It was bitter cold when Paolo Volpara picked my husband and I up at the Milan airport to begin our late evening journey to Valle D’Aosta. Prior to this my Italian travels had been confined to its big cities. This was my first “regional” experience – the beginning of an Italian odyssey that would last some 30 years.
Several hours of highway driving later we stopped at a cozy lodge just south of Aosta, the region’s capital. It was time for a nightcap so Paolo ordered Valdostana coffee, a delicious blend of coffee and liqueur. Traditionally served in a rustic, gnarly vessel, these friendship pots, called grolla, are iconic symbols of the region. Hand carved from one block of wood then cured for two days submerged in butter, they contain anywhere from 2 to 24 spouts depending on the size of the wood block.
Caffe alla Valdostana recipes differ but all agree that espresso and grappa (in varying proportions) are two key ingredients. This version included sugar and a small amount of Aurum, a liqueur made from rum, tea and tangerines. Other recipes call for Fernet or Genepy, both herbal, medicinal-tasting liqueurs. Whatever the concoction, the mixture is heated before pouring it into the grolla. The alcohol is flambéed- usually at the table – and after a minute or two the lid is placed on top to extinguish the flame.
Our particular grolla had four spouts. Paolo took the first drink then passed it to me. I love coffee but being caffeine sensitive, I rarely drink any after my morning two-cup allotment. Even decaf. But this was an exception. A complete pushover for ritual, I fell in love with the region at first sip. The sugar and tangerine liqueur rounded out the deep, complicated taste of the espresso and completely masked the grappa, which to me has a harsh jet-fuel kind of bite– even the refined versions. It is definitely an acquired taste- one that I have never acquired. However, up to this point, I had not been introduced to grappa and knew nothing of its power.
I was not only enjoying this harmonious custom but the coffee drink itself. Valley tradition dictates that those who drink from the same grolla will be forever united in eternal friendship. There were also rules. Very specific ones decreeing that the grolla not be placed back on the table until totally empty and that it be passed in a clockwise circle. The first rule we followed. The second, to my eventual demise, we didn’t.
My husband took the next sip. Rather than passing the grolla to Paolo completing our small circle, he passed it back to me -Paolo, Nancy, Bob, Nancy, Paolo, Nancy- until the last drop. Because we unconsciously revised rule number two, I consumed twice as much as my two “friendship” partners.
The caffeine seemed to balance the effect of the alcohol at least in the beginning of the evening. I was having a fantastic time with minimal side effects. Or so I thought until I went to bed. The pounding of my heart from the caffeine competed with the pounding in my head from the liquor. Nothing seemed to prevent the moon-washed walls of my room from spinning wildly out of control. Sounds of the night, which included a snoozing husband, only added to the already intense jam session going on in my head. Even a stint sitting on the cold tiled bathroom floor didn’t help.
I am a headache person. I have been a headache person from the time I was a teenager. I get headaches even without introducing liquor into the equation. Alcohol quite easily takes its toll on me so I most definitely think twice before I have a third glass of wine. Often two is too many. Because I am cautious, I rarely have a hangover. But when I do, taking two aspirin and feeling fine in two hours doesn’t work for me.
As soon as dawn approached, I quietly slipped out of the room in search of a good espresso. Reluctant as I was to have another “coffee-go-round”, caffeine usually takes the edge off and I was determined I would not let anything affect my weekend.
Surrounded by high mountains, Monte Bianco, the Matterhorn and Monte Rosa to the north and the Gran Paradiso to the south, Valle d’Aosta’s landscape is one of breathtaking proportions. The quiet serenity of its luscious, secluded green valleys and rippling streams contrasts greatly with the majestic, rugged mountain peaks present from every view. I was reminded of the fairytale picture books of my childhood where princesses skipped beside bubbling brooks while beautiful black and white smiling cows grazed in rich, green pastures peacefully surrounded by snow capped grayish blue mountains
To the French this area appears very Italian. To the Italians it appears French. And to some it looks Swiss. There is a strong Swiss influence especially in the Swiss-style architecture of the chalets dotted across the mountaintops, but for the most part the people remain tied to the French language and customs yet maintain an Italian style all their own. It is a bi-lingual region. Street signs are French and Italian and almost all place names and local surnames are French in origin.
