A trip to Italy’s Valle d’Aosta region can be disorienting. You’re surrounded by snow capped mountains, conversation often begins in Italian and then, quickly moves to French. The tap water puts pricey bottled water to shame.
For the wine lover there’s plenty here as well. The grapes grown are a combination of French (Gamay, Pinot Noir, Syrah and Chardonnay) Swiss (Petit Arvine, Cornalin) and Italian (Nebbiolo, Pinot Grigio, Moscato) along with a bunch of locals, such as Petit Rouge, Fumin, Mayolet, Prie Blanc, Vin de Nus, and Premetta. There’s also some Muller-Thurgau thrown in for good measure. If you’re not confused yet, things get thornier with the local nomenclature: Pinot Grigio is called Malvoisie and what’s called Cornalin isn’t Cornalin in Switzerland, but is instead what Swiss call Humange Rouge. (Quiz to follow.)
The stark Alpine beauty of the region also makes you scratch your head. It’s difficult to imagine why anyone would settle in such non-arable land. Yet, this land has been settled for the past 2,500 years or more; according to most histories when the Romans arrived here some time around 143 BC there were already inhabitants here, a group known as the Salassi. (The Romans, as you can imagine, were not terribly kind to the Salassi.) More recently, the House of Savoy took advantage of the region’s ample game and made it a royal hunting ground.
The Valle d'Aosta kitchen reflects the rocky and rugged terrain. Chestnuts, game, polenta, and the region’s famous cheese, Fontina are major players at the table. The region excels at thick rich soups, often enriched with Fontina and also containing rice and dark bread. The most famous meat dish is Cotoletta alla Valdostana, a breaded veal cutlet with prosciutto and melted Fontina on top. Stews served over polenta are also popular. Carbonada is a beef braise that is combined with cinnamon, bacon, and wine. Game, particularly kid and chamois, a mountain animal is also common in braises and often combined with juniper berries. The fragrant mountain herbs are rarely used in cooking, but contribute to the region’s great cured meats, which include proscuitto di San Marcel, mocetta (cured leg of Charmois or mountain goat,) boudin di Morgex (a version of boudin noir, or blood sausages,) Lardo di Arnad (less famous, but easily equal to the lardo di Colonata,) and tetetta (cured cow utter.)
As heavy as the food of Valle d’Aosta seems, it makes sense after a day hiking Parco del Gran Paradiso or skiing in Courmayeur. The region’s nimble and brisk wines also offer the perfect counterpoint to the food.