When we first thought of going to Turin for a few days, the first thing I thought of was that classic 1969 heist film The Italian Job, starring Michael Caine and a trio of Mini-Coopers that are driven around said Italian city with their boots stuffed full of gold bars.
To Allison, meanwhile, Turin is synonymous with Salone del Gusto, the biannual foodie festival that she attended several years ago when she was travelling through Europe. Italy is the home of the Slow Food movement and with Salone due to be held in late October we were both looking forward to sampling some artisanal Italian food (which, by the way, was the second thing I thought of).
Our journey to Turin was via the Eurostar and an express from Paris – a pleasant and relaxing contrast to flying out to Italy with Ryanair. As was the case when we went to Paris earlier this year, we were staying not in a hotel but in someone’s flat, found via Airbnb. Our host even met us at the station – a nice touch, especially as we’d never have found the flat otherwise!
When we asked her if there were any local bars that she could recommend, I naturally assumed – this being Italy – that we would be having a couple of glasses of Peroni or Birra Moretti before calling it a night. When we reached the bar and found that its name included what I assumed to be the name ‘birrifico’ – well, I assumed that to be a cute-sounding hybrid of birra and magnifico. What it actually was was birrificio, which is Italian for ‘brewery’. Yes, we had been directed to a brewpub. As if that wasn’t disorientating enough, there was a band playing Irish folk-songs to a cosmopolitan crowd, many of whom were like us in town for Salone.
The beers on offer included a wheat beer, an American pale ale, a stout (which I didn’t opt for) and a bitter – all brewed on the premises. Not what I had expected of Italy – and it was really, really good. Frankly, had it not been for the fact that I had been on the go since 5:30am, I could’ve happily stayed for a few more. By the way, should beer-loving readers of this blog find themselves in Turin, the bar is called Birrificio la Piazza and is located on Via Durandi.
I did not dwell on this too much the following morning as our pre-Salone Turin sight-seeing took in the Duomo where, like many a pilgrim, we didn’t actually get to see the Shroud (our guidebook made it clear that the one on display is a replica, and even that is covered by a special altar-cloth), and the Lingotto. The old FIAT factory is still standing despite the fact that not a car has rolled out of the place since the 1980s – it’s now a large shopping centre among other things. That said, the legendary rooftop test-track, used for part of the chase sequence in The Italian Job, is still there, accessible via the Pinacoteca art gallery, which houses a small collection of Canalettos, Matisses and a Picasso that were owned by the FIAT-founding Agnelli family. I am sure that we were not the first people who took in some high culture purely as a means of being able to walk out onto the test-track.
FIAT, by the way, stands for Fabbrica Italiana di Automobili di Torino – not, as is sometimes assumed, ‘Fix It Again, Tony’.
And so to Salone. We tried some great food, including samples of artisanal cheeses from all over Italy, cooked meats and a delicious Mac ‘d Bra. Should you ever get the chance to have one of these, I would recommend that you do. It’s a bread roll containing Bra cheese, lettuce and a special veal salsice, all of which are produced in and around the Piedmontese town of Bra, some thirty-odd miles south of Turin and the home of the Slow Food movement. In the wine section, we sampled fine Italian wines including a ’99 Brunello di Montalcino, which sells for over £60 a bottle.
As we were making our way towards the exit, we chanced across a beer stand and opted to see what they had to offer. What we found shouldn’t have come as a surprise following the brewpub experience the night before, but surprised we were. The very helpful man explained that as well as importing more quality beers than ever before from countries like Britain and Belgium (Chimay had a stand nearby) than ever before, Italy is now home to many an artisanal birrificio.
Beer, it seems, is the new ‘in’ drink among discerning Italians – and when it comes to food and drink, is there any other kind of Italian? The really surprising thing here, though, is not that they like the decent Belgian and British brands (I’d say that would be a given for any beer-loving country) but that some of them have established their own craft breweries. Plenty of this was on offer at Salone – we tried a craft Belgian-style beer called Birra Roma, the more English-style Re Ale and a few samples from the Birrificio L’Olmaia. I consider myself to be something of a beer aficionado and I was seriously impressed by the range and the quality.
Our friend on the stall wasn’t convinced that the Italian beer boom would last, but what was clear is that this is no flash in the pan. Good quality Italian beers are here to stay.
An interesting parallel can perhaps be drawn with the rise of the English wine industry; a nation famous for producing one kind of alcoholic beverage is now trying its hand at another.
A short while later, as we browsed around the nearby quality food-market that is Eataly, I noted that a wide range of quality imported beers were on offer in addition to the many decent Italian wines and the two-litre bottles that can be filled with table wine straight from the barrel (for four euros). As far as the Italian-brewed beers were concerned, though, what surprised me was that Birra Moretti now does its own grand-cru Belgian-style beer. So it’s not just newly-established breweries that are catering to a growing market.
The Italians have not only discovered good beer, they’ve figured out how to brew very good beer.