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Food and wine in Nice, Alba and Modena

It would have been nice, arriving in Nice, if my lease car had been what I’d ordered, but Renault Europe knew better and ‘upgraded’ me to a silver Megane instead of a lovely funky-coloured Captur. C’est la vie.

I navigated my way to the Beau Rivage hotel in Vieux Nice with minimal fuss, and Karen was there to meet me, so it was time to take a stroll in search of a refreshing tipple. We stooged down to the Cours Saleya, then across to the hotel’s beach club, but it was hideously hot, and all breeze disappeared as soon as we dropped o beachside, so we retreated and scoffed an Aperol Spritz for a splattering of Euros.

Karen had managed to get a table for 7pm at La Merenda, one of the current foodie-destination-darlings. The pony-tailed-chef is a graduate of several of the world’s great restaurants, but has forsaken the cuisine glitterati for the cramped quarters of a hole-in-the-wall in Vieux Nice. La Merenda doesn’t have a phone, and only takes cash. It’s supposedly a ‘cuisine du marche´ establishment, whereby Pony-tail jumps on his bike, rides around the Cours Saleya selecting the season’s best, and proceeds to work his magic for lunch and dinner to the delight of his foodie fan club. On this particular late summer’s day, with the temperature rising 35C, there was apparently a surfeit of stockfish (dried cod), tripe, stewing beef plus vealer heads (for tete de veau) being flogged under the umbrellas of the Cours Saleya, while their vendors slowly expired in the heat of the day.

The decor of La Merenda is simple - noise-dampening festoons of brown sacking; a few faux-Matisses and some framed scraps of whatever. The tables are cheek by jowl: customers sit on little brown stools (the wooden type). All the French customers seem to get a welcome bowl of olives, but not us.

For starters Karen chose zucchini fritters, while I opted for the rocket salad with ricotta, figs (plural) and olives. Karen’s fritters (sans any stuffing, just zucchini flowers, dredged in batter and fried) were served au naturel, sporting neither sauce nor even a lemon wedge. My salad comprised rocket, a dissected singular fig, a thin slice of tasteless ricotta, and four capers in lieu of the promised olives. Our table top was so teensy that Karen’s eye-dropper wine glass caught on her knife and upended itself on my plate, drowning the salad and sending a pink cascade into the lap of a lass seated at my shoulder on the next ‘table’.

For main course, Karen opted for that Provencal classic - stuffed vegetables (peppers, tomatoes, onions) filled with the assorted vegetable innards mixed with breadcrumbs; whilst I chose the daube, served with sweet potato chips. A lovely, wintry comfort-food dish. Quoi? In August? Say no more. We skipped dessert and paid our 100 Euros in cash. Nobody bothered to see us off the premises.

(I did a quick calculation of the business, based on the cost of our meal. La Merenda is open every day. Apart from Pony-tail, there’s a kitchen hand (dishwasher) and one waiter. There are two sittings at dinner, plus lunch, and it’s full every sitting. By my calculation, Pony-tail is bringing in €4K/day - all cash - and based on the menu, his ingredients and staff costs are minimal, with no marketing, communications or laundry overheads. This guy might just be the smartest chef ever.)

We’d parked our car under the Cours Saleya, so did a quick morning recce of the seasonal goodies (brilliant tomatoes, peaches, nectarines, artichokes, figs), hit Nicholas Alziari to top up on olive oil goodies, and also raided the favourite tablecloth shop for stuff we didn't need.

Bound for Piedmont, we scooted off along the stunning corniche route in the company of several Bentleys before hitting the A8 at La Turbie, exiting to the A6 at Savona and arriving at La Morra by 3pm, by which time we were starving, having been deprived of sustenance since 9:30am.

From our hotel, it’s a steep hike up the hill in search of a mid-afternoon ‘snack’, but we lucked into a lovely terrace and ordered a couple of glasses of local Arneis and both chose vitello tonnata. Jackpot. A €9 tumble of perfect pink slivers of succulent veal atop a nectar of tuna, herby mayonnaise. Impossible to be bettered. And there were other goodies being hurried past, trailing wafts of deliciousness in our direction, so we promptly booked our table for dinner to check out the rest of the menu goodies (all interesting and delicious).

La Morra is a lovely town, perched on one of the higher peaks of the hilly Barolo countryside. The 180-degree vista is of vineyards clear to the horizon, broken only by winding roads and hilltop villages sporting various forms of castellos and macho towers. Our beautiful hotel, the Corte Gondina, is a family concern, and a treasure. Bill, Edmee and I stayed here in 2010, and proclaimed the breakfasts the best ever. They still are. One could happily spend a week here, leisurely touring the wineries, villages, and the larger towns. and Alba is home to the donkey palio, in competition with its arch-enemy Asti’s horsey effort and Bra is home of the Slow Food movement.

