IN SEARCH OF PIEDMONTESE HISTORY, CULTURE AND SLOW FOOD - AUGUST 2015
AirBnB on the Continent
AirBnB offered us the chance to live in other people’s homes, to walk in their shoes, even to taste their food, affordably. The result was not simply a holiday but a warm experience, through connecting with kind, trusting and welcoming people, in their own cultures. We stayed in AirBnB flats with generous female hosts across Belgium, France and Italy. It was hard work to plan, to match a limited budget, taking up two sunny weekends in July - but really worth it. One must do a lot of online research before you go, but if all goes well, there is a real reward (one feels satisfied) and one has rich memories and learning that cannot be done online. After all, no one knows when caring responsibilities, poverty, oil prices, disability or some illness will prevent one travelling all together.
Piedmont and the Slow Food
One of our key aims was to discover more about the Slow Food Movement and Piedmontese staples, rice, corn and nuts - very helpful to those on a wheat-free diet. I summarise key culinary learning at the end together with a list of Piedmontese wines and how to choose them, as well as a wheat free recipe for a fine dessert, ‘Bonet’. Sometimes, Piemontese wines are available in Lidl and Aldi, at reasonable prices. In Piedmont, many wines cost only a 3-4 euros (except Barolo).
Monday 14 August - Hythe
Our first challenge was to overcome the Calais Crisis and Operation Stack which was blocking the M20 to Dover, to access to an early ferry. We had booked the cheapest Channel option of a ferry from Dover to Dunkirk, avoiding Calais, but I also spoke to Kent Police who, within minutes, had given me a minor route, avoiding all blocked roads. I turned for the first time to AirBnB. a website which gives access to personal homes in the UK and abroad and came up with an overnight stay at Hayne Barn, Hythe. Along the way, we discovered beautiful, elegant Tenterden, in Kent. Froggies, a barn building, is on a delightfully restful estate near to Saltwood Castle. Our French hostess provided everything we needed for eating in (which saves money). ‘Eating in’ is the main ‘gain’ from booking flats in people’s homes, as well as ‘wifi’ access allowing further research along the way. In terms of higher English prices for AirBnB, it was value for money. On average we paid £35 a night abroad for flats - £50 cheaper than in the UK.
Saturday 15 August - Crossing Channel and the Jura
Kent Police had given me detailed instructions on how to reach the Port of Dover without going on the M20 or A 20 - and they delivered. The moral is “Trust British traffic police”. Soon, we were in Luxembourg, to avoid all road tolls. Finally after a long drive, we reached the French Jura (Franche Comte). ‘Jura’ comes from the same root a Jurassic, linked to dinosaurs and it is also a mountain range. Franche Comte is situated in Burgundy in a remote area of eastern France, which has France’s loveliest villages. There are no shops, no modern shop signs, which makes one understand Napoleon’s observation that the British are ‘a nation of shopkeepers’. Jura is also wine-growing region and specialises in white cows and their cheese. Jura wines are very distinctive wines, using the local Savagnin grape variety. A local speciality like sherry, called “Vin Jaune”. Other grape varieties include Poulsard, Trousseau, and Chardonnay. Main wines across France are Chardonnay, Chablis and Burgundy. Chardonnay is like champagne and often a constituent. The villages in the Jura feel ‘authentic’ but during August, there are no people around, due to The Great French Holiday - creating a sense of ongoing alarm about breaking down and having to walk for 20 kilometres - the basis of comedies like “Mr Bean”. There seemed only our AirBnB hostess, Antoinette, who was still in the Jura, who was most welcoming. She gave us breakfast in a room with a lovely pastoral views. She sold the charms not only of AirBnB, but of her rural region and convinced us to consider visiting it. Again, we were able to eat in which was useful since we saw no restaurants, anyway. In the breakfast room, with green views, she gave us homemade jams and regional cheese.
Sunday 16 August - Reaching Piedmont
We decided to enter Italy through the Frejus Road Tunnel avoiding the Pass of Mont Cenis . Until the Frejus was built during the 1970s, one had to use the Pass built by Napoleon in 1803 and before that, probably walked over the top.
