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The recent wine trip to Piemonte, organised by Lucia Hannau of as part of Turin Epicurean Capital 2019, was a simply stunning trip, not only for the personal reasons discussed in my previous post, but also because Lucia had ensured that we saw an excellent cross section of the wineries one can visit in the Langhe.

Not to pre-empt future posts but we visited a small family run business (that stole my heart, but more of that in future) and two larger businesses that at first glance might seem similar but in reality were very  different. Here I want to talk about Fontanafredda, possibly one of the most beautiful places I have ever visited. I do want to say upfront, however, that I am not a wine expert so this post is more about the place itself than the wine. I have friends with much more sophisticated palates than mine and I wish one of them, (yes Jim Dunlop, I’m looking at you) would write about their specialist knowledge of the wines of Piemonte. I’d just like to mention too, that is not a sponsored post; I’ve written this for love, not for money.

Despite its large size, Fontanafredda is a winery perfectly in symbiosis with its landscape and whilst obviously the viticulture has shaped the landscape, the built environment is equally sympathetic without seemingly losing functionality. The buildings themselves are girded about in the ochre and dark pink colours frequently seen in the area; this did lead to the slightly inelegant name of “the Battenburg Cake Estate” being applied to it, but somehow it works. 

It is a successful and thriving business producing wines typical of this part of Piemonte, there are two elegant and comfortable hotels, two restaurants (one that really needs a blog post all of its own) and acres of woodland walks and of course, spectacular views of the Unesco Langhe landscape. Visitors are well catered for and I thought the tasting session intelligent and informative, which I have not always found to be so elsewhere.

I say Fontanafredda is a successful business but that has not always been the case and the history of this charming place is well worth looking at at. The first noteworthy event was as a gift in 1858 by King Vittorio Emanuele II of Italy to his principal mistress, Rosa Vercellana known in Piedmontese as Bela Rosin. In addition acquiring to the ravishing hunting lodge and land, Rosa, born a commoner, became Countess of Mirafiori and Fontanafredda. After the death of the King’s wife in 1855 (she bore him eight children during the thirteen years they were married), in 1869, he then morganatically married Rosa with whom he already had two children. You will note the use of the phrase “principal mistress”; in common with much of male royalty and aristocracy, he was a man of vigorous appetites and had at least five others, one of whom he is said to have shared with both Cavour and Napoleon III.

The stunning hunting lodge which was the gift to Bela Rosin at Fontanafredda

The stunning hunting lodge which was the gift to Bela Rosin at Fontanafredda

The King’s father, Carlo Alberto, was already a wine producer on his royal estates at Verduno and Pollenzo, so it was perhaps unsurprising that Vittoria Emanuele believed that Fontanafredda would provide a secure business for his and Rosa’s children.

The archives at Fontanafredda are fascinating and although I was not able to study through them (much as I would have liked to), there are many interesting pages from ledgers are on display. From these it is clear to see that Barolo began production from 1865, along with evidence of the building of new cellars and buildings, not to mention planting of new vines. Fortunately – or perhaps inevitably – Rosa’s son, Emanuele Mirafiori – was a talented winemaker and under his leadership, Barolo became available to the open market and not just the royal family and their elite European friends. He seems to have been a natural marketeer and in 1887, he opened his cellars to the public and began entering his wines in competitions, with some success.

The year 1894 saw the start of a series of misfortunes which led to long decline of the Fontanafredda estate and its Mirafiori brand: Emanule Mirafiori died that year, at the young age of 43, from a liver disease and his eldest son and heir to the estate died after a fall from a horse. Emanuele’s second son, Gastone, did however, prove his mettle, and until the first World War, the estate prospered with employees being treated remarkably well in terms of housing, social care and pensions. In the UK, we are accustomed to this model at that time, being familiar with Lever Brothers’ Port Sunlight village and Cadbury’s Bournville. This level of care for so many employees was not, however, at all normal in Italy.

The loss of male workers to World War I, together with outbreaks of the devastating disease, phylloxera, plus disastrous hailstorms began to see detrimental changes at Fontanafredda. The estate changed hands several times, the brand was sold to Gancia and eventually, in common with thousands of other businesses at the time, Fontanafredda went into bankruptcy in 1930.

An existing creditor of Fontanfredda, the Siena-based Banca Monte dei Paschi took over the estate in 1932 and despite the privations visited upon Italy in World War II, the estate gradually began to recover. 

In the 1960s and 70s, the new attention paid to quality began to pay off;  Fontanafredda began to age their Barolo for longer than required and also began to source top quality grapes from other vineyards in Piemonte. Some of these same vineyards began in the 1980s to turn their attentions to winemaking their own grapes and boutique wineries began to steadily erode the estate’s market  share and thus their profitability. 

Once again, Fontanafredda was brought back from the precipice, first by the appointment in 1996 of Giovanni Minetti to oversee the revamp of the vineyards and winemaking process and start them on the path to a winery of quality, rather than a supermarket supplier. Ten years later, a second occurence aided their recovery: Monte dei Paschi decided that owning a winery was not a strategic part of their business and sold the estate to a consortium of investors, amongst whom was Oscar Farrinetti. 

The slightly mysterious cellars of Fontanafredda, with their natural temperature control. Winemaking to me, like cooking, is alchemy, so this image captures the inscrutable fascination of the process

The slightly mysterious cellars of Fontanafredda, with their natural temperature control. Winemaking to me, like cooking, is alchemy, so this image captures the inscrutable fascination of the process

Now, if you have been to Italy or, if you are in parts of the USA, you will know Eataly, a high end “supermarket” that sells good quality Italian foods and you can eat well there too! I know some Italians are a bit sniffy about it and in truth, I have learned in there to read labels attentively, but and it’s a big but, they are undeniably successful.  Although I live mostly in Italy now, I was delighted to recently learn that AT LAST Eataly are coming to London (just in time for Brexit…).

