Winter in Northern Italy means bone-chilling humidity. The damp air seeps into our bones, making even the most virile young person feel achy, tired.
Though life goes on at top speed with school and work, Christmas preparations, and twinkling lights that attempt to shine through the fog, there’s little to do to escape the heavy cold but wear turtlenecks (that you wouldn’t have dreamed of wearing in America), make hot tea or snuggle even deeper in bed.
There is one other thing you can do, of course. You can eat!
Though spring has an abundance of vegetables after a long winter without and autumn the delicious harvest, no other season brings out Italy’s classic, most down-home meals better than winter.
When you think of different regions’ traditional dishes, they all feel so heavy. Made with carbs and cheese and oil and ancient, nervy cuts of meat (all mixed together, naturally), these are not your light summer snacks. These were dishes invented and made popular during a different time. A time when the only source of home heating was the animals’ body heat rising up through the cracks in the floor from the stalls below. A time when the energy from that hearty meal was necessary to get through another 11-hour day of physical labor; when it was not only normal but necessary to chug a bowl of polenta mixed with wine for breakfast. The polenta gave you sustenance; the wine, heat.
This is a real part of the history in Valtellina, a long narrow valley in northern Lombardy. Flanked on both sides by jagged blue peaks, Valtellina has long had its own unique heritage.
Up in the Alps the winter sky ranges from a heady gray with oppressive clouds, to a brilliant blue with ice crystals covering the fields. Dotted with ski towns and thermal baths, the Valtellinese know how to handle cold weather, and how to warm you up with a hearty meal!
There’s little as rewarding, and delicious, as a long winter’s night spent with friends at a long wooden table. Outside the peaks have darkened early, the sun doesn’t shine for long in the valley, and temperatures have plummeted. But inside there’s a roaring fire, ugly wool sweaters and enough wine to warm the grumpiest soul. The plates are passing!
Because it’s not enough to indulge in Valtellina’s delicious, ancient cuisine. You have to share it to truly appreciate it. It’s congenial. It’s down-home. There’s no place for putting on airs in the valley, only place for another seat at the table.
So pull up a chair and travel through Valtellina’s most delicious, stick-to-your-ribs traditional foods:
With more cows than people, Valtellina has incredible butter, milk and cured beef. Beyond that, the fields were once covered in buckwheat, the region’s autochthonous grain. Though most Americans won’t have much of an idea of what buckwheat is, this sturdy grain is the Valtellinese staff of life. Buckwheat flour adds a strong, hoppy flavor and a dark color and in Valtellina you can find it in three of their top dishes: Polenta Taragna, Sciatt and Pizzoccheri.
Sciatt (from the Valtellinese dialect) are simply balls of cheese, usually a local casera, covered in buckwheat flour and fried. These are like the grown-up version of shitty, soggy American mozzarella sticks. Crispy on the outside and gooey on the inside, they’re usually served over a bed of lettuce (as if that will lighten it up) in a restaurant or in a paper cone with a long toothpick at a festival), they need no dunking sauce.
Polenta taragna is used as a side dish just like normal polenta, only it’s made with buckwheat flour and mixed with a massive amount of cheese and butter. Some even claim to take the quantity of flour used and then add half the amount of butter and half the amount of cheese to it. In any case, it’s a delicious winter bomb that is insidiously filling.
Those of you who shun pasta for its carb calories should exit the page now; pizzoccheri aren’t interested in your diet. Short, rectangle buckwheat pasta tagliatelle are mixed with kale, oil, butter and cheese to create a creamy, gooey, pasta dish that you won’t soon forget. Head to Teglio in Valtellina to find ground zero for this famous dish, but I’d say that the entire region makes great pizzoccheri. Best when eaten in a farm-stay and/or after a long hike.
Another classic originating exclusively from Valtellina is bresaola, or cured beef deli meat. In Italy you can find cured pig in hundreds of forms: prosciutto, speck, salami, the list goes on. Bresaola is about your only option when it comes to beef. Sliced super thin, this blood-red meat is best served simply with a drizzle of oil and a spritz of lemon. A super lean, high in iron and nutritious meat, this is probably the only guilt-free item on the list.
In general, Valtellina has great cured meats of beef, deer and other game and horse. Before you wrinkle your nose at the last one, I suggest you try it. First of all, horse is a meat served throughout Italy, but the slinziga (horse bresaola, usually cured a bit longer than regular bresaola, I believe) is one of the most deeply flavorful cured meats out there, and found only in the many towns dotting this narrow valley strip.
Bitto and Casera Cheese
Though Valtellina is home to dozens of different local cheeses, the two most widely known and used is Bitto, a cheese made only in the summer after the cows have been moved to pasture high up in the mountains, it’s made with cow’s milk and a small addition of goat’s milk and kept for more than 10 years; and Casera, a slightly-skimmed traditional cheese made near Sondrio that is used in most of Valtellina’s buckwheat dishes.
Whatever dish you’re trying, in Valtellina it needs to be washed down with a native red. Valtellina has great DOCG (Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita – the highest controls and guarantees on the production) wines: Valgella, Inferno, Sassella Grumello, Maroggia or Sforzato. The latter is a highly valued and sought-after wine. I personally like Inferno, a strong red aptly named Hell.
Of course this brief list doesn’t even begin to touch Valtellina’s nuanced and traditional cuisine – it doesn’t include the abundance of chestnuts, the rich apples, the forests of porcini mushrooms – but it does touch on Valtellina’s most famous, and heartiest, meals. Perfect for a winter day!
Though our typical office jobs don’t allow for such calorie-laden dishes on a regular basis, everyone should try Italy’s most classic recipes at least once. After all, there’s nothing like these hearty dishes to warm you up this winter. The winter chill and extra layers of clothes only support your indulgence.