Di Carroll always knew she wanted to live in Italy. Brought up in Cheshire, North West England, she felt an overwhelming affinity toward all things Italian from an early age, studied Italian at university, and worked as a translator, interpreter and wine merchant. Carroll’s particular love of Piedmont dates from a holiday trip to Turkey she took with her brother while still in her teens: The siblings made friends with a Piedmontese family, who invited them to visit during their journey back to the U.K.
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From the start, Carroll says she was captivated with the Piedmont region in northern Italy. “I saw the hills and vines, castles and little villages, and immediately fell in love. We sat under the fig tree in our friend’s garden and they pointed out the ripe, black figs they would pick next morning for breakfast. It’s a memory I’ve always kept — and now I can do the same,” she says.
Carroll and her husband, Pete, moved to Italy 13 years ago. Their old farmhouse in the Basso Monferrato is remote, peaceful and off the “expat” track. It is not a tourist area, but it is within the official Barbera growing area and Pete cultivates a small vineyard for their own consumption.
Regional Piedmont cookbook
Carroll has slowly been compiling a cookbook of regional and local recipes that have been refined through the prism of her own expert cooking skills. As we talked in her farmhouse kitchen in front of a wood-burning stove (“fabulous for roast chicken”), she was excited to show off a bottle of Gambadpernis (Partridge Leg), a lovely new DOC wine made by neighbor Bussi Piero.
“The production is tiny, there are only a few producers. Of course, they’ve been making wine ’round here for generations, although often they would just keep a lot of the grapes, dry them and eat them for Christmas,” she says.
[To earn DOC status (Denomination of Controlled Origin), a wine has to be made from grapes from a particular defined area and pass strict tests for standards in alcohol content, flavor, aroma, color and more. It ensures that the consumer is drinking an authentic wine, not a counterfeit or adulterated one.]
Di Carroll, who moved to Italy with her husband 13 years ago, fell in love with the Piedmont region as a teen. She has been compiling a cookbook of regional and local recipes that have been refined through the prism of her own expert cookery skills. Credit: Clarissa Hyman
Carroll explained the concept of the congenial merenda sinoira, a gathering of a half-dozen people or more, where everyone gathers to talk and nibble around a farmhouse table laden with salami, ham and cheese, and a pezzo forte, a pasta piece de resistance — usually pasta with butter, sage and Parmesan.
“It’s a lovely ritual, which is why I decided to get a really large table, so when visitors come, that’s where we sit, not in armchairs and sofas,” she says.
Traditional Piedmont dishes
For Carroll, Piedmont is the perfect Italian region. “The continuity of food and life is important here. The Piedmontese have a unique style and outlook on life. They are courteous and respect your boundaries, welcoming and attentive, and they have a way of making you feel you matter.
“They are still very die-hard about eating their traditional dishes and particular about the quality of their ingredients. People still keep rabbits and hens for food,” she says. “In every family vineyard you will still find two or three mixed vines for the table. My butcher’s beef comes from two miles down the road, and he goes to see the animals before they are slaughtered to choose which one he wants. My main problem at first was that they don’t hang the meat here for any length of time. The butcher now matures it for three weeks for me, but I still can’t convince any of my Italian friends to do the same.
“Every house has a copy of The Silver Spoon, but there is still a great oral tradition of handing recipes down. As well as personal variations, many villages also have their own collective recipes, recipes that belong to the village. At the annual fiera (fair), when they open up the wine cellars, each one offers a traditional dish to go with the wine samples,” Carroll says.
Nonetheless, Carroll says she has brought a little bit of Britain to her corner of a foreign field. She is known locally for her occasional afternoon teas for female friends, complete with teapot (unheard of!) and fine bone china. As for her husband, he’s down at the local bar with the lads in the circulo, discussing everyone’s favorite subjects — politics. And football. And what’s for dinner that night.
La Bagna Càuda or Bagna Caoda (Hot dip)*
Prep time: 30 minutes
Total time: 1 hour
Yield: 4 to 6 servings
12 large cloves of garlic in their skins
12 salted anchovies
3 1/2 fluid ounces best-quality, fruity, aromatic olive oil
1 stick of unsalted butter
Black pepper, to taste
Chopped basil, to taste
1. Set the garlic to cook on a very low heat — between 175 F and 212 F, at the most — in the oven.
2. Meanwhile, melt the salted anchovies in the oil and butter, again on a very low heat, until they become a paste. If you do it on the stove, this part will take no more than 10 minutes.
