I’m familiar with the phrase ‘singing for your supper’ but ‘hiking for your cheese’? That’s a new one for me. High in the Italian Alps, cheesemakers and their herds spend summers far beyond the point where the road ends. This is the secret to the delicate, almost floral taste of Fontina cheese, made from June to September. Up on the alpine pastures — the alpeggi — cows eat nothing but grass, meadow flowers and wild herbs.
If you’ve heard of the Valle d’Aosta region, it’s probably for its ski resorts, which include Cervinia, Courmayeur and Gressoney. The valley was once a well-trodden stretch of the Via Francigena, the pilgrim’s path to Rome. Both of its high alpine passes, as well as a famous breed of rescue dog, are named after St Bernard, an 11th-century priest, founder of a travellers’ hospice here and now the patron saint of snowboarders.
On a breezy afternoon, I’m among the steady stream of walkers arriving at Sandro Bonin’s wooden cabin, where he sets trestle tables in a sunny spot with views of snow-capped peaks. Sandro keeps 60 dairy cows in the Grimondet pasture, a 45-minute hike above the ski and mountain bike resort of Pila. They’re milked twice a day. “Every cow has her own stall. That’s very important,” he tells me.
The cheese-making process begins right afterwards, with the milk still at around 36C. He adds an enzyme, then stirs and warms the milk to around 48C, when cheese forms. It’s separated, pressed for 24 hours then matured for at least 80 days to earn the Fontina Valle d’Aosta DOP (Protected Designation of Origin) stamp. But Valdostans are a frugal mountain people; the process doesn’t end there. The remaining whey can be further heated to around 82C, when the addition of a little vinegar causes the fat to float to the surface. This is brossa, a rich, grainy cream traditionally eaten cool with warm polenta. The rest solidifies to become seras, a light, protein-rich ricotta. Pretty much everything bar the moo gets eaten.
“I do everything by hand,” Sandro says.
“It makes a difference.” His cheese is much sought-after, and he sells most of it, via tasting plates, to passing hikers. Some of the rest is sold by Tascapan, which specialises in showcasing artisan Valle d’Aosta food.
This valley’s culinary heritage stems mainly from the pasture — beef, veal, game and dairy, in particular. Small-scale producers like Caseificio Duclos, in Variney, are typical: a subterranean shop and maturation room display racks of their Fontina, toma (made with skimmed milk), goat’s cheese, yoghurt, panna cotta and reblec — a spongy curd cheese.
Meanwhile, the classic carb here isn’t the pasta of central and southern Italy, nor even the rice of the northern plains, but polenta, traditionally cooked in a copper pot over a wood fire. This is how they still prepare it at Maison Rosset, a rustic agriturismo in the wine village of Nus.
Over in Courmayeur, at the Hotel Royal e Golf, I chat with chef Maura Gosio over an aperitivo. Her adopted home, Courmayeur is best known as one of Italy’s haute couture ski resorts, but it’s also gaining a reputation for food — Heston Blumenthal is a regular visitor, and in September the Lo Matsòn food market fills the cobbled streets with stalls selling everything local: saffron, apples, honey, craft beer and herb-infused grappa.
Maura oversees all of Royal e Golf’s food, from breakfast to a private dinner in a Romanesque tower that was occupied in the 1200s by the King of Burgundy’s soldiers. Maura was awarded her first Michelin star in 2005 at a restaurant near her native Varese. She joined the hotel’s Petit Royal restaurant in 2012; the star arrived in 2013.
What makes cooking in the valley so special? “Where I worked previously, we were surrounded by factories. Here we have access to so many ‘kilometre zero’ products,” she says, using the Italian term for low food mileage. She singles out cheese and meat, of course, as well as local trout.
In nearby Morgex, Café Quinson’s Michelin starred head chef — in fact, only chef — is Agostino Buillas, who preps, cooks and cleans up while his wife Elena and sister-in-law Anna handle the front of house wearing traditional mountain dress. During a long and memorable dinner, a different Valle d’Aosta wine arrives with every course: a Meursault-like oaked Chardonnay from Les Crêtes to wash down crab ravioli with intense lemon ‘pearls’ and locally churned butter; Grosjean Fumin, made with a robust local red grape, alongside piglet, apricot, confit shallots and mountain salt; and a sweet Pinot Grigio Passito, made from partially dried grapes, with dessert.
The following day I’m at Bertolin, the valley’s best-known meat curer. It began life in 1957 as a family butcher and is renowned for its lardo di Arnad, you guessed it: lard. Production is regulated by strict DOP rules, which specify the breed (gran suino Padano), minimum weight (160kg) and age (11 months) of every pig. My guide, Marta Ninni, explains the animals aren’t local, but come from the plains of Emilia-Romagna, Piedmont, Lombardy and the Veneto regions. “Pigs are not common here,” says Marta. “If you have one, you don’t sell it, you make your own salami.”
Within 72 hours of slaughter (another rule), butchered cuts from the pig’s back are packed into a large oak or chestnut tub called a doil, along with salt, rosemary, sage, garlic, bay and juniper. It’s all submerged under boiled then chilled salted water for a minimum of three months. Sliced thin with a dribble of local honey, it’s gently aromatic and melt-in-your-mouth delicate.
Afterwards, Marta leads us downstairs to Bertolin’s shop and cafe, and brings a plate loaded with sliced meats. There’s lardo, of course, and also ham cured with artemisia; juniper-smoked speck; boudin, a purple salami made with ground pork, potato, beetroot and pig’s blood; and a strong carpaccio made from the dark, dense meat of retired dairy cows drizzled with cold-pressed walnut oil, another Valle d’Aosta speciality. The desiccated walnut leftover, troillet, is sold for wheat-free baking or mixing with brossa or yoghurt. Like I said, they don’t waste anything up here in the mountains.
Five Valle d’Aosta food finds
Lardo di Arnad: Delicate pig’s fat subjected to a sweet, aromatic salt cure
Olio di noce: Cold-pressed virgin walnut oil, the traditional condiment
at altitudes where olive trees struggle to bear fruit
Prosciutto al Génépy: Bertolin’s Parma-style ham cured with génépy, an alpine herbal plant that’s part of the artemisia family
Brossa: A rich, grainy cream made by separating and whipping the fat from the whey left behind after cheese-making
A taste of Valle d’Aosta
Chef Agostino Buillas works hard for his Michelin star — he’s the only one in the kitchen, prepping, cooking and cleaning up afterwards. Valley produce takes centre-stage inside a 17th-century stone chalet, and with 20 covers max, it feels like private dining.
How much: Tasting menus cost €60 (£54), €80 (£72) and €100 (£90) each without wine.
The seasonal antipasto selection laid out on arrival covers half the table and if you’re lucky, the main event will be beef on the bone, macerated in saltwater then boiled in a wood oven and served with a salsa verde. This is soul food without pretension, reared and prepared on their farm.
How much: Seasonal multi-course set menu €35 (£31) per person including house wine, water, grappa and coffee.
The ambience in this tiny restaurant is the height of alpine chic, with furniture handcrafted from antlers and silver birch trunks. Michelin-starred Maura Gosio combines global influences in a creative modern style.
How much: Three-course à la carte from €60 (£54) without wine. Tasting menus €85-€120 (£76-£108).
Published in the December 2016 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)