Eating pizzoccheri in Valchiavenna

It’s a lazy Sunday lunchtime on a February Sunday and I’m having lunch in a restaurant with family and friends. The restaurant is La Genzianella in the hamlet of Fraciscio above Campodolcino in Valchiavenna. It’s a small place with an adjoining bar that fits snugly into its context with a wood-panelling dining room and a cosy atmosphere that feels like it could take you back to 1956 when the restaurant first opened. The waitress comes over and tells us what’s on the menu today. There’s a short moment of reflection and then quick agreement that we’ll have a taste of everything, or rather not quite everything. We decide to skip the antipasti or cold meats and cheeses which vary according to where you are and what the local produce dictates, but only because we can’t wait to start with the primi or first courses. We know that they have ravioli filled with soft fresh cheese and served in a fresh tomato sauce. And above all, they have pizzoccheri alla chiavennasca.

I often think that happiness is a dish of pizzoccheri, not only because of the food itself but because of the situation that is always involved. Take a mountain trattoria or a mountain refuge, in any case somewhere in the mountains which always has the winning factor for me personally because quite simply it is in the mountains. Fill it with family and friends around a table, add good honest food and it ticks all the right boxes in an atmosphere that makes you feel at home. Serve pizzoccheri and everyone’s happy.

What you need to know about pizzoccheri is that there are two types. One is from the Valtellina and involves large flat ribbons of pasta that could be equated with pappardelle, only they’re cut into short strips and made from grana saraceno or buckwheat, and dressed in greens and butter and local cheese. The type of pizzoccheri up here in the Valchiavenna is the other type, the one where roughly shaped gnocchi are made from stale bread and potato and served swimming in butter and local cheese. This is the whole point of this type of pizzoccheri. It’s supposed to swim in the cheese. You’ll also find them referred to as gnocchetti alla chiavennascha, little gnocchi Chiavenna-style. This is comfort food pushed to the max, the kind of thing you eat and then dream about afterwards.

It’s the dish that most represents this valley, with ingredients that people could generally get: potatoes, stale bread, cheese and butter. It served its purpose to feed people who live up in what can be quite unforgiving conditions in winter. It fed you, put something warm in your stomach and it was full of calories. It serves a similar function today for skiers in winter and hikers in summer. Fraciscio is at an altitude of 1341 metres above sea level. The road from Campodolcino leads on to the ski resort of Madesimo and the mountain pass of Passo dello Spluga up at 2114 metres. It’s one of the old transport routes linking Chur in Switzerland with Como and on to the Po Valley in Italy. The pass is closed in winter, but in summer you can go up there and enjoy its wild, remote beauty.

The first courses are followed by costine al forno (pork ribs cooked in the oven), brasato (pot-roasted beef) and salmi’ di cervo – venison stew with juniper berries and served with polenta. Venison is naturally a lean meat and for this reason it’s often marinated in wine, vegetables and herbs before cooking which helps to make it more tender when cooking. The polenta is the type that’s found up here, where the familiar yellow polenta cornflour is mixed with buckwheat to give it a distinctive speckled appearance. This is all followed in its turn by home made desserts including torta di grana saraceno or a fruit tart made with buckwheat flour again. Finish with a strong black espresso and one of the grappas made with the herbs you can find up here. It’s the kind of place where you find yourself dreaming of a sofa and a log fire afterwards.

Ristorante La Genzianella, Via Fraciscio, 93, 23021 Fraciscio SO, tel: 0343 50154. (Booking in advance is strongly recommended.)

Why Valchiavenna will always have a place in my heart

On Sunday we finally got to the mountains. We went up to Gualdera above Campodolcino in Valchiavenna. Valchiavenna is the valley that leads up from the top of Lake Como all the way to Val Bregaglia and then Switzerland and up to St Moritz. I spent a lot of time there when I was young, or rather the part when I was young in Italy, and so whenever I go there it always feels like going home in a way, even more so on Sunday because we went there with old friends who were there the first time round too. Years ago we camped up on a high mountain plain called Angeloga by the lake near the mountain refuge. It rained all night and the tents got slightly battered while we stayed up and talked about our lives and our dreams. I was the young English woman – or probably girl is more accurate – halfway up a mountain with her now husband and his mates.

I have this dream of getting an old baita (rustic house) up there in Valchiavenna one day. I’ll write there and walk and learn to cook pizzoccheri the way they do up in Valchiavenna, roughly shaped potato and stale bread gnocchi oozing in local butter and cheese. I’ll also keep hens, but above all I’ll be back in my beloved mountains.