This route was the leading Pass between France and Italy until the end of the 19th century, though English poet, John Milton, around 1640 preferred to sail from Marseilles to Genoa to avoid this hazardous, high and endless Alpine trek. Basically, the Alps are a hundred or more miles wide. British painter Turner and his fellows got stuck in a broken stagecoach in a snowdrift on Mont Cenis and had to light a fire to survive, until rescue came - which Turner ably painted. Currently a huge political battle to build a high speed rail link from Paris (and London) to Turin through this valley and then through Val Susa, with passionate environmental objectors working hard to halt all work. The fast train would cut journey time into Italy probably making it possible to reach Italy from London, in a few hours. Currently, using Eurostar, one can leave London around 6am and arrive in Turin by 4pm on the same day, the return ticket costing about £115. That seems good enough to me.
Mother’s adventure on Mont Cenis in 1949
I wanted to see Susa, in Val Susa in Italian Savoy, on the eastern side of Mont Cenis mainly because when she was eighteen in 1949, my mother arrived there after the ‘big end’ (a mechanical part) of the family car, a 1934 Morris 12 known as a bull-nosed Morris ceased up at the foot of Mont Cenis on the French side. Her father returned to France, probably to St Jean de Maurienne, where the French mechanics and local people were very helpful. The car was repaired in two days, before being (hair-raisingly) dragged over Mont Cenis on a wooden pole, by a local taxi. Susa was the first town in Piedmont and Italy she ever came to and she was struck at how different ‘romantic Italy’ was (though it was actually ‘Piedmont’) to poor, totally ruined France, where, in the larger cities, the poor French were living in piles of rubble, with chimneys sticking out.
They stayed overnight in a hotel in Susa. She went to the cinema with a Milanese businessman who proposed to her in the morning - but at least he asked her father first. They made a quick escape. I look at Piedmont as the potential alternative life of my mother. Having seen the treacherous route and height of the massive and endless mountain passes, I find it difficult to believe my grandfather managed to cross the Alps in a 15 year old car that had spent the whole War propped up on bricks in his garage.
Susa is a very ancient Ligurian and Roman town. We saw the Arch of Augustus probably built in the 1st century AD to mark a peace between Caesar Augustus and the ‘King of the Alps’ and Ligurians (Celtic Gauls, the original tribes of this region). This King of the Alps was Marcus Julius Cottius, whose name still lends itself to the Cottian Alps on the western side of Piedmont and whose capital was Segusio - Susa, today.
There is also a aquaduct and Roman castle. We were fascinated by the acoustic of its perfectly formed Roman amphitheatre. One’s voice carries afar, without amplification, using energy saving classical science.
Cisalpine Gaul means “Gauls or Celts on this side of the Alps”. Rome laid claim Cisalpine Gaul including Piedmont, Lombardy, Veneto and Emilia in the 220s BC and granted its tribes Roman citizenship in 49BC. Augustus merged Cisalpine Gaul with Rome in 42 BC, so we might say that the modern Piedmontese are Celto-Romans with barbarian overlay. Paolo, my husband, feels Celtic and he is fascinated by all Celtic cultures and languages.There are Celtic words in Piedmontese. Three Roman poets came from Cisalpine Gaul: Livy from Padua, Virgil from Mantua and Catullus from Sirmione on Lake Garda. The southern border of Cisalpine Gaul was The Rubicon (‘Rubicone’) which Caesar crossed and caused havoc. It is a shallow river just south of Ravenna.
"Gallia Cisalpina-fr" by © Sémhur / Wikimedia Commons. Licensed under FAL via Commons
We bought a ‘focaccia di Susa’ for which Susa is famous - a kind of sweet bread. After lunch in the ancient arcades, we drove down Susa Valley, past so called ‘symbol of Piedmont’, the awesome Sacra di San Michele guarding a key pinnacle. This ancient monastery inspired the novel “The Name of the Rose” by Umberto Eco which relates, in some way to The Inquisition which formed in response to the ‘heretic’ Waldensian church and its valleys - our destination, close by. We arrived in the Waldensian valley of Val Pellice an hour later and reached Bobbio Pellice, our destination, by late afternoon.
We changed and took our part in the launch of a book by Italian MP Lucio Malan, which was very well attended.
