An Affair in Piemonte Part I

Piemonte size

Our little factory is growing. Our marshmallows are a case in point. Until now each marshmallow has been individually hand-dipped and smothered in Belgian couverture chocolate, one at a time. So central is the ritual of chocolate dipping in our factory, that it has a rhythm – all the dippers shake off the extra chocolate creating a cacophony of triangle percussion. It’s lovely, it’s lyrical. But it’s not practical when you have to get an order of a couple thousand marshmallows out. The natural progression for Ooh La La was to get a chocolate enrober. Chocolate enrobers are a heavenly chocolate invention created by the Europeans. Imagine a continuous double curtain of falling Belgian couverture chocolate, tempered to the perfect degree. Your confections pass through the walls of falling chocolate and become smothered, and then generously enrobed in layers of chocolate. That’s a chocolate enrober. As you may imagine, chocolate enrobers aren’t sold at the local appliance shop. They’re a niche European specialty, found in specific locales in France, Italy and more recently the United States.

You can see where this is heading: a chocolate enrober reconnaissance mission was absolutely essential. So, I planned a business trip to France and Italy  to go meet my future chocolate enrober. As I looked on the map, I saw the factory was in the Piemonte region of Italy where I had already forged a close connection with a little mint farm which infused my marshmallows and my dark mint chocolate. A ticket was booked.

Mint marshmallows.jpg

A note on Piemonte: Located in the North West region of Italy (picture the top left corner of the Italian boot), Piemonte is a little region that punches way above its size.   It is famous for its rolling Langher hills which produce the sublime Barolo and Barbaresco wines and the finest hazelnuts in the world, and it is renowned for mineral-rich soil in which mint leaves and truffles happily flourish. As if this weren’t enough, some of the greatest chocolate inventions developed right here, in Piemonte. During the Napoleonic reign (1796-1814), there was a strain on cocoa supplies all over Europe. A chocolatier in Turin took some initiative and ‘stretched’ the little chocolate he had by mixing it with local hazelnuts. In so doing, he invented the concept of the chocolate hazelnut paste called ganduia. Who knew that something as awful as a restriction on chocolate could result in the invention of one of the world’s finest chocolate indulgences! Ganduia was the birth of a chocolate hazelnut movement.  It was many years later that the famed Ferrero Rocher knowingly chose the hazelnut and ganduia rich Piemonte region to develop his own chocolate hazelnut specialty. Through his genius, Nutella was born. Children’s breakfasts have never been the same.

Forgive my digressions on chocolate. I suppose it is no wonder, with this rich chocolate history, that Piemonte has become the home of the leading artisanal chocolate machinery company, Selmi. When I walked into Selmi for the first time, it was a quasi-religious experience. I was so moved by the quality of the equipment and the integrity of the people, that I decided there and then that this was going to be where I would acquire my future enrober. This came with a little guilt, because my enrober reconnaissance mission was meant to take me from Italy to France. Given that I am a certified Francophile, it took some courage to choose the Italian over the French product.  I had a tinge of guilt that I was being a little unfaithful to my first love.

On arriving at Selmi I was met by a charming Italian engineer called Sylvano. As I walked in, anxious to see the equipment, I was slightly distracted by the factory workers. Every single one was a well dressed, good looking and articulate Italian young man. It was the opposite of a clinical assembly line. It had the full professionalism of a world-class factory but every employee was alive, engaged and passionate about the company. The employers at the factory were delightful, answered my questions, showed me all the chocolate machines and indulged all my enrober curiosities. As I stood next to my future enrober, putting my guilt aside,  I envisioned thousands of Ooh La La marshmallows and other confections passing through the chocolate waterfall, transformed on the other side.