3. When the garlic is soft and creamy, remove the skins, and mash them into the anchovy mixture. Season with black pepper and a little chopped basil, stir well.
* So called because it should always be served hot. This is usually served as a vegetable dip, with celery sticks, red bell pepper batons, roasted pumpkin pieces, endives, baked onions or raw fennel. Guests are given their bagna càuda in terra-cotta dishes over a tealight, which keeps it warm. It can also be served as a cold dressing on cooked bell peppers that have been cooked over a flame, skinned and arranged on a plate with the bagna càuda as a dressing.
Prep time: 20 minutes
Total time: 40 minutes
Yield: 6 servings
1/2 stick of celery, diced
1/2 onion, chopped finely
2 to 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil (Ligurian preferred because of the fragrance and balance it gives to the sauce)
3 anchovy fillets in olive oil, crushed in a mortar
2 ounces fresh red peppers, chopped fine
1/2 fresh chili pepper
7 ounces tomato passata
1 teaspoon sugar
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Red wine, to taste
Red wine vinegar, to taste
1. Gently fry the celery and onion in the oil.
2. When they start to turn light golden brown, stir in the anchovies, peppers, passata, sugar and black pepper. Add the wine and vinegar in small amounts and taste as you go; stirring spoon in one hand, tasting spoon in the other, until it you find a good sweet-sour-spicy balance of flavors that suit your palate.
3. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat, and simmer for a few minutes.
4. Serve as a condiment, rather than a covering sauce, with cold veal tongue.
Boiled veal tongue: Boil and simmer a fresh tongue in water with a bay leaf, large sprig of rosemary and an onion studded with a couple of cloves. The tongue is best made a day in advance.
Brasato al Barolo (Beef in Barolo)*
Prep time: 1 hour
Total time: 3 to 4 hours, plus overnight
Yield: 6 to 8 servings
4 ounces very thinly sliced lardo (or streaky bacon — not pancetta or lardons)
35 ounces pot roast beef, tied neatly with string
1 ounce unsalted butter
2 to 3 ounces of extra virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon chopped parsley
2 to 3 sage leaves
Sprig of rosemary
2 large cloves of garlic
Salt and pepper, to taste
1 or 2 cloves (the spice, not clove of garlic)
A “whiff” of cinnamon (the spicing has to be delicate)
1 bottle of Barolo or Barbera
Hot beef stock (homemade, preferably)
For the soffritto:
2 onions, chopped
1 carrot, chopped
1 celery stick, chopped
A pinch of ground nutmeg
1. Cut the lardo into slivers.
2. Make small incisions into the meat and insert a piece of lardo into each one.
3. Fry the beef in butter and oil in a large casserole so it browns evenly on all sides.
4. Add the herbs and garlic to the pan and season with salt and pepper.
5. Add the spices (clove and cinnamon), heat gently for about 20 minutes with the lid halfway on.
6. Remove the meat, and replace any juices that drain from it back in the casserole. Set the meat aside.
7. Add the soffritto to the casserole dish, stir well, taste and add a little more salt. Replace the meat.
8. Add the wine and bring gently to a boil in order to evaporate the alcohol (otherwise it will be bitter).
9. Lower the heat to a simmer and cook for at least 3 hours. Test periodically for “doneness” — when the meat feels very tender, almost falling apart. (You can cook it in the oven, but in Italy it is mostly done on top of the stove).
10. Top with hot stock from time to time, if necessary.
11. When done, remove from the heat and allow the meat to cool in its juices.
12. Several hours before serving, take the meat out and carve into medium-thick slices.
13. Strain the cooking juices and thicken slightly with cornstarch if desired.
14. Reheat the meat, arrange on a silver platter (if you wish to make a fine impression) and pour the sauce over the meat.
Tips for this recipe
- This recipe needs Piedmont wine as it is most appropriate for the character of the dish, which is traditionally made in a deep, lidded casserole.