I filmed proceedings, including a passionate speech by Paolo who somehow managed to keep awake, even after driving the majority of 900 miles in less than two days. I was dismayed next day to find that our video camera had broken and the inspiring film had been lost.We stayed in Forterocca Conference Centre in Bobbio Pellice, for three nights.
Monday 17 August - Val Pellice and the View
While the Conference continued, I went for a walk in Bobbio Pellice, in its perfect setting of an amphitheatre of mountains. In the street market, I greeted a US missionary I met last year who was a picture of improved health after living in Bobbio for twelve months. She is walking 10 km each day, in the mountains and eats only local slow food.. She believes she will never return to the USA, where she feels it impossible to get anything but processed and “GM food”. She is living evidence of the positive effects of the living in Val Pellice and slow food.
We had a communal lunch with members of SAV, ‘Sentieri Antici Valdese’ otherwise known as Old Waldensian Paths at which we all shared the focaccia di Susa. Then we left in a fleet of cars for the village of Rora (‘Dawn’) in the next Waldensian valley. Stefano lectured us on the resistance of Rora Valley down the centuries and on its championing of freedom of religion, even successfully hiding Jews during World War Two. We climbed to a delightful hidden restaurant overlooking Rora and Val Pellice and walked up from there, to an observation point, with an extensive view of the Po Valley, from which Waldensian farmer-warriors would have seen armies coming to attack them in just enough time to alert the people of the valleys to flee to their hiding places in the rugged Alps. The wide views from this point over the Po Valley were breathtaking, encompassing the ‘monadnock’ of Cavour, the top of a mountain completely surrounded by alluvial sediments. The effect on many of us of the view over Piedmont and our sense of unity was revitalising, helped by the smell of pine woods. That evening, Paolo led a worship service of SAV.
Tuesday 18 August - Househunting for fun
Daniela, Paolo and I went ‘house hunting’ for fun, only out of interest, because the house prices in this region are still dropping. We could not find any estate agencies open in Torre Pellice, but we saw an advert for a £3000 flat which one could buy that on a credit card. We surmised it was either haunted, or had rats. We had tea in my favourite Caffe Londra in Torre Pellice. Then we went to the home of someone who had invited us for cakes and coffee (and delicious tea), a new contact, a village in beautiful Angrogna Valley (‘Valley of Groans’). It still looks much the same as it did, in English engravings, in 1820. This was once a ‘Riviera’ for British Christians. Prime Minister Gladstone even visited. The English hired houses here in droves, raved about the beauty of Angrogna and wrote novels about the Waldensians and their intrepid resistance down the centuries.
This lady knew of an elderly lady locally seeking to sell her house - which we were shown over. Such a treat! It was a dreamy, romantic, elegant house with stunning mountain views, including precipitous Castelluzzo, from which, reportedly, John Milton believed three Waldensian mothers and their families were thrown off in 1655 (one Waldensian baby survived). The house had its own gated entrance, private driveway, garage, two bedrooms, a huge cellar with ancient wine press, extensive kitchen gardens and orchards and a vine-covered verandah. Its interior offered enough space for fine dining, a grand piano and an office.
The only drawback was constant barking next door. I mentioned this to Paolo who said that “Barking dogs are a feature of Italy - you just have to put up with them”. Hmmn. The price was a little high for this area, so no offer would have been forthcoming, even if we could have afforded it. That evening we went out to eat in Bobbio Pellice. I encountered multiple antipasto courses (6-8 of them) typical of Piedmont cuisine and my least favourite feature.. One was raw meat, which I omitted. I saw horse meat ‘Equino’ advertised in supermarkets. Raw meat is always bit dodgy, in my view. Frankly, I am not enamoured of endless first courses, even those containing truffles since by the time the main course arrives one is full. We decided to skip them thereafter and head straight for the main dish.
Wednesday 19 August - Roman Turin and The Royal Palace of Savoy
We set out for Turin, parking quite easily in the centre of this elegant city as most Turinese were away. We found the Piedmontese bookshop. Here, I bought a book in French on Piedmontese cookery while Paolo collected a rare Piedmontese dictionary he had arranged to be delivered there.
