Food and Wine
In Cuneo, a mother's concern about being outcooked by her daughter-in-law can be summed up this age-old adage: “veul pieme ‘l casul” (she wants to steal my scoop). The phrase speaks volumes about the importance of food in families, a subject worthy of its own sociological study.
21st century Cuneo now excels in cattle farming although in days gone by, meat was a very rare occurrence in the diets of local people; any meat that did appear was generally used as a bartering currency (smallholders would take a quarter of beef or veal to Liguria and exchange it for kegs of salted anchovies). The most common fish was river trout, tench and freshwater carp. But that's all part of the distant past now.
Cuneo's culinary traditions are now expressed in dishes combining ancient customs with plain, simple but delightfully cheery recipes: a typical menu would start with appetizers, many of which are vegetable-based led by the iconic Cervere leek. These are followed by pasta dishes using only locally-grown produce (potatoes and wheat flour), game (wild boar, chamois etc.), the amazing porcini mushrooms (boletus edulis - cep mushrooms - as well as the exquisite boletus castaneus and aureus – Queen Bolete and chestnut bolete), cheeses and chestnuts and the king of meats: Piedmontese beef.
Stuffed vegetables, omelettes and savoury pies are traditional first courses. To name but a few: caponèt (cabbage stuffed with minced meat), siole piene (onions stuffed with minced meat), friceuj ‘d ris (fried rice cakes), subric (mashed potato, egg, cheese and salt, mixed and cooked together), aromatic herb omelette, torta verde (vegetable pie) and torta di patate (potato pie).
There are many local DOC wines to wash down these delicious dishes, such as the Dolcetto delle Langhe Monregalesi and wines from the Colline Saluzzesi (hills), notable amongst which are the Quagliano and Pelaverga.
Let's take a minute to think about the potato: the local speciality “bodi e aioli” featuring potatoes in garlic-flavoured mayonnaise, is a superb dish of Provençal origin. In similar homage to this regal tuber there is even an amusing tale telling of a monk's prayer to the lord "Te rogamus, audi nos" (We beseech thee to hear us), which farmers responded to with "Tera niera, bodi gros" (black earth and big potatoes). Potatoes are a key ingredient in one of the province's signature sayings, popular in Valli Grana and Varaita in particular, and it goes like this: great earth, great water, great gnocchi.
Game, noble mushrooms and big boiled meats, as well as the rarest of delicacies such as snails (like Helix Pomata Alpina from Borgo San Dalmazzo, the key dish at the Fiera Fredda snail festival) or eel, all feature as second course dishes.
Local cheeses are absolutely not to be missed. Toma, popularly referred to as “piemontese”, Tomini di Melle (Valle Varaita), Raschera and Castelmagno are the "fabulous four" worth a mention.
The selection of desserts is small but special: bonét (chocolate and amaretto pudding) and fruit cakes or tarts will bring the meal to a perfect conclusion.
Not to be overlooked is the queen of Cuneo’s culinary tradition: the chestnut. You won't be surprised to learn that the tree producing the fruit is referred to as the "bread tree" in Italian (similar in meaning to the "tree of life") because man not only lives on it but also from it, selling the fruit, leaves and timber. The hilly terrain of the Cuneo foothills has for centuries been covered by this kindly tree. In the kitchen, chestnuts can make their way into anything from a tasty castagnaccio cake to a lofty Montebianco chestnut purée.
On a final note, no visit to Cuneo would be complete without tasting the world-famous Cuneese al Rhum (rum truffles) which Hemingway very much enjoyed when he stayed here in 1954.