Valtellina includes the high valley of the Adda River and, along with the Mera valley, makes up the province of Sondrio.
It runs straight between the Orobian Alps in the south to the Retiche in the north, rising at the mouth of Lake Como as far as Tresenda, then bending northeast to include numerous confluent valleys, the most important of which descend from the alpine arc. It is characterised by sloping mountainsides, wide valleys, and softly sloping flanks at the lower and middle altitudes while at Mount Mazzo its glacial character is more sharply visible as it narrows into rocky gorges that continue until the wide Bormio valley then returns to enclose itself in steep shoulders.
In the lower valley there are wide glacial-river terraces favoured by settlements and by cultivation, mostly of grapevine, rye, wheat and maize, while the rest of the region flourishes with the raising of livestock, in particular bovine of the alpine-brown race. The cooking of Valtellina is based on meats and cheeses, enriched by wines of unquestionable nobility which come from processing of grapes mostly from Chiavennasca vines, as the Nebiolo vines are called in that region, to which grapes from other local vines are added. In ancient times these wines were already garnering the praise of major Latin poets and writers such as Virgil, Horace, Pliny and Strabone. During the Renaissance, Leonardo da Vinci noted in the Codice Atlantico, “Valtolina, the so-called valley surrounded by high and terrible mountains, makes very potent wines.” There are three wines typical of this land and they commonly use the Nebiolo (called Chiavennasca in the area), Brugnuola, Sassella (Sondrio), Grumello (Montagna), and Inferno (Poggiridenti) vines: The Valtellina is a ruby-red wine with a delicate bouquet and a dry taste with a minimum proof of 11°; The Sforzato or Sfursat with its intense bouquet and scent of ripe fruit and its delicate taste, has a minimum proof of 14°; the Valtellina Superiore and the sub-denominations Sassella, Grumello, Inferno and Vagella have a ruby-red colour and a dry, velvety, harmonious taste with a minimum proof of 12°. An ageing of at least two years is required, at least one of which must be in wooden casks.
In terms of cooking, it is important to keep in mind the influence that its complicated history has had on the usage, customs and traditions of this borderland, which the Romans did not succeed in conquering until the end of the first century AD. In the succeeding centuries the Romans were followed by the Goths and the Ostrogoths, but it was with the arrival of Charlemagne in Valtellina that French influence began, with the donation (775) of several parishes in Valtellina to the monastery of San Dionigi in Paris. This donation caused open dispute with the Bishop of Como.
There are various events that led to the 1335 inclusion of Valtellina in the Duchy of Milan, against which it rebelled on more than one occasion. It passed to the Sforza family first and then to the French in 1512, and was then occupied by the Truppe delle Tre Leghe. Protestantism spread and a large part of Valtellina followed the new religion, but the conflicts with the Catholics were difficult and led, in 1612, to the so-called Holy Massacre, the massacre of many reformists and Grisons. Valtellina was torn to pieces by various conquerors until the Napoleonic era, when it became part of the Cisalpine Republic. When Napoleon fell, it passed to Austria, which kept it united with Lombardy and built two great military roads, the Splugen Pass (1819-1821) and the Stelvio Pass (1820-1825). In 1859 Valtellina rebelled against Austria, holding out until the arrival of the Montanara battalion and Garibaldi. The Austrians were forced to retreat towards the Stelvio Pass, and the destiny of Valtellina was thereafter linked to that of Lombardy.
The historic events that contributed the various influences are complex, going from those that come from the Grisons canton, to the French, to the Austrian. They include participation in the events of the Reformation and the Counter-reformation that transformed a good part of Europe into a theatre for dispute and bloody battles. Protestant doctrine still dominates the religious environment of Valtellina, which is a land of deeply rooted tradition. This is clearly shown even in the most widespread culinary culture which still today preserves the characteristics of the poverty to which it was accustomed and which, thanks to the industrialisation of the country especially in terms of tourism, has almost totally disappeared.
