Aosta Valley

The Cooking

The ancient menùs which may be traced in the archives belong to a gastronomy of the higher classes and not reflect the habits of the people which was tied to vegetables, to cabbage particularly, of rye bread, and to chestnuts, and, in measure, to milk, to the hunt and farmyard animals of which the less well-off were reserved the parts not saleable, and so amongst these widely spread were the Seras, the last products of the long production from milk.
The cooking of the rich has always been indeed very varied, having taken elements from different peoples. From those of the Romans and those French and also Swiss (enough to think about the famous fondue, a first course based on fontina cheese and eggs) there are many influences on the cooking of Valle d'Aosta tied to the history of this land which is interlaced with the great innovations represented by the introduction of spices caused by commercial traffic which flowered during the Middle Ages.
The innovations represented by the spices was an important change to the taste of the food and gave it a wider range of flavours that substituted for, in many ways, the use of salt which in that period was very expensive and not easily found. Spices and salt, two elements then indispensible for the preservation of food.
Talking about salt, in the past centuries this consituted a great problem in the Valle d'Aosta. They were small and few the zones in which it was possible to obtain salt, and so it was a product that the people of the Valle had to purchase. But the tax on the salt introduced after the second half of the 1500's by the Savoia, forced the inhabitants to take the road of the alpine hills to buy this in Switzerland, above all in the area of Lake Geneva.That tax forced the people to become smugglers: to have the salt they took into Switzerland butter and cheese. This barter continued until recent times, but tobacco and chocolate took the place of salt.
The Roman legions that settled in the territory of the Valle d'Aosta brought their culinary traditions tied mostly to hunting and the use of barley in soups; during the Roman period there sprang up also the introduction to the cultivation of the vines and viticulture, seen that from ancient times the Romans knew wine «nectar of the gods». And so in the medieval castles wine was abundant and accompanied dishes of a custom coming from beyond the Alps, such as trout from the streams which were fried in butter with added aromatic herbs or were consumed soused, preserved for months in vinegar in special containers: or like the snails that, had to be purged, were cooked in a pan with butter and herbs, and also mushrooms which were cooked on the embers of a fire and judged eatable thanks to other cultures, seen that the population of the valley observed well the consumers, having ignored these perhaps for arcane fears tied to the
poisonous types.
The soups - that the population prepared with rye bread and seasonal vegetables - on the table of the lords were enriched with meat broth, cheese and butter; preserved from the Roman period until our days, the most famous is the «sueppa y plat» and the «seuppa vapeullenèntse»: this last has its origins from the probable place of the recipe, which is the Valpelline. It has as its ingredients meat broth in which is cooked white bread and fontina cheese, with melted butter added and savoy cabbage. It seems that it was the cabbage that distinguished it from the «seuppa y plat» which does not have it; there were a great variety of soups tied to the different vegetables and also to the different seasons; some were also a type of pie of cereals, rye, oats and barley.
Having always lived off their own produce the people of Valle d'Aosta learnt to consume vegetables and from this comes other variations of vegetable soups between that which has a base of cabbage is the most frequent, given that it lends itself well to cultivation even in steep terrain and could be preserved for a long time.
In more remote times there was in use a bread which was distinguished in white bread or black bread (of rye or of wheat, a bread which today is called wholemeal). The white bread was a true delicacy, it was eaten only at banquets on the occasion of festivals and was eaten straight away. The black bread however was prepared once a year involving the entire community: the women kneaded and the men were occupied with the wood-burning ovens of the town. The cooking was followed with scrupulous attention and when the bread was taken out of the oven there was a great feast. Once dried in an appropriate place, it became very hard and to cut it there was used a «copapàn», a type of iron knife that is still found today in craft shops. This bread was then softened by putting it for a few minutes into the vegetable soup, milk or, in the lack of either, water.
A characteristic bread is the «millasse», made with yeast; think of a dry pancake and it was traditionally eaten with the «salignum», a white, fresh cheese, mixed with pepper, hot peppers, cumin and salt.
Bread was made also with the flour from chestnuts and was called «pane dei poveri», remade in the centuries when there were periods of famine and also during the last World War. The chestnut has always been much used in the cooking of the Valle d'Aosta, due to their abundance and their trifling cost; in the lean periods they were used even in sausages or were dried and preserved and used from time to time, for example, to make a soup.
The discovery of America (1492) brought to Europe in the course of the year 1500, sweetcorn and potatoes; But in the Valle d'Aosta the «pasticcio di mais» which was polenta was introduced into the food only in 1700, whereas the potato was utlized only in the century afterwards because hindered by the, even though, illuminated doctor Grappein di Cogne who founded a society of mutual aid based on the richness of the mines: he did not recommend the use of these tubers - he maintained - had the terrible property of absorbing from the earth whatever poison which could «infect» man. But at the end the potato won its battle against this belief and became well established in Valle d'Aosta as it has an advantage of being able to be cooked in different ways and could substitute bread.
