonnay of golden yellow color was produced at La Tensa. Volitivo grows on a sunny plot of land near the village that was once a deep forest. La Tensa is close to the path “Via dei Torchi e dei Mulini” translated as a road of presses and mills. Hiking this path, nature and history lovers can admire stunning views down to the Ossola valley, while visiting ancient rural settlements.
After a day of trekking in the Ossola Valleys, we stop at La Tensa for a trio of their homemade desserts and a glass of wine. The chocolate cake melts in my mouth, with flavors heightened by the crispiness of the La Tensa’s own Volitivo Chardonnay. But my favorite is the blueberry juice made from the fresh berries grown on premises. Pureed blueberries with clear mountain water and a bit of sugar are a perfect pick-me-up on our trekking journey the next day.
3. La Darbia: Garden-to-Table high above Lake Orta
Another success story of rehabbing an abandoned rural settlement is La Darbia, a resort run by the architects Primatesta Bros. Located on the hill high above Lake Orta, the estate features private garden, swimming pool, and a scenic terrace. The Nebbiolo vineyard, cultivated on terraced slopes, is situated in front of the complex overlooking Lake Orta.
Any slow food tour of Northern Piedmont must include a stop at La Cusina della Darbia Restaurant! Inserted in an old renovated farmhouse, the La Cusina restaurant welcomes internal and external guests with a modern open-style kitchen. The internal dining hall overlooks the large garden, from which you can enjoy a wonderful view of Lake Orta and the Monte Rosa mountain chain. In La Cusina della Darbia everything revolves around the products that are born in the estate’s gardens. The Chef Matteo Monfrinotti passionately dedicates himself to a regional cuisine, combining innovative techniques with traditional flavors. His cuisine is inspired by small, local producers that offer handmade and unique ingredients. The menu at the restaurant changes monthly to reflect on in-season ingredients.
During our stop at La Darbia, the Chef serves us some local fare. It features meats and cheeses from the area, bread and goat cheese fondue, fried zucchini flowers, and a risotto. Although everything is delicious, I find most amazing the simple raw zucchini sticks with extra virgin olive oil and sea salt flakes. Zucchini are in season at the time and the Chef just picked them from the La Darbia’s garden. Their fresh flavor is startling! I could never imagine that raw zucchini could taste so amazing!
4. Restaurant Verum, Hotel Cortese in Armeno: An Exceptional Taste Journey
Immersed in a natural, peaceful hilly setting surrounding Lake Orta, Hotel Cortese in Armeno evokes a cozy atmosphere of a small, typical Italian village. Restaurant Verum at Cortese serves creative local cuisine, producing dishes that marry modernity and creativity with the traditional and classical. The tasting menu at Verum is one of the best we had on our trip. Our dessert called a “Modern Interpretation of Chestnut Flour Cake” is to die for. It is a heavenly combination of a chocolate covered soft cake from chestnuts and caramel, paired with rosemary slush and lime sauce.
Most interesting is that Armeno well-known in Italy as a town of Chefs. For example, the Queen of England’s Chef, now retired, is from Armeno. In addition, a number of high-profile chefs around the word call Armeno their home. No surprise then that in Armeno chefs are celebrated so much. Every year the town celebrate “Festa di San Lorenzo,” honoring St. Lorenzo, who is the Patron Saint of chefs and cooks.
5. Atelier Restaurant, Hotel Eurossola in Domodossola: Local Fare and Celebrity Chef
The town of Domodossola lays at the convergence of seven Ossola valleys in Northern Piedmont. It is a well-known slow food stop of Swiss and French foodies visiting Domodossola’s weekly market on the weekends.
Before our trekking journey in Alpe Devero Natonal Park, we spend a night at the Eurossola hotel in Domodossola. Located just across from the train station and the old town, Eurossola hotel has been recently renovated to feature modern design tastefully blended with hotel’s rich history. Eurossola at it present location has been welcoming travelers from all over Europe since 1903.
But the real gem that draws tourists from all over the world is the hotel’s Atelier restaurant. The restaurant offers a fine local cuisine shaped by its celebrity chef Giorgio Bartolucci. Previously, Chef Bartolucci cooked at a number of star restaurants in France and Italy only to return back home to Domodossola. His fine regional cuisine has a hint of French flare. But it is also a unique merger of tradition and innovation where the local produce of Ossola Valleys prevails.
During our stay at Eurossola, we enjoy a typical Ossola Valleys tasting menu. Chef’s signature dish called “ancient gnocchi d’ossola in a basket of coimo black bread” particularly impresses my taste palate. The gnocchi are soft and creamy and the bread basket is crunchy with a strong rye flavor.
6. Gattinara Winery in Valsesia Valley
If you’re a fan of Nebbiolo, the sole grape behind Piedmont’s typical wines Barolo and Barbaresco, you’ll love the radiant, mineral-driven offerings from Gattinara. Gattinara is a wine and also a town in Northern Piedmont.
In the town of Gattinara, Travaglini family owns 146 of the total 247 acres registered to Gattinara wine production. Established in the 1920s by Clemente Travaglini, the family-run winery makes bright, structured reds exclusively from the Nebbiolo grapes. Gattinara Travaglini wine is also unique because of the distinct decanter shape of their bottles. Such a bottle naturally catches sediment during pouring, allowing the wine to be served directly from bottle to the glass without decanting. Interestingly, 60% of Gattinara Travaglini wine is exported to the United States.