Then he showed me an impressive area of Turin that I had never yet seen - The Royal Palace, built around 1630, attached to the church built in 1580 which houses the Shroud of Turin, which until then had been in Savoy’s previous capital Chambery where it was damaged by fire. The church is next to the great Roman Gate of ‘Augusta Taurinorum’, the Roman city which became Turin. The Roman remains are hugely evocative. Walking along the Roman road to the gate is for real. We ate lunch almost sitting on the Roman road. It was like being on a film set.
The Royal Savoy Palace in Turin is sumptuous and (over) highly gilded. The Royal family of Savoy originally ruled Savoy from Chambery in France since The Kingdom of Savoy then straddled the Alps. They switched the capital to Turin and built themselves some fine palaces and castles across Piedmont, many of which remain. These delipidated gardens were closed but should be opened for public use of the Turinese. They are strangely overgrown because municipal money is short. Why not appeal for volunteers? I spotted in the floor, a prototype ‘RAF’ symbol.
The armoury is breathtaking.
The attached Roman ‘Museum of Antiquities’ is resplendent, offering intact Roman glassware and a hoard of formerly crushed silver called “The Treasure of Marengo” found near a farmhouse in Marengo, near Alessandria, in Piedmont, most famous for the victory of Napoleon and the name of his horse, Marengo, a grey Arab part of Napoleon’s ‘mystique’. Marengo could gallop 80 miles in 5 hours and was captured at Waterloo. its skeleton is now displayed in Chelsea Army Museum, in London. Roman Marengo Treasures were restored offering a representation of a Roman Emperor with uneven eyes, Lucius Verus AD 61-69
He was co-Emperor with Marcus Aurelius and conquered the Parthians. We also saw the impressive art gallery, including a fine “washing and drying of Holy Feet” by Veronese.
The Mystery of the Shroud of Turin
We went to see the shroud of Turin, which is hidden in a gilded box. The area is still ‘sacred’ so no one takes photos and Catholics cross themselves and kneel, in spite of the Catholic Church not claiming it is the shroud of Christ, just that of ‘a man’.
I noted with interest that the nail marks go through the wrist, not the hands which cannot happen in an actual crucifixion. Carbon dating, from three separate scientific labs puts the date of the shroud at around 1300. No one knows how the image was actually made, but it has one very odd feature, which no one has yet replicated. The image on the shroud is a negative.
This fact only came to light when someone photographed it at the end of the 19th century. The plate came chemical processing as a negative (white on black) and it showed a face in three dimensions . This meant that the original on the Shroud is a positive image of a negative 3D image. One can only imagine the shock of the photographer. It is fascinating that the shroud was revered for centuries before this finding was made. The body is anatomically correct. The blood appears to be blood group AB. NASA has done tests on whether the higher parts of the body were actually higher and they are. Paolo half subscribes to a theory that the shroud comes from a crucified man who died in medieval times, but even that cannot explain how a negative image got right inside the shroud, and also a 3D positive one. Incidentally, its weave is herringbone, a complex weave, not thought to be a feature of linen weaving around 33AD. Archeologists have found some shrouds of High Priests and they are a simpler pattern. Hence, in spite of the carbon test results, the shroud is still a mysterious object.
We had picked another AirBnB host off the internet in the morning, so rather than camping we headed for Alba in the Le Langhe wine growing region of Piedmont. We found two nice women in a lovely farmhouse who were very hospitable. On the way, at Moncalieri, we paid our respects at Paolo’s family vault. I am afraid that I climbed right onto it, but only to take photos of everyone to put them on his family tree. Everyone has a photo which makes things personal and heart warming. There is a kind of social competition in Italian cemeteries to ensure that there are always fresh flowers. If an Italian family vault has no constant flowers, families start muttering that this family is somehow loveless, disrespectful and failing - some pressure! I have no idea what the Italians would think of my family’s few tottering gravestones.
Thursday 20 August - Le Langhe and Slow Food Movement
We saw Santa Vittoria in Le Langhe, the chalky wine-growing district of Piedmont. This is the real life venue of the 1960s film “The Secret of Santa Vittoria” though it was filmed in a town in Lazio.
