It was pouring with rain as we drove into Piedmont. However, this did not detract from the beauty of the landscape lined with even rows of grapevines interspersed with the occasional attractive looking abode.
One of the reasons we were here was to visit Mandrile e Melis the following day, the maker of the new filled chocolates of many tempting flavours which had been very well received last Christmas. Of course, we had also booked a dinner at La Cantinetta in Barolo, and we wanted to catch up with the Rocca family, whose wines just seem to go from strength to strength internationally.
It had been recommended to us by a friend in the wine trade that we lunch at a small restaurant attached to the Gagliardo winery, where the chef had come from a Michelin-starred operation in Alba and whose wines are also available in New Zealand.
The menu was a tasty regional offer with hand chopped veal tartare, vitello tonnato and gnocchi with gorgonzola and a small filled local pasta shape called plin. Paolo, the son, generously offered an aperitif of their signature white as well as two Barolo of differing styles and ages, from two of their vineyards in different parts of the Barolo region - one with a predominance of sand, the other of clay. Barolo is not just Barolo!
Mandrile e Melis is a small family operation started around 30 years ago by Giuseppe Mandrile, who had originally worked for a panettone maker, but became disillusioned as the firm industrialised and decided to open his own bakery. He then started dabbling in chocolate making and found himself moving towards this instead, specialising in the 'cuneesi' chocolate which is the generous sized filled chocolate for which Piedmont is famous. He invited his lively twin nephews Giuliano and Davide Melis and their sister Cristina, who are all in their thirties, to join him about 15 years ago, and there is a very nice synergy to the family team.
Davide, with his uncle, enjoys developing the various flavours which also include many alcoholic fillings such as Grand Marnier and Whiskey as well as mint, using a locally made mint liqueur.
Of course Piedmont is also famous for its hazelnuts and these he buys directly from small local farmers for their delicious nut fillings. They make all their own fillings. Also on offer is gianduja, mandarin, tiramisu...and some very nice truffles both in dark and white, the white having the extra touch of the addition of some of the local nougat.
Giuliano is the marketer - and really this is an easy job as all he has to do is tempt people to taste the products and they sell. No wonder he and his twin seem to delight in life, with their infectious cheeky grins. Their life's work is no hard task! A lovely family, they proudly showed us their small factory, where we saw how they make a separate chocolate case for the alcoholic ones (keeps the flavour in more effectively) and then tasted many of the huge choice available. A very rich day!
That night they took us to an excellent trattoria in Serralunga called Trattoria Schiavenza. We must return.
The following day we caught up with the Rocca family. We only import a small selection of wine, and Phil would say it is mainly for ourselves, but if you would like to try excellent Piedmontese wine which also offers great value we suggest you try these. The entry point is their Dolcetto d'Alba for the red, but we would urge you to step up to their excellent Barbera d'Alba and for a good meat accompaniment their Nebbiolo - or just go to the very serious and excellent Barolo. Decant it and let it breathe for a little while first to get the most out of it. These wines represent excellent value on both an Italian and New Zealand scale. It might happen that Federica, the lovely daughter, may actually pay us a visit in the near future.
Ahhh, La Cantinetta, where Maurilio and Paolo work their magic year after year. The Melis boys thought it had a Michelin star, and indeed it should, as it is far better than others which do. You can choose from their menu or just leave yourselves in the extremely capable hands of Maurilio and his faithful waiter Gianluca. Just make sure you experience the pâté with the caramelized red onion, the finely rolled pasta with the egg, the gnocchi and the exquisite pannacotta. None of which have been bettered by their equivalents in our Italian eating experiences. And after a long night and many years later, Paolo is still there, at the end of the night, cleaning down his kitchen...such is a chef's life.