In our new blog series about local travel we're starting off with the wonderful city of Turin, which we’ve now concluded has to be one of our favourite Italian cities. Obviously there are so many other more famous Italian cities that occupy people’s travel plans. The tourist centres of Rome, Florence and Venice probably topping the crowded list. Then Turin also has to compete with their bougie northern cousin, beautiful Milan with its fashionista locals and extraordinary art and architecture (and vicinity to the great Italian lakes). Don’t get me wrong, we love a little jaunt up to Milan (about 4hrs by train) but Turin is the kind of city we could live in and it makes a great stopover for entering Italy from south eastern France through the Rhone valley.
Turin holds so many special characteristics, and perhaps it’s some of these that remind us of our Mancunian roots. The super-friendly people, the remarkable food scene; a city with a beating industrious heart and just the right amount of steely fierceness (and home to the country’s highest achieving football team of course). And before you start to picture all urban grit, this former capital city could boast for days about its many talents. Except Turin wouldn’t boast. If Turin was a person, they’d just hang out at the back being cool, closest to the dinner table and making the people they’re hanging out with feel good. Turin has been as much about the feeling, as it has been several days of wandering, exploring and eating.
This city has some serious history under its belt. In the 19thcentury Turin was the political and intellectual centre of the Risorgimento, the Italian movement for political unification, and served as the first capital of a united Italy from 1861 to 1865, until it was decided Rome made a better practical (and historical) choice. The iconic Mole Antonelliana symbolises this important historical status, these days the landmark is home to the National Museum of Cinema. The 85m platforms provide a spectacular place to view the city from above and the impressive backdrop of the snow-capped western Alps, with views across several major national parks including Gran Paradiso and our favourite route into France through La Vanoise, also known as Hannibal’s Pass (in case, like me, you were wondering about the elephant statues).
Back to the city, be sure to pack a pair of comfy walking shoes because losing yourself in the historic centre is the best way to let the city take you by surprise. A big part of Italy’s literary and political history was probably written at these café tables under the seemingly endless arcades (18km of them apparently). I like to imagine Umberto Eco (from my sociology studies at university) drafting his ideas on the semiotic process at one of these cafes whilst sipping his bicerin, a typical local drink made from bitter cocoa, coffee and cream. It’s easy to feel that these cafes haven’t changed all that much over the years. It’s a big city too, but there are trams, electric bikes and scooters to whisk you from one quarter to another. There’s even a tram that you can dine on, as you trundle your way around town (Gustotram). The architecture is unassumingly beautiful, a mix of structured Roman urban planning and flamboyant Piemonte baroque, interspersed with over 300km of tree-lined avenues and numerous parks. There’s a comfortable feeling of the historic embracing the dynamic and modern. For a taste of old school café life, we recommend a visit to historic Platti 1875 and enjoy some of their very special Piemontese chocolate and pralines amidst the Art Nouveau grandeur or perhaps a gelato at Caffe Fiorio, a former enclave to 18thcentury artists and aristocrats.
A big part of Turin's culture is restaurant life, where Piemontese folk take their food very seriously indeed. Many consider their regional cuisine to be some of Italy’s most revered ingredients, and at the heart of Italy’s Slow Food movement. In an age-old debate, Piedmont makes a strong play for the unofficial title of Italy’s best food region (the other being Emilia-Romagna, of which Bologna is the capital). For me, nothing will ever beat the night we ate white truffle and porcini lasagne with a fine Barolo, and nudges Piedmont into first position for that title. That, and its vicinity to the Italian Riviera and our beloved home in Liguria (Turin is only a 2 hour drive from our location).
The food in Turin is surprisingly diverse. As well as showcasing some of the best dishes the region has to offer, there’s a penchant for highly descriptive menus (quite different to the modern British approach) and which, like the Italian language itself, I find rather poetic. I’m far more excited by a dish entitled ‘una sinfonia d’inverno’(a winter symphony) than one that simply lists ingredients as ‘beetroot - cauliflower – hazelnut’. I’m also enamoured with the ‘bagna cauda’ that I initially understood in English as hot bath. A classic Piedmont dipping sauce blending anchovies, olive oil and copious amounts of garlic. Other embellishments are sometimes made (at your own risk of provoking a heated argument about the authenticity of such additions) such as cream, butter, wine, lemon juice and even truffle. The slowly cooked emulsion is served with fresh raw Autumn vegetables, although we’ve seen this served alongside lots of variations including meat and fish – and once re-imagined as a herbaceous foam alongside roasted veggies (una bagna schiuma). In Piedmont dialect, the name means hot gravy or sauce. Traditionally served in ‘fujot’, a little terracotta or copper pot over a small flame to keep the sauce bubbling. This ancient dish can be traced back to the Middle Ages and symbolises friendship and happiness, and apparently, the tapping of the new wine. Clearly a cause for celebrations with friends!
Spring and late summer are great times to visit Turin, especially outside the hottest months. But for me, autumn is the best time for foodies. White truffle comes into season, with entire menus dedicated to this prince of produce (Alba is barely an hour away). I didn’t think one could eat too much truffle, although it turns out you can. Cue my very first visit to a pharmacy for indigestion tablets. Perhaps the three courses of truffle, together with the Tajarin pasta, was a step too far. That being said, I highly recommend visiting a traditional Piemontese restaurant serving classic and seasonal dishes (we loved Antica Bruschetteria Pautasso). Cheese lovers should seek out Castelmagno (look for the Slow Food protected produce for something extra special), Montebore and Robiola di Roccaverano, a pure goats cheese with a delicate and creamy flavour. Meat eaters can enjoy fassona, Piedmont’s prized beef and the famous Bra sausage. As well as eating far too much truffle, we’ve enjoyed surprisingly diverse restaurants in Turin. Including vegan Piemontese food (from our favourite vegan restaurant Mezzaluna), Italian soul food (at the exceptional La Società dei Carbonari), incredible gluten free bakeries (Freedom Lounge, there are several across the city), authentic tacos (Alma Latina) and outstanding ramen (Ma La Tang, located on Corso Regina Margherita, 152).
The food in Turin is so much more than just the incredible restaurants and cafes though. Perhaps I’ve left the best until last. Because for me, the markets in this city are beyond anything I’ve ever seen. The multi-ethnic heart of Turin can be found in the market square of Porta Palazzo, the largest outdoor market in Europe. It’s quite an experience getting lost in the maze of canopied interconnected stalls that carpet the pavements of Piazza della Republica. My favourite places to explore are the warren-like deli market halls and authentic farmers markets. A cook’s dream! Here you will find extraordinary artisan produce, foraged gems and vegetables that have been loved into existence. And once you’ve worn yourself out with all that shopping and exploring (and tasting) then its time to visit the excellent Mercato Centrale, a modern food hall designed around the 19thcentury ruins, for some more serious snacking and drinking.
And if all that wasn’t enough, Turin is also home to the greatest flea market in Europe. The Balôn di Torino takes place every Saturday, and on every second Sunday each month, is the gran balôn (the biggest market in Italy). This market lines every street and corner, spilling into more lanes and side streets, selling every conceivable item you can imagine and then some. And just when you think there is no room for anything else, you come across a stall selling something you never realised you wanted until that moment. This incredible market is a complete delight. And perfect for working up an appetite for even more glorious eating. Turin really is the ideal addition to your Italian travel itinerary, or a weekend city break. Foodie friends, what are you waiting for?
Te Amiamo Torino! Continua….