The film is about the whole village being complicit in the secret of hiding its precious stocks of wine from the Nazis in caves under the hilltown. The caves are still there and still private. Since the Cinzano factory, in the village of Cinzano, is at the bottom of the hill of Santa Vittoria, we imagine that the secret caves are still there. Oddly, the brand Cinzano is now owned by Campari, an alcoholic herbal recipe like vermouth, popular in the 1960s, but it no longer seems to have a market share. One cannot buy Cinzano (Vermouth) in local supermarket in Cinzano, but one can buy Cinzano white wine with the Cinzano logo. Waitrose staff have since told me ‘Cinzano’ still exists and that it can be used to make Martinis. They stock it for around £7 a bottle.
We proceeded past the base of an antique Roman memorial or ‘Trophy’ to Roman Consul Gaius Marius’s victory at Turriglio. He beat warlike Germanic Cimbri, a tribe who were invading Italy with the Teutons in 101BC. It is in honour of this battle that Santa Vittoria (victory) probably got its name.
The Slow Food Movement
We soon arrived at the heart of the world famous Slow Food Movement which is the ancient Roman town of Pollentia (modern Pollenzo). Here Carlo Petrini from Bra, who famously protested against MacDonalds on the Spanish Steps, has set up an international food institution, the University of Gastronomic Sciences which relates food to culture and trains top chefs in organic local foods to counter the ‘evils’ of mass production. This is also the home of the national Italian Wine Bank, preserving the whole range of wine from Italy and its best vintages.
We walked around Pollenza’s ancient amphitheatre, now a charming community housing complex of multicoloured, delightful homes built into the circular walls of the Roman auditorium. The old gladiatorial arena is a kitchen garden, a huge improvement on its original purpose. Paolo stood next to the curving Roman bricks which make up part of the house facades.
In the afternoon, we visited local hilltown, Cherasco, another Roman hill town built to a grid system, delightful and intentionally classical, even pagan. Even the churches appear to be ancient Temples, Mary taking the place of Minerva or Juno.
We were interested in the Jewish synagoue of Cherasco which is one of sixteen synagogues in Piedmont, but this one is not in regular use. There was a Jewish community engaged in silk and banking in Cherasco, but the Jews of Piedmont fell prey to the German Nazi persecution of the Second World War.
Friday 21 August - Manta Castle
We crossed westwards to Manta, a 12th century castle created by the Margraves of Saluzzo. This was the setting of Chaucer’s story based on Boccaccio’s tale (in ‘Decameron’) about Griselda, the patient wife of the cruel Galtieri, Duke of Saluzzo. This story was possibly taken from a previous Piedmontese folk tale. Such is the enduring power of this ‘wife-testing’ story, in both Boccaccio (Italian) and Petrarch (Latin), that we drove through a village where Griselda’s image was painted on every wall. Was this a warning to cruel men - or was this where the folk tale originated?
The Castle of Manta is in Manta is just south of Saluzzo, under Monviso, which obstinately remained shrouded in mist. Manta Castle is famous for its profane Late Gothic medieval frescoes and for being given to FAI the Italian National Trust in 1983 by the beautiful Contessa Elisabeth Provana Sabbione in the 1980s, who received it as dowry from her grandfather after the extinction of the Counts of Saluzzo and Manta. Since I was reading, at this point “Daphne du Maurier and her Sisters” set in the 1930s, her romantic 1930s photo seemed relevant - similarly about ‘privilege and beauty’.
The profane Late Gothic frescoes are bright, breathtaking and comic, painted by an anonymous “Painter of Manta”. They relate to heroes and heroines in high medieval fashion, taken from classical, Jewish and Christian sources.
Part of the frescoe is “The Fountain of Youth” into which the elderly eagerly jump and regain their youth, vitality and amorousness. I particularly liked the painted red peasant taking off his stockings.
In the attic, which offered adult ‘dressing up’, I attired myself as a medieval Piedmontese peasant. I loved the padded rolled medieval headdress.
In the afternoon, we drove up Val Varaita where a food speciality is a wheat-free potato ‘ravioli’ with toma cheese, covered in cream. We reached Sampeyre, where Occitan (another language of Piedmont) is still spoken, still some way from the pass into France.
Saturday 22 August - Cortemiglia Hazelnut Festival
We visited La Morra, which has a high and panoramic view of Barolo, famous for its costly red wine and the surrounding Le Langhe wine district, with its white chalky earth, so beneficial for vines. In its market, I bought organic truffle risotto. The truffle smell is so strong that I have to lock it away to prevent it infecting everything. We were was also testing some local dry wines, such as dry Arneis.