 

After they answered all my questions, Sylvano and his team took me for lunch to one of the first Eataly’s in the world. Eataly was developed by Oscar Farienetti, when he converted a closed vermouth factory in Turin into Eataly’s first location. Eataly originated as a European whole-foods supermarket, a food learning centre where customers get to eat and learn at the same time, observing how food is made and prepared. Our chocolate team  sat together at a long, family style table. And in between the fascinating conversation, I paid grateful attention to my absolutely delicious lunch, a specialty of the region, vitello tonnato. I later discovered that this Eataly lunch was not a special outing for the chocolate factory staff. It was their daily lunch canteen.  I think I’ll apply for a job there in my next life.

While I am sitting in Eataly, my mind wanders back to my first day in Piemonte. I was staying in a little town called Bra. On arriving, I put my bags down and went straight to a little courtyard restaurant which houses the headquarters of the Slow Food Movement. I had done my research beforehand and I knew lunch started at 12.30 pm, there was no time to waste. Founded by Carlo Petrini, the slow food movement started in 1986. It has since spread worldwide. True to its name, slow food is a response to fast food. It strives to preserve traditional and regional cuisine and is opposed to the globalization of agriculture. Slow Food has opened a University of Gastronomic Science in Pollenzo, Piemonte (my dream university). I  ate my grass-fed raw, veal tartare sausage AND my braised veal (veal is a speciality there), with a basket of garden-to-plate vegetables and their absolutely delicious homemade grissini (local, Turin specialty), accompanied by a good Barolo. While sitting there,  I reflected that I had already imbibed the philosophy of slow food from all the chefs, patissiers and confectioners in the little villages in France where I had learned about the calisson and other delicacies.  They didn’t need a slow food movement, because the culture of slow and careful food was ingrained in their blood and their traditions. I think this kind of ethic is what attracted me to them. Today, this is everything that I stand for and what Ooh La La is about. I care what I put into my food and it’s about a deep relationship between cook and eater. I make my confections, not just for my customers, but with me and my family in mind, just like the grandmothers in Italy who collect their eggs from their garden chickens and make their homemade pasta.

Slow Food new
Clockwise: Raw veal tartare in a sausage casing, braised veal in red wine, the name of the slow food restaurant Osteria Boccondivino, me with the chefs at the restaurant.

 

 

Osteria slow food
Osteria Boccondivino, the name of the slow food restaurant in Bra

 

Who has time in this day and age, to sit on your own and eat a slow lunch? As a Jo’burg mama from my business to my babies, I feel I am always on the go. It’s the most powerful experience to sit on your own, eat a delicious meal, enjoy the flavours, watch the other people walk in for their slow lunch. At this point, I want to invite you to go, pour yourself  a glass of red wine and come back to continue reading, in a slow way.

Piemonte is an area rich in delicacies and history.   One of the rare gifts of this region is the prized white truffle, that flourishes in the town and surrounding forests of Alba. When we moved into our Jo’burg home, I became close friends with a renowned judge called Geoffrey Leveson, who was known for his fierce judgements and had been dubbed ‘ogre of the courts’. Geoffrey and I connected over mushrooms and our love for our small, beautiful neighbourhood, Abbotsford. We would go on mushroom-hunting excursions together into the nearby park. The frightening judge Geoffrey would become transformed, donning a pair of gingham shorts with a weaved basket in hand. He was my gatekeeper to the world of mushrooms helping me to differentiate poisonous from edible and teaching me how to pick them. He gave me his favourite recipe for a medley of mushroom ragu. Jo’burg is rich in many things. But our soil doesn’t grow truffles.

The truffle lowdown: Untamed, uncontrollable, truffles refuse to be cultivated. They only grow in the wild, among the roots of certain trees, from three to fifteen centimeters below the ground. They ripen just once a year – in the month of October, in one place in the world, the hills and surrounds of Alba, under certain, random and unidentifiable  truffle bearing trees. Once a truffle bearing tree is discovered by a truffle hunter, he keeps this information secret till his dying breath.  To add to this mystery, there are very few truffle hunters and to protect the identity of their prized truffle bearing trees,  they hunt for the truffles at night, at the time of the month where there is no moonshine, lest they be followed. I love this underground, highly protected truffle culture.  Known by many names, the tuber magnatum, the pico tarfutti bianco, the White Alba truffle or Piemonte truffle, a truffle by any  of its names remains the white diamond of Italy. Sold in auctions around the world, people pay hundreds of thousands of dollars for these redolent tubers. With their pungent fragrance, a tiny waft can fill a room and create a swoon. A thin shaving of truffle can transform a dish from ordinary to Ooh La La. Traditionally, truffles were hunted by the surprising specimen of the black female pig. You see, something in the truffle emits an aroma unusually similar to the pheromone of the male boar. To put it more crudely, truffles are a turn on for hogs. My husband has been known to find me in a daze in the kitchen, deeply inhaling my truffle salt. Over time, the pig hunting became an economic liability because when the hog found the truffle it would more often than not, devour it.