Thursday morning we opted for a circuit of some of the Barolo villages, starting with lovely Serralunga, then on to Monforte d’Alba for coffee and a peruse of the village’s rather imposing ‘church’ - Chiesa della Madonna della Neve. I avoid visiting religious establishments, but the exterior of this one was so ornate I quelled my prejudice and stepped inside. Either the populace is historically very badly behaved and has to pay big-time for their sins, or the resident wine barons have, over the centuries, been filthy rich with a grand sense of style, because the interior is spectacular - brilliant frescoes and ethereal blue cross-vaults, a gilded nave and transept, a grand organ, superb leadlight windows, glistening chandeliers and a wide rose-marble aisle running the length of the church. Awesome (and the whole edifice is happily very light on ‘crucifix and madonna’ miserati.)

A couple of drive-bys completed our obligatory village tyre-kicking, so we headed into Alba for lunch at the 3* Piazza Duomo Restaurant (# 15 on this year’s top 50 restaurants list). The restaurant is beautiful, with wall and ceiling frescoes (on a pink base-coat) celebrating aspects of Piedmontese nature and life.

Karen obliged my preference for ying the experimental degustation menu offered by the organically-focussed chef Enrico Crippa, who’d spent years working in Japan. It was certainly interesting and visually stunning, with innovative use of vegetables, herbs and fruit, and most dishes were excellent, but there were a few ‘yikes’ and ‘what was he thinking’ combos as well. By 4pm, with thunder in the air, it was time to head home and put our digestive systems into recovery mode. Not surprisingly, dinner was a non-event.

Being Piedmont, the centre of attention is wine. Yes, Barolo is the main event, being the premium distillation of the Nebbiolo grape. (Apparently ‘nebbia’ is Italian for fog, and yes, there’s a lot of it around here, particularly during vintage.) But the lesser DOCG versions of Nebbiolo appear as Barbaresco, Gattinara, Ghemme. Then there are other local red grapes, e.g. Dolcetto and Berbera, and the whites kick in with Gavi (my favourite), Arneis, Malvasia, Timorasso and Vespolina, but that’s just scratching the surface.

So provided one enjoys a tipple, there’s plenty to be going on with. During our three day eatathon, we managed to check out Timorasso, Dolcetto, Barbaresco, Barolo, Arneis, Malvasia, and a few that escaped diligent documentation, but I managed to purchase some Timorasso and high-end Barolo to savour once chez-Menerbes in Provence (and luckily the French failed to discover them at the border, per that lovely Ronald Searle cartoon of France’s “Annual Festival of Welcome to Italian Wines”).

Friday we were up and on the road to Asti by 7:45, as we decided to take the train to Modena for lunch at Osteria Francescana, and, as there is only one express each way between Asti and Modena daily, we figured it was a good anti-stress investment, whilst also allowing us to enjoy our lunch with appropriate wines. It was 32C when we arrived in Modena, so we took shelter trawling the shopping arcades to fill in an hour before lunch (one should never go shopping after lunch).

Having been digestively exhausted by lunch at Piazza Duomo, we opted for the a la carte option; not the least because it features the chef’s classic ‘five ages of parmigiano reggiano’* (absent from all but the most complex and expensive degustation). After a flurry of lovely amuse bouches, the cheese starter arrived, and it met expectations - totally delicious.

(*The story behind this dish comes from the aftermath of the 2012 earthquake that rocked the region, including tumbling millions of euros worth of parmigiano wheels from their floor to ceiling stacks. The outcome could have been bankrupting the industry. So chef Massimo Batturo created his ‘five ages’ dish and sent a cry for help to restaurants all over the world, and the damaged stock was sold out inside one month, thereby saving the producers’ livelihood. Nice.)

The Primi Piatti on offer (pasta/risotto) only had one sensa-gluten option - risotto with squid ink and caviar - but I’d had that combo the previous day, so opted for culotello (piggy rump aged in the foggy cellars by the Po, where Massimo Spigaroli cures culotello for the likes of Fauchon, Prince Charles, Versace et al.) It was delicious, but the piggy had done all the work, and the confit apple ‘mustard fruit’ didn’t add much for the price. Karen’s spaghetti with almonds and pesto was excellent. For main, suckling piggy for me and Karen ordered Ox rib-eye, which was spectacular, but comprised three enormous slabs - one would have sufficed for a grown man.

Dessert: Karen selected “whoops, I dropped the lemon tart” (excellent - the concept had originated from one of the brigade dropping the last lemon tart order of the day); and I had ‘popcorn’ - salty, sweet, ‘buttery’ corn-granita-snow.

Unfortunately, our express train home was delayed, and our first class carriage was burdened with noisy children, so it was 9:30pm before we jumped in our car and drove back to La Morra with the skies putting on a lightning show of biblical scale and effect.

We scoffed all the goodies courtesy of another beautiful Corte Gondina breakfast, before heading off for France. The thunderstorms had cleared away all the haze, so we were treated to magnificent views of the Alps as we headed north to Torino, then through the lovely Susa valley toward the Frejus tunnel. At the entrance to the Frejus, we were stopped by several chappies wielding machine guns, but we obviously passed muster, and they waved us through to the Euro extraction kiosk to relieve us of 45 Euros for the privilege of spending 14 minutes driving under the Alps from Italy to France.

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