The Slow Food organisation celebrated its 30th birthday with a special edition of its main annual event, the Salone del Gusto.
My previous trips to Piedmont had been to visit the Langhe and Alta Langhe, the regions acclaimed for their wines and hazelnuts (this is the home of Nutella and Ferrero, after all). My flights on those occasions had landed and taken off from Turin-Caselle Airport, but otherwise the city of Turin was a mystery to me, beyond its reputation as the home of Fiat and the former seat of Italy’s royal family, the House of Savoy.
It’s also the cradle of Slow Food, the movement that sparked into life in the ’80s with a demonstration against a new McDonald’s in Rome, and which has since snowballed into an international support network for traditional producers whose processes are endangered by modern commercial forces. In the UK, for example, there’s a Slow Food “Presidium” that protects our traditional cheddar producers in Somerset. (The Presidium enshrines the time-honoured techniques employed in the production of this cheese, such as the use of cheesecloth rather than a plastic when binding the cheese for maturation.)
With the announcement of this year’s Terre Madre Salone del Gusto, the organisation’s annual exhibition, I saw the perfect opportunity to visit Turin. Celebrating 30 years of operation, Slow Food had announced a new format: the Salone del Gusto would not take place inside the exhibition hall, as in previous years, but instead it would be spread around the city’s main parks, theatres, and historical buildings, as a way to reach a wider public and as a test run for future iterations.
What better time to tour any city than when it is inundated with food stalls offering the highest quality sustenance?
HISTORY OF IMMIGRATION
A murderously early budget flight carried me over the snowy Alps and into Piedmont. As my transfer took me into the city, I noticed that the outskirts of Turin are more functional than attractive — a reminder that this city has been a hub for Italians immigrating from the countryside (Turin is ranked third behind Milan and Rome for economic heft) — but there’s a stateliness to the plane tree-lined avenue that eventually bears us to the Turin Exhibition Hall. It’s located in Valentino Park, which was Italy’s first public garden, opened in 1856, and includes at its heart the UNESCO-listed Valentino Castle, a former Savoy residence. The park hugs the west bank of the broad Po River, which gives its name to the immense Po Valley that stretches from Piedmont to Veneto, and provides Italy with its largest stretch of flat and fertile terrain.
Getting off the bus, I’m greeted by giant plastic snails — the Slow Food symbol — and posters showing a woman holding a loaf of brown bread as if it’s her new-born: yes, I’m in the right place. Pointed white tents line the paths that curve through the park’s lawns and groves. It’s busy, and warmer than I expected, with many in T-shirts as we approach the end of September.
Located beside the baroque castle is a botanical garden — the Orto Botanica. Usually only open on the weekends (€3 pp), it’s open all week for the event. The plants inside looked engaging, but I spotted a sign across the path that said “Slow Meat”, so I popped over there instead, thinking slow meat must be the easiest to catch. Of course, it turned out to be an interactive exhibition, employing colourful graphics and props, positing how it’d be better for us to eat less meat, and of a better quality. Flinching at the memory of university doner kebabs consumed, I’m convinced at the first placard, an image of pinkish pigs looking intelligently into the photographer’s lens.
For the rest of the afternoon, I browsed the line of tents, joining this midday passeggiata. It’s unlikely there’s anywhere else in the world that can match the quality on offer here over this particular week, with every province in Italy represented by its best artisanal produce. Visitors dip in and out of the stalls, tasting bread doused in glistening olive oil, nibbling crumbs of raw milk cheese, sipping glasses of bio-dynamic wine.
Piedmont has, naturally, the largest representation. As I passed a mountain of pungent mushrooms, my eye wandered over the €5 price for a glass of Barolo, produced an hour away in the lyrically beautiful Langhe (Piedmont is, to my mind, superior to Tuscany for its variety and quality of red wines). But it was still a little early for me, if not for the Italians, whose chattering stream offered a lively counterpart to the wide, serene Po running nearby.
OUTDOOR COOKING STALLS
Come evening, I followed the Po upstream to the Murazzi for some dinner. Night had now fallen, and the smells and steam given off by the outdoor cooking stalls wafted up from the riverside to the street above. The Murazzi del Po is a beating hub for student life in this university town, a series of arched spaces and landings previously employed in the transport of river freight that have been converted into cool bars and clubs. Encamped here tonight were, of course, the white tents of Slow Food.
There was an extensive queue for a Slow Food organic sour beer from Brazil, so I decided instead — to my eternal shame — to grab a plastic glassful of no-line San Miguel from a nearby club. Keen to make amends, I joined the line at one of the food stands advertising something called a bombetta. The line is swift, and not before long I’m sat on the quay beside the peaceful Po savaging the salty deliciousness of the cheese-filled meatballs enclosed within a wallet of bread. Across from us, on the more peaceful side of the river this evening, a couple smoked cigarettes on a bench.
Afterwards, it was a good half an hour’s walk back to my hotel located just the other side of the Royal Palace (the tourist heart of the city). Turin’s most famous landmark, the stunning Mole Antoniello building (catch the elevator to the top for €7), loomed behind the brightly-lit streets, its slate-blue tower ominous and sepulchral at night, looking like an aerial picking up transmissions from The Other Side.
