A few months ago I visited Modena, in Emilia-Romagna, to learn about Parmigiano Reggiano and Balsamico. Now I continue my research in Torino, region of Piemont.
I begin, warily, at the Mercado Porta Palazzo known to be the biggest market in Europe, with the sort of cheap products and smell that would be expected. I found the special "farmers" area, separate from the more commercial produce market. These guys had dirty hands, but they weren't farmers. You can't stand on the Plaza six days a week and still be a farmer. Anyway, no enthusiasm. I did get some extraordinary produce there, some beans about the diameter of spaghetti, some gorgeous cucumbers, what Californians call "heirloom" tomatoes, and one spectacular cheese from a pile of cheese with rinds so thick they looked like bread (and mostly smelling too strong for my taste). (More about The Torino "Dutch" Cheese.)
The indoor market seemed to be reselling quite commercial meats and cheeses. Nothing interested me.
Back in my neighborhood I found shops that felt more authentic. A dim bakery, a spare wine shop selling autochthonous wines (made from indigenous grapes), a small shop selling products from Sicily (where I could buy my beloved pane carasau), and a local buffalo products store. What I didn't find was Piemontese olive oil or vinegar (aceto).
On Sunday morning, at the Mercado di Campaña Amica (a market of farmers for their friends), Claudio Priotti explained why: "Certain products have been totally commercialized. People buy those products from big brands in supermarkets, not from small producers. Whereas they may still buy other products of their region directly." In Piemonte, olive oil and aceto are such products.
I asked Claudio about his aceto. It's made from apples and it's called "caramellato". What this really means is that it's a very similar product to balsamico, which combines the sweetness of the fruit syrup (saba) with the acidity of vinegar. (Like the cheese I bought from Le Fattoria Pandino, it's the same style of cheese as Parmigiano Reggiano but it can't be called that because of the DOP, so it's called "Grana".)
The Caramellato was a traditional product in the Piedmont region, but not produced for a long time. Claudio and his brother quit unsatisfying professional careers to lease a farm and transform their parents' house into a production laboratory, Cascina Danese.
Another product "coming back" was introduced to me by Mauro Marino at his shop Retrò Bottega, the wine Nas-Cetta (also known as Nascetta or Anascetta). Because this grape was difficult to grow and not abundant it fell almost completely of production in favor of more abundant varieties. In the 1990s, winemaker Elvio Cogno rediscovered the wine and got it back into production. This was not easy because they had to actually locate and select the plants. The contemporary interest in autochthonous wines provides the support to bring a difficult grape into commercial viability. I am actually not a big fan of white wine and Nascetta is my first white love.
I can get quite an education on Mauro's red velvet couch. His customers recommend their favorites and bring their own bottles to refill from his the bulk wine dispensary, where he offers the lesser wines (or could be the overproduction) from his favorite wineries at €3-4/bottle. Today I learned that while DOP and IGP balsamic and parmegiano certification is based on taste, wine certification is based only on the validity of the vine DNA and the location of the farm. It's not necessary that the winemaker is any good or the wines taste good. He explained that one of the most important wineries in the Langhe (an important wine subregion of Piemonte), Gaja, sells their renowned wine without appellation, as "table wine", for €1000/bottle.
At at Piadineria (sandwich shop), I realized the menu mentioned for most of the €4.50 sandwich filling their status as DOP or IGP...