Thursday, 19 October 2017

Turin Time

Time for Dinner in Turin

I live in a city of around 8 million people and, yet, when I need to breathe some distant air I'm far more likely to choose another city than that beach holiday or country house hotel break.  Venice, Florence, Paris, yes please.  I like the hustle and bustle of cities, but I like a sense of lives being lived too.  Some places can be just too set in aspic and a bit of grit in the oyster is not a bad thing.  So, to Turin - an industrial city with a baroque heart.

Alpine view, Turin

I was there in 2004 when Turin was preparing to host the 2006 Winter Olympics.  The spectacularly beautiful Alpine range filling the skyline to the north was at odds with our evening taxi drive from the airport.  The City was grimy, noisy and confusing thanks to the construction of stadia and a new Metro system which was part of the Olympic package.  Next day we discovered the almost 10 miles of baroque colonnades and over 40 museums offered an escape from the cacophony.  And then there was the food.  Piedmont, of which Turin is the capital, is after all where 'Slow Food' was born and we were there primarily for the Terra Madre Salone del Gusto.

Open door in Turin

On returning to Turin this Autumn that Metro proved invaluable and there were signs that more tourists  - though, thankfully, not too many on our visit - were now enjoying those collonaded walks, museums and cafe's.  Turin's Olympian effort has paid off in terms of attracting visitors.  But there are also signs that not everyone has benefited.  Homelessness is more visible and there is a legacy of crumbling Olympic structures with migrants and refugees occupying the former athletes' village, not altogether comfortably.

Piazza Reale, Turin

For 300 years Turin was the capital of Savoy and became the first capital of a unified Italy in 1861.  But a mere 3 years later the seat of power was relocated to Florence then centrally located Rome.  Turin turned to industrialisation and the automotive industry became vitally important.  There were many companies but it's Fiat we associate with Turin thanks to the construction of its Lingotto car factory opened in 1923.  These days Fiat is less important to Turin's economy. The hugely successful Fiat 500, in its new guise, is manufactured not in Italy but in Mexico and Poland, though their luxury brand Maserati is locally made.  The Lingotto 'Centre' is now in commercial use.

With 8 Royal Palaces amongst those 40+ museums, colonnaded streets, tree-lined avenues, elegant architecture and good food, Turin is no longer just an industrial city but a centre for culture and tourism too.  So, what to see and do?

Walk the Colonnades and tree-lined avenues; the City is built on a grid system, so you're unlikely to get lost.  A walk up the Via Roma from Metro Porta Nuova is a grand central start taking in four of the main Piazzas and the ritziest of shops.

Pasta e Ceci
at Caffe Platti, Turin

There are so many cafes and bars in Turin that frequent stops are inevitable for coffee (this is the home of Lavazza) a Bicerin, the local chocolate/coffee/cream indulgence, or an aperitivo.  The grandest and most recommended of the old guard are Caffe Torino and Caffe San Carlo where the price of a coffee is low despite the splendour of the rooms and the locations.  Historic Caffe al Bicerin at Piazza della Consolata 5 is considered the best place to order a Bicerin.  Piedmont grows very fine hazelnuts, many of which go into the hazelnut and chocolate spread called Gianduja and into filled Giandujotto chocolates.  The chocolate making industry goes back hundreds of years in Turin and bean-to-bar maker Guido Gobino is considered one of the best here.  If your taste runs more to Nutella, you may be interested to know Turin is its home.

Papardelle Funghi
at Caffe Platti, Turin

We had fond memories of the belle époque Caffe Platti at Corso Vittorio Emmanuelle II, 72 and were so happy to find it again.  I read that it had closed in 2015 but if this is so then the new owners have done a fine job of making it feel like it never went away.  Plates of Paccheri Rigati Pasta with chickpeas (Pasta e Ceci) scented with rosemary was wonderful, and local Porcini came in the form of Papardelle Funghi.  We noticed restaurant Sotto la Mole (at the foot of the Mole Antonelliana) was still going strong.  The memory of a plate of truffled cheese agnolotti still lingers in my mind but we were a little early for the white truffle season and we ran out of time to visit this time round.

If it's Michelin stars you're looking for, head for Del Cambio where Matteo Baronetto is serving up one star food overlooking unified Italy's first Parliament building in Piazza Carignano.  Expect glittering chandeliers, red velvet, crisp linen and baroque mirrors along with traditional Piemontese dishes.  The restaurant has been feeding the great and the good since 1757 - from Cavour, Casanova, Balzac, Nietzsche and Verdi to Maria Callas, Audrey Hepburn and the Agnelli (Fiat) family, of course.

Veal braised in Ruchè wine
at Consorzio

For a much more recent addition to Turin dining, book Consorzio at Via Monte di Pieta, 23.  It describes itself as "Well-rooted in the Piemonte area with an eye on faraway regions ..".  The sourcing of ingredients here is exemplary, the handling deft and the service without fuss.  The Steak tartare Piemontese style was served starkly as a disk of raw beef with salt, pepper and good olive oil; Agnolotti Gobbo pasta was stuffed with three different kinds of meat with enough fattiness to make them luscious, rich little morsels; Veal braised in Ruchè wine, a Piemontese red wine, was deep and succulent; and then came the best Panna Cotta ever, so light on gelatin that it barely held, yet every one emerging from the kitchen wobbled to its table intact.  Wines are mostly Natural and a bottle of Barbera d'Asti Trenchiro Terra del Noche sated well our increased liking for the Barbera grape.  Consorzio is one of those rare places where you feel there is a real meeting of minds and appetites in the kitchen and out front.

