By Joe Cannavo
Many Americans equate southern Italy with farms and a rural lifestyle, while the north is the land of big cities, fashion, industry and tourism.
For many who live in the Delaware Valley, this perception may come from the fact that the farmlands of southern New Jersey are rated among the finest in the country. The area is noted for exquisite vineyards, the sought-after Jersey tomato, blueberries and an assortment of other crops that give Jersey the nickname of the “Garden State.” Indeed no one can deny that 90 percent of the credit in places likes Hammonton, Vineland and Swedesboro goes to the farmers and their descendents who trace their roots to Southern Italy. In 1861 when land developer Charles Landis urged Italian immigrants to purchase farmland, there was no question that he foresaw that these immigrants, many from the fertile Mount Etna valley, had the farming skills that would turn the area in one of America’s leading farming centers.
While southern Italy is primarily touted as an agricultural area, several northern regions are making a name for themselves on the map of Italy’s well-known regional “highlights.”
During harvest season northern Italy’s three key farming and wine regions come into their peak. It’s a joyful time when the local people bring in the crops they’ve carefully hand-tended throughout the year — and locals and visitors alike dedicate themselves wholeheartedly to wine-soaked gastronomic discovery.
In Acqui Terme, at the foot of the Alps in the picturesque northwest Piedmont region, harvest draws international visitors to the tiniest villages and most out-of-the way hillside regions. More and more people are rediscovering what the locals never forgot; i.e., the “slow food” philosophies of being in touch with the land, in harmony with the seasons, and cultivating/harvesting food by hand.
In the Monferrato district of Piedmont, for more than 2,000 years, wine production has been the main industry followed by other types of agriculture. The picking season starts in late August with the “aromatic varieties” of Brachetto and Moscato, and winds up in November with Nebbiolo.
Although most Americans are familiar with the classic Italian red varietals such as Barolo, Brachetto is the red wine to discover during a Piedmont visit. Locals drink it as an aperitif, for dessert, and at celebratory occasions — where it’s said to bring families together because it can be drunk from youth to old age. While currently produced in smaller quantities than most other Italian wines, the increasing popularity of Brachetto in major U.S. cities indicates that soon, this effervescent red-fruit sipper might overtake mighty Moscato as the sparkling wine for tastemakers.
In most of the hillside vineyards the steep and treacherous terrain makes it impossible to run modern picking machines, and grapes are still harvested by hand as they have been for hundreds of years. Without heavy machinery operating from dawn till dusk, the vineyards have a timeless appeal although the facilities are oftentimes state-of-the-art.
Some wineries will let visitors spend a few days in the vineyard working side-by-side to harvest the grapes, and can even arrange for them to go to the woods to forage for chestnuts and mushrooms. Baravalle is one such picturesque vineyard/farm estate in the Piedmont region that allows visitors to take part in its agricultural program and overnight in comfortable lodgings on the grounds.
While hard work is crucial to the success of a vineyard, credit for the bountiful grape harvests in the Piedmont region goes to rose bushes. More than just ornamental, rose bushes have historically been used as an indicator of pests or mildew in the vineyards. Roses are even more sensitive than grapevines are, so a drooping rose bush would alert vineyard managers to use traditional anti-pest control methods like copper sulfate on the microscopic intruders before they could compromise the harvest.
Probably the only other harvest to garner as much international attention as the wine crush is la raccolta dei funghi (wild mushroom gathering). This takes place in local forests all around Piedmont from September through November. Pungent white truffles are the king of funghi, but other local mushroom varieties like porcini and ovuli are popular as well. Local restaurants have special seasonal menus featuring fresh mushrooms in every course.
To sample the local harvest without going into the forest or the fields one can visit a local farmers’ market. Porto Palazzo in Torino is the largest market in all Europe — but all towns and even the tiniest villages in the Piedmont region have weekly or twice-weekly markets of their own. Jams from vineyard grapes and other local fruits, roast chestnuts, late-summer peppers in olive oil, and cardoons with bagna cauda (hot garlic sauce) are just a few of the simple but delicious local delicacies to try.
Because the maritime region of Liguria is Piedmont’s neighbor to the south, seafood is also an important part of the northern Italian gastronomy. Local restaurants feature a great deal of anchovies, calamari, bluefish and cod (the main catches from the Ligurian Sea). Bluefish — once eaten mainly by farmers and other working-class types — enjoyed an unexpected surge in popularity recently, when dietitians discovered that the inexpensive fish is extremely high in omega-3.
The province of Vercelli is Italy’s key rice-growing region because of its humid climate and proximity to the Po River. Though not the most picturesque crop compared with the gloriously tended hillside vineyards, the Arborio rice grown here provides most of Italy with the staple dish of risotto and is also exported to the United States, Japan and many European countries.