- One of the secrets of success is to add a pinch of salt now and then, rather than in one go. Keep tasting as you go, it’s important to get the right balance of flavors.
- The traditional accompaniment is potatoes mashed with olive oil and Parmesan, and carrot batons braised in oil and water, and sprinkled with fresh herbs such as sage, parsley and rosemary.
Il Bunet (or Bonet)
A chocolate and amaretti pudding favored throughout Piedmont.
Prep time: 30 minutes
Total time: 90 minutes
Yield: 8 to 10 servings
10 ounces amaretti biscuits
2 rounded tablespoons of unsweetened cocoa powder
17 fluid ounces whole milk
6 eggs, separated
The point of a knife blade of salt
2/3 cup white sugar
2 fluid ounces rum (optional, it was not used in days of yore)
1 cup sugar moistened with 2 tablespoons water for the caramel
One 2-pound rectangular loaf pan
1. Pulse the amaretti into a fine crumb in the food processor, mix in the cocoa powder, then add the milk.
2. Whip the egg whites into firm peaks with baking soda, taking care not to overbeat. Then whip the egg yolks and sugar into a velvety cream like zabaglione. Fold everything together carefully.
3. Make a caramel mixture by gently heating the sugar and 2 to 3 tablespoons water until the sugar dissolves; coat the bottom and sides of the loaf pan with the caramel mixture.
4. Pour the pudding mixture into the loaf pan and cook in a Bain Marie, or double-boiler bath, for 30 to 45 minutes at 350 F. When the pudding is firm to the touch and has pulled away from the sides of the pan, take it out of the oven, let it cool to room temperature before flipping over onto a serving platter and unmolding.
Often called La Langarola from the Piedmontese region of Le Langhe, which stretches south between Alba and Cuneo, and is where the renowned sweet round hazelnuts are cultivated.
Prep time: 1 hour
Total time: 2 hours
Yield: 6 to 8 servings
For the cake:
5 eggs, separated
The point of a knife blade of baking soda
3/4 cup light brown or granulated sugar
2 tablespoons rice or hazelnut oil (or a light sunflower oil)
2 1/2 cups finely chopped, skinned hazelnuts* or hazelnut flour if you can find it. (Processing the nuts in a food processor is acceptable, provided the result is a fairly fine crumble.)
Cinnamon or vanilla, if you prefer
The point of a knife blade of salt
Lined cake pan
Unsweetened cocoa powder, to dust baked cake
For the hazelnuts:
2 cups boiling water
3 cups baking soda
1 cup of hazelnuts
Bowl of very cold water
For the cake:
1. Whip the egg whites into peaks with baking soda; put to rest in the refrigerator.
2. Whip the eggs yolks and sugar into a firm mousse that resembles zabaglione, add the rice oil gently; fold in the finely chopped hazelnuts and a pinch of salt. (Many prefer the natural flavors of quality hazelnuts, but you can add a pinch of cinnamon or a little vanilla if you wish.)
3. Carefully fold the whipped egg whites and the egg and nut mixture together.
4. Pour the mix into a lined 9- to 9.5-inch-diameter cake pan, bake at 350 F for at least 45 minutes.
5. Halfway through cooking time, cover cake mix with grease-proof paper to avoid burning.
6. When cooked — a toothpick inserted into the cake comes out clean — remove from oven and allow to cool in the pan.
7. To serve, dust with a little unsweetened cocoa powder, and offer to your guests with a glass of Moscato Naturale.
For the hazelnuts:
1. Bring the water to a boil in a saucepan.
2. Let water continue to boil, add the baking soda to the water, which will foam.
3. Add the nuts to the boiling mixture and allow to boil for about 3 minutes. The water will turn black.
4. Have a bowl of very cold water handy. Place a nut in the cold water and try to rub off the skin. If it doesn’t come off easily, let the nuts continue to boil for a few minutes longer.
5. Continue to test one nut at a time. When the skin comes off easily, add the rest of the nuts to the cold water and start to peel.
6. Dry the nuts in a warm, but not hot, oven so as not to toast them or dry out the oils.
Main photo: Bagna càuda, made with garlic and anchovies, is a dip best served hot. Credit: Clarissa Hyman