When we booked our flights to Italy, we did not have set places in mind. Wanting to discover a new area, we decided to devote a large portion of the trip to the Piedmont wine region as we love the Nebbiolo grapes that make Barbaresco and Barolo wines. While searching for a town to make our base of operation, I discovered a festival in Asti. The information about the event was in a dialect of Italian that I (nor Google Translate) did not fully understand. A little bit of research indicated it was a regional competition celebrating all things food (Festival della Sagre Astigiane) and wine (Douja d’Or). The conclusion of the festivities is an annual bareback horse race (Palio). “Hitting the jackpot” does not come close to how lucky it was that we happen to pick this week to visit. We were so excited for this event and it did not disappoint.
After a wonderful day in Camogli (way too short!), we made our way to the train to head to the second leg of our trip- the Piedmont wine region. The scenic train ride hugging the coast took us to Genova where we had a two hour layover. To make use of the time, we hopped onto the City Sightseeing bus to get a flavor of the city’s major points.
What a fantastic use of time! Instead of sitting at the train station, we rode the loop twice seeing major attractions before hopping onto our train to Asti.
Once off the train, we made the short walk through the Piazza del Palio where people were setting up for the festival. We stayed at Hotel Lis as it is in close proximity to the Piazza. The accommodations here were nice, though we had been spoiled by the modern flare of our hotel in Florence and the view of our place in Camogli. We freshened up and readied ourselves for adventure out to the Festival della Sagre Astigiane.
The transformation of the Piazza del Palio from the time we got off the train to now was jaw dropping. Over 40 stands populated the “villaggio gastronomico“, bustling with activity and hundreds of people scattered in between. Each stand representes a town in the Piedmont region that demonstrates their “best” food as determined by local competition.
We were confident in our Italian after spending a week in Florence so with map in hand, we began our journey through the festival.
As we navigated towards the food stands, we noticed many people were sporting lanyards that had a “pocket” at the end for a glass of wine- a wine pocket, a “tasca del vino”. A hands free approach for everyone to enjoy their food and wine at the same time- brilliant.
Our first stop was at stands #10 Montechiaro and #11 Cortazzone for risotto con tartufo (risotto with truffles) and tagliatelle all’uovo con tartufo (egg pasta with truffles). In addition to the food, we attempted to get a “tasca del vino” and wine. Our first interaction seemed to result in some communication break down. Even though we had practiced our exact Italian words while waiting in line, the response from the attendant elicited quite a fair bit of laughter around us. To this day, we are still unclear what was said but we did get the food, wine, and “tasca del vino” which deems the overall transaction a win.
We observed that the Piedmontese language is an interesting mix of Italian and French that rendered our basic Italian insufficient for proper communication and understanding. Google Translate often was unable to help us interpret even the dishes on the map!
That being said, the risotto and pasta we had was mouth watering. Both dishes we topping with fresh shaved black truffles. The pasta was insanely fresh- you could taste the immense difference from typical pasta dishes back home.
When peeking into the stands- which were more like little homes- you could even see the grandmas making the dishes. It was so authentic and such a pleasure to experience. This was food heaven.
Stand #28 Revignano- Bunet della nonna (hazelnut dessert- Piedmont loves hazelnuts!) and Zabaglione al Moscato d’Asti (lady finger cookies with a liquid mixture of wine, egg whites, and sugar for dipping and sipping- absolutely incredible)
#32 Rocchetta Tanaro- Rustica ai formaggi (we expected a cheese plate, but it was a cheese pie- flaky crust) and Friciulin (frittelle) di patate (like a hash brown or tater tots), wine was only 1 euro!
Stand #32 is where our observation of Italians not respecting lines was further validated. While in line, a man and a woman approached us waving a 5 euro bill. We explained quietly that we didn’t understand his request and his broken English announced “American? Obama!” with two huge thumbs up. He wanted us to order food for them to skip the line. They were so friendly, who were we to say no? In addition to their food, they also managed to get free wine! Now that we were friends, Silvio proceeded to proclaim “you are American and you are in Italy!” Both true facts, my friend. The conversation became a recitation of all the American things he knew, ending with “Bruce, the Boss”.
#35 Montiglio Monferrato- Rolata di coniglio con funghi e polenta (rabbit!)
