It is romantic to find and almost difficult to adequately express the brilliant light, the warmth and expanse of the Valle d’Aosta, the smallest and least populated region in Italy. Bordering France and Switzerland, this northwestern province is still unspoiled; indeed, it’s sometimes so still and quiet in the bright sunshine that it gives one the feeling of being the only human within a hundred miles. We all have our memories that combine charming bits of fantasy mixed with lovely memories, and this is mine.
Barely more than an hour from Turin, the Valle d’Aosta is an alpine valley — a broad, long flat plain that nudges the Alps. Offering unspoiled, seemingly endless fields exploding with wild flowers, at its northern edge it invites even more spectacular views to those who ride the téléferique, an enclosed cable car, up the southern side of Mont Blanc. The breathtaking views are one of those reminders of how insignificant we are in nature’s expanse and how lucky we are to share in it.
If there is a way to be transported away from the emptiness of the most difficult months of Canadian winter, this is my choice. Walking in the quiet warm valley imparts a clear sense of a link to Roman times, when the Via delle Gallie cut straight through the valley basin. Or else memory takes me to the famous Via Francigena, which, during medieval times, linked the various sections of Roman roads running from Rome to Canterbury. Dotted along the Via Francigena are the Valdostane Castles, which hint at the wealthy feudal history where medieval buildings were built atop highland fortresses from Roman times. One needs so little imagination to feel the history and ancient culture all around as we move up this unique valley.
For this modern-day explorer, the Valle d’Aosta culture is intricately tied to its unique cuisine. It is not surprising that the food is simple and revolves around robust ingredients, with both cheese and meat making a distinct mark: not merely Italian, but specific to this almost-remote part of Italy, with its gastronomical richesse.
The Valle d’Aosta must-have is Fontina cheese, an unpasteurized and whole milk taste of the gods. It is notable by its compact brown crust, while its inside, which is semi-cooked, is an inelastic soft paste with a few small holes. It is pale yellow if produced in winter and darker in summer, due to the nutritional differences in grazing between the seasons for the cows, but the colour also takes on a richer hue as the cheese ages.
For the health-conscious, it is a high-energy cheese, rich in phosphorus, calcium and vitamin A. In it 1996 gained the important Protected Designation of Origin (or DOP) stamp from the European Union, which decrees that if authentic, it must be produced exclusively in the Valle d’Aosta, made from whole milk and only from the local breed of cows. It boasts a milk fat content of about 45 per cent, and in the region has been always identified by the Consorzio stamp of the Matterhorn. It is not, however, to be confused with the inevitable copies, particularly those produced in Denmark and sold in Canadian grocery stores. The original and authentic Fontina is easily distinguished by its tan and sometimes orange-brown colour, quite different from the red wax rind that one sees with the Danish product. In fact, Danish Fontina is aged much less, and therefore has a semi soft texture and mild taste. Authenticity demands rigid adherence to the classic production method; the cheese must be made from unpasteurized milk from a single milking. It is noted for its earthy, distinctly mushroomy smell, a woody taste that pairs particularly well with roast meats and even truffles. The young Fontina has a softer texture and can be suitable for fondue. It melts well. Fonduta, is another derivative, is a traditional dish mixing Fontina with whipped eggs and cream. At the other end of the taste and texture spectrum, mature Fontina is a hard cheese, which, while quite mild, sports a nutty flavour, rich and fruity.
More common, but interesting because of the way it is served, is Robiola, a soft ripened cheese comprised of varying quantities of cow, goat and sheep’s milk. Traditional service is to eat it on a plate without bread, with fine first pressing of olive oil, salt and pepper. Its tangy taste comes from the wild herbs on which the animals graze.
Another simple gastronomical delight is the Valle d’Aosta Jamon des Bosses, eaten as a primo corso (first course). This raw ham is spiced with mountain herbs and produced in a location bearing its name in the Gran San Bernardo Valley, at an altitude of about 1600 meters; today, the area is perhaps most famous as the entrance to the famous St. Bernard Tunnel at the edge of the Swiss border. And yet the very first documents testifying to Jamon des Bosses’ production date back to the late 14th century, confirming that the tradition of producing simply delectable food does not change with time. It is not only the skill of the curers, but the dry climate and exposure to the air that criss-crosses over the hills that creates a unique environment for its production and seasoning. The addition of herbs from the valley, such as juniper and thyme, lends a delicate and particularly aromatic smell.
