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Food and Wine in Italy : A Meal in a Secret Garden

November 01, 1990|S. IRENE VIRBILA

CASTIGLIONE FALLETTO, PIEMONTE — Four generations of the Vietti family have made wine in this tiny medieval town a few miles from Barolo. Alfredo Currado, a genial man in his 50s, took over the wine making shortly after he married Luciana Vietti in 1957. Today their daughter Elisabetta, 28, makes the wines with her father. The family is known not only for their highly individual Barolos, but also for their extraordinary hospitality.

Perched at the edge of the village, the Currados' house has a comfortable, lived-in feeling. The heart of the house is the large kitchen, which looks out onto the Langhe hills and the castle of Serralunga. There's a corner fireplace where they grill meats in winter and a bold drawing of a horse and rider on the wall close to the table. One night at dinner, a Genovese artist friend noticed that blank white wall and leaped up to draw the prancing horse to amuse the Currados' grandson Francesco.

The entire house is filled with paintings and drawings, most of them acquired by trading wine for art. The prize of the collection is an Etruscan terra-cotta wine cup with two handles. "It gives me goose bumps every time I hold it in my hands," Alfredo says, "to know that people drank from this cup more than 700 years before Christ."

From June until October the family eats outside in the shelter of the veranda, where Luciana has set the table with her grandmother's hand-woven tablecloth and French turn-of-the-century china. She's planned a menu of Piemontese dishes including risotto al Arneis, rabbit braised in Barbera wine, local cheeses and a hazelnut torte. While she takes a basket and sets off to collect herbs and greens from her kitchen garden, Alfredo goes to collect the wines.

The door to Luciana's secret garden opens onto the broad medieval wall which surrounds Castiglione Falletto. Wild roses, mint, basil, rosemary, and flowering thyme are all mixed up in the thick blanket of scents. She and her mother, Pierina Vietti, have planted tomatoes and garlic, artichokes and fava beans; strawberries and raspberries, too. None of it is neatly laid out in rows. The garden is lovely and a little wild. Luciana likes it that way.

Alfredo decides to open the two Barolos right away. He feels they should be decanted and left loosely stoppered for at least an hour before serving. As an aperitif, he's chosen their most recent vintage of Arneis, an old Piemontese grape, just coming back into fashion after a lapse of some years.

For the Currados, Arneis is a perfect aperitif wine, because it can hold up to strongly flavored antipasti dishes, including salami and prosciutto, which are usually considered matches for red wines. "It's a white wine that interests me because it presents some of the characteristics of a red wine," explains Alfredo. "White wines generally manifest their taste, their flavors, more on the point of the tongue, while this Arneis affects the entire palate."

To emphasize this point, he sometimes serves it in red wine glasses, at a temperature somewhere between white and red wine. He wants it cool, but not chilled, so that it exhibits all its perfume of summer fruits. The grapes for Arneis come from the Roero Hills on the north side of the Tanaro River where they also grow peaches, strawberries and all sorts of other fruit.

For the first course, Luciana has made a dish that is typical in this mountainous region: risotto. But she has created a variation on the classic risotto al Barolo, substituting Arneis. The white wine's acidity gives it a sprightly taste, and each grain of rice is al dente at the center, creamy on the outside.

Luciana braised the rabbit for the next course in Barbera d'Alba from their Scarrone vineyard just below the house. "The vines are 55 years old and still planted to the old system," explains Alfredo. "For every row of Barbera vines, they used to plant one Nerano vine, so the Barbera is about 5% Nerano. It's a very sweet, intensely colored grape with a thick skin, and it is also one of the most delicious grapes for eating."

Every peasant has enough vines to make a little Barbera. "To honor a guest, it's still the custom to open a bottle of Barbera, preferably a bottle with a little dust on it. And at one time this was the wine a father put aside when a son was born, to celebrate his son's coming of age at 20, when he went off to do his military service." Now it's more the fashion to put aside Barolo.

In the Currado household, Barolo is not reserved just for cold weather, a roaring fire and a serious piece of roasted game. They like a young Barolo with cheese: in this case, a local sheep's milk cheese called toma delle Langhe and Parmesan chiseled from a handsome piece of Reggiano. The cheese makes the tannin retreat a little, allowing the fruit to come forward.

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