Meat for a long time, certainly until the end of the 1700's, was a rare food which was eaten, above all, in the winter months, when the climatic conditions favoured its preservation; most of those animals who had come to the end of their productive cycle. The time for the butchering was at the eve of the Christmas feasts. The pig and cows were butchered to obtain salami, sausages, lard, hams and «boudin», a unique black pudding made from pig's blood, lard and potatoes which may be substituted with beetroot. The butchering days were festival days in which there were also prepared the boiled meats pickled in salt and the lard of Arnad flavoured with rosemary, bay leaf, garlic and salt preserved in special containers.
Straight after the butchering, and still today in the countryside, the tables are laid as for a banquet with products impossible to preserve, as for example the «pasticci» made from the interior «nobili» of the pig. Let us remember also the «teuteun», dried meat of udders of cow placed in salt and flavoured with herbs.
Land of breeding livestock and the production of milk, the Valle d'Aosta from the Middle Ages was famous for its cheeses,cited in the feudal archives of the 13th century and afterwards mentioned in the Summa Lacticinorum of 1477. Between the most famous is certainly the Fontina of whose name appears in 1717 in the register of expenses for the Hospice of the Gran San Bernardo. It is a cheese on which is based the famous fondue, a first course which is prepared with Fontina and with added egg yolk, flour and milk, a mixture into which is immersed pieces of toasted bread (more often white than black).
By tradition uncooked ham was always prepared in the valley of Gran San Bernardo, above all at Bosses, at the shelter of the boundary between Switzerland, at Etroubles and at Saint-Oyen through the woods of firs, but today also famous is that of Saint-Marcel. Remembering also that product of the valley of Lys, where until the high Middle Ages, was a settlement of German Walser who crossed the alpine passes in search of new land. Still today the valley of Lys is the only land where the population has preserved traditions and language of German origins: an industrious people, the Walser in fact are masters of sheep-farming, of commerce, turism and architecture, established in the valley around Monte Rosa, at Swiss Cervino and Austrian Voralberg. Their community in the Valle d'Aosta is divided into three towns on the torrent of Lys: Issime and the two Gressoney, Saint-Jean and La Trinité, whereas the other four communities of the valley which rise from Pont-Saint-Martin (where still lives the legend of San Martino that mocked the devil offering him the soul of the first living thing which passed through in exchange for his vanishing from that place...passed a dog...; and where every year at the end of February this tradition is renewed with the bonfire of a puppet of the devil hanging at the centre of the arch of the bridge) until Monte Rose there is a language French-Provenzale such as the rest of the Valle d'Aosta.
In this valley the ham is smoked hung by a nail from the beams above the hearth; game is also special and prepared in «civet», cooked in red wine and flavoured with many herbs and spices.
In the economy of the countryside - in which was eaten and in many parts still eaten - only that which was produced, even nuts were a precious fruit that the people knew how to use to the best, above all to produce nut oil that still today is a much asked for and a tasty condiment.
Also in this vein, to sweeten, there was used honey, as beekeeping was widely spread until the Middle Ages; honey was a great part of the tradition here. Poured onto chestnuts and boiled forming the most simple of desserts; but honey was used in many preparations from which let us remember the «resen», a jelly derived from wild pears, uneatable raw because the pulp was nearly completely dry. At Christmas there are still made by some bakers the famous «flautse», large biscuits in the form of animals which at one time were sprinkled with honey but today with sugar.
The rigours of the winter called for a traditional drink, the vin brulé alla gressonara; a cooked wine with cubes of black bread, butter, sugar, cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg and pressed through a strainer; or the genepi, a characteristic liqueur produced from a small plant called "Artemisia spicata". The herb is left to wither with other herbs, infused in alcohol and left to age for at least a year and a half.
A drink that also has digestive powers is the caffè alla valdostana, a boiling mixture composed of caffè, grappa, red wine (or cognac all'arancia), lemon peel and spices. It is served in the grolla also called the coppa dell'amicizia, a special container of carved wood strengthened with spouts, from which the people drink all together in respect to the tradition according to which «he who drinks alone chokes».
But the products of Valle d'Aosta cooking are many and varied, very tasty preserved for centuries with slight modifications due to the improvement of the socio-economic conditions; food characterized by ancient local products from which is included the Fontina, lard, veal, chestnuts and polenta which today is prepared «fat», or rather enriched with butter and cheese.