Chianti, Barbaresco, Barolo. Italy has long been known for producing top vintages. But the country’s vintners are now having to make room for producers of another alcoholic beverage that has caught drinkers’ attention: beer.
This weekend at the Salone del Gusto food and drinks fair in Turin, the presence of dozens of artisan brewers made it feel like a second Oktoberfest.
Now in its eighth edition, the Salone (21-25 October) is organised by Italy’s Slow Food movement. Housed in Turin’s Lingotto fairgrounds, once home to a Fiat factory, the biennial gathering draws some 200,000 connoisseurs eager to sample the gastronomic delights that have been baked, stewed and pressed by 900 exhibitors.
Not surprisingly, two of the three halls are dedicated to food producers from the host nation. Stands are arranged by region and hungry crowds wander about as if at a gourmet supermarket. Queues form in order to taste a slice of bitto, an aged Alpine cheese from Lombardy made from cow and goat’s milk. Shouts of “Mmm che buona!” are heard as people devour a tray of cannoli from a Sicilian pastry maker – most samples on offer, however, are not gratis.
But while most foodies are familiar with the olive oil from Puglia, the Gragnano pasta from Naples and gianduja chocolate from Turin’s cocoa maestro Guido Gobino, it’s the microbrewed beers that everyone is talking about.
One not surprised by all the commotion is Teo Musso, owner of Piedmont brewery Baladin. Musso has exhibited since the first Salone and is something of a father figure to other producers of Italian artisanal beer, whose numbers have mushroomed into the hundreds.
“Back when I started in 1996, there wasn’t really anyone. The market was in the hands of the big producers, lots of foreign names and was just lager,” says Musso as he pours one of his craft beers Xyauyù, a barley wine which tastes similar to Madeira. “Italians are starting to realise that beer, like wine, comes from the earth. It’s an agricultural product just like everything else.”
Meanwhile, patrons who didn’t get bogged down in the Italian halls were offered special, and sometimes bizarre, treats in the international pavilion. Where else but the Salone could one find a Bulgarian bean producer alongside a Californian microbrewer? Also present were Georgian winemakers (from the country of Georgia), showing off vintages that are fermented in terracotta jars sunk into the earth.
Perhaps the most encouraging stand amongst the foreign contingent was that of Basque pig farmer Pello Urdapilleta. With the support of Slow Food, he has made progress in saving the Euskal Txerria pig. With its comical ears, it’s the last local breed of swine in the region – the other two Basque breeds are now extinct.
Urdapilleta shows off his wares by cutting slices of chorizo and other cured meats made from the animal. “It’s much finer than pata negra,” says Urdapilleta. Upon tasting, it’s hard to disagree.