So whether you like the chain or not, Signor Farrinetti knows how to run a successful business and I for one am delighted to see Fontanafredda in safe, creative and ethical hands.

So this has been a post more about history than food – or wine – but the more I learn about the history of what we eat and drink, the more fascinating and inspiring stories I discover. I warmed to Fontanafredda because quite simply, it is a stunningly beautiful and enchanting place. Once I knew its history and learned of its commitment to chemical free cultivation (a cause close to my own heart), the more I loved it. I will go back and I urge you to try to see it, if you are visiting northern Italy. If you’re not, then try to hunt down their wines. If you would like to learn more about them, do visit their website and the excellent Kerin O’Keefe has written extensively about the estate and its wines in her “Barolo and Barbaresco, The King and Queen of Italian Wine” and which I heartily recommend. And of course, if you are going to Turin, contact Lucia at and she will ensure you see the very best the city has to offer.

I hope to visit fairy tale Fontanafredda again this autumn and in the meantime I will remember my summer visit whilst enjoying a glass of their finest.  

My Favourites/ Summer


My blog has suffered from severe neglect for over a year. Only now do I feel might actually have something to say that might be remotely interesting to anyone other than me and possibly Edoardo, my partner. Even he switches off sometimes, for which I don’t remotely blame him.

The last year has been rather difficult, frequently tedious but sometimes wonderful. Despite the wonderful bits, I stopped my blog for a variety of reasons; I hadn’t quite clarified its purpose or what I wanted to say – indeed if I actually had anything to say at all.

I then found myself living in northern Italy in Edoardo’s apartment in a small Commune just south of Milan. Because an EU directive requires a citizen from another member state to register with their local Comune if they intend to stay longer than three months, I had to do just that: register with my Comune. (Interestingly, successive British Governments have elected not invoke this directive but that is a whole other story).

Now, before you all throw up your hands and gloomily predict that I am going to tell a tale of woe about the horrendous experience of dealing with Italian bureaucracy, stop right there. The people I dealt with were hands down amongst the kindest and most competent people I have encountered in any bureaucratic situation. They tolerated my faltering Italian, were slightly bemused by anyone wanting to come to this corner of Lombardy and were unstintingly helpful and courteous.

So, inspire of having emerged unscathed from my encounters with Italian bureaucracy, I couldn’t feel any enthusiasm for continuing with a blog that was mainly predicated on living and cooking in the UK, with the ingredients available there. I was having to learn how to shop, cook and eat in a whole new way, and that is hugely different to doing it for most of the year, than it is for a few weeks a year.

So there I was pottering along with Twitter and Instagram, plus continuing my interest in and support for Slow Food, but apart from looking forward to participating in Slow Food’s Cheese19 at Bra, Piedmont in September, I couldn’t raise much enthusiasm for anything. Not writing anything longer than an Instagram post had calcified me in some way.

It is said that people and circumstances are sent into your life for a purpose. I guess the trick is recognising them when they happen along. I was about to toddle off to a fabulous annual food event for the third year running, but if you feel you are at the bottom of a well, even the prospect of the terrific Turin Epicurean Capital convention at which there would be marvellous food writers and producers doesn’t give Stella her groove back.

Having said that, I was going to Turin, the city I love most in the world (and I have travelled extensively so have much to compare it with), so yes, I was thinking it would be a good trip. Particularly good as it would be preceded by three days of wine tasting in the Langhe region of Piedmont. And we all now about the truffles of Piedmont but how many of us have the privilege of seeing a young dog being trained?

What I had not anticipated was five specific people I met on the Langhe trip and the effect they had on me, individually and a group. Remarkably, I already knew four of them and I can’t really explain how the group and individual dynamic restored me, but for sure, during that trip I got my mojo back. I have analysed the thing to death but haven’t arrived at a conclusion – what or who was it that worked its magic on me? The three relaxed every-detail-taken-care-of days in the Langhe? Seeing the sheer hard work and hours put in by two of them – bloggers in the USA with big followings – to keep their social media feeds going? The determination of a Torinese colleague to keep her food business going despite health issues? Was it the two Italian guys who started a Slow Food accredited gelateria in Leicester and apart from making delicious gelato, are achieving international recognition and acclaim, despite their worries about the impact of Brexit?

Heaven knows what it was but I do know for sure that something clicked inside my head and my heart; I realised that I missed the act of writing and instead of bemoaning my inactivity, realised too that I have much to be grateful for and probably quite bit to write about. The realisation that it was me, not circumstance, that had put down my pen for a year or more was not easy to face, but now I know that a) I need to write like a plant needs rain and b) I know what I want to write about. I need too, to devote time to this like it’s a corporate job and stop being a dilettante.

I’ll still be the Watchful Cook  as quality, cost and conscience will still be my guiding principles, and lord knows I need to watch my language (in terms of improving my Italian, I mean). I’ll write about learning to live in Italy, studying for my Master of Cheese qualifications (probably just lots of cheese, to be honest), the food for which I shop, then cook and eat, the wine I drink, the places I go, the people I meet and inevitably the mistakes I make as I find myself getting to grips with living in Italy.

PS The group photo is courtesy of the lovely Antonio de Vecchi, who is the happy chap on the right at the back – if you are in or near Leicester, do visit It’s the real deal!

The fantastic people in this picture are:

L – R back row: Daniele Taverna (@cereaneh), Christina Conte (@christinascucina), Antonio de Vecchi (@antonio_de_vecchi)

L – R front row: me, Edoardo, Cynthia McCloud Woodman (@whatagirleats), Benedetta Oggero (@miss_bee_foods)