I’ll write about Valchiavenna more over the coming days, about the places and the food, but in the meantime I made a video of some of the scenes we saw. There’s talk of Lombardy becoming an orange zone again along with other regions in Italy. Italy’s split into zones at the moment – yellow, orange and red, with red being the most restrictive. If we become an orange that will put a stop to days out, and so because of this it all feels more precious.

Breakfast with a view, Florence

Life is a series of breakfasts, or at least sometimes it’s felt like that and has been all the sweeter because of it. The current restrictions mean that it’s not always possible to relive the experience. It all depends on what level of restrictions we’re at. The covid restrictions here work on yellow, orange and red zones, with red zones having the most restrictions. At the moment of writing from here in Lombardy, we’re currently in an orange zone so this means that bars and restaurants are only open for takeaways. I still go of course, just eat my cappuccino and brioche on a wall outside in the sun or take it home and enjoy it at my kitchen table. Even a pandemic and a paper cup will never take the pleasure away from the Italian breakfast. It stands like something to be defended, representative of a café culture that is one of Italy’s great pleasures.

This morning’s Facebook memories reminded me of the time I had breakfast at Café Scudieri in Florence, one of Florence’s cafés that overlooks the city’s Duomo one cold clear day in January. Café Scudieri is one of those cafés that are known as ‘instuzioni’ in Italian, institutions or rather well-known and well-loved places which have been around for years. Café Scudieri has been here since 1939, and is a classic example of the traditional Italian café that has a history and is proud of that history.

I sat and drank my cappuccino and ate my brioche which I’d selected from the glass cases inside, as it’s always worth going to see what they have before you order. I chose a chocolate brioche as sometimes only chocolate will do, and it was as good as I’d expected. The cappuccino was smooth, as all cappuccinos should be smooth and if there’s any of that froth with holes in it in sight you should know you’re probably not in the right place. Cappuccinos should be smooth but should also not scald, and should leave a suitable amount of milky foam at the bottom of the cup. It’s then up to you whether you scoop out this remaining froth with a spoon or not.

In any case, a breakfast in the shadow of the Duomo in Florence is always to be savoured, and if you go for the view there are tables outside to ensure this. Although Florentines speak of the Duomo, the full name is the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore. Like many cathedrals, it took years to build. Building began in 1296 around the original Basilica of Santa Reparata in accordance with Arnolfo di Cambio’s design. When it was finally finished in 1412 it took its place as the largest church in Europe – St Peter’s Basilica in Rome was started in 1506 and finished in 1626.

The highlight of the Duomo is the Brunelleschi dome at the other end of the cathedral, designed by Filippo Brunelleschi who is one of the most important figures of the Italian Renaissance. Originally apprenticed to a goldsmith’s shop, Brunelleschi would go on to design one of the architectural icons of the whole period that would encapsulate a modern idea of architecture through its essential, clear shape.

The café itself looks out onto the Baptistery. It’s a wonderful position from which to admire the view, whilst letting yourself be gently immersed into Florentine café culture. Florence, considered the birthplace of the Renaissance, is a city with a great history that can still be felt today. Its Renaissance origins lie in the economic prosperity which came at the beginning of the 14th century, helped by a a certain political stability which contrasted with the previous turbulent years of the Plague. The most important families of merchants and bankers such as the Medici family began to invest in the arts and as a result encouraged what we now call the Renaissance. In addition, Florence was also a hub for philosophers and writers, and it was a Florentine man called Dante Alighieri who would go on to write The Divine Comedy. When he wrote it, he used Florentine vernacular, and thus there was a shift from Latin to Italian, and the Italian he used became the basis for the Italian we speak today.

What you see now as you sit there drinking your cappuccino and eating your brioche, admiring the Duomo and watching the local people go about their daily lives is the heritage of all this, and it’s this that always makes breakfast in Florence so special.

Caffè Scudieri, Piazza di San Giovanni, 19R, 50123 Florence, 055 210733

Photo: Rachael Martin

A night in Pleiney

If you go to the Aosta Valley and follow the signs for the Great Saint Bernard’s Pass, you’ll get to one of the region’s lesser-frequented valleys, the Great Saint Bernard Valley. It’s the valley where the wind known as the coumba freida in the local dialect blows cold in winter, and the temperature remains cool and fresh in summer, always welcome when you’re arriving from the summer heat of Milan. The pass above links Italy with Switzerland. It’s on the route of the Via Francigena, the pilgrims’ way which starts in Canterbury in the UK and finishes in Rome. The Great Saint Bernard’s Hospice up there on the Swiss side was originally begun by Augustine monks to provide food and shelter for the pilgrims. They also started to breed the famous Saint Bernard dogs. The dogs were used to carry loads, and later to help in mountain rescues. It’s quite possible that you’ll see one if you go up to the pass.