Subsequently dogs have been trained in the art of truffle hunting. It had been on my bucket list to visit Alba in October and run around the countryside with yapping dogs and other truffle compatriots, foraging for tubers. But the more I spoke with locals in Alba on this visit, I realized that truffle hunting tourists are being duped. No self- respecting truffle hunter would ever take visitors to a tree where truffles have been found to grow. They are simply too precious. I respect the culture and expertise of these truffle-hunters, but I do have a little fantasy of  going to Alba with my little dog Napolean to find some precious truffles of our own. In fact, I am starting to share a little bit of my truffle salt in his mince, as we speak.

As a postscript to my truffle story, on my flight from Turin to Paris, I sat reading my book on truffles.   The woman sitting next to me turned and inquired as to my fascination with truffles. As we spoke and developed trust, she confided in me (because she is not actually a truffle lover herself), that her best friend had told her that there is a tree behind the Turin community school which produces truffles. Once a truffle tree, always a truffle tree. As Napolean eats his truffle infused dog food, he seems to be acquiring the taste.

One last stop in Piemonte: Some of you might have sampled our Ooh La La chocolate-enrobed, mint flavoured marshmallows or our dark mint chocolate. Our mint is not synthetic or what others refer to as ‘nature identical’. In fact not even from ‘garden to mallow’ would do. No, no no, I had to source the ultimate mint in the world, the archetype of mints, the mother of all mints. As I mentioned above, the exquisite mint flavour of our confections hails from the Piemonte region, from a sweet, little village called Pancalieri, from an intimate, fifth generation, family run mint farm. Grown in silicone rich, well irrigated soil and cultivated on the 45th parallel, (exactly halfway between the North Pole and the equator), the somewhat ordinary mint herb turns into a supermodel of itself in the earth of Pancalieri. In fact, Pancalieri is known for being the medicinal basin of the Piemonte region, giving rise to an array of medicinal and aromatic plants which are used in the liquors and confections of the region. Whatever the reasons, the herb itself yields a fine mint oil, sweet, aromatic, fresh, unique. As I learned about this mint, I wanted to visit the region and touch the soil. On arrival, I was welcomed by the family suffused with pride, although a little bemused at my mint pilgrimage. It gives me such  pleasure to use their mint in our Ooh La La products and it deepens my link to this region. After talking about all things mint, it was time to say goodbye to Piemonte and pay homage to my first love, France before returning to South Africa.

Mint friend
Me with the fifth generation mint farmer. This was the end of winter, and tiny green shoots were just touching the surface of the soil.

 

I left Piemonte rich with the experiences of this little area and feeling a little guilty that I could love a place so much after all my first love and loyalty is always to France. Still, who says you can’t have a little love on the side? After all, I bring in my hazelnuts from the Langhe hills, my mint from Pancalieri and very soon my chocolate enrober will be coming in from Alba, not to mention my truffles. I’m now officially linked to the region!

Time does its turns. As I get ready to post this blog, a couple of months have passed since this first glorious trip to Piemonte which was at the end of their winter season. I have just returned from my second visit to the region, this time in the summer, with  my daughters. The three of us went  on a chocolate enrober training course and a magical discovery of this hidden, precious area through their eyes. Look out for part two of Piemonte, The Affair Continues in my upcoming blog.

Karen

xxxxx

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