Rascal’s Travels to Piemonte: Hail Cesare!
Normally, you don’t expect much from a book given as a present. Most times, people that gift a book really don’t know what you like and what topics really turn you on. In this case, I was surprised…pleasantly surprised. It was a gift that keeps on giving.
For Christmas, I received a copy of the book titled, “The Man Who Ate Everything” by Jeffery Steingarten, food writer for Vogue and Slate. It took me several attempts to get into it. Then, one day I finally made it to a chapter midway through the book: Hail Cesare! It was the story of Chef Cesare Giaccone at Albaretto della Torre at his remote hill top restaurant in near Alba, in the Piemonte region of northern Italy.
Well, I devoured that chapter and kept coming back for more. But, reread after reread, it just wasn’t enough. I could mystically sense his wood burning oven and the rotisserie kid goat roasting slowly over the fire, served with local truffles and wild mushrooms de Alba, mountain top berries, hazelnuts and herbs, but I still needed more. I had to find this man and experience his cuisine first hand.
The first problem was that the book was written in 1997 and by the time I tried to locate Cesare, it was now 2009, more than a decade later. At last, through the miracle of the Internet, I was able to find Chef Cesare, or at least his restaurant’s website. But, following an overseas call, I found out that Cesare’s restaurant was no longer in business. I guessed that he was now up in age and that the rigors of a restaurant had worn on him over his long career.
However, I was told that Cesare was now in semi-retirement, but working as a guest chef and educator at Ristorante da Cesare at the Villa Contessa Rosa on the nearby property of the Fontanafredda Winery. Before I knew it, airline tickets were booked, a car rented, and reservations made for my wife and I to stay at the Lange Hotel in Alba. This was our base of operations so that we could learn more about the local wines of Barbaresco and Barolo and sample the local fare and some of Chef Cesare’s slow roasted, herb infused kid goat.
As is the case with most of my international escapades, my wife served as my universal translator in this Italian endeavor. With her knowledge of Spanish and French and a little study, it was easy for her to master basic communications in Italian.
The day we arrived in the Italian Piemonte it was cool and rainy. The Nebbia (fog) had descended on the high mountain roads (http://vintagetexas.com/blog/?p=1124). It was an appropriate introduction to the only wine region to successfully produce great wines from the Nebbiolo grape. I was told that this success was, in part, due to the Nebbia and thus why Nebbiolo takes its name from their famous fog. The Nebbia comes and goes, and in doing so extends the late harvest season and allows the grapes to slowly ripen.
The day after we arrived, my wife called over to the Fontafredda winery located on the massive estate of King Vittorio Emanuele II, the unifier of Italy. She made a dinner reservation at Ristorante da Cesare and mentioned that we would like to met Chef Cesare, if possible.
There was a long silence, then a short response….”perhaps”. From the chapter in Steingarten’s book, I realized that despite his fame, Cesare was a private man and by personal choice he located in the quite country side rather than amidst the hustle and bustle of big cities to maintain his privacy. So, after this long travel, we would see what would ensue.
The drive to Ristorante da Cesare was about forty five minutes from our hotel in Alba, through lush ripening vines of Nebbiolo grapes and on up into the higher regions that divide Barolo to the west from Barbaresco to the east.
Upon arrival we received a tour of the old Fontafredda winery. We walked through cool, damp stone-walled catacombs. We witnessed massive oaken barrels from the time of the wineries 19th century founding side-by-side with an array of modern rotary fermenters which were the state-of-the-art technology that were redefining the modern Nebbiolo style.
Then, we visited the villa poised on the wooded estate next to a small lake. We watched swans swimming as we walked the trails around the lake as dusk arrived.
As we entered the restaurant, it was a small affair with maybe ten tables but with a vast counter top kitchen that extended into the seating area yielding a full view of the evenings cuisine as it was prepared. Behind the counter was Chef Cesare, a small man dressed in white except for a dark blue bandanna rolled up and tied around his neck. He moved slowly, but deliberately. To the right he tended his wood burning stove and rotisserie. Periodically, he stopped by the rotisserie to smell, taste and add a douse or two of vinegar and more herbs.
