26 Jun The Langhe: Tuscany, without the tourists
You most likely won’t have heard of the Langhe unless you live in Italy (I certainly hadn’t until I moved to Piedmont), but the Italians absolutely rave about the place, and for good reason.
Not only is the area encompassing Langhe-Roero-Monferrato arguably the best wine region in the country (yeah, yeah, Tuscans, we know you don’t agree..!), but it’s also home to mega expensive and mega yummy white and black truffles – that’s the underground ones, not the chocolate ones, just so we’re clear – and hazelnuts famous around the continent (not least for their role in Nutella), making this region a foodie traveller’s paradise.
This place is also straight out of an Italian postcard, by the way.
The Langhe, about an hour away from Turin by car, is one of those places that you can’t believe will ever live up to the hype… until you visit, and ask yourself why on earth you waited so long. At least, that’s how it went for me.
I’ve been to the Langhe a good few times now – for chilled days out with friends, extravagant weddings, long and excessively indulgent lunches, and even just quickly on a Saturday morning to pick up a few more bottles of reasonably-priced and totally delicious red to keep my wine rack looking healthy.
But it’s my first visit that I’ll always remember the most vividly…
I was woken up at 9am on a midweek bank holiday by a phone call from a friend who’d decided to pop to the wine region for the day. He’d already roped in another friend of his – conveniently, an off-duty tour guide – and had decided that my then-boyfriend and I should come along for the ride as well. We had no better plans, so into our pal’s car we climbed, him behind the wheel and Miss Tour Guide – clutching a set of maps and a bundle of hand-written notes – in the front seat beside him.
A little while later, we arrived in Asti – an adorable little city (using “city” in the Italian sense, of course, meaning “any place that’s not a tiny, tiny village”), gateway to the Langhe wine region, and most famous for the annual Sagra delle Sagre or “Festival of Festivals”, a.k.a. excuse to overeat while surrounded by thousands of others doing exactly the same.
We grabbed breakfast – a cappuccino and croissant for me, a football-pitch sized piece of focaccia for each of my travel buddies – and wandered around the central streets before heading out again to somewhere a little more remote and even more picturesque; the teeny tiny town of Verduno.
Miss Tour Guide’s family happened to be in the area that day too, and Miss Tour Guide’s Tour Guide Mother kindly shepherded us all towards an adorable little Agriturismo where we sat down for an early lunch and some all-important wine.
Lunch in the Langhe is an event. I mean, lunch is always an event in this country, but in the Langhe you can be sure of eating well, drinking well, and consequently having an all-round authentic, Italian experience. I’ve never spent under 3 hours at the lunch table when in this region, and have a feeling that’s not unusual in the least.
In this area of Italy, you have to be open to foods which sound questionable on paper, trusting that they will all turn out to be delicious.
Raw meat as a starter? Just say yes.
Cold, sliced veal smothered in tuna mayonnaise? A winner.
Garlicky, anchovy-ey, buttery dipping sauce? Go for it.
The word “meat” thrown around without any specification of which one? Fear not, it’ll be fab.
Food is always tasty and plentiful around here, and wine even more so. This particular lunchtime, glasses were all filled to the brim with local Barbera, or Nebbiolo, or maybe it was Dolcetto, and the vino got conversation flowing as only local booze on a bank holiday can.
Considering I’d only just met 80% of the people at the table, it felt like I’d known them forever. Within 30 seconds of introductions, everybody was laughing and joking and chatting as if we were all family, and I had one of those amazing warm, fuzzy, I’m-so-at-home-here feelings that I love so much.
After wolfing down a large amount of Piemontese specialities, and some cake for good measure, we were back in the car on our way again to another little village – La Morra.
If you’re thinking of taking a little road trip in the Langhe (or anywhere else in Italy), check out these tips from Pink Caddy Travelogue first!
La Morra is one of my favourite villages in the Langhe, as it’s right on the top of a little hill with a lookout where you can find the most amazing views over the vineyards and other little hamlets. Another excellent selling point of this place is a teeny gelato shop called Gelatè, which makes Barolo-flavoured ice cream (there is no such thing as too many local specialities, you guys).
Like everywhere else in the region, there’s very little to actually do here, but thankfully nobody in their right mind comes to the Langhe to do things anyway.
