The Langhe region of Piedmont, Italy, surrounding the city of Alba has become one of our favorite places to visit regularly. Four out of the last five harvest (and white truffle) seasons have found us meandering through the countless hills, on our way to a meal, a vineyard, or in safari mode, hoping to cross paths with the enormous white boar we once encountered, (roughly the same size as our rented Fiat 500).
We recently had the pleasure of staying at Cascina Sant'Eufemia, a stones throw from Barolo (just outside the DOC designation), hosted by the charming Paolo and Chiara. Here they produce the three classic varieties of red wine from the region, Dolcetto, Barbera, and Nebbiolo as well as the incredible Nociola Piemonte IGP, that is, the name-protected Piedmontese hazelnut.
It's difficult to describe why the Piedmontese hazelnut is so much better than the one we're all familiar with. I suppose you could think of the difference between a tomato from a supermarket in the middle of winter and an heirloom tomato from the farmers market at the peak of summer ripeness. It's that kind of difference. It's also worth noting that the Ferrero headquarters is located in Alba, and is responsible for the city having the highest average income in Italy. More importantly, Ferrero is the company that produces Nutella, and if you get lost it in the right part of town, you'll find yourself driving through a sweet-smelling , chocalate-hazelnut cloud.
If you're in the Langhe region, you're probably there to eat and drink, and it's likely that you'd be interested in some of the sweeter things not always available at the restaurants and vineyards. Ravera Cioccolateria in Cherasco gives the Piedmont hazelnut the respect it deserves in their delicious chocolates and the supreme gianduja (jahn-du-ya), a confection native to Piedmont, invented in the late 1800s, under Napoleon's reign. Go there, and do your best to save some sweets for after dinner and maybe even a few for when you get back home.
Even in the fog of early winter, the changing leaves glow in the vineyards. It is a serene joy to drive around these hills with nothing but a dinner reservation on the agenda and empty hours to explore the valleys and villages.
After a few days of hearing us tout the glories of the Piedmont hazelnut, Chiara offered to make us a flourless hazelnut torte from an old family recipe. On our last morning at the cascina, we dunked slice after slice in our coffee before heading back home. But not without the recipe...
CHIARA'S ITALIAN HAZELNUT TORTE
(..which happens to be gluten free)
200 g (1 1/2 cups) toasted hazelnuts, finely ground in a food processor
200 g (1 cup) sugar
4 egg yolks
4 egg whites
pinch of salt
Preheat oven to 180˚ Celsius (350˚ Fahrenheit). Whip egg whites with a pinch of salt until stiff, then add sugar and continue beating. Add egg yolks one at a time, whipping constantly. Add ground hazelnuts to egg white mixture until smooth and well combined. Pour mixture into a round cake pan ( about 20cm in diameter) that's been lined with parchment paper ( or buttered and floured).
Bake for 30 minutes......e buon appetito!