Here's some news about my latest adventure. Beginning in a village where the terms "fat cow" and "big ox" are a compliment.
Alberto Armano, a friend who works for the province of Alessandria, in Piemonte (great wines, restaurants, foods and truffles - less expensive than the more famous neighboring area of Alba) and met Dario Cecchini, master-butcher, and me at 6:30 AM, outside Florence, to take us to the Fiera della Bue Grasso, "Fat Ox Fair", in Montechiaro d'Acqui. Prizes were to be given to the best ox, fat cow, steer, calf and more - seven awards in all, for the regional Fasson breed. We arrived at 10, were met by some local dignitaries, and judges including veterinarians, headed for the kitchen to check out lunch preperations--huge cauldrons of boiled beef bubbling, already tender meat in a blue plastic tub. We tasted the meat, seasoned with coarse sea salt. Delicious. The day looked promising. We headed to the fair, a few dozen oxen tethered in one area, awaiting judgment. A stand dispensing bowls of stewed tripe was set up for morning snacks. Seven large silver-colored metal prize cups sat on a table, along with drapes announcing the category. Dignitaries, mayors of Pistagno, Molare, and Montechiaro d'Acqui, regional and provincial council officials, president and vice-president of the Mountain Community Orba, Erro and Bormida di Spigno Valleys, all spoke. A butcher from Argentina, in gaucho attire, was introduced. Finally the awards were presented. And on to the main event, the auction of a "Fat Ox", with Dario as the auctioneer, money from the sale to be donated to the Children's Hosptial in Alessandria. The bidding began at 2,000 euros and inched up slowly; major bidders were Franco Barberis, owner of a local trattoria and two butchers from Nizza Monferrato. Franco dropped out at 5,500, bidding got wild between the butchers and the fat ox was finally adjudicated at 6,500 euros, far beyond the normal price, to Vittorio Loredana. I can't wait to visit his shop in Nizza Monferrato. Next trip.
Everyone adjourned to lunch in a big hall, long tables set in anticipation of the rustic banquet; unlabeled bottles of local Barbera, paper bags of napkins and plastic forks, knives and spoons, bread piled on a plate, jars of Mongetto's preserved under oil shallots, and tuna or anchovy-stuffed peppers. Servers brought around antipasto plates of salami, thinly sliced lardo, fresh formagetta cheese with mostarda d'uva, chutney-like preserves. They followed with bowls of hand-made agnolotti, barely covered with beef broth, served with Parmigiano-Reggiano. Then, in honor of the fair, bollito was served, different cuts of boiled Fasson beef, served with sea salt and mostarda d'uva as condiments. We finished with aged cheeses, then cake, grappa, espresso and the exchange of business cards.
Roberto and Margherita Santopietro, owners of Mongetto, took me back to their agriturismo farm, Drè Castè. I settled into my room, then visited the village of Vignale Monferrato, checked out a tiny B&B near Vignale, all to work up an appetite for dinner. I simply had to eat at Franco Barberis's restaurant.
I went to the Trattoria Losanna with Roberto and Margherita, and we were joined by winemaker Roman Dogliotti and his wife Bruna. The center of the table was piled with grissini and "mother-in-law's tongues" flat, crisy, pointy crackers. Franco suggested we start with a mixed antipasto; two kinds of subrich (vegetable fritters), chicken pate, tuna-stuffed grilled peppers, insalata russa, arichoke flan with fonduta cheese sauce. I couldn't resist a taste of hand-made agnolotti, sauced with meat juices, served family style from a big bowl. Stewed rabbit, grilled meats were main course options, served with boiled artichokes or salad side dishes. We drank Romano's terrific wine La Solista, a lively, well-priced, young Barbera. Desserts were Piemontese classics like panna cotta and bonet chocolate amaretto pudding, accompanied by Roman's Moscato d'Asti, La Caudrina, one of my favorite dessert wines.
I dragged myself to Milano the next moring--jury duty, for the Brunello di Montalcino Leccio d'Oro awards. More about that in February. The jury met for a few hours and then mulled over our decisions over lunch at Trattoria degli Orti, my favorite trattoria in Milano. I took the train home after lunch, schlepping a few new books, a golf-ball sized truffle from Montechiaro, a bottle of Romano's Redeto, Moscato Passito DOC, a jar of Mongetto's mostarda d'uva.
Look for Mongetto's products, and Dogliotti's wines, both perfect for the holidays. And, once again, Auguri!