It started off as it often does with a vague idea to go off somewhere that ends up somewhere else which is always the best thing about it.
On this day in particular, I wanted to explore the part of Lake Como between Como and Bellagio. The other side from Como leads up past Cernobbio and Cadenabbia as far as Menaggio, all of which draw the tourists in. But I wanted to get away from this and go to the quieter parts of the lake where you can still feel a whisper of the past.
I ended up in Molina, a hamlet of Fageto Lario up on the mountainside on the hunt for a trattoria I wanted to try. A couple of locals recommended another one, Osteria Antica Molina, where I ate a starter that included polenta with melted lardo – yes, that really does mean lard, not to be eaten regularly maybe, but delicious when you do.
And while I was sitting eating my brasato (slow-cooked beef in red wine) and polenta, I got chatting to some fellow diners who told me about the old torchio or wine press in the nearby hamlet of Palanzo further up the road. And before I knew it we were talking cows, as you do when you’re halfway up a mountainside in the local trattoria.
“At one time there were about three hundred cows during the 1940s, and now I have the only two cows left in the village,” the large man sitting on the next table tells me. It’s the same story to be heard wherever there are villages that were once self-sustained by agriculture. The young people have now left, some gone to Como and there is no one left to make the cheese or the wine like once upon a time.
So after lunch, off I went up to Palanzo and as chance often has it met the brother of the large guy who showed me the wine press. It’s dated 1572 and is now a national monument. It was in use until the 1960s but nowadays is only used for the yearly October Sagre del Torchio, the highlight of the village year that this year takes place on the weekend of 7th-9th September. The grapes are no longer grown there of course. They get them in especially for the occasion, and there are concerts and the band plays just as you’d expect in a small village on the side of a mountain. He tells me about how things used to be years ago. “It was beautiful here,” the man tells me. “A real sight. Everything gold, all these golden fields of grain. It was all cultivated from the lakeside as high up as 800m, and all terraced too.”
He tells me about the cycle of the seasons: the planting of grana saraceno or buckwheat followed by the potatoes in turn followed by the wheat. He shows me the large pestle and mortar that was used to grind chestnuts. The flour was then used to make pasta and can I imagine it being rolled out into sheets and cut into tagliatelle, thick and slightly uneven. People had everything they needed here, and it wasn’t until the 1950s, he tells me, that the road came up here.
He could have been any man all over Italy remembering past times and past lives weathered by change. Yet it’s easy to be blinded by nostalgia, and especially on a beautiful sunny Spring day, to forget the harsh realities that often lie within.
New acquaintances at Osteria Antica Molina
Clockwise from back: mortadella, grilled polenta with lardo, local salami with melted cheese and fresh soft cheese dressed with pepper and oil.
The huge pestle and mortar that was used to grind chestnuts.
The old torchio or wine press is now a national monument. The date carved into the stone reads 1572 and the press is made from the twelve metre trunk of a chestnut tree.