Four wheels bad, two wheels good. Beena gets whisked off on a whirlwind trip around Italian towns and restaurants all fuelled by Menabrea beer.
Zipping around the cobbled streets, a blur of ochre houses tumbling past, I cling to the waist of our moped-driving host as he steers the clambering roads of this old Italian town. Of course, there are other ways to see Italy’s Piedmont region, but few are this much fun.
As well as avid moped rider, Franco Thedy is chief executive of Italy’s premier beer brand Menabrea.
Before I embark on the bike though, there’s the serious business of some ante meridiem drinking to tackle in Menabrea’s first and longest running brewery, here in the historic town of Biella.
Menabrea was developed five-generations ago when, in 1846, Giuseppe Menabrea travelled here and found a network of caves that were perfect to brew beer in. Having undergone a 4am start, a flight and a 90 km drive from Turin, by pint number two I feel every one of those 147 years. Despite this, the beer itself tastes great and with its Bavarian hops and barley from the Champagne region, it has a gentle, citrusy aroma and is clean and clear in taste.
The town of Biella itself is a maze of yellows, all encircled by verdant green hillsides. With its sloping cobbled roads and its steep narrow alleyways adorned with slumping yellow houses, it is typical of this region. Window boxes sidle next to painted shutters releasing large tangles of red and pink flowers.
The brewery sits here, paying homage to the first of many, where things are done traditionally. They have even retained the wooden structure, which marks the old site of a religious pilgrimage, while overseeing the bottling plant is an image of the black Virgin, or Madonna Nera di Oropa.
Although slowly increasing in availability in the UK, Menabrea is still only really found in braches of Zizzi, despite it being a hit in nearly 40 countries, including South Korea. Just don’t ask them about the rabbi who nearly duped them into paying to have its transit into the Promised Land blessed in order to make the beer kosher. (Kosher beer?)
Imbibing all things Italian, it’s time to turn our attention to lunch. Heading to a local trattoria, Cicciacchio, I have ragu and pasta, followed by herb-infused roasted chicken and potatoes with glazed carrots. There’s always just a little room in stomach number four for dessert: this time it’s pannacotta Ã¢â‚¬â€œ all brought to me by two tattooed chefs. Then we’re off to visit Biella’s own diary, Bottala Formaggi.
On route, we pass the piazza, which by 8pm closes its roads to cars, and instead it becomes a haven for market stalls and musicians. During the hot daytimes, old women shuffle at the town’s soporific pace and streets dive down steep and narrow alleyways where I would stand no chance of fitting my post-satiated girth.
Botalla, where they also happen to make beer cheese, is not for the faint-hearted. It smells. And it smells a lot. The stench of ammonia, a natural by-product of the ripening process, amplifies in each of the three ripening chambers until the smell of serried ranks of rotund rotting cheeses is so strong it sends a couple of us out with hankies pressed to streaming eyes.
Remarkably, the dairy’s use of locally grazed cows Ã¢â‚¬â€œ all of them known by name, ensures their butter is inordinately creamy. Their cheeses, all turned each day by hand and finally wrapped by hand as well, have stamina without being overbearing.
In true Italian form, the first hint of the evening means preparations for dinner. Franco’s motorbike whisks my now sleep-deprived body into the hills of the town. Tuscan-like green landscapes unfurl as we whizz past slumping houses and navigate cobbled alleyways and suddently approaching roundabouts. The others take more conventional means, such as taxis. Arriving at the salubrious district of the town, we reach terrace restaurant Villa Carla.
Once an old manor house, it is now somewhere you can sip cocktails and dine alfresco while overlooking the mountains, or if you prefer, their ample tennis courts. Our table on the terrance is beneath the blanket of night. And we are perfectly placed to view the shooting stars of the Perseids meteor shower as they lace the night sky.
We dine on breaded porcini mushrooms and a soufflÃƒÂ© with a cheese and beer mousse, macaroni filled with stewed chicken and beer, pork glazed with rhododendron honey and served with rosemary gnocchi and with a clever beery twist. Everything is finished, despite around-the-table satiation. Yet there’s more and, despite being replete, professionalism makes me acquiesce to a sorbet made with light beers and a strawberry jus. Oh, and the odd cheeky cherry liquor. We finish, little past midnight, after a 20-hour stretch of eating, drinking or thinking about it: Perfectly exhaused
Set along its straight Romanesque roads, Turin, or Turino as its now known, with its wide boulevards and red and yellow painted homes, wouldn’t look out of place in France. Its grand baroque shopping areas and streets are covered with arches, once built to shade the now defunct royals from the blazing afternoon sun.
As we stroll along its central park: Parco del Valentino, we walk alongside the city’s scenic River Po. Here we settle at L’Idrovolante to a feast of scallops, followed by gnocchi with pistachio and basil pesto and meaty prawns. This is all unashamedly accompanied by far too much wine that I forget to look at the monastery tucked away on the hillside or the bridge in the backdrop.
Turino was awakened in 2006 from a post-industrial malaise, thanks to the advent of the Winter Olympics here. In Turion beats a cultural heart thanks to its slow foods and art scene and there’s few better spots to showcase Italy’s finest than its very own Harrod’s food hall: Eataly. Turino boasts the first ever Eataly store here, Turin Lingotto.
An amble round the store shows a full embrace of high-end, sustainable Italian food with great displays including huge tangles of hair like pasta through to great wheels of cheese and wallet-stretching chocolates.
We take a quick walk to Turino’s former Fiat factory, now a shopping centre and head for the roof top where we make a slightly unauthorised visit to its old test track, complete with its banked sides and calamitous drops, before heading to Turino’s tallest building: Mole Antonelliana. The building, a former synagogue, is now a film museum and with a 167.5 metre tower that is the highest work of masonry in Europe and offers a panoramic view from its top
Taking a quick stop for gelato here with its deep, bitter chocolate and fresh pods of vanilla, I ask our Italian host how is it Italians manage to eat so much and look so svelte. Ã¢â‚¬Å“They’re vain,Ã¢â‚¬Â she chimes. Ã¢â‚¬Å“Italians love food but love to look good too. So the gyms are fullÃ¢â‚¬â€œ you just never hear about itÃ¢â‚¬Â. Right now though, we can shelve all thoughts of exercise and turn our thoughts, like in true Italian spirit, to dinner again.