The typical cuisine
Poor but rich cuisine
Monferrato cuisine is both poor, being strongly linked to popular customs and the products of the land, and rich, thanks to the surprising variety of dishes proposed, partially due to the influence of traditions from the neighbouring regions of Liguria, Lombardy and Emilia.
If we consider the more typical and traditional aspects, it is necessary to look back into the distant past when, unlike today, dietary habits were evidently differentiated in relation to social status and occupation.
Bread, polenta and dips (bagne)
It is a well known fact that the poorer classes had to make do with bread (grescia or micun) or polenta made with cornmeal, served with various bagne (dips) usually made with vegetables such as onions, garlic and aromatic herbs: bagnèt verd with parsley, bagna del pòvr’òm, with stock, bread, vinegar, scallion and onion, salsa dj avije (bee sauce), with chopped walnuts and mustard dissolved in honey and stock, cugnà, grape sauce made with must cooked overnight with walnuts, figs, pears and hazelnuts.
But the most famous bagna is undoubtedly bagna cauda, which originated in the Monferrato district and is much richer than the others. The obligatory garlic was placed in an enormous pan made of copper or terracotta and cooked with olive oil and exotic anchovies, which were brought into the area on the salt trails, the first from Liguria and the second in barrels from Spain. It was used to dip a wide variety of vegetables which the earth produced generously. The recipe for bagna cauda has never changed and it continues to be a celebratory dish, eaten with friends and served with plenty of wine and tasty vegetables.
Tasty meats and pickled fish
The tables of the market inns and post houses, visited by cart drivers, horse-dealers, cattle dealers and merchants (who were slightly better off than the farmers), were graced by ox and pork, served in the most popular dishes such as: tripe, trotters (batciuà), chickpeas with head, ox tail (now cooked with Barbera). Salame cotto, with its softly delicate consistency made using the less important off-cuts of pork and fat, or testa in cassetta made with pig’s tongues and snouts.
For “builders”, the main dishes were stew and polenta served with bruss: a cream obtained from the re-fermentation of leftover cheese.
The inns were also the birthplace of the famous carpione piemontese, a special way of making certain freshwater fish (such as carp, and eel) which were tasty but also full of bones, more enjoyable and easier to preserve. The recipe for carpione, which consists in frying the item to be pickled and then marinating it in vinegar and sage, was so successful that it was also used for eggs, courgettes, meatballs, garlic and mint.
Today, Monferrato gastronomy is rich in traditional ingredients and recipes.
There are countless cold and hot, cooked and raw entrées, made with meat, fish and cheese, served individually or in imaginative, skilfully prepared combinations: insalata di carne cruda made from typical “piemontese” beef (finely chopped raw beef dressed with olive oil, salt and lemon juice), anchovies in green sauce, vitello tonnato (finely sliced boiled beef served with tuna-flavoured mayonnaise), insalata russa made with vegetables in mayonnaise, flame grilled peppers, stuffed courgette flowers and numerous savoury pies, to mention a few.
Among the first courses and so-called complete dishes a mention must go to agnolotti (both the traditional square ravioli type and the pinched ‘del plin’ version), tajarin (fine tagliatelle made with lots of egg and served with a variety of sauces), risotto del casalese, pasta and beans, “panada”, rice and mushrooms and rice with red wine, vegetable soups, polenta with fried cod or “comodato”.
Apart from the traditional main courses mentioned earlier, this category also features fritto misto (fried brains, sweetbreads, liver, chops, apples, macaroons, semolina, sausage and mushrooms), bollito misto (a variety of boiled “piemontese” beef joints, inlcuding the head, plus chicken), “tasca or cima ripiena”, frittata rognosa (omelette with salami and herbs), as well as omelettes made with frogs or lavertin (hop leaves) and stuffed turkey neck.
Vegetables, mushrooms and truffles
On the plains and valley floors, the Monferrato district produces numerous vegetables which play an important role in local gastronomy, with some also able to boast important acknowledgements for their typicality and qualitative excellence: Motta square peppers, Nizza “cardi gobbi” cardoons and Asti golden onions.
The Monferrato hills are also the perfect breeding ground for mushrooms and the very precious white truffle, used to enhance taste and create additional variants of many traditional dishes.
Dry desserts and breadsticks
Most of the desserts that originate in the Monferrato district are dry, best served with red or sweet white wine. The oldest and most famous are amaretti di Mombaruzzo, baci di dama, crumiri di Casale, finocchini di Refrancore, polentine del Palio, torta monferrina, tirà, and canestrelli di Cinaglio. These are joined by the famous bunet made with macaroons, chestnut cakes, zabaione made with Moscato or Barbera wine, baked peaches filled with macaroons, pears cooked in red wine…
A special mention must go to grissini or breadsticks: made with water, fat-free, hand-rolled, crispy and ideal to accompany a meal.
The Palio and the gastronomy festival
A complete dish, strong and rustic, originally eaten by workers in the fields: a crusty grissia of bread is flavoured by vigorously rubbing a peeled clove of fresh garlic on the salted crust.