Valle D’Aosta (or The Other Side of the Mountain)

Yesterday was such a treat for me. I really feel that I need to remember absolutely everything about the day, lest my mind does something terrible with the memories, such as accidentally throwing them in the recycling bin of forgetfulness. So here they are, possibly already not in the right order and a bit fuzzy around the edges…

Earlier on in the week, my other Swiss-living half had arranged to meet up with an Italian friend, Giulia, whom he hadn’t seen in the last twelve years. She has a house in Valle D’Aosta, only a couple of hours’ drive away, and they had agreed that we would come for lunch (“just pasta”) and an afternoon walk, which would give the two of them a chance to catch up.

We met at a tiny car park in a village a few minutes away from her house, since she expected it would be somewhat tricky for us to find. Of course, she was quite right. The house was a further ten minutes away, which involved a sharp left off the main road up a steep track, and then another left turn down a small hill. Oh, and a few minutes walk down a winding path from there.

The views when we arrived were spectacular. Sitting on the bench at the front of the house, we kept marvelling about how different the terrain, scenery and even temperature were from our own, despite only being ‘round the corner’ in mountain terms. We could have sat there and gawped all day.

But after a while, lunch got started. “Just pasta” had already become, “just pasta and sausage”, which Giulia’s boyfriend had had to queue for at the local butcher’s for over half an hour. (I know what you’re thinking: that butcher must make good sausages!)

To begin, there was the pasta, which was penne in a tomato and aubergine sauce, with a sprinkling of, “…you like this? I don’t know in English: pepperoncino?” followed by a plate of cured meats, cheese and bread. There was wild boar salami (cinghiale), wild boar salami with potato in it (which had a wonderful, soft texture), lardo (cured fat) with rosemary, prosciutto and local cheese. All, of course, were delicious.

While we ate this, we drank water and red wine and the long, curling sausage sizzled away in a grill pan on the woodburning stove next to us. When it was ready, it was cut into four and served with spinach. Again, everything was so delicious in its simplicity. I can tell you, I was openly grinning as I ate.

As stove-top coffee was being made, we noticed that a box was being unwrapped at the same time. (Further grins from me.) The coffee was brought to the table along with the box and inside it nestled sixteen little pastry balls, each topped with something sweet, creamy or nutty. These were filled with custard: plain, chocolate or nut; and, by golly, they were good.

After having eaten just one too many pasticcini (and knowing it), we decided that a walk was in order. Earlier on, I had expressed my fear that the Swiss blackberry season would be over now that we’d had our first snow (that’s right, at the beginning of October!), so Giulia had offered me a box to pick some on our walk.

We picked a few as we began to walk and then abandoned the bushes on a promise that there would be a better patch on the way back. As we walked uphill through a forest, Giulia and her boyfriend kept their eyes peeled for mushrooms. She explained that they had looked a couple of days earlier, but due to the lack of rain for about the last three weeks, they had found nothing of worth. Today, however, they were in luck, since we spotted three “sticks you use to beat the drum” mushrooms. I don’t know what variety these drumstick mushrooms were, but Giulia explained that you ate the head only and not the stalk, and that she would cook them for dinner that evening in oil and garlic. It sounded good to me.

Further up the path, I spotted some rosehips and asked whether, in Italy, these would be made into jam (which I have a hankering to try this year). Giulia said that they could be made into drinks and in particular, there was liqueur which was popular, although she wasn’t sure of the name. She also pulled up a plant and exposed the root, explaining that it was liquorice, which she said could be dried and then chewed.

Thoroughly enjoying my lesson in foraging, we continued to walk up to an old fort, strategically placed on top of the hill, with 360 degree views of the entire valley and surrounding mountains. Our host pointed out other forts down in the valley and towers across at the opposite side, which, when the forts were in use in (I think) the 1400s, would send signals back and forth, if invaders were seen approaching.

On the way back down from the fort, we discovered quite a number of yellow mushrooms. Giulia explained that, although the variety would be fine to eat, on this occasion they were far too dry to taste any good. So we left them to wrinkle and continued on down to the blackberry patch.

And what a teaming patch it was for the time of year! We all got prickled and stained while picking, but managed to actually fill the vast box I had been carrying, much to my delight. We even found a few fallen walnuts in their blackened outer shells, and as a reward, we smashed them with rocks and ate them. These were the freshest walnuts I had ever eaten and were far less bitter than the out-of-a-packet variety I was used to. Wonderful. And as we began to realise that a chill had pervaded the air, I pocketed a few more before setting off back to the house.

We reached the path leading down to the house and Giulia mused about whether we could reach any of the apples, perched high in the overhanging trees. Sadly, most apples had been picked two weeks earlier, so there weren’t a lot left, and those that were still clinging to branches were just too high for us. Nevertheless, we found a couple of fallen ones which seemed to be in good condition and I began to have familiar, greedy thoughts of cobbler, crumble and pie possibilities.

Lost in gluttony, I failed to realise that we had deviated from the path and had ended up in a patch of land beneath some wide-branched trees. They were fig trees! These fruits too were added to my increasing bounty (only after the quality had been tested by Giulia, who squashed one in half and gnawed at the insides, before proclaiming it fine), along with small bunches of uva fragola: strawberry grapes.

We nearly reached the house, but before we did, we were shown Giulia’s own garden. “I have enough rosemary here for a hundred people! Do you want some?” Stalks and stalks with tiny purple flowers were tucked in next to my fruits, along with a great, fragrant clump of sage. I felt impossibly happy. It was like a free shopping trip at the most generous grocery shop in the world.

Another stove-top espresso set us up for the journey home and after saying our goodbyes, off we trundled, back to our own side of the mountain.

So today, I am making plans for what’s left of my free goodies. My two apples have already gone, as have a few walnuts, but they made a perfect supper salad for my not-so-hungry tummy last night. My grapes are also a little depleted, since they topped off my breakfast a treat this morning. But I think the remaining walnuts will feature in a topping for tonight’s pumpkin soup: crumbled and heated in some garlic and rosemary oil, before being drizzled over the soup’s surface. (Possibly along with some feta too.)

The blackberries, however, may need a little more thought…

I’d like to think a few might make it into a sweet breakfast foccacia one day this week, but most will possibly end up as a topping for a blackberry and apple tart. I have some stewed apple that’s been sitting in the freezer just waiting for some blackberries to get all juicy with, so this may be the perfect opportunity. I’ll let you know how they get on.

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