Banco Vini e Alimenti, Turin

We also liked Consorzio's bar, Banco Vini e Alimenti a short walk away.  With a narrow frontage at via dei Merchant 13/f, it's easy to miss.  It is quietly friendly, keeps a great range of natural wines and serves up simple dishes like farinata fritta and Alice fritte and larger ones like roasted hake with crispy prosciutto or spaghettoni all vongole.  It's small and can get busy but there's a deli counter at the back which means you can pick up some slices of mortadella, a piece of cheese and a bottle of wine to take out.

Porcini Seller at Mercato Porta Palazzo, Turin

Shop the Markets.  There are 42 open-air markets in Turin.  Mercato Porta Palazzo at Piazza della Repubblica is the biggest and is open Monday-Saturday.  There are scores of stalls surrounded by buildings housing fish, meat and cheese halls, but the north-eastern corner was where we found the 'farmers market' - where the best stuff was.  But it was the outdoor market in Piazza Madama Christina we fell for, where there were the most signs stating "nostrano (ours/home grown) and where we watched one smallholder clean and place his haul of porcini like each was a precious gem.  What we saw on the market stalls was reflected in the restaurant dishes - seasonality is alive and well in Turin.

We stopped for coffee, several times, at Orso Laboratorio at Via Berthollet 30g.  And, joyfully, right next door - through a connecting door in fact - we found Mara dei Boschi Laboratorio del Gelato which is very good indeed.  The memory of the Nocciola and, also, the Fichi gelato will stay with me for some time.

For taking in those Alpine views you couldn't head higher than the Mole Antonelliana on Via Montebello.  This unmissable building, standing at more than 167 metres, was originally conceived as a synagogue until the architect's desire to go upwards went too far and the money ran out.  It's now home to the Museo Nazionale de Cinema.

Rooftop Test Track at Lingotto Centre, Turin

It's nowhere near as tall, but the view from the Lingotto Centre on Via Nizza (Metro: Lingotto) would be my choice.  The old factory was redesigned in the 1980's by Renzo Piano and now includes an hotel, conference centre, theatre, and shopping mall.  I love the industrial architecture but it's the rooftop test track that is the draw, along with the 360 degree view complete with that Alpine horizon to the north.  As everyone will tell you, scenes from the original 1969 The Italian Job were filmed here.  If you stay in either of the hotels in the Lingotto building you can ask for a key to access the rooftop but, as part of your entrance charge, you can also gain access when visiting the Pinacoteca Giovanni e Marella Agnelli - Canaletto, Canova and Matisse are represented in the gallery's permanent collection. For real petrolheads, the Museo dell' Automobile is nearby.

Natura Morta (1957) by Giorgio Morandi
at the Galleria d'Arte Moderna (GAM)

There must be a museum to suit everyone in Turin but I would head for the Museo d'Arte Orientale (MAO), and the Museo Egizio which has one of the largest collections of Egyptian antiquities in the world.  Also, the Museo d'Arte Contemporanea at Castello di Rivoli - out of town but there is a free shuttle bus.  I have to admit to being a bit underwhelmed by Galleria d'Arte Moderna (GAM) but they do have some admirable Morandi works.  I wish I had visited the Museo della Frutta!

Cheese 2017 in Bra

Our visit was timed to coincide with the International Cheese festival which is held bi-annually in the lovely small town of Bra, around 50km south-east of Turin.  So, along with what seemed like half of Turin, we took the train to this highly regarded Slow Food event which this year, bravely, was all about raw milk.  Neals Yard Dairy explain the importance of this event best.

Apart from tasting and learning more about cheese, it's a chance to get up close to the Slow Food movement whose HQ is in Bra.  Here the association plans and promotes their worldwide projects. Their philosophy "envisions a world in which all people can access and enjoy food that is good for them, good for those who grow it and good for the planet".

Roast Goose Leg
at Boccon di Vino, Bra

In the HQ's courtyard sits the cooperative Osteria Boccon di Vino (Via Mendicita, 14) where we lunched very happily on plates of pasta: Tajarin with shavings of black truffle, Agnolotti del plin al burro e rosmarino; Melting roast goose leg and slow-cooked veal in red wine; and, inevitably, Panna Cotta to finish.  Oh, and more delicious local Barbera wine.  Despite having to queue, this was a lovely relaxing place to lunch with great staff and very good food.

For coffee we took the recommendation to visit Bottega delle Delizie at Via Polenzo, 6, Bra. Specialising in sourcing and serving up northern European style roasts, this is not coffee in Italy as I know it and it's all the better for that.  The coffee we drank had been roasted locally but they also had guest coffees from Five Elephants and Paolo told us they were expecting some Nomad Coffee from Barcelona soon.  Really good coffee served with genuine charm and enthusiasm.  I loved this place.

So, what is Turin Time - or Piemontese Time?  For me it has to be autumn, when the hazelnuts have been harvested, the grape harvest is well under way, the porcini are in the kitchen and there's the promise of truffles arriving.

Border Crossing

If you have the time, going to Turin by train is the scenic option!