Wednesday 27 March 2019

Queen of Culinary Cities

The small-holders market at Porta Palazzo, 
everything on sale is produced by the stall-holders
Porta Palazzo Market, the gastronomic heart and rumbling tum of Turin, lies to the north of the city centre. It fills, the not inconsequential space, of Piazza della Repubblica, selling clothes, shoes, household-goods, haberdashery, plants and every kind of food imaginable. Every Saturday, just around the corner in Borgo Dora, there is also the Balon, an antiques market. On Sundays, twice a month, when there is no other market, there is an even bigger bash, known as the Grand Balon. The reputation of these markets is such, that they say in Turin, “if you are looking for something, just go to Porta Palazzo.”

I had never stayed in the market area and I wnted to see the city from that side. I booked the art Albergo Restaurant San Giors. It looked like it had character; the restaurant sounded promising; and the position was perfect. 
The Art Hotel and Restaurant San Giors 
on Borgo Dora

We arrived right in the thick of it, on a sunny, Sunday morning in March. The streets were crammed with stalls, and people were swarming like flies. The only hope of moving along, was to go with the flow. Traffic and parking are strictly banned on flee market days as there isn’t an inch of available space. Small restaurants and bars crowd along the curve of Via Borgo Dora. There is chatter and laughter around the tables, everyone wants a spot in the sun and if you are in the know, you can ear mark a table for when it comes free. We ate indoors. Potatoes with squid and peas and diminutive pasta purses filled with an aubergine stuffing. The food was simple, inexpensive, satisfying fare and came with plenty of people watching opportunities. 

The daily market is said to be the largest outdoor market in Europe. It is cut into four distinct quarters, by two dissecting roads that bring buses and trams, delivering shoppers from all sides of the city. A service road runs around the entire square but it’s easy to lose your bearings as each quarter looks the same.

Young cavolo nero leaves and radish
My destination is the Mercato del Orologio, the covered Clock market, where a gastronomic Eden of brightly lit, delicatessens, grocers and butchers beckon even the most reluctant Adam. There are also stalls, stacked floor to sky with kitchen kit and then there is the piece de resistance, the small-holders shelter, La Tettoia dei contadini, a grey, unimpressive but pretty, cast iron construction. On entering, the scents and atmosphere of the countryside fills your senses. It is like coming across a secret garden. This is where growers from a radius of 30 miles around Turin, bring the fruit, vegetables and herbs of their labour. The produce is picked at first light, driven in, dropped at the gate, and set up here, ready for opening time at seven, every morning, whatever the weather. Everything you see and buy here is grown locally. The root vegetables in the crates look as if they have just been pulled out of the ground with their long sheaths of green still attached. Blue plastic packing cases are lined up edge to edge, creating a visual kaleidoscope of springy salad leaves, greens and herbs.

Wild poppy shoots
Mounds of seasonal produce inspire what is going to be cooked today for lunch. No paper, no plastic, no packaging. Men and women shoppers, vie for space around their favourite stalls with their voluminous bags and shopping trolleys, chatting with the stall holder-growers. These are the same people who plant and harvest and transport this green manna from heaven. I look on and listen jealously, longing to follow any one of the house-holders home to their kitchens to discover what it is that they will be cooking today. I day-dream about joining them for lunch.

There are three more quarters in the square to discover, over the road is the covered fish market and the tightly regimented rows of red and yellow canopied stalls of the orto frutta market, selling fruit and vegetables from up and down the peninsular and around the globe. It was June the last time I was here, and the stalls then spilled over with summer fruits, strawberries, cherries and peaches and the air was heavy with their sweet perfume. Asparagus was in season, as were all the early summer vegetables, peas, broad beans and courgettes. Today, the tang of citrus fruit fills the air, there are piles of Sicilian blood oranges everywhere. It is spremuta, time. The first aubergines and artichokes are on sale from the South. Competition is not seen as a problem here, market-trader calls, attract attention but price and quality are key to savvy shoppers.  The walk-ways between stalls are long, narrow and dead straight, and the overhanging canopies afford shy glimpses of the bright winter sky and momentary shafts of sunlight.