We visited Alba where I bought Tartufo Nero and Bianco cakes. a kind of jokey wheat-free cake that looks like a truffle taken fresh from the ground. It is made of almonds.
In the evening, having seen it advertised on local TV, we drove to Cortemiglia Hazelnut Festival. Cortemiglia is world famous for its hazel nuts. Its name reportedly comes from the Roman cohort of Aemilia. Inside the town's coat of arms, the name is displayed as “Cohors Aemilia” which could relate to Marco Emilio Scaurus. He, or possibly his father, was the creator of the Roman road “Via Aemilia Scauri” that connected Savona with Its hinterland. Paolo ate fritto misto, another Piemontese dish, with fried polenta and a fried flower.
I had truffle risotto. We ate our whole dinner walking up and down the streets, buying it off the stalls, with the local currency - a delightful idea. It was polished off by by Italian hazelnut ice cream. We have since found out that FraAngelico, a delicious liquer comes from hazelnuts in this area manufactured in nearby Canale in Piedmont. It goes perfectly with wonderful hazelnut cakes from this region.
Sunday 23 August - Cuneo and Peveragano, Southern Piedmont
We drove to an agriturismo, a farm B&B, in Southern Piedmont in the province of Cuneo, in fertile luxurious green cornfields still ripening for the end of September’s corn harvest. This corn makes the staple Northern Italian food, ‘polenta. This green corn is very healthy, already as high as an elephant’s eye, in contrast to the weaker corn in eastern France wilting due to high summer heat. Green corn set against the blue Maritime Alpines on three sides is very typical of this region, an idyllic setting - and my favourite colour scheme (green and blue).
Our lodging provided us with superb slow food for breakfast, including a pure polenta cake and later a mixed cake made with a Unilever’s fine milled polenta flour (available on the internet but note that it must be “amido”), rice flour and local chestnut flour. Mary Berry and UK’s bakers would find it hard to match this light and delicious cake. In relation to the rooms, I would have plumped for more AirBnB accommodation.
Cuneo’s Slow Food
We went to Paolo’s elegant, almost Parisian home city of Cuneo founded as an independent city by its citizens in 1198, which thereafter lost its status to the Marquis of Saluzzo, and then the Angevines. It fell to the Duke of Savoy in 1382.
It was well known for harbouring the Resistance during World War Two and a satellite town Boves is where, tragically, one in ten residents were shot in a Nazi reprisal. In Italy, in August, many restaurants are closed and one can end up in a Chinese restaurant - but In his home quarter, Paolo spotted an invisible restaurant in what used to be an oily garage.
It is now a trendy restaurant, the place to be in Cuneo, unpromising on the outside but cutting-edge, inside. It serves slow food at half the price of French food, averaging about 7 euros a main course. I hope to review it on Trip Advisor (“Al Bistrot Dei Vinai” Cuneo. www.albistrotdeivinai.it) because it is brilliant at wheat-free dishes and affordable too.
We wandered around looking at windows in the rain. I loved a display of boiled wool Italian hats reminiscent of the 1930s. Goods in Italy are so stylish and thoughtfully crafted.
Monday 24 August - Rained off
We visited pleasing Peveragno’s weekly market to inspect local produce. We met a couple, former teachers in London in the supermarket desperately keen to speak English after two months renovating their mountain house. They said in England that “we know how to work and make money - but not how to live”. They are seeking to emigrate to its slower pace of life with their young children, but they never see any English in this area. We were hoping to attend a wine festival in the evening but were rained off. We saw the largest dome in the area at The Sanctuary of Vicoforte.
Then we went to the normally beautiful Mondovi which has a spectacular view of Piedmont and the Alps. The name means “I saw the whole world”. We could see nothing through rain. As a result of the bad weather, we returned to our favourite restaurant in Cuneo, where I had my first wheat-free pizza in thirty years. The secret is to roll the bland wheat-free pasta very thin and top with fresh pesto. That night, I finished reading a Life of Gladstone who loved Italy, and then started a Life of Milton, who also loved Italy. Both of them spoke Italian. Classicist Liberal Prime Minister Gladstone influenced the modern Italian state, through his close relationship with Garibaldi and his love for the wider country. Now there are some who want to reverse that!