The cooking of Valle d’Aosta is typical mountain cooking – rustic and somewhat heavy featuring many a strongly flavored dish. But because there are numerous popular ski resorts in Valle d’Aosta, which draw from all over Europe, it has also developed a unique cuisine often using the area’s ancient recipes but giving them an international flair.
There are three basic elements to the region’s cooking. One is its use of country style dark bread made from hard wheat flour. Another is its outstanding Fontina Valle d’Aosta cheese. Fontina takes it name from Mount Fontin near Aosta. It has a nutty flavor and a smooth texture excellent for both cooking and eating. It is the main ingredient in the regions version of fondue, called fonduta. Although there are many Fontina pretenders, the real Fontina Valle d’Aosta is the best – considered one of the world’s great cheeses.
The third element is the ever-present stockpot filled with broth, simmering on the stove ready to be used as the base of the region’s many soups. Valle d’Aosta soups are most often very thick, more recognizable as stews.
We had lunch in a small intimate wood paneled restaurant in Aosta sitting near a toasty warm wood-burning fireplace. There was no menu but the waiter informed us of the day’s special – a vegetable soup, which he maintained, was a meal in itself. We ordered a plate of speck (a smoked cured ham) and a bottle of Donnaz; one of the region’s red wines and anticipated our main dish – its rich and savory fragrance permeating the restaurant. The waiter was correct. It was indeed hearty and contained all the main ingredients of the region – dark bread, Fontina cheese and ample vegetables.
Whenever I make this dish – usually on a wintry Sunday – it conjures up images of the mountains and valleys of Valle d’Aosta.
2 tablespoon butter
2 ounces pancetta (1/3 cup) diced
1 bay leaf
1 teaspoon fresh thyme
2 tablespoons chopped fresh basil
3 cups onion, peeled, sliced in half then thinly sliced into half moon slices
1 teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon fresh ground pepper
1 cup diced tomatoes
7 cups beef broth
2 cups diced carrots (1/4 inch dice)
2 cups cubed zucchini (1/4 inch dice)
1 ½ cups diced potatoes (1/4 inch dice)
6 slices dark rye bread (1/2 inch slice) toasted
6 ounces Fontina cheese sliced into 6 slices
1/3 cup fresh grated Parmesan cheese
Melt the butter in a soup pot. Add the pancetta and sauté over medium-high for 2 minutes until pancetta is browned. Turn the heat to medium-low, add the bay leaf, thyme and basil and stir into the mixture. Add the onions and wilt, covered for approximately 10 minutes stirring occasionally. Uncover and cook for another 10 minutes caramelizing the onions somewhat. Sprinkle with salt and pepper.
Add the tomatoes and carrots and raise the heat to medium. Add the broth. and simmer uncovered for about 15 minutes. Add the zucchini and potatoes and simmer for another 10 minutes.
Pre-heat the broiler or the oven to 250 degrees. Divide the soup among 6 ovenproof bowls. Top each with a slice of toasted dark rye, and a slice of Fontina cheese and 1 tablespoon of grated Parmesan cheese. Place under the broiler until the cheese melts, or bake until the cheese has melted and the soup is bubbly.
Land is used to its fullest in this mostly mountainous region. Vineyards crawl up the lower slopes in terraced rows of twisting vines. Not much of the minimal production makes it outside the area so we wanted to make sure we tasted as many local wines as possible during our limited stay. In the summer cows graze on steep-sided rich green pastures producing excellent milk and other high-energy-yielding food products including butter and a whole assortment of sweet and savory cheeses. The mountains – especially the upper reaches – house many wild and rare animals some who meet their demise when coming face to face with the skilled hunters of Valle d’Aosta. Occasionally a wild boar stew or an ibex cooked in Barolo can be found on a restaurant menu but for the most part, these dishes are exclusive to home cooking and enjoyed by the hunter, his family and friends.
Lettuce is grown just below the snow line, thus its name “snow lettuce”. And potatoes are a popular staple, unlike in other parts of Italy where potatoes are no more than an afterthought. Delicious honey and great chestnuts are also produced here.