The menu was prix fixe: a collection of pre-determined items presented as a multi course meal at a set price. We struggled to translate the menu, then asked questions but received explanations in more Italian. Finally, we came up with the following, but with still a few missing items:
Baby octopus in a raspberry gelatina
Tripe with porcini mushrooms
Tomato risotto minestrone
Rotisserie kid goat with mountain herbs
Sorbet of raspberries, tomato and pineapple
A pear cooked in red wine with a white zabaione (egg nog) sauce
A chocolate mushroom….
The wine pairing was (what else) Fontafredda Barolo selected with ten years of bottle age. It was the only wine that could stand up to this meal that was understandably prepared from local ingredients to match with the local wine. The miraculous aspect of this wine was its offering of low and high notes. The low notes brought wet earth, mushrooms, and other damp forest qualities whereas the high notes were florals and mint-like qualities, all sealed in a refreshing mantle of crisp Italian acidity.
The Rotisserie kid goat with mountain herbs (the holy grail of my quest) was more than I even imagined. I slowly savored it. I let my senses go full open taking in flavors of the meat combined with aromas of smoke and herbs. This was enveloped by the wine as we were surrounded in a restaurant/kitchen that gave little hint of time passing. A wonderful slow food venue that gave my senses time to enjoy the full experience.
As the dinner came to an end, we asked again to speak with Cesare, but the Maitre D made no promises. But, shortly the short moustashioed man dressed in white approached our table. He nodded and then extended his hand. He spoke no English so that conversation was in a combination of Italian, French and Spanish. Before our conversation was finished, he extended us an invitation to stop by his home the following morning for coffee so that we could see his vinegar-making operation that he ran with his son.
As we arrived at Cesare’s hilltop home the following morning, he awaited us and invited us in, but stopping first to show us the barrels out back of his house. Each barrel was labeled with a particular grape varietal (Nebbiolo, Barbera, Muscato and more) and each contained a single varietal vinegar aging in wood in the natural elements summer and winter. Cesare’s son produced a few wine glasses into which he poured small aliquots of vinegar.
I learned quickly that vinegar “tasting” is a completely different than wine tasting. I poked my nose inside the bowl of the wine glass and was quickly overcome by the acerbic vapors that seemed to be drilling me a new nostril. I next took a sip after which I erupted in a coughing fit . Cesare and his son laughed and instructed me to just past the glass back and forth under my nose to capture the vapors combined with air, not full strength as in the bowl of the glass. Then, we showed me how to just touch a drop of vinegar on my tongue (which starts the saliva flowing), then just let it them settle and mix on my tongue’s papillae.
Then, we entered his home where he showed us his art work (painting is one of his hobbies). Inside his house, we walked past table upon table topped with sea salt combined with his dried mountain herbs. As he walked past each one, he dug in his hands, gave it a mix and smelled the aroma on his hands.
Finally, we walked down into his cellar. He had an eclectic mix of wines, some from the region and others likely gifts from abroad. He reached into a dark low shelf and withdrew a 1.5 liter bottle of Barolo and handed it to me. The label appeared to be handmade and read “Barolo 2004, Denominazione d’ Origine Controllata e Garantita, Paiagallo, Prodotto e Imbottigioato da Giovanni Canonica Az. Agricola in Barolo – Italia.” I am still trying to find out more about this wine so that I know what style it is made in and when it will likely to be right for the drinking.
Later, we shared morning coffee. My wife left Cesare and I alone in what was at first a long silence. But then, using a few Spanish words (that are close to their Italian counterparts) and some hand motions, we were able to communicate. I asked him if he had a large family (grande famiglia) and if he came from a big city (città grande).
I had one more opportunity to relive this experience. Since returning to Texas, with the best of my culinary ability I prepared my version of Cesare’s roasted kid goat complete with herbed sea salt and Barolo vinegar gifted to me by Cesare that fine morning.
I hope that someday in the future, someone reads a story that I have written and that they find it captivating enough to reconstruct it and personally enjoy it.
Buon Appetito! More more Barbaresco and Barolo experiences at: http://vintagetexas.com/blog/?p=1138