I decided against hopping on one of the dusty orange trams rattling past (the trams reinforce a sense of Turin as a smaller, more relaxed version of Milan) and pushed on through the fatigue, for journalism’s sake. A wise decision: I happened on Via Gelato — a run of gelato stalls staked out on the lively Via Po with gelato-to-die-for made from sustainable, Slow Food-approved ingredients.
Checking that my single-cup purchase can have two flavours inside, I’m met with the teasing response: “Only two?” The unutterably delicious chocolate and pistachio gelato then walked me safely and happily home through Turin’s colonnaded pavements.
TO THE HEART OF THE MATTER
In the cool of morning, I made my way into the old part of town known as the Quadrilatero Romano. Brown brick cobbles ripple out from beneath my feet as the broad avenues narrowed into lanes. In one of Turin’s more serene squares, I found Caffe Al Bicerin. Dating back to 1763, this is an evocative wood-panelled temple to Turin’s status as Italy’s chocolate capital (I’ve heard it said that the Piedmontese eat more dark chocolate than the rest of Italy combined).
The interior has original parquet flooring, white marble tables and jars of multi-coloured sweets line the shelves behind the bar. I came here to seek out (with a few other tourists this morning) the café’s namesake drink, the Bicerin: a wine glass of cool cream layered (alarmingly thickly, I have to say) over a bottom layer of hot obsidian choc. It’s served with a spoon, and becomes like liquid chocolate mousse towards the bottom of the glass. Not the most nutritious breakfast I’ve ever had, but certainly one of the tastiest.
There’s a photographic exhibition (about foods that characterise the Egyptian diet both past and present) happening at the famous Egyptian Museum — the largest outside of Egypt — but I decided to make a beeline for Piazza Castello.
This is where the city puts its regal, silver-buckled shoe forward, and, through its pomp and circumstance, a reminder that this was, albeit briefly, Italy’s first capital following the Risorgimento (unification). On this warm autumnal day, the square is filled with exhibitions, food trucks, and, inside the inner courtyard of the castle, an enoteca offering tastings.
Finding the sun a little high at 3pm for luxuriant, heavy reds, I made my way to a peaceful garden within the castle complex dominated by a graceful iron modern art sculpture. The beautifully cut grass was a tempting stop as I pondered my next move.
Unfortunately, my repose was shattered by a shrill peep! I looked up, and found a man in a red shirt and Panama hat staring right at me, the whistle still in his mouth. Everyone else in the square had frozen, equally terrified. I stood up off of the grass, and he stalked away. Later I plucked up the courage to speak to the whistling terror, and met the charming Enrico Bergonzi — a volunteer from the Italian touring club, who is sworn to protect the new grass recently laid in this garden. “Sorry,” he said, generously, “and there are free deck chairs over there.” He then moved off to whistle ruthlessly at a foolhardy, grass-loving mother and toddler, while I left to take in more of the festival.
APERITIVO AT CAFFE PLATTI
That evening there was a parade of Slow Food delegates through the city (7,000 no less), but I was too worn out from the walking to join them (Boris bikes are available for the wise, known as ‘To bike’) and in dire need of the aperitivo at stunning Caffe Platti. It’s baroque, genial, and there are small rounds of bread topped with gorgonzola and almonds. Ordering a Rob Roy with Punt e Mes vermouth — a Turinese variety — I chat with the boozed up Maura, an ebullient local professor who can’t tell me enough about the city and the surrounding area. I carefully list her recommendations, knowing that I’ve only scraped the surface of this stately, vibrant city.
WHERE TO STAY AND EAT
HOTEL DIPLOMATIC – Via Cernaia, 42
Hotel Diplomatic is an efficient, well-priced, well-located four-star hotel with comfortable, clean rooms. Only 15 minutes walk to the palace complex, and just around the corner from a Metro stop. Superb water pressure, and friendly service in the breakfast room. If you’re a fan of Twin Peaks you’ll love the elevators.
CAFFE PLATTI – Corso Vittorio Emanuele II, 72
Open since 1870, Caffe Platti is a belle époque landmark. Open all day, the friendly and welcoming aperitivo, featuring delicious nibbles arranged elegantly on the bar top, runs from 6pm to 9pm.
Expect cocktail prices hovering nearer to €10 (but remember that the nibbles come free), and, in the birthplace of Vermouth, a bittersweet Punt e Mes aperitif might only be polite.
CAFFE AL BICERIN – Piazza della Consolata, 5
The seriously historic Caffe Al Bicerin has been open since 1763. Located in the peaceful Piazza della Consolata, the café retains “the elegance of the 1800s when aristocratic women, having been to Mass and respected the Eucharistic fast, came to revive themselves”. One of the best routes to revival remains the namesake Bicerin: a hot chocolate with a layer of coffee and another of cream. A must.
BY PLANE: Ryanair flies to Turin from Stansted (prices from £36 return). The best prices, are, of course, found at horribly early times. To offset the pain, overnight at the Radisson Blu (rooms from £200 including free high-speed wifi and 24-hour room service), a 30minute walk from the central terminal. The rooms have wonderfully deep baths in which you can almost forget you’re at Stansed.