Also unique to the region is Motzetta, a dried meat reminiscent of prosciutto but made of chamois, boar or deer. It is another example of the ancient tradition of preserving meat to meet the needs of isolated families during wintertime. Although at first look it appears tough and hard, in the mouth it is tender and tasty despite the fact that it is compact and made with little fat. It is left to marinate together with the aromatic mountain herbs rubbed with salt and spices. Motzetta is also served as an entrée cut into thin slices and accompanied by the typical local rye bread. Sitting at table during Canadian midwinter you can feel a gentle smile coming over your face as you think of this other time, other place, other culture.
Restaurant tables in the Valle d’Aosta are usually decorated with a biscuit. One such, called Tegole, is made with hazelnuts, sugar and egg whites, flour, a touch of almond and vanilla, presenting a complex taste. Dainty but crunchy, they are eaten before the meal to stimulate appetite, and also as an accompaniment to ice cream or dark chocolate.
But the bread staple of the region is Pan Ner, which survives from a tradition in the middle ages — an indispensable part of cooperative village life. The women kneaded the dough while the men tended the village wood-fired oven. The key is rye flour mixed with traditional wheat flour and a culture yeast. It’s left to rise for at least three hours, but it is worth the effort. The result is dark, almost black bread, healthy because of the fibre. Its delectable smell is often enhanced with the addition of walnuts and raisins, or at times, fennel seeds.
There are innumerable osteria dotted about the valley and a notable, while very reasonable one is in the small city of Aosta. Walk into La Vache Folle and you are embraced by a small village feel. Liberally decorated with immense collars and cowbells, the food, well, it just brings a smile to your face. It is a working class watering hole with a menu sporting a few memorable dishes.
The tastes associated with risotto take on a whole new savour when the plate of the rice staple arrives at table with the distinct smell of cinnamon and a texture thickened with mascarpone. And for originality and a surprisingly good match, there’s a house risotto specialty that combines snails with parmesan. Delectable!
cinnamon and mascarpone risotto
Serves 4 to 6
Made from Carnaroli or Arborio rice only, risotto is cooked uncovered on your stovetop. As a lot of liquid evaporates, plan on two to three times as much liquid as rice. The stock is your base flavour, and you can use the homemade variety or canned stock. Chicken stock is preferred, but vegetable or beef will do just fine. Remember that it can’t be abandoned. Frequent stirring is best, as is adding a little stock at a time, about 1/2 cup. Keep your stock warm so when you add it to the rice-stock mixture it absorbs faster and reduces your time at the stove.
2 tbsp olive oil (plus a bit extra)
2 finely chopped garlic cloves
350 g Arborio or Carnoli rice
2 cinnamon sticks
150 ml white wine
2 l chicken (vegetable or beef) stock
75 g mascarpone cheese
1. In a large wide saucepan, heat olive oil, and on fairly low heat, sweat the chopped garlic cloves allowing them to colour but not burn.
2. Turn up the heat and add the rice and cinnamon sticks.
3. Stir the rice to coat the grains, and keep it moving until you hear it crackle (about 1 minute).
4. Add the white wine, permitting it to boil and evaporate (most is absorbed in the rice).
5. Turn the heat down to medium-low and begin to add stock with a pinch of salt.
6. When the stock has been mostly absorbed, repeat the process, keeping the mixture moving to avoid burning on the bottom. (It releases the starch.) The result will be a creamy smooth risotto.
7. When the rice is cooked (al dente to the taste), and is viscous but not runny, add the mascarpone and, with the heat turned off, thoroughly stir it into the mixture.
8. Finally, top with a small dollop of mascarpone and drizzle a little extra virgin olive oil over the mixture, remove the cinnamon sticks, and serve.
Expect compliments. Maintain modesty!