Saint-Rhémy-en-Bosses is the last village before you go through the tunnel or over the pass and into Switzerland, and is famous for its local ham known as Jambon de Bosses. We stayed there in a bed and breakfast called Nuit à Pleiney. It’s past the town hall and church, at the end of the road through the valley. Saint-Rhèmy-en-Bosses is split into various hamlets, each a group of houses where people used to keep live and keep their animals. Nuit à Pleiney offers a night in the hamlet of Pleiney. I suggest you stay for more, and give yourself chance to unwind, far from the crowds of more popular tourist destinations.

Sara Clerici and her husband Marco were familiar with the area when they started their bed and breakfast as they’d spent many years holidaying there. They then bought an old rural house and spent seven years renovating it. It was a labour of love, where authenticity and respect for the past was key. The whole building still has the original thick stone walls and wooden features, and even the marks from the bread oven in the breakfast room can still be seen on one of the walls. The builders wanted to clean them off, but Sara refused. Each corner of the building tells a part of the building’s history, and Sara didn’t want to erase any of it.

The result is that the bed and breakfast fits beautifully within its original context, both in relation to its neighbouring houses and the mountains. There are five rooms each with their own private bathroom, including two family rooms where one has the option of adding a fifth bed. The accommodation is bed and breakfast with jams and cakes all made by Sara. An evening aperitivo with local products and wines is available upon request.

There’s also an apartment that sleeps four, which is where we stayed. The open plan downstairs bedroom and living room has a bed settee which functions as extra sleeping space. Upstairs is the kitchen under the eaves, while outside at the back there’s an outdoor eating area. It’s the early mornings I remember, waking up and going up into the kitchen to make coffee, throwing open the windows and hearing the sound of the river and the birds. If there was anything I needed post-lockdown, it was this.

The large garden offers space for outside relaxation, although the position in the valley next to the woods, with the odd deer for company is a garden in itself. Whether you choose to take your morning coffee outside or enjoy a herbal tea whilst watching the stars shining in the blackest of nights, Nuit offers the peace and quiet to re-connect with nature. There’s also a sauna, relaxation room and hot tub in the garden to enhance your experience.

Sara works with Carlotta and Gerard of Rimedi Noa, a holistic health service which is offered on site. Whilst other such facilities might take place in spa or beauty complexes, this is all done outside in the garden, which adds to its charm. I met them one afternoon and had a chat with Carlotta about food, health and general well-being. Of course I was being assessed but it really felt like a chat between friends as I sat there in my deck chair and was able to relax into the whole experience. The same thing happened when Gerard gave me cranio sacral therapy in the wooden relaxation room in the garden. I felt like I floated through the rest of the day.

The fact that Nuit is on a main route means leading down from Switzerland that it’s a very convenient base from which to explore the surrounding area, but also to visit other areas within the Aosta Valley. There’s no driving up and down winding mountain roads every time you want to go anywhere, and yet you still get all the benefits of being up in the mountains at just over 1600 m above sea level. Saint Oyen and Etroubles are both neighbouring villages, each of which deserve a visit. Saint Oyen produces delicious cooked ham of the same name, and Etroubles was voted one of Italy’s most beautiful villages. Don’t worry about taking your car there if you don’t want to. The beauty of the visit lies in walking through the valley from Nuit to get there, although you’d probably want to drive to one of the restaurants in the evening.

This was the first place we visited post-lockdown and I was curious to know what it would be like in our new age of social distancing. It was surprisingly easy, at least for the visitor. Masks are obligatory indoors along with the rest of Italy, and when you enter the breakfast room to go indoors, there’s a no-touch hand gel dispenser outside. Breakfast is served either indoors at the required distance or outside in the garden. Generally wherever we went, we found people just following the rules and getting on with it. And of course, being in the mountains, it’s difficult to feel crowded. If you’re nervous about getting out there for whatever reason, this is certainly one of the quieter mountain locations.

The mountains have the ability to nourish and regenerate, providing a contact with nature like no other, or at least that’s what I’ve always felt personally. If you’re looking for a place to get away from it all and immerse yourself in nature and peace, Nuit à Pleiney could be exactly what you need.

Nuit à Pleiney,

You can also find them on Facebook @nuitapleiney and on Instagram @nuit_a_pleiney.

Photos: Rachael Martin

Photo: Rachael Martin

Up Lake Como without a plan

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. I ended up in Molina, a hamlet of Faggeto Lario up on the mountainside on the hunt for a trattoria I wanted to try. I then met a couple of locals who recommended a different one, Hosteria 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.

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. 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. The wine press is 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. 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 I can 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.

Hostaria Antica Molina, Piazza San Antonio, 2/2, Molina di Faggeto Lario, 22020 (CO), 031 3370199