Piazza Maggiore, Mondovi (Attrib. Wikipedia)
Monday - 25 August - First tour of the Occitan Valleys of Piedmont
Paolo took me to see a few of the many Occitan Valleys spreading out from Cuneo in a fan into the Maritime Alps. The first was Valle Gesso. We shopped in Entraque, meaning “between waters” - a mountain village of some attraction and plenty of slow food, including very mouldy local cheeses, one a local mix of sheep and goats cheese. In the main square, we saw four African immigrants well dressed and using mobile phones, but clearly not integrating. The baker in Susa had told us that the Italian State is sending coaches of immigrants to Italian villages, giving grants to care for them. I was rather disturbed by what I saw, as no one was speaking to them. I later realised this was due to the language barrier. News reports were coming in of similar situations across Italy, including in the remote hill towns in Tuscany, and reportedly Africans were wondering what they were doing there. No doubt they would rather be in a city, not feeling so isolated.
We went up a side valley, and found a lovely mountain stream to set up a picnic lunch. After lunch, we headed for the Royal Spa of Terme di Valdieri. The Royal House of Savoy in the 19th century holidayed here. Since the 16th century, English nobles were attending the Court of Savoy which came here for its health. These English, ever interested in taking home new plants, founded The “English Botanical Garden”, recently reopened.
We did its hour long circular walk up through boulders and pine trees. Then we inspected the Spa hotel and boiling springs which are open to the public, out of season.
Wednesday - 26 August - Second tour of the Occitan Valleys of Piedmont
Paolo drove into Valley Grana which was emptied of its men by World War One and Two. Apparently its minority male Occitan population was sent to the Eastern Front in World War Two. Most and most of them tragically never returned. Since the Iron Curtain came down, the Germans have been identifying 250,000 of their lost troops, each year. No such research has happened for these people and they unlikely now to be identified. Most were lost but some deserted, married Russian women and stayed there. Their loss and ongoing emigration since then has left a gap in these valleys. So we were moved when we found a town of ‘straw people’ (Monterosso Grana). The disappeared have reappeared in straw.
At the top of the valley, is a high place, a Catholic sanctuary, Castelmagno, in honour of a Roman soldier. In fact, a pagan shrine to Mars has been found underneath it. This would be a Sunday ‘day out’ for Italians. Visiting these sanctuaries and having lunch or a picnic is the equivalent of going to see a National Trust property.
It certainly looked like pagan idolatry to me but it is likely San Magno was a martyred Roman evangelist. He should probably be dressed like a monk. Famous British travel writer, Freya Stark, who was half italian, was brought up in one of the Occitan valleys - at Dronero, in Val Maira.
For more information on the linguistic, culinary, artistic traditions of the Occitan Valleys of Piedmont, see this Guide. As a result of this trip, we are now viewing an Italian film about these communities in relation to immigration called “Il Vento fa il suo Giro” (2005) set in Val Maira. Here are other Italian films about immigration.
Thursday 27 August - Annecy
We drove all day, via the Frejus Tunnel, to Annecy in France, also in the old Kingdom of Savoy which encompassed Chambery, but now in the modern ‘Savoie’. Piedmont and Savoie still have similar flags. We admired the old town and Lake of Annecy but not its food prices.
Then, thanks entirely to our satellite navigator, we reached our next AirBnB stopover in Neuville-Sur-Ain, a tiny place, near Bourg-en-Bresse. We spent two nights in the small home of someone who works in the Alps, in winter, but makes a living from renting out her home, in summer. It was a delightful place, with three cats which we cared for. We sat outside on her small but perfect terrace in the sunshine, drinking French wine. Finally, it was very hot.
Friday 28 August - The Flemish Monastery of Brou
We saw from a distance a huge Royal Savoy chateau nearby at Pont sur Ain, up for sale for a reasonable £700,000. The mother of Francis 1st, Louise of Savoy was born in it. Who would want the burden of its upkeep?
We visited the great Royal Monastery of Brou, outside Bourg- en-Bresse, a stunning Flemish religious complex built in early 16th century and unchanged since then - by Margaret of Austria, Duchess of Savoy, the mistress and trainer of young Anne Boleyn, who served in the Netherlands as a girl. It houses three royal tombs of the Royal House of Savoy.