And I haven’t even mentioned how inexpensive everything was! Mostly everything sold at the festival was between 1 and 5 euro with very few items above that price point. A glass of wine was commonly between 1 and 2 euro. The festival is volunteer based so it helps keep the cost to run the festival down and the profits up for the vendors. Profits (as we understand) get reinvested in the town. A win-win for everyone!
Completely stuffed, we decided to follow the crowd out of the Piazza for our first look around at the town of Asti. We immediately noticed similarities to our time in Siena as we gazed upon the different flags on each of the streets. The festival activities all lead up to the Palio di Asti where the 21 contradas compete in a bareback horse race in the Piazza Alfieri.
We were convinced there was no greater festival of food and wine than this one tucked away in the heart of Piedmont. We went to bed ecstatic that this portion of our trip far exceeded expectations and anxiously awaited what tomorrow would bring.
The parade portion that signified the official opening of the festival started Sunday morning. Our hotel was right on the parade route so after a quick breakfast we found a spot outside to watch. Each of the 41 towns in the gastro village participated in the parade that ended by leading everyone into the Festival della Sagre. The parade started with the iconic image of men dressed as chefs holding giant forks.
Out of the 41 towns, we definitely had some favorites. There were many that depicted farming, wine making, and religious occasions that featured live farm animals and interactive activities with the audience, including getting pelted with salt cubes and corn, and splashed with water. A farming one that stood out was from the town of Palucco depicting the evolution of the plow. The first set of people carried wooden hand plows which then changed to carrying metal hand plows. The next set of people had a horse drawn plow, then a tracker attachment with a plow came by until finally the section ended with a John Deer tracker.
Our favorite was from the town of Azzano showcasing a “Coming to America” segment depicting the immigration of Italians out of Genova to New York.
The parade transcended any language barrier as it portrayed familiar concepts through detailed storytelling that immersed viewers with Piedmontese culture. We are not parade people, but this was one we were happy to watch from beginning to end.
While most of the crowd followed the parade into the Festival della Sagre, we decided to explore an area of the festival we had not yet seen- the wine portion, Douja d’Or. Douja d’Or (pronounced do-ya-door) means “Goblet of Gold” which is the prize given to the top wine for the year. As we entered the tent, it took several minutes for us to orient ourselves.
Overwhelmed by the choices is an understatement- there were over 400 wines to choose from! Once we came to the realization that trying “all the wines” as initially intended was impossible, we went through our wine guide and picked (mostly at random) from there. After getting a fancier tasca del vino with the tasting, we purchased tickets for wine.
There were several tiers of wine tickets and each ticket you purchased was exchanged for a sampling of wine in that tier. We tried several different regions of Italian wine while munching on bread sticks- all of which were delicious. In addition to the tasting, there was a full wine store that had incredible bargains on bottles of wine, but we were sad to learn (after a series of charades) that they did not ship.
In retrospect, I think if we purchased wine and found a post office separately it may have worked but international shipping for wine bottles may have gotten expensive fast.
Ready for food, we headed back to the Festival della Sagre and were pleasantly surprised to see it relatively empty- we figured it would be mobbed the entire rest of the day as it was last night.
We should have remembered that the afternoon break is still alive and well in many local Italian cities, meaning most of the stands were closed! Fortunately, there were a few enterprising capitalists in the bunch, and we took full advantage of the light crowds.
#36 Casabianca- Polenta fritta con gorgonzola (creamy and funky)
#20 Cessole- Frittelle salate alla campagnole for nine ovens that made savory pancakes in cast iron pans (huge portion and incredibly salty)
#22 Moncalvo- caramel panna cotta (our first English speaking stand attendant! He just got back from Cleveland and excited to have international travelers in Asti for the festival)
With few open stands left, we took a hint and went back to the room for naps.
Our first stop at the return of the festival was #11 Cortazzone for that tagliatelle con tartufo that I had been craving since the night before- so incredible. Since we hit items we were mostly familiar with last night, we decided to be a little more adventurous.
#1 Isole d’Asti- Frittura di lumache (fried snails)
#19 Quarto- Rotolo al cocao con nocciole (fudge log with hazelnuts)
#39 Corsione- Torta di mele (apple bread)
In addition to the Festival della Sagre and Douja d’Or, each night there was Piatto & Dolce d’Autore– a nightly dinner during Douja d’Or that showcased a local restaurant chef and a pastry chef. We initially signed up for only one dinner, for two reasons. First, we did not know what the dinner would entail and if it would be good quality. Second, we did not want to limit ourselves to this style of dining each night when we were in a town that specialized in slow food.
