PIEDMONT means truffles and Barolo to most food- and Italy-lovers. In fact, it means this to almost anyone who has heard of the region, including Italians. Apart from wine connoisseurs eager to visit cellars and late-fall pilgrims seeking the increasingly rare white truffle, few people go out of their way to visit Italy's northwest corner. Truffle hunters usually leave feeling vaguely disappointed, for good reason. Synthesized "truffle" oils and flavored foodstuffs have raised demand for an item that was always rare and expensive, and have colorized people's expectations of what the flavor of a truffle should be. In its unenhanced state a white truffle is earthy and pungent, yes, but not a garlic-and-chemical bazooka.
That leaves wine, and the wine of the Piedmont is not disappointing. The region produces Italy's biggest-flavored and best-known red wines and also some of its best whites. Anyone who has experienced the full power of a Barolo -- a wine that, I think, can almost be a main course by itself -- or the gentle sweetness of a true moscato d'Asti, light in alcohol and irresistibly effervescent, will understand the urge to visit a region that can produce such different and wholly satisfying wines in a compact area.
Happily, there's a good deal more than seeking out rare fungi and great wines to keep a traveler contented in Piedmont. Cyclists know it for its abundance of beautiful bike routes, and gourmets know it as the source of the world's finest-flavored hazelnuts and some of its best chocolates. The cooking of the region, strongly influenced by neighboring France but recognizable as Italian, is itself worth a trip -- preferably not during the crowded autumnal truffle season. Truffles, says Faith Heller Willinger, the author of (1998), are only a "distraction" from what she thinks of as Italy's most elegant cuisine.
The best place to discover the good, workaday wines of Piedmont as well as powerhouse Barolos is at one of the many regional enotecas, which offer a thorough selection of Piedmont's wines and also books, brochures, and maps of wine zones. The vineyards are beautiful, but few receive visitors without appointments. I propose a tour of the Barolo-Barbaresco zone, in the Langhe hills around the cities of Alba and Asti, focusing not on grape varieties or wineries but on chapels and churches. This will lead you along many of the loveliest and most panoramic roads -- the ones the winemakers themselves travel.
The chapels I discovered on several recent visits are unique to this part of Piedmont yet little known even there; they are set in the middle of the countryside, not in villages, and they are small, fully realized buildings, not roadside shrines. Many delineate routes from towns to important churches, with fourteen chapels -- one for each Station of the Cross -- set ten recited Hail Marys apart. A late-summer trek from chapel to chapel will let you experience the landscape at its lushest, when vines are laden with grapes about to be picked. Visiting at this time also avoids the mid-October truffle stampede (truffles are at their best in mid to late December, anyway).
My own quests are ever for sweets, seasonal produce cooked in tasty and traditional ways, and artisan-made cheeses (in that order). I found them all at a new agricultural-cooperative market and restaurant whose organizer, Elena Rovera, a former schoolteacher I think of as the Alice Waters of Italy, is gambling her savings on a scheme to allow like-minded farmers to adhere to tradition. She, and the seasonally changing landscape around those chapels, are more than enough to bring me back to Piedmont soon.
MUCH of Piedmont has a lost-in-time feel, even if the region is one of Italy's most industrially advanced (Fiat began in Turin, its capital, a century ago) and is less than two hours by car from Malpensa, the Milan airport that is now the destination of most international flights to Italy. The hills of Piedmont are surmounted by crenelated castles that give it a fairy-tale air. Geography accounts for the feudal rivalries that left such picturesque remnants. Piedmont is strategically located between Northern and Southern Europe, and so has been contested territory for many centuries. A full 40 percent of the region is covered by mountains, which explains the multitude of fiefdoms and probably explains why the Piedmontese character is direct, open, and hardworking -- or so I have found it to be. Other Italians sometimes call the Piedmont manner "false and courteous," a reputation that may stem from Piedmont's courtly history: the region was long the seat of the House of Savoy, the monarchy that ruled Italy when it was united, in 1861.
The town I would make my base for red-wine exploration exemplifies this lost-in-time atmosphere. Cherasco was luckily spared the development and reconstruction inflicted elsewhere in Piedmont during the industrial boom of the sixties, and so its small city center, with covered arcades and perfectly rectilinear streets, looks as if it could be from the 1930s and 1940s, judging by the storefronts, or from the 1500s through the 1800s, judging by the architecture. Just behind the main street are palaces with gates through which you can glimpse secret gardens; several of the palaces, handsomely restored, are open for tours. The large piazza houses art and antique-book shows and the largest antiques fair (650 exhibitors) in the region; lovers of high-toned flea markets may wish to schedule a trip around the next one, which will take place on Sunday, September 17.