Something I learned in Alba
Near Alba, where I lived for a while, there are a number of small family-run restaurants—side-of-the-road stuff—up in the little towns that dot the hillsides. I wish I could have worked in some of these joints, but the season was ending when I arrived in Piedmont, and there wasn’t much work. Besides, they’ve got a different way of doing things there: you can’t convince them to take you in to help because they are never really stressed enough to need it. They may serve a table of six one night and 18 another night and it doesn’t matter one bit. Some places don’t even have menus because you already know what you’re going to get.
A typical meal might start with dried sausages from places like Bra, followed by veal tartare with olive oil and lemon. Next would come the fondue (cheese sauce made with fontina cheese you relax in milk for an hour and then slowly heat), served around a pastry stuffed with butternut squash, and an angel hair pasta made with 30 eggs, or mini-ravioli with sage and butter. Next up, roasted rabbit or braised beef in barolo or a peasant-style chicken. For dessert, brunet: baked bittersweet cocoa mousse cooked in a terrine in a bain-marie with amaretto.
Once, I walked into a place just outside Turin, and it was full of Italian truckers and families. They had big bowls of pasta in front of them, along with platters of cheese cut in big hunks. The windows were all steamed up, and there were paintings all over the walls, hanging on any nail that happened to be there. It was the epitome of a tough, rustic restaurant: no pretension, just good, clean food utilizing artisanal ingredients produced nearby. Cheese comes with a dark, oaky honey and a rustic chutney called cogna (a bittersweet mix of pears and grape skins).
Since work was scarce, the hotel where I was staying let me work for my board by planting trees and herbs, chainsawing, and painting hotel rooms. I’d also go off on research trips, eating lunch and dinner at all the little places. I soaked up as much as I could. The boss let me cook for the guests on Monday and Tuesday, so I’d hit the market in town and buy stuff I’d never seen before—like big, stalky bittersweet greens—from hunched-over old ladies. Come December, the market dwindles to a few old guys selling potatoes and nuts and some root vegetables. They leave the stuff in the ground through the frost to sweeten it up. The kitchen only had a four-burner electric stove, an oven and a few pots and pans, so I had to keep it simple. It made me break everything down (a relief, really; I had been cooking complex meals in Paris just before). I had to crack it open and put it back together again.
It was like starting again. The guy I was working for had had a restaurant in Turin that used no oil, butter or cream. He also had a grouchy side and frowned at any hint of fat. To him, using fat was a cop-out that meant a lack of understanding. It forced me to reintroduce myself to cooking. It was a tough hill to climb. Cooking pasta is easy in France: you just add cream. To an Italian, it is a whole new league; to get it right is an art. Pasta has a moment to it, and if you miss it, it ain’t right.
Case in point: one time, I saw a guy picking vegetables at the side of the road, so I started grabbing the same stuff (wild asparagus and thin green onions). I took it back and made a pasta with just that and some olive oil, chili and a bit of cheese. One of the girls came back to the hotel, so I made her some, too, and she liked it. That is, until I told her I had found everything at the side of the road. Those Italians can be a picky bunch.