The Valtellina, unlike many other alpine regions, is not a place whose glory is immediately apparent. Nor does its sheer natural beauty shock or take one’s breath away. But it is well worth a visit. This valley reveals its majesty slowly and like an acquired taste delivers rich rewards for those travelers willing to invest some time. After many visits I have come to understand the profound beauty of this region and today it’s one of my favorite alpine haunts.
There is an array of exemplary raw ingredients produced in the valley and traveling here is a delight for the cook. You will find excellent DOP awarded cheeses like Bitto and Casera Valtellina, stone ground buckwheat flour, chestnuts, wild berries, mushrooms, polenta, apples, game, cured meats like Violino di Capra and Bresaola and freshwater fish. Beautiful grey stone pentole and bistecchiere are handcrafted from the local Pietra Ollare for cooking over a wood fire and it is easy to find authentic osterie where delicious local specialties can be sampled.
World Class Wines
We’ve all heard of Piedmont’s famous Barolo wine, made from the nebbiolo grape but few have heard of Lombardy’s best red wine made in the Valtellina from a local variety of the same grape called Chiavennasca. Here one finds vineyards densely planted on steep terraced slopes rising dramatically from the valley floor. Aristocratic families like the Conti Sertoli Salis produce precious wines principally in the province of Sondrio. There are several sub denominations including Sassella, Grumello, Inferno and Valgella. Most producers offer selections from several of these and their slopes are divided Burgundian style amongst the different winemaking families. The divisions are marked by Hollywood fashion signage vitners have erected over their plots visible as you drive up the valley. Most vineyards have southern exposures and are planted on the slopes lining the north side of the valley. Valtellina wines are dark and complex. Like Barolo they age well and like Barolo they are expensive. But you get what you pay for. Year after year the wines of the Valtellina score among Italy’s best.
The easiest access to the valley is from the northern tip of Lake Como where the Valtellina has a pedestrian, almost suburban approach after the wealth and splendor of Italy’s most famous lake. But things start to get interesting at Morbegno a beautiful old town and the heart of the area where Bitto cheese is made. From here the Adda river runs south and east of the Swiss border to Tirano. Ignoring the lure of the Bernina pass and St. Moritz it continues northeast to the mountain resort of Bormio. From there the road parts ways with the Adda leaving the region of Lombardy and the Valtellina behind for the Alto Adige or South Tyrol.
Cows are happy to graze on the south side of the valley where northern facing slopes are less hospitable to the vine. Its their milk that goes to make Bitto and Casera the excellent local cheeses. Casera is the usual choice for cooking and along with buckwheat flour turns up over and over in different regional dishes. Once buckwheat was a grain cultivated throughout the alpine region. It was not only nutritious and filling; it was resistant to altitude and the weather that went with it. Today there is very little of it grown locally. Rumor has it there is some still cultivated around Teglio and recently I found some growing in the neighboring Valposchiavo in Switzerland. It still forms an important staple in the local kitchen though and is used in all sorts of dishes including sciatt, polenta taragna, manfrigole as well as the famous pizzoccheri which I wrote about in Piano, Piano, Pieno.
If you go to the Valtellina the town of Tirano makes a good base. It is the last stop on the Italian train line from Milan and the starting point for the famous Bernina Express, the highest adhesion railway in Europe. This pretty red train snakes its way over the spectacular Bernina pass, a two hour journey from Tirano carrying hikers and day trippers to and from Chur and St. Moritz. The main road from the train station is lined with garish shops selling cheap souvenirs and neon lit bars and eateries advertising “Spaghetti Bolognese” and “Hawaiian Pizza” on sidewalk sandwich boards. Sadly this is as much of Tirano as many daytrippers see before boarding the Bernino Express back home. But crossing the footbridge across the Adda River into the old town a different Tirano awaits.
Tirano is a noble old city full of noble old palazzi built by noble old families. The most renowned is the palace of the Conti Sertoli Salis who today make some of the best wine in the region and whose family name adorned at least 2 other palaces in nearby towns which are also worth a visit. One was in Chiavenna and the other just across the border in the lovely Swiss mountain village of Soglio. The former houses an elegant restaurant and B&B; the latter a beautiful historic hotel in one of the most pristine alpine towns you are likely to find. The Conti Salis were once the most powerful family in this area and their splendid palazzo in heart of Tirano is still the family seat and it also houses their historic wine cellar.
From Tirano it is an easy trip into Switzerland to visit the beautiful Valposchiavo before heading across the Bernina pass to St. Moritz.
Here are a few pictures and scroll down for a recipe for pizzoccheri….
- 100 g buckwheat flour
- 75 g bread flour (with at least 13% protein content)
- 1/2 cup water
- 1 tsp extra virgin olive oil
- 1 small Savoy cabbage (about 1 lb)
- 2 medium potatoes, scrubbed and cut into 8 wedges
- 1 stick (1/2 cup) butter
- 1 large clove garlic, thinly sliced
- 3 to 5 large fresh sage leaves, stacked, rolled up and finely sliced into a chiffonade
- 1 1/2 cups grated cheese (Bitto, fontina or Gruyère)
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper
- Mix the pasta ingredients together and knead for 5 minutes until you have a firm dough. Cover and let rest for 30 minutes before rolling out the pasta with a pasta machine or a rolling pin.
- Cut into tagliatelle noodles about ⅓ inch wide, then cut each noodle crosswise into pieces 2 to 3 inches long.
- Before you start cooking, place a large serving bowl in a low oven to warm.
- Bring a large pot of salted water to a rolling boil.
- Wash the cabbage leaves and remove their tough inner ribs. Coarsely shred the cabbage. This is easily done by rolling the leaves up into a cigar shape and cutting them in 1/2-inch slices.
- If you have made the pasta yourself, add the potatoes to the boiling water and cook them for about 2 minutes after the water returns to a full boil.
- Add the pasta and the cabbage, let the water return to a boil and cook for another 3 minutes. (If you are using dried pasta, see the note below.)
- While the pasta cooks, melt the butter over moderately high heat and sauté the garlic for about 2 minutes—don’t let it color.
- Stir in the sage and remove from the heat.
- Drain the pasta and vegetables and turn into the serving bowl.
- Add the seasoned butter, stir well and then add the cheese.
- Stir. The cheese will melt into the hot pasta and vegetables.
- Season with salt and pepper and serve immediately.
- If you don’t want to make the pasta, look for dried pizzoccheri noodles in a specialty Italian grocer, or use plain dried pasta. Choose a wide noodle such as pappardelle or tagliatelle. You will need 3/4 lb.
- If you are using store-bought pasta, cook according to package directions. The potatoes need about 8 minutes to cook, the cabbage about 2, so add the pasta accordingly.