Eating up the hills
- Written by Laura Avidano
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To truly know a place, a traveler needs to dive into its food culture. This is the perfect itinerary for those who want to get to know the Tortona Hills. This route goes from Slow Food Presidium to Presidium to taste the area's many delicacies and rare gastronomic treasures.
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The first piece of Tortona to sample is the Strawberry of Tortona. A Slow Food Presidium (a valuable and unique artisan food in danger of disappearing, therefore promoted by Slow Food’s Presidia project), this flavorful fruit is similar to a raspberry in size and color. It's sweet, aromatic, and very rare due to its delicate and highly perishable nature. This strawberry is only available for a dozen days during the year during the second half of June. In Tortona, these juicy treats are eaten whole, sprinkled with sugar and soaked in some local Barbera wine. To try this berry at the height of its short season, stop by the farmhouse (Cascina) Carcassola, positioned between the community of Rivalta Scrivia and the Scrivia river. This farmhouse cultivates the strawberries organically, without the use of synthetic chemicals, and zero GMOs.
Ask owner Patrizia about the strawberry, and she'll be more than happy to let you taste them and hand over some recipes, like the "Pasticcini artigianali dell'amica," or "Artisanal friend pastries;" or, to really impress your dinner guests, the risotto with Tortona strawberry and Champagne.
The farm of Carcassola also cultivates an antique variety of corn, called the Ottofile ("eight line") Tortonese because the starchy, dark orange kernels grow in eight exact lines. In the past, the Ottofile was widely grown in the surrounding countrysides in plantation style for family consumption. After World War II, it was supplanted with a more profitable hybrid that had a higher yield and grew more uniformly. The disappearance was sudden and brutal for the species. Its rediscovery must be credited to the self-educated geneticist Biagio Pelletta, a venturist in the Tortona countryside who found the very last specimens of the Ottofile in the blackened Ottofile ears of an abandoned farmhouse. In the beginning of the 1980s, Pelletta was able to germinate the seedlings, bringing the Ottofile back to life. Today, the flour made from this corn - rigorously stone-ground - makes exceptional polenta, cookies, and doughs of a unique, rustic flavor that recalls days long gone.
Heading down towards Val Curone, enter the heart of Slow Food Presidia: this is the place of the Salame Nobile del Giarolo (Noble Salame of Giarolo), and the ancient cheeses Montébore and Bella di Garbagna.
The salame of Giarolo is "noble" because it is diligently obtained from the best cuts of the pig that are raised in a specific zone in a semi-wild rearing method on a controlled diet that contains no animal feed, and no administration of antibiotics. During the production process, local wine is added. Produced from October to April, the Salame Nobile del Giarolo is a rare product made by only a few producers. Find it for purchase at the United Valleys Farmers' Cooperative, (Cooperativa Agricola Valli Unite) in Costa Vescovato. Here, you won't find a moment of boredom. The cooperative organizes dozens of regional activities, from children's workshops to summer camps, including working in the fields of family farms. Visit their site or call to reserve a fun and educational vacation.
Continuing on the trail, the next product is the Montébore cheese, another Slow Food Presidium. For someone who hasn't yet tasted it, you will likely be struck by its two level wedding cake form. Legend has it that this layering was inspired by the ancient, dilapidated towers of Montébore, while a less poetic theory suggests the shape is simply the accidental stacking of different-sized cheese rounds.
However it happened, the resulting form stuck. Today, the production of Montébore cheese is an exclusive art form, rediscovered after many years of neglect and entrusted to just a few producers who can take pride in having saved a cheese that uses "no concessions to modernism, no velocity, and no compromises."
Contact the Vallenostra Cooperative for a tasting: they are the only Slow Food-recognized producers of this cheese. The agriturismo connected with the Cooperative (open from Friday to Sunday) proposes Montébore cheese paired with chestnut honey, orange marmalade, fig cognà (a typical Piedmontese confit based in grape must), cherries in an agrodolce sauce, or rosey grapes.
If at the end of your trip you'd like to check out the Bella di Garbagna, don't wait up for a fair damsel as the name implies. In reality, the Bella di Garbanga is a classic ciresa, a brilliantly red, crunchy cherry that is particularly adapted to conserving in alcohol. Ideal as a filing for Boeri, the liquor-filled chocolates with a cherry center, taste these treats at Aldo e Massimo Pisacco as a confectionary sweet, juice, liquor, and compote.