Upon arriving for our reservation, we were escorted to our table by culinary institute students. Each table sat 8-10 people (think wedding style) so it forced us way out of our comfort zone, which was an important and (we were hoping) fun aspect to this experience.
The chef featured this evening was from a local favorite, Osteria del Diavolo. Our glasses were immediately filled with local wine of Piedmont while the chef and pastry chef introduced the meal. Our dinner tonight was risotto with braised beef in a wine reduction with hazelnuts.
This dish was so delicious. The combination of the creamy risotto and the richness of the meat was a harmonious match. Unfortunately, we could barely finish it since we made the rookie mistake of eating so much at the Sagre beforehand.
Dessert was a nougat with hazelnuts and dark chocolate pieces. It had a gelato consistency and was incredibly tasty.
And the service was perfection! Our wine glasses were not only never empty, but we were always offered multiple kinds of wine and finished the night with grappa. Care to guess how much we paid for this experience? 19 euro a person. It was outrageously inexpensive for the quality of food and the service- so outrageous we immediately signed up for these dinners the remaining nights of our time in Asti for delicious culinary meals and crafted desserts.
Stuffed beyond our limits, we turned in for the night.
Since we arrived back in Asti past 6PM, we had to miss the scheduled wine tasting session at Douja D’Or. Our dinner was at 9PM so we were looking forward to attending this one hungry.
Familiar with the routine, we took our seats, got our first glasses of wine, and heard introduction comments from the chef from Ristorante La Grotta and the pastry chef. Dinner was lasagna stuffed with rabbit- absolutely amazing. The lasagna portion was so flavorful! We could not get enough of this dish.
The dessert was a roll-log of chocolate cake with a rum spiked cream. The dessert could have done without so much rum as it was a tad overwhelming but the cake portion compensated nicely.
An exciting part of this dinner was we had sustained conversation with our table. The man next to Kevin spoke English very well and had visited the States multiple times- NYC, California, the Grand Canyon- more than we have seen of the west coast. We enjoyed his company (and English!) as he helped facilitate conversations with the table over our tasty meal.
After an incredible day yesterday, we slept in and planned on exploring the town of Asti. After breakfast, we made our way to the Palazzo Mazzetti to purchase the Asti Musei– a smart ticket that for a few euro packaged the majority of sites of Asti. We visited sites such as the Cripta e Museo di Sant’Anastasio, which had preserved parts of a church.
We were excited to visit the Museo del Palio since it would educate us on the Palio and the town’s history. We learned there are 21 districts in Asti that compete in three heats of seven horses and the top three or four qualify to race in the Palio. Each district has their own flags (that are plastered around the town as if to claim the streets), crests, pins, and more. The feeling was extremely reminiscent of Siena’s Palio but we were quickly corrected at a dinner. Asti has quite a dislike for Siena’s Palio, or at least its stature in the minds of most non-Italians as The “Palio” of Italy. We learned that Mussolini decreed sometime during his reign that the Palio in Siena was the “true” Palio of Italy, forcing Ast’s to shutdown. It would not be re-introduced by nostalgic locals for another 30 years! It appears the animosity has legitimacy, but it’s not Siena’s fault, right?
At the recommendation of Luca, we had lunch at Osteria Tacabanda for traditional Piedmontese dishes, including agnolotti (mini ravioli, traditionally studded with donkey meat in Asti).
We arrived early for the Douja d’Or wine tasting event (we signed up in advance via email). After checking in at the Douja d’Or building, we were led upstairs to the Salone. It would be difficult to describe the room in its entirety- just take a look.
It was like a palace- gaudy gold finishings, oversized chandelier, massive paintings- it was hard to believe we were tasting here. The event was limited to about 50 people so it felt very exclusive. Each table was set for four people and stuffed with glassware. We were immediately served a generous cheese plate with three cheese, two meats, and bread.