In past centuries meat, both bovine and game as well as fish from the streams, appeared only on the tables of the few nobles and religious men. The meat was cooked directly over fire throughout medieval times and later on skewers, flavoured with juniper berries, bay leaf and rosemary.
But most of the population did not have access to such sumptuous foods and had to be content with simpler meals based on wheat, rye and maize flours, derived from cultivation carried out on the glacial-river terraces. They added other things they found in the woods such as ‘porcini’ and other varieties of mushroom, blueberries and strawberries, and chestnuts. The chestnuts are eaten both dried and cooked in milk, both ground into a flour and mixed with wheat flour to make “gnocchi di castagne” (small dumplings) which are cooked in de-fatted chicken broth and flavoured with butter and cheese. But the preparation of seasoned flour with butter and cheese, which until a few years ago was done in every farmer’s home, still dominates the local culinary scene in Valtellina. In the rest of the country, Valtellina is famous for certain types of cheese which are already labelled ‘Denominazione d’Origine Protetta’ (Protected Denomination of Origin); these include bitto (a soft cow’s milk cheese) and Valtellina casara and for bresaola, known to a limited degree until the 1940’s in the Sondrio area and only after the Second World War spreading from Northern Italy to the whole of Italy in all its various typologies.
For truly unique first courses, think of Taragna polenta, a yellow polenta cooked with abundant milk, butter and cheese. Remember also the various versions of pizzoccheri, essentially a dish made of strips of buckwheat flour pasta cooked with Savoy cabbage and dressed, in a warmed terracotta bowl, with grated and sliced cheeses and sprinkled with melted butter flavoured with garlic.
Sciatt are also made with buckwheat flour. These are cheese fritters which are fried in lard (today in restaurants oil is preferred) and also chisciöi, or fritters covered in melted cheese, and crespelle (crepes). In the various versions of taiadìn, white flour is used, as in pìpi, which are long gnocchi cooked with potatoes. There are many kinds of these dishes dressed with abundant cheese and butter, whether it be gnocchi, pasta or polenta. Aside from tagliatelle ai funghi (tagliatelle in mushroom sauce), remember that this same pasta is cooked with various vegetables such as Savoy cabbage, potatoes, broccoli raab, onions, pumpkin and beans in a simple but tasty process that marks the rhythm of the seasons.
There is also a place in the typical local cooking for pork, from which wonderful sausage products are made. All of the pig is used, from the blood to the skin, ears, snout, tail and bones, from which urgiada or dumega or orzada are made. These are barley soups that in the past only wealthy farmers could afford, farmers who could afford to raise and butcher pigs. They are made from all the scraps of the pig, put into a big pot, and on the very day of the slaughter this soup was offered to friends and neighbours. The left over soup was saved in vats and was eaten for twenty or more days, boiling it again day after day.
Today this dish in its original version is no longer served due to changed economic conditions. This type of dish includes panigada, whose name comes from panico, that is millet that was freed from its shell by children who crushed it under their naked feet or else wearing shoes with well-scrubbed soles, in the attic where it had been spread on the floor once dried. Panigada was a soup of millet cooked in water with the addition of dried chestnuts. At the end of the cooking time the millet was cooked for a few more minutes in milk.
Even if less commonly present among these dishes, we must remember rice, which is prepared both with Savoy cabbage and beans, and with revertis, a tender wild hop green which grows naturally and which is gathered in the hedges in April or the beginning of May.
These are the main specialities of Valtellina which appear in a cuisine characterised by dairy products and ancient flavours jealously preserved together with a certain frugality, result of a particular attachment to their own history and an actual defence against excessive external influences.
In these last years, a number of points of farm-holiday relief have taken form, also devoted to organic agriculture. In a land where the raising and cultivation of vegetables and fruits has always been a source of sustenance and an important economic activity, farm holidays have not proven to be a fleeting fashion. It is a tangible sign of the growing appreciation for and of the unchanged quality of the local gastronomic and typical products.