One tomb was that of Philibert II known as “the Good” Duke of Savoy, who died aged 24 and another was his wife, Margaret of Austria who later governed The Netherlands and commissioned Brou Abbey from a Flemish artist (though she never saw Brou herself). Brou is romantic poetry in stone. Margaret’s effigy faces her husband both as a matron, on top, and underneath as a maid with long, flowing hair. Philibert lies likewise in two poses, looking in her direction. This is clearly denoting an eternal love match.
The town art gallery is housed in the monastery’s Flemish style rooms, Brou offers the kind of ineffable beauty that induces silence and remains long in the mind.
Saturday - 29th August - Flanders
We co-drove in about 7 hours 700 kms to Flanders and our next AirBnB flat in a farm complex, a lovely Flemish house near Bruges (I can give its details to anyone visiting Bruges, with a car). We nicknamed its novel charming bedrooms with seven beds ‘Hobbit House’.
Sunday - 30th August Ypres and Talbot House
We visited uplifting Ypres in the morning and admired its stunning centre, rebuilt after World War One by German reparations, then contemplated the numerous missing named on the Menin Gate. I realised this is named after a village a few miles from Ypres called ‘Menem’. Who changed the spelling?
There is no English Sunday morning service in the English Church, St George’s Memorial Church in Ypres, built in the late 1920s. On the walls are many plaques by English public schools, including Cranleigh School and Fettes but none to Eltham College, my father’s dchool (a school for “the Sons of Missionaries”). Eltham College lost more men in World War One than any other British public school (probably sacrificially).
We then drove to the WW1 Toc H Christian Centre, ‘Talbot House’ in Poperinge, where thousands of troops gained hours of respite from hell between 1915 and 1918 and where rank did not count. It was seen as an island of civilisation in “a sea of madness”. The house was rented by army chaplains, from a wealthy Belgian.
I played my grandfather’s favourite World War One cheeky song Mme of Armentieres (based on a French tune of the 1830s) on the same piano that had entertained the British troops during World War One. He would have sung along - as these men would they. It was my 100th year tribute to these Christians and their resilient generation.
We were offered a perfect English tea in a setting similar to a London Club. At one point, Talbot House had a library and strict rules on borrowing books but it managed it all. In the attic, the World War One chapel remains. 10,000 Holy Communion Services (twice a day) were held here between 1915 and 1918. 800 men were confirmed in this Chapel and about 50 baptised.
The whole area is peppered with WW1 British Military Cemeteries, in what is still called The Ypres Salient. Both Churchill and Hitler fought in the Ypres Salient - clearly on opposite sides.
We sailed from Dunkirk at 8pm GMT and later heard that our fellow travellers, at Calais, had been held up for many hours blockaded in port by former “myferrylink” workers. I was so glad we took the cheaper crossing from Dunkirk as being trapped on a boat, without food I can eat, would not do me any good. We arrived home at 11pm having co-driven about 2,400 miles in all. Due to AirBnB and our international contacts, I feel it was one of our best trips ever.
Piedmontese Food and Wine
Recipe for Piedmontese Dessert - Bonet - for 8 people
4 egg yolks
2 whole eggs
200g of caster sugar
80g bitter cocoa
100g grams of crushed amaretti
1 litre of milk
a little glass of rum
Beat the egg yolks and whites of the eggs and half the sugar. Add the cocoa and amaretti finely crushed. Dllute with the milk and rum, without forming lumps. Caramelise the rest of the sugar, coat a mould with high sides, reheat if necessary and work fast before the sugar sets. Pour in the creme and cook in a bain-marie for an hour. Take out the mould and put in cold water. Take off the mould when it is completely chilled. Ideal for winter months, even Christmas Day or a winter birthday party.
Serve cold possibly with a touch of cream (it is rich already) with Moscato or Brachetto.
Observations on Piemontese Cuisine
All this results in a ‘high’ food and wine culture, in which fine cooks, who are common, experiment and try new ideas - even to suit wheat free requirements. Above all, they are imaginative. The cuisine is the most influential, possibly in the world with the Slow Food Movement, and its training school, integrated now deeply into it.
Here are some useful guidelines on how to serve Piedmontese wines and liqueurs: