Sydney chef Martin Teplitzky has owned and run award-winning restaurants (Berowra Waters Inn, Bon Cafard), a cooking school (Take 2 Eggs, in Wahroonga) and co-authored a book (The Best of Gretta Anna with Martin Teplitzky), a compendium of recipes from his mother, Gretta Anna. But it was a two-year stint living and working in the north-western alpine region of Italy that set him on his latest course: leading culinary tours of Piedmont (or Piemonte, as the Italians call it), a celebrated but undervisited region known for its white truffles, hazelnuts and luscious wines.
Why do you love Piedmont?
Being in the north-west of Italy near the Alps, it's very hot in summer and very cold in winter. This amazingly different climate throughout the year creates all sorts of wonderful things. Piedmont is absolutely covered with vineyards from top to bottom and they make the most beautiful wines, including dolcetto, barbera and, of course, barolo.
What's so special about barolo?
It's made from nebbiolo grapes and named after the region it's made in. It's very luscious and complex with notes of the area, herbs and spices. It's a beautiful red, a beautiful food wine; lighter than a cabernet sauvignon or shiraz but heavier than pinot noir.
Do you have a favourite?
Chiara Boschis is the only female winemaker in Barolo – it's a man's world. Her E. Pira e Figli winery, which means Father and Sons, has won many awards. We also like going to Contratto, which makes the original sparkling wine. They have the most extraordinary heritage-listed underground vaults, too.
Tell us about white truffles.
We stay in this beautiful hotel where I used to work called La Villa. Through that I have a relationship with a truffle-hunter called Mario and he has this amazing dog called Rex, who is just beautiful. I take groups of people and we go out and hunt for the truffles. People get so excited because they may have read about them or tried them but it's not until you find one in the ground, dig it up and take it home to shave over pasta that you really get the full experience.
So, where do we look?
That's an incredibly well-guarded secret. White truffles vary a little in price, depending on how many are found and what time of the season it is but I've seen them at €6000 a kilo (about $9400), or €60 ($94) a portion, which is generally 10g. The local people rely quite heavily on them as income so they actually fence off their land. You can't just wonder around willy-nilly looking for them. You'd get shot!
What dish lets you know you've arrived back in Piedmont?
Carne crudo. It's basically chopped raw fillet beef with a little bit of olive oil – that's it. It's just the most stunning thing to eat and you just have it with bread or grissini. It's always chopped to order.
The most sought-after is robiola di Roccaverano. Roccaverano is a town perched right on top of quite a steep hill, quite hard to get to, and it's all about the goats and the altitude the goats are feeding at. Robiola is a beautiful cheese and you can get it fresh in restaurants as an entree with mostarda [a kind of pickle jam]. Every two years the town of Bra hosts an amazing international cheese festival, too.
What about produce markets?
Nizza Monferrato and Acqui Terme both have produce markets and when we go [in October/November] they're full of porcini mushrooms and, if you're lucky, freshly picked saffron flowers. The markets are special because they are for local people. There are hardly any tourists here. Unlike Tuscany, Piedmont has a much more low-key feel about it.
Any other special experiences?
We always visit the Berta Grappa Distillery, which is well known and highly regarded. Virtually every town here has its own fattoria, which makes wine with grapes from local farmers. It's cheap wine, sold from bulk tanks with petrol-bowser-like trigger dispensers. Then the pressed grapes and stems go to grappa distilleries. Grappa has a firewater reputation but when you actually drink some that's been aged it turns into something quite drinkable.
Any fancy restaurants in the region?
There's a few, including some three-Michelin-star ones but I prefer San Marco, a one-star restaurant in Canelli. It does a beautiful version of a local pasta called agnolotti del plin, a tiny little parcel of meat, usually beef, simply tossed in butter and sage. For me, they make the best.
Your favourite restaurant?
Bardon del Belbo, which is on the way to Canelli. It's very simple. They wheel around a trolley with slow-braised beef and pork, roasted rabbit, things like that. It's one of those restaurants that's been in the same family forever; it's a beautiful environment but it's more of a summer place for me.
Any other regional dishes we should know about?
The slow-braised beef in Barolo or Barbera is amazing, as is vitello tonnato, slow-braised veal that's still pink inside and very thinly sliced, served in an anchovy sauce; and roast rabbit is popular. At markets you'll often find these huge pancake things made from chickpeas, called farinata. They sometimes put cheese on them or ham but I like to have it plain. It's very moreish.
What about sweet things?
Locals love pasticceria, tiny little one-mouthful-size cakes, and there's a huge variety of them. The gelati is very good in the region, too. There's a good little gelati bar on the corner of the market in Nizza Monferrato called Gelateria Da Mimmo. It's very simple. It just does local in-season flavours so if it's after summer you'll get peach and apricots, as well as all the usual flavours. It's very authentic and delicious.
Look out for the Alba Truffle Fair in late October, antique markets on the third Saturday of the month in Canelli and third Sunday of the month in Nizza. Also, Palio di Asti is an amazing horse race round the main square in Asti held on the third Sunday in September. It's been running since the 13th century.
Find out more about Martin Teplitzky's Piedmont tours at piemonte2018.com.
E. Pira e Figli winery, Barolo, pira-chiaraboschis.com
Contratto, Canelli, contratto.it
La Villa, Mombaruzzo (Fraz Casalotto), lavillahotel.net
Berta Grappa Distillery, Mombaruzzo, distillerieberta.it
Ristorante San Marco, Canelli, sanmarcoristorante.net
Bardon del Belbo, San Marzano Oliveto, +39 0141 831340
Gelateria Da Mimmo, Nizza Monferrato, +39 0141 727333