Just one of many kitchen stalls at Porta Palazzo market

The cathedral square of San Giovanni

The remaining quarters of Piazza della Repubblica are home to the sprawling stalls of the Abbigliamento, the clothing market and the Calzatura, the shoe market. There is a strong ethnic presence around Porta Palazzo, there are Moroccan influenced bars, signs in Arabic script, eateries and shops, selling Eastern clothing, food and bric-a-brac. 
It’s a fun area to stay and handy for much of the city centre, but like all tourist-crowded areas, you need to keep your wits about you. The lovely Cathedral of San Giovanni, containing the Turin Shroud is a stone’s throw away. You can walk to the Quadrilatero from here to enjoy the contempory night-life scene.                     

fun for the kids outside 
the Egyptian museum
An afternoon visit to Superga
After the rain! Time 
for an aperitivo 
in Piazza Vittorio

A short walk away you can enjoy the elegant Piazza Castello and the Royal Palace and castle, Via Roma and Piazza San Carlo, Piazza Vittorio and the Via Roma with its elegant shops, but remember the lunch time pausa when most shops are closed. These places are all connected by the city’s convenient colonnades, affording shelter from the heat in summer and from the wind and rain in winter.   

Beyond the city scape, the parks and green hills that surround Turin is the dome of the Superga Basilica. Should you fancy a wild white-knuckle ride on a super bumpy bus as it speeds over the city’s tram lines, followed by a sedate lift to the top of the leafy hill in a quaint funicular railway, it’s a lovely afternoon’s outing. You can have ice cream or refreshments at the top, but unless you are a devotee of the Savoia royals, I would suggest avoiding the visit to the family tombs, once entered the cloister, the key is turned in the gate and there is no escape until the bitter end.

The Molle Antonelliano, houses the 
National Museum of cinema
You can’t fail to spot the Molle Antonneliano, Turin’s Tour d’Eiffel rising over every streetscape as you take in the city. You can ride to the top in a vertiginous glass lift. It’s not until you come up close that you observe the remarkable architectural detail of the building. If you are a film buff, it houses the comprehensive and fascinating, Museum of Cinema. Turin is also home to a world-famous Egyptian museum, second only to Cairo. Take your time, the collection is extensive and fascinating. The motor museum is a delight and there are loads of art museums to visit.

Turin is probably the most foody city you will ever visit. Capital of chocolate; it is where chocolate was first turned to a solid; in other words, chocolate as we know it. Hot chocolate drinks such as Bicerin are a must.
Caffe' Mulassano is the perfect place 
to rest a while for an aperitive

Gianduia, that heavenly mix of hazelnut and chocolate, myriad sweetmeats and an endless seam of colourful and luscious patisserie must all be sampled  The tramezzino or dainty sandwich is said to have been invented in one of the Torino’s historic cafes in Piazza Castello Grissini were first made here for an ailing prince. Vermouth was concocted and then popularised by a young herbalist, called Carpano. The aperitive was born here. 

Try and hit this charming café at tea time 
to enjoy a Bicerin, a special hot 
chocolate and a few home made biscuit
Torino’s restaurants are legendary, its seasonal specialties include the mountain-fair of fondues and cheeses; on a clear day, the snow-capped Alps drift into view like clouds around the city. The rice is grown on the flatlands in the shadow of the mountains, on the plains of the rivers Po and Dora, providing endless streams of creamy al dente risottos. The hills of Langhe and Roero to the south are awash with a long list of noteworthy wines. In autumn and winter the unmistakable aromas of white and black truffles and wild mushrooms fill the air. Piemonte's cattle provide the tender lean veal, the fassona, for the many raw meat signature dishes and the beef for the celebrated Bollito.

Organic bread from Aosta at the 
Campagna Amica Market
in Piazza Cavour Gardens
If all this wasn’t reason enough to crown Torino a queen among foody cities. Torino is also the home to the biannual Slow Food show. The Terra Madre Salone del Gusto is a five-day food romp that showcases an astonishing array of artisan food and its producers from Italy and around the world; much of it would be endangered, were it not for Slow food.

The Torino I remember in my twenties was always a beautiful well dressed and well-mannered city, at the height of its industrial past. Remember Michael Caine in The Italian Job. Its royal palaces and gardens, its elegant Parisian style, tree line avenues, the colonnaded squares and streets, the churches and elegant cafes formed the perfect back drop for the city’s industrial royalty, captains of industry and their customers and its hard-working people.

People still flock to Torino from far and wide, for Terra Madre and Salone del Gusto and the many international events held at Lingotto. The Winter Olympics did much to bring the city to the attention of the world. Parks and piazzas are filled regularly with people pulling events. There is always something special going on. I only hope that some of the hundreds and thousands of business people and skiers who pass through Torino Caselle airport on their way to Lingotto or the Alps might return to see more of this cultured, culinary capital and even venture beyond into the heart of Piedmont.

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