La Braja: Part 1

It’s a very cold winter, and I am dreaming of some place warmer than here.

Italy comes to mind, and I have very fond memories of various regions we visited and the lasting friendships we made.

Here’s a story I wrote awhile ago, that may persuade you to board a plane and fly to Europe.

Cooking It Up in Italy
Noreen Farooqui

When Red Laker, Kerri Smith said, “I do” to Ezio Palermino, she was not only agreeing to the usual rites of matrimony, but also to a never-ending culinary adventure in La Braja.

Kerri was first introduced to the restaurant as a student of the Culinary Italian Arts program at George Brown College in Toronto in 1991. Part of the curriculum consists of an externship to Italy for three months. Kerri enjoyed the experience so much that she decided to extend her stay. Soon after, she met her husband, who has co-owned the restaurant with his father, Giuseppe and uncle, Antonio since 1975. She has been in Italy ever since.

The name “La Braja” comes from the Piemonte dialect common to Northwestern Italy.

“The restaurant is located half way up a long hill. Braja is the word they use to entice the horse to keep going up the hill, usually pulling a heavy wagon. It was where the restaurant now stands that the horses would start to fade, thus the driver calling out, ‘braja,’” explains Kerri.

Situated on the hills of Monferrato, the restaurant borders the provinces of Asti and Alessandria, about 100 kilometres from Milan.

“The restaurant is housed in a villa which dates back to the 1800s. It was owned by the village doctor. Before the restaurant was renovated in 1988, it had a country, rustic atmosphere. With the extensive renovations, it’s transformed into an elegant fine dining establishment,” boasts Kerri.

LaBrajaBuilding

And La Braja has all the essentials fine dining has to offer: white linen tablecloths, silver place settings and Ridel crystal glasses. The architect who remodelled the villa is well known in the region.

“Antonio Guarone has remodelled many finer establishments in and about Asti, including city squares. We still consult him before making any changes,” confides Kerri.

Because she enjoys cooking and creating so much, Kerri knew from an early age that she wanted to be a chef. Before moving to Italy, Kerri had worked in many of Canada’s celebrated restaurants including Western Gold and Country Club in Toronto. Making the transition from Canada to Italy proved to be a challenge for Kerri. Not only did she have to learn the language, she had to learn new cooking preparations, techniques that are quite different from Canadian methods.

“I must explain a few things about Italy. Things are, I guess you could say, very old fashioned. Everything is prepared from scratch. Nothing is purchased pre-sliced, pre-portioned, pre-cooked etc. Just think, we don’t even have a can opener, no cans! We squeeze lemons to get the juice to make sherbet.”

The cuisine is traditional, yet innovative using the freshest ingredients, given that there is no alternative.

LaBraja5Plates

“Since freezers are not allowed by health regulations, the utmost care must be used in selecting only the freshest in-season produce available. Everything available is seasonal. Don’t go looking for an orange in the month of June, because you just won’t find one, and if you do, don’t eat it!” exclaims Kerri.

Because the ingredients are dependent on the time of year, the menu varies from season to season.

“In the spring, the appetizers are enriched with fresh spring vegetables: porcini mushrooms and black truffles. The pasta course could be a simple tajarin (the Piemontese version of pasta in narrow flat strips) with mixed vegetables, a sweet red pepper sauce and fresh basil, or a risotto with porcini mushrooms. The meats are carefully selected: free-range roosters, hens, chickens, duck, guinea fowl…all raised by myself and Ezio…rabbit, fassone (a breed of Piemontese veal), or fresh fish purchased at the market at 4 am.”

“The autumn menu features fonduta, creamy cheese sauces using fontina from Valle d’Aosta, or raschera cheese; wild game such as hare or grouse, and the famous and very expensive pico tuber magnum (white truffle).

PART TWO: Truffle Hunting Excursions!

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