Fri 23 Apr 2010
Or, the subtitle might be “There Is Such a Thing as Too Much Raw Veal.”
In the village of Barbaresco, we had a major tasting event at Gaja, with Gaia Gaja, and then her father, the legendary, the visionary, Angelo Gaja joined us for a chat, and then we went to lunch with Gaia Gaja at a charming place up the hill, just beyond the church and under the 13th or 14th Century tower, called, appropriately, Trattoria Antica Torre.
In the picture you can see a remnant of the snow that unexpectedly blanketed Piedmont on Tuesday and Wednesday (March 9 and 10). And notice in the following images how even though this is just a trattoria in a village and it’s lunchtime that there’s a white cloth on the table, that the plates and bowls are supported by chargers and that the plates and bowls are good china. No short cuts here, and that’s the way I have found things at restaurants in Italy generally. There’s no fear of formality; it’s ingrained in the culture, and it feels, to this diner, comfortable and comforting. I hate this American notion that a white tablecloth is supposedly stifling and stuffy and that proper service somehow takes the “fun” out of eating out.
Anyway, Trattoria Antica Torre fields a traditional Piedmontese menu, with which, by this time, we were pretty familiar. The genial proprietress seated us upstairs and asked if she should bring a selection of tradition dishes, and we agreed to that. She also mentioned that rabbit was on the menu, and my ears perked up. Call it Peter, call it Thumper, but I love rabbit when it’s cooked right.
A couple of our group were feeling a bit puny, and she graciously offered to bring them bowls of brodo — broth — to ease their unsettled stomachs. I’ll admit to feeling a big smug and superior that guys half my age were succumbing to the weariness, overeating and gladiatorial drinking that a hectic wine-trip imposes while I was fit as a fiddle and ready for lunch. It didn’t hurt that we were drinking the Gaja Rossj-Bass 2007, a lovely chardonnay and sauvignon blanc blend, and the Gaja Barbaresco 2006.
First came the usual veal tartare, and not a small serving either. Obviously at Trattoria Antica Torre lunch was taken seriously. This was delicious stuff, clean and ripe in the way that the best raw meat is, but enough was enough. I hardly ate half of my portion.
Next came the ubiquitous pasta of the Piedmontese region of Langhe, tajarin, a form of egg noodle like tagliatelle except cut, ideally, about 1/12th of an inch wide. This is typically served with an intense ragu of veal and pork and sometimes rabbit made with no tomatoes. Again, the portion would have been enough to satisfy me for a meal, and delicious as it was, I couldn’t finish the serving.
Our hostess that not forgotten my interest in rabbit, and she surprised me by bringing a plate that held not, say, one piece for me to sample but three pieces with roasted potatoes and glazed carrots, enough for a hearty dinner. It was, I’ll make clear, the best rabbit I have eaten, braised to tender and succulent perfection, but one piece, I think a thigh, and a few potatoes and carrots utterly defeated me. A cup of rich, bitter espresso either revived me or delivered the coup de grace.
After a few hours of driving around and what seemed to my addled brain a series of fruitless ventures and visitations, we arrived at dusk at the winery of Negro Angelo e Figli, where the Negro family has been cultivating grapes since 1670. Our hostess, Marissa Negro, who conducted a tasting for us, was attractive and amiable and the wines, particularly the whites made from the arneis grape, were excellent. It was Friday, however, and we had tasted hundreds of wines since Monday, and I think we were all feeling pretty slogged out.
Actually, I was feeling more than slogged out; I was feeling distinctly as if my innards were protesting, rebelling, mounting an assault, mounting …. and as discreetly as possible I rose from my chair, soundlessly left the room, found the restroom, closed and locked the door and, yielding to an irresistible force, violently tossed my cookies. It took two more trips to the toilette to resolve these issues, by which time my compatriots were beginning to look askance. I smiled mirthlessly but I hope reassuringly, waving a hand to dismiss concern. Later, however, when someone asked if I were feeling all right, I confessed to being grossly importuned.
I think, honestly, that there wasn’t a thing wrong with the meal I ate at lunch. I think it was simply too much of a good thing added to too much more of a good thing, and my stomach couldn’t take the punishment. After the group returned to Asti that night, my colleagues went out for a pizza. I stayed in my hotel room and drank sparkling water and finished Sense and Sensibility. In the morning, I was ready to start again.