I was ecstatic to find out that I would be guiding bicycle tours in my favorite wine region in the world this fall: Piedmont, Italy. I've been infatuated with Piedmont ever since I started studying wine, learning about different regions and tasted my first Barolo. (Yes, it leaves that much of an impression!). In fact, before I was even hired to lead bicycle tours I looked over the Backroads itinerary in Piedmont at least a dozen times, dreaming about living and working in the magical land of wine. Less known by travelers, this region produces the most highly revered wines in Italy (Barolo is the king), as well as rich, decadent food (think handmade breads and pastas, stewed meat, local cheeses, porcini mushrooms and fresh truffles! Oh, and CHOCOLATE! Lots and lots of chocolate! Even Nutella was born here! As well as enticing my palate, Piedmont is one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen, with steep rolling hills covered in vineyards and hazelnut trees and hilltop towns with beautiful churches, castles and towers. As if this wasn't enough, all this beauty is surrounded by the massive Alps that are capped with snow as early as September. It's not overrun by tourists and the biking here in incredible. Last year, after working in Tuscany, Jarrod and I toured Piedmont and I wrote about the intoxicating Barolo wine here.
While leading my first trip in Piedmont, I met a wonderful family that owns a winery and agriturismo (a B&B/working farm). This particular agriturismo, called La Torricella, has 12 hectares (roughly 30 acres) of wine grapes, which they use to produce Barolo, barbera, dolcetto, chardonnay and riesling. (All some of my favorite wines). Additionally, they have a beautiful restaurant, where they serve up traditional handmade Piedmont dishes. The agroturismo is fairly small, with just 8 rooms, but the restaurant can seat up to 120 people, and they also host weddings and other events for larger groups. The location is in the heart of Barolo country, perched up high with views of the rolling, vineyard-strewn Langhe hills.
On our Backroads trip we take guests here to tour the cantina and to have dinner. On my first trip, I stammered my way through translating the tour of how they make their wine, but was very enthusiastic as I discovered with our guests all the ins and outs of their cellar. When it came time to taste, I was even more excited and impressed by their production. My co-leader and I were chatting with Francesco, the husband of one of the sisters who is part of the original family. He mentioned that he would like to find someone to stay with them for a while at the agriturismo and give tours of their cellar and help them with their English. He said that they would provide room and board in exchange. My co-leader nudged me with a "Hello, Tracy, this is your cue!" kind of look. (He knows how much I love Piedmont). Francesco picked up on this and asked if I would be interested in coming back after the season ends with Backroads to stay with them for a while. It took me a second to realize that my dream had just landed right in my lap. Could I really do this? I don't have a return ticket home yet and I was planning to travel a bit after the season ends...But this...THIS opportunity would be even better! I didn't say yes right away because I wanted to see what Jarrod thought first. (Let's not forget that I AM married after all!) Also, do I really want to come back in cold November to a place that is in the hills, away from everything? When Jarrod came out to visit we rode our bikes to the agroturismo to stay for a couple nights and get a feel for it. After riding out there a storm rolled in, and we woke up to pouring rain. Francesco handed me the keys to the family car and told us to go enjoy ourselves. We were awed by his generosity and trust. Although it was a cold and wet visit, we ate and drank well and enjoyed getting to know Francesco more. We also learned more about the family and toured the facilities, down to the kitchen (Jarrod's favorite) and "my" private room with a balcony and bathroom (with a huge bathtub!). Jarrod basically told me that I would be a fool to pass up this opportunity. He is so supportive of my dreams, even when it separates us. So...I said yes! After bike touring in Puglia with Jarrod, and then a crazy staff ride in Tuscany with 350 of my co-leaders, I was on a train back up to Piedmont....
Francesco's brother in law Danielle, whom I had never met before, graciously picked me up from the train station in Bra and we had a nice (but simple) conversation as we wound our way up into the beautiful Langhe hills. Autumn has set in here and the colors of the vineyards are vibrant reds, yellows and orange. A couple of times as we were talking we both just stopped to gasp and admire the view. I was pleasantly surprised to realize that I was able to hold a conversation in Italian (albeit choppy and simple). There is a Piemontese dialect here that is mostly spoken by older generations though some words are still used in everyday language. Besides that, I have noticed that Italian is spoken very clearly in Piedmont and it is easier for me to understand than in other regions further south.
Danielle told me that there was a wedding today at the agroturismo. They would be having their ceremony on the grounds, then lunch and return for dinner. When we arrived it was around 4pm and the parking lot was overflowing with cars and even a big tour bus. We pulled up and Danielle walked me into the restaurant to see if we could find Francesco. There were so many people, some still eating and drinking, others walking around, checking things out, others just talking. Bartenders were still opening bottles of wine and there was movement everywhere. It was all very festive and exciting. I met Francesco's brother-in-law Oscar, who seems very friendly and jovial. I wanted to take part in all the actioin and asked what I could do to help but he laughed and told me to relax and settle in first.
So I did. I came up to my room and sat out on my little balcony to skype with Jarrod. After that I took advantage of my huge bathtub! In the evening I met Nonna (Grandma) Roanna and Francesco's children: Emanuele, who is 3 and Eleonora who is 10 months. They are giggly and adorable and not at all shy at all around me.
Soon, the sun went down and I could feel my stomach rumbling. Nonna Rosanna told me that I would have dinner at the restaurant with the staff and she offered to walk over with me. While she carried Eleonora, little Emanuele took my hand and lead the way up to the kitchen from the back entrance. Through the windows we could see one of the cooks laying out fresh pasta to dry. We walked in and at least 10 cooks were busy getting ready for the huge dinner of 250 people. There was so much energy and movement, with steam from huge pots bubbling on the stovetop, fresh bread coming out of the oven, cured meats ready to be sliced, and fresh herbs getting prepped for garnish. It was quite the scene. I was impressed that with so much to do, they all took the time to greet me. All three sisters were there; Francesco's wife, Alessandra who is the head chef, Silvia who is the winemaker, and Annalisa who is a physical therapist during the week and pastry chef on the weekends. Their brother Oscar help serve tables and give tours of the winery on the weekends and travels a lot to promote the wine. Most importantly is Nonno (Grandpa) Diego, who started this whole thing. He tends to the grapes and the garden. I can see that he is a really hard worker, up early in the mornings and out in the fields all day. I love how everyone in the family has a specific role, but they also work together when it's busy.
|Michele making tagliatelle verdi|
|Francesco, Alessandra and Emanuele keeping an eye on things in the kitchen|
I was led into the back room to eat dinner with the staff. We served ourselves lunch leftovers that were set out. (Leftovers at the restaurant mean handmade pasta with ragu or hazelnut pesto, local beef that has been stewing all day, roasted rabbit and carrots, grilled veggies from the garden in béchamel sauce and fresh baked focaccia.) It was all so flavorful and delicious. While I ate my dinner slowly, about 3 rounds of cooks, waiters and other staff came and went, as they had a lot of work to do. I felt awkward just eating and not working but every time I asked if I could help they said "dopo" (Which means 'after' or 'later'). I'm not sure exactly how I will fit in here, and perhaps they aren't quite sure either. I yearn to find my role here too. However as I walk through the restaurant and down into the cantina and out into the vineyards, I feel so happy to be here.