Buttons almost popping off after the wine-themed gelato, we got back into the car and started to drive down the hill, stopping briefly at a bizarrely brightly coloured chapel, and then continuing down the path into what seemed like the middle of nowhere, before finally pulling into the gates of a house.
We’d arrived at our next stop: wine tasting.
As you can imagine, the Langhe region is full to the brim with vineyards and winemakers and wine-tasting places, in the same way as it’s bursting with agriturismi and amazing local trattorie. But the trick in Italy is to always visit places where somebody you know has already been, rather than relying on TripAdvisor or just the look of somewhere from the outside. It doesn’t matter if the person recommending a place to you is your best friend, your best friend’s mum, or your best friend’s mum’s friend’s hairdresser – going somewhere with someone’s recommendation works every time.
Luckily, Miss Tour Guide’s Tour Guide Mum knew just the place on this occasion, and led us towards the front door of Cantina Francesco Borgogno. What ensued was one of the most Italian experiences I’ve ever had.
MTGTGM (not the neatest acronym, but I’m sticking with it) shouted up to an old lady who was hanging out the laundry on the balcony, and asked if a woman – whose name now escapes me – was about. The old lady informed her that she wasn’t. It transpired that the balcony lady was the other woman’s mother, and she told MTGTGM that it didn’t matter if the daughter was out, she’d come and let us in anyway. I honestly wasn’t – and still to this day am not – sure if we had a booking, if anyone knew we were coming, or if rocking up at someone’s front door is just how it works around here.
In any case, the little Piedmontese nonna unlocked the front door and led us into to a little room with a long table covered with a red and white checked tablecloth (the sign of good food, as I’m sure you’ll remember if you’ve read my post about Palermo), and wooden shelves full of old bottles of Barolo covering the walls.
The old lady’s husband (Mr Borgogno himself, BTW), a particularly eccentric Piemontese man in at least his late 70s, wearing dark Ray-Ban knock-offs inside the house, was ready to welcome us, recounting – in his extremely strong local accent – endless tales of when he was young, and telling us all about his passion for wine.
We had a tour of Mr Borgogno’s little wine cellar, and then all sat down at the table while the old lady stood at the other end of the room, slicing outrageous quantities of prosciutto, salami and assorted cheeses, despite our repeated and totally sincere protests that all we’d done all bloody day was eat and that we really, really didn’t need any more.
The old man filled all our glasses with generous servings of various amazing wines, ignoring any efforts to stop him with our absurd excuses like, oh I don’t know, having to drive home (the Italian approach to drink driving is very much another topic for another time…).
We sat chatting and tasting for a long time, listening to the old man’s anecdotes and nibbling on the very same food we’d just tried to decline. Unlike in traditional wine tasting scenarios, in places like this, the focus is on enjoying the wine rather than nattering on about if it tastes of strawberries or goats or whatever, so Mr Borgogno made sure we were all happily topped up with one wine or another at all times – at a certain point it really stops being important which one it is.
When it was time to leave, we filled up our cars with enough bottles to last us until our next visit and said our goodbyes to the hilariously hospitable people at the vineyard and to our new Italian family, feeling very full, very happy and, honestly, quite sloshed.
The beauty of the Langhe is in the simplicity of the place. It’s kind of like Tuscany, but greener, and without all those pesky tourists.
There are a few shuttle bus services (like this one) offering tours to/around the Langhe, but you’ll be much better off if you can get your hands on a car (and a designated driver…) as the villages are dotted around the hilltops and it’s pretty tricky to explore properly otherwise.
You don’t need big plans to have the most amazing day here either; it’s all about the eating, drinking, and oh-so-lazy post-meal exploring in the sleepy towns (if in doubt, start in the famous village of Barolo with a tour of their wine museum and then a pitstop in a local wine bar to test out your new-found knowledge).
You definitely don’t need a long holiday to explore the place, but if you want to stay for weeks on end to taste the Nebbiolo from every vineyard, you could happily do that too. The area is close enough for a day trip from Turin, but feels many more hours away from the hustle and bustle of the city than it really is, making it an awesome addition to a busy city-break itinerary.
Writing about the Langhe does feel a bit like shooting myself in the foot, as it seems to be one of few hidden gems left in this country – although already popular with Italians and a few French tourists, you won’t hear a whole lot of English or German or Spanish being yelled around the streets, which in Bella Italia is now a rarity – but this place is just too good to keep to myself.
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