Perched above Santo Stefano Belbo, Relais San Maurizio is world famous for its luxury accommodations, soothing spa, and elegantly prepared food. Il Ristorante di Guido da Costigliole is the hotel’s Michelin-starred restaurant, which serves polished Langhe cuisine under the exposed brick barrel vaults of a restored monastery’s wine cellar. Classic dishes like agnolotti di Lidia are justifiably renowned, but there is something new cooking at the Relais: naturally leavened bread made from top notch flour.
Sadly, quality bread has been disappearing from tables all over Piedmont. In spite of the presence of venerable bakers like Eugenio Pol and several leading artisanal mills, the overall quality of bread in the region (indeed in all of Italy) has taken a turn for the worse. The rising cost of ingredients has led many bakeries to favor industrial flours made from inferior quality grain. Mass production, a growing penchant for preservatives, and supermarket chains are other factors that have taken their toll. At Guido, however, the trend is towards the best possible quality available.
The kitchen of this fine dining restaurant is led by 30-year old Luca Zecchin. I first encountered this chef’s baking on easter Monday, when a picnic in the countryside ended with his spectacular colomba. Light, airy, fresh, and fragrant, this typical Easter bread was one of the best things I ate in Piedmont. (It tied with Nico Zara’s frittura di verdure that I had at Il Talucco in Valdengo.)
The colomba was made from spelt flour ground at Mulino Marino, an artisan mill a few miles away in Cossano Belbo. I visited Luca at the Relais last Friday with Fulvio Marino and we inspected some of the kitchen’s newest products. Just out of the oven, a wonderful focaccia, also made from Marino’s spelt flour, was a rustic palette for olive oil and salt crystals.
There was also an amazing raisin walnut bread made from a mixture of two different flours–sfarinato di grano duro “senatore cappelli” and buratto di grano tenero.
The sourdough filone, made with spelt and Enkir flours was moist inside with a firm and crispy crust. More filoni were being kneaded and formed during my visit.
For now the bread revival in this part of the Langhe seems to be focused in the fine dining sector. The next step is to inspire, local bakeries, trattorie, and consumers to demand only the best bread made from healthy, quality ingredients. The recipe for that kind of change is difficult to master.