The wine theme for the evening was the Ghemme Italian varietals. At our table, we had the pleasure of meeting a lovely older couple- Anna Maria and Bepe- that became our pseudo- grandparents for the evening. With our basic Italian and Beppe’s basic English, we had a great time during the tasting. Wanting to keep in touch, we struggled to communicate our email address since our alphabets don’t overlap perfectly (no H or Y in Italian, for example). Then to our pleasant surprise, Anna Maria mentioned Facebook, and we’ve been in touch ever since!
A beautiful room, several wines, cheese and meat plate, and the company- all free! I think we are in love with Asti.
Tonight’s Douja d’Or meal was another wonderful showcase of Piedmontese food from Il Bagatto Ristorante. The meal was traditional agnolotti (donkey meat filled little ravioli) with a stewed meat on the top with the gravy.
Dessert was chocolate profiteroles- puff pastry covered (swimming) in chocolate sauce.
On our way home, we heard drums and curiosity set us looking for the noise. It led us to a Piazza where we found several districts practicing flag throwing!
This competition was going to take place as a portion of the Palio festivities later in the week. There were bleachers set up so we grabbed some gelato at Grom and watched the performances the rest of the night. It was kind of magical watching this practice- flags, drums, trumpets- the presence of old traditions connected to the younger generations.
Our final day in Asti and we were sad to be missing the Palio by only a few days. The Piazza was converted into a dirt covered race track as preparations continued around town.
After wandering down unexplored streets, we settled down for lunch at Taste Vin (another Luca recommendation!).
The place has a cozy vibe and extensive wine list that was all reasonably priced. A daily menu on a chalkboard is full of delicious options.
Along with glasses of wine, Kevin ordered the gnocchi con pomodoro (tomato sauce) and I got crespella with spinach and gorgonzola- like a crepe.
We both loved this place and wish we had more time to spend here relaxing, eating and trying new wines.
Since the Palio was so close, the town was decorated in full force. People sported clothing and bandannas of their contrada- similar to any sporting event witnessed in the United States- to show fierce loyalty and support.
We had another wine tasting session set up for the evening and once again took our seats in the elaborate room.
Our friends, Anna Marie and Beppe, from the tasting the night before were also in attendance, seated at another table. At our table, we were joined by a lovely older lady, Margarita “Rita”, and while her English was minimal, we had gesturing conversations about the wine. Before the wines were poured, we were served a large cheese plate each of two cheese and three meats.
While this tasting was not as structured as the previous night, there was more wine. We couldn’t keep up with all the wine changes and pours! There was not enough glassware on the table to accommodate one glass per wine so you had to keep at least one empty at all times. Hard to even say what we were tasting at the time, but it was really fun.
With a gap until dinner, we walked into the Douja d’Or tent of a few more wine selections. We even made it onto the Douja d’Or Facebook page!
We ventured to our final Piatti e Dolce d’Auture at the 50th Douja d’Or. The restaurant chef featured was from Restorante Bandini and our meal was guinea fowl thigh with pear and black truffle sauce. Yes, it was every bit delicious as it sounds- the pear sauce with the truffle was perfection. Do you see green? Our first vegetable sighting at one of these meals! A much desired side salad. This was an incredible meal to end our time in Asti.
The dessert was a chocolate cake with a cherry sauce and while I am not a cherry fan, the sauce paired very well with the rich decadence of the cake.
What made this meal extra special was the company we shared at the table. We sat with a young adult and his parents. The parents were delightfully engaged and curious with us in conversation. The son was a college student and concerned that his parents would say something embarrassing in English- glad to see parent-child interactions are the same! The son had perfect English and we enjoyed speaking with the three of them about Asti, the Palio, and their ‘dream’ of visiting the States. We really enjoyed their company.
At many junctures of the trip while meeting locals, we got the question- Why Asti? You are from American- why come here?
After spending several days in Asti, I think our answer remained the same as the first time we were asked. A celebration of food and wine in the most basic and authentic experience, engaging with locals and joining their appreciation for the passion for life and dedication to tradition. It was truly a privilege to be a part of this Sagre- it was an opportunity that exceeded all expectations and I believe we made the most out of the time in Asti. This is why we love to travel and what it is all about for us- finding these organic experiences and immersing yourself into it. It is not always comfortable, but it is always rewarding. I look forward to planning our next trip to the Sagre.
On our walk home, the drums were once again in motion echoing through the streets. We sat for a moment, taking it all in before turning in for the night.
A rainy morning (downpour) greeted us as we made our way to the train to our final stop of the trip, Torino.