11 Things you didn’t know were made in Piemonte
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Piemonte is already famous for producing some of the world’s finest wines. But did you know that this region is the birthplace of many other iconic Italian brands and gastronomic specialties?
Nutella and Fiat are, perhaps, the most well-known 100% Piemontese products. Nutella was invented in 1964 by Dogliani-born chocolate magnate Michele Ferrero, who added vegetable oil to another Made-in-Piemonte specialty called gianduiotto (a chocolate-hazelnut candy created in 1806 in Turin by a chocolatier seeking to reduce the amount of expensive cocoa in chocolates). And Fiat has helped Turin become Italy’s third largest economic center after Rome and Milan since it was founded in 1889. Did you know its letters stood for Fabbrica Italiana Automobili Torino?
Let’s take a look at other famous Piemontese products and specialties you may not have known came from this region.
The idea of mixing herbs and spices with wine—essentially what vermouth is—is as old as civilization itself. But modern-day vermouth, the indispensable cocktail ingredient in classics such as a Manhattan, Negroni, and of course, James Bond’s “shaken, not stirred” martini, was born in Piemonte. In 1786 in Turin, Antonio Benedetto Carpano invented the commercial model for red vermouth, naming it “vermuth.” The Carpano brand was created several years later and is still famous today.
Though the town this cheese is named after is located in Lombardy, there’s a good chance that wedges of this piquant, moldy cheese you buy are Piemontese. The province of Novara in northern Piemonte has become a major producer, making 60% of all of Italy’s gorgonzola cheese and exporting 35% of it. It was here that the first consortium was created to protect it from an onslaught of imitation blue cheeses on the market in 1968. And, though the town of Gorgonzola holds an annual festival in honor of its cheese, it no longer produces it.
Gorgonzola with honey--a match made in heaven. Photo from Paolo Zacchi, Creative Commons
The tramezzino is a petite, two-layered sandwich made with soft white bread sans crust and a spread of ingredients layered beautifully between the strictly triangular layers. Though there is an inordinate amount of debate over this delicate sandwich as to its origins being Piemontese or Venetian, the jury seems to concede its invention in 1926 in Caffè Mulassano in Turin, which still serves them today. It was popularized by the Venetians in Mestre in the late 1950s.
Today, you will hear Italians ordering only a “caffè” and never an “espresso,” but the word is indeed Italian. An espresso distinguishes itself by its method of preparation: a high pressure, steam-powered, intense brew of coffee taken in one ounce servings. Although the modern-day espresso machine was elaborated and perfected elsewhere and the word “espresso” was coined in Milan, the original genius of the idea was from Turin-born Angelo Moriondo. He was granted a patent in 1884 for his “new steam machinery for the economic and instantaneous confection of coffee beverage.” He proudly displayed his machine at the Turin General Exposition.
5. Sparkling wine Martinotti method
Sparkling wine can be made two ways, with secondary fermentation (the part that gives it its bubbles) done in the bottle or in stainless steel. In 1895, Federico Martinotti invented and patented the sparkling wine method in Piemonte (later adapted for industrial production by Frenchman Eugène Charmat in 1907). Before, the only known method to produce bubbly was the somewhat risky and more costly Champagne method, or Metodo classico, with secondary fermentation in the bottle (which was subject to spontaneous explosions!). With the Charmat-Martinotti method, the wine undergoes secondary fermentation in stainless steel autoclaves and is then bottled under pressure. Martinotti’s invention paved the way for spumante, prosecco, and all other sparkling wines not made “traditionally.”
The famous Italian stovetop espresso maker is from Piemonte. In the 1930s, Omegna-born Alfonso Bialetti was inspired by the workings of his and his wife’s washing machine. He observed how the boiling soapy water was pushed up through a tube to scald the dirty clothes in the chamber above, and thought he could repurpose this method in a pared-down size: force steam through coffee grounds, and finish by spilling out into a small pot above the water chamber. With the help of Luigi di Ponti, Bialetti developed the design and in 1933, the Moka Express was born. Bialetti sold the first models in his local Piemontese market.
Moka Express, by Bialetti. Photo by Lloyd Morgan, Creative Commons
The drink-of-the-moment seems to be the strong, intense, and bitter Negroni, which is made with gin, vermouth, and Campari. This bitter orange liqueur was first invented in a small bar in Novara in 1860 from the experiments of Gaspare Campari. Today, the Campari Group is composed of many other alcoholic icons (including SKYY Vodka, Aperol, and Wild Turkey), but Campari was their original product.
7. Slow Food
Today, the Slow Food organization has tens of thousands of members worldwide and champions “good, clean, and fair” food and sustainability. It protects traditional food production, small-time farmers, and has initiated international movements to support its ideals, like 1000 Gardens in Africa. The idea for Slow Food was originally sparked in protest against the opening of a McDonalds—fast food—at the Spanish Steps in Rome. A few years later, the Piemonte-born Carlo Petrini founded the organization in 1989.
If Italians are known for their daily intake of espresso or caffè, then someone has to provide them their fix. One of the most famous brands in Italy and worldwide is Lavazza. Dubbed “Italy’s favorite coffee,” this coffee brand was founded in 1895 by Luigi Lavazza in Turin, where its headquarters are still located today. In fact, while the main production facilities have moved outside the city center, you can still visit the small store where it all started in Via San Tommaso 10. Now, it is a café and restaurant included in the Michelin Guide with vintage Lavazza adverts and calendars.
Lavazza is also well-known for their calendars and ads. Photo from 準建築人手札網站 Forgemind ArchiMedia, Creative Commons
In 2007, Alba native Oscar Farinetti converted a closed vermouth factory in Turin to what has become the world’s source of high quality, authentic Italian food products: Eataly. Today, this supermarket has opened locations in New York City, Chicago, Tokyo, London, Dubai, throughout Italy, and elsewhere. Fresh mozzarella is flown in daily, pizza is made in wood-fired ovens, and you can find all of Italy’s most traditional products, high quality and often artisanal, among its shelves.
11. A unified Italy
It would be brazen to claim that Piemonte created Italy as we know it today, of course. No single region or person went into the complicated tapestry of creating a unified country from disparate nations in 1861. However, many of the political movements and orders at the time came from Turin, seat of the first Italian Parliament. Furthermore, its unification, known as the Risorgimento, is owed in large part to the political handlings of Piemonte-born Count Camillo Benso of Cavour. When politician Giuseppe Mazzini and general Giuseppe Garibaldi were unable to unite Italy, Camillo Benso stepped in with his political acumen to help the movement forward enormously. He often met with nobles, statesmen, and political figures at Caffè Fiorio in Turin to discuss matters of state. King Carlo Alberto would ask what “people were saying in Fiorio” to gain an idea of the political waters. The elegant Caffè Fiorio still serves caffè today on Via Po, 8.
Campari Group. www.camparigroup.com
Consorzio per la Tutela del Formaggio Gorgonzola DOP. www.gorgonzola.com
"Controversie – Il caffè espresso: invenzione torinese, non napoletana." www.comunicaffe.it
Greenbaum, Hilary. "Who Made that Moka Express?" The New York Times blogs.
Helm-Ropelato, Rebecca. "The birthplace of Gorgonzola. Maybe." The Christian Science Monitor.
Minucci, Emanuela. "Il tramezzino compie 90 anni di golosità." La Stampa
Sertl, William. "Campari: Good and Bitter." Saveur
Cover photo by Gianfranco Goria, Creative Commons