We chose to stay in the valley the next day for a relaxed afternoon exploring the small towns surrounding Aosta. We drove along the riverbanks and vineyards where the soil is a mixture of sand and clay. It was warm for this time of year so we decided to buy a few local products and picnic near a crisp bubbling stream just at the base of the one the vineyards. Dark bread, two cheeses – a Fontina with white truffles and a Toma – a delicate, creamy and somewhat salty cheese – plus several local salamis and a bottle of local Pinot Gris were all the ingredients needed for a perfect winter repast.
Our last day was spent in Courmayeur one of the most popular ski resorts in Europe. This 200-year-old Mecca is nestled at the base of Monte Bianco stunningly situated in the middle of a dozen other peaks. We enjoyed Sunday lunch at Maison de Filippo sitting outside in a courtyard patio surrounded by snow-covered grey stonewalls. In spite of the season, we were quite cozy in our light winter jackets. Maison de Filippo, filled with antiques and other interesting artifacts, is a colorful tavern combining rustic chic with sophisticated elegance. Paolo said it is almost always packed with skiers, locals and people like us who were willing to make the journey for the food, the scenery and the beautiful people watching.
After the hearty dishes I enjoyed in the valley I was hoping for something light. Country-style regional dishes dominated the menu so I asked the waiter if he could recommend something less robust. He suggested trout cooked in a light wine sauce with toasted almonds. It was so beautiful and fresh it tasted as if it had just jumped from one of the area’s numerous fresh mountain streams onto my plate. It was accompanied with succulent brussels sprouts sautéed with speck and onions.
Brussels Sprouts with Speck & Onions
Serves 4 – 6
1 pound brussels sprouts
¼ pound speck or prosciutto, cut into matchsticks about 1 inch long x ¼ inch wide
1 medium-sized onion, cut in half then sliced in thin half-moon slices
4 tablespoons olive oil
3 tablespoons butter
Freshly ground pepper
Remove any ragged or old looking leaves. Steam the brussels sprouts for 3 minutes or until tender. Place the sprouts in a bowl of ice water to keep their bright green color.
Heat 2 tablespoons of the olive oil and 1 of the butter in a medium skillet over medium heat. Add the speck matchsticks and brown adjusting the flame to high if needed. Brown the speck until crispy approximately 5 – 8 minutes. Remove and set aside.
Add 1 more tablespoon of the oil to the skillet. Add the onions, turn heat to medium and cook until onions turn a rich, brown color approximately 15 minutes. Stir occasionally making sure onions are not burning.
When the onions are caramelized, drain the Brussels sprouts and cut them in half. Add 2 more tablespoons of the butter to the pan. Melt the butter over medium heat; add the brussels sprouts and the crispy speck. And stir all together. Increase the heat from medium to high and cook for several minutes. Add a pinch of nutmeg and salt and pepper to taste. Do not overcook. Overcooked brussels sprouts turn bitter.
Even though Courmayeur hosts a very international crowd, its customs and traditions reflect those of the region. Just as in the valley, gnarly grolla pots promising eternal friendship were in evidence throughout the tavern. Anticipating our long drive down the mountain, Paolo skipped the fortified coffee and concluded his meal with a cup of plain old regular espresso. A throbbing headache still too recent in my memory, I happily followed his lead. But the idea of the grolla pot and Valle d’Aosta’s signature coffee lingered. Surely, I thought, if these restaurant patrons, a variety of nationalities, types and ages, were enamored of this ritual – or at least appeared to be – my future clientele (the residents of Chicago’s northern suburbs) would be equally enthralled.
Before leaving the village I purchased two pots from a local craftsman. Months later Paolo would arrange with that same craftsman to ship a large quantity of grolla to Convito.
Still months away from opening my market, I returned home to finalize plans. During one of Paolo’s visits to Chicago, my good friend Sheila organized a dinner party in his honor. I decided this would be the perfect “grolla-pot-moment” – a lovely way for me to contribute to the meal as well as to share my newly discovered Valle d’Aosta custom. We arrived at the party with grolla and coffee ingredients prepared to test the waters.
Near the end of the meal, Paolo withdrew to the kitchen to prepare the coffee. Tall and handsome, Paolo is an imposing figure. Like many Italians he is very adept at storytelling – gestures and all. He arrived back at the table with flaming grolla in hand relating the story of Valdostana coffee. Completely charmed, everyone enthusiastically agreed to participate in what Paolo described as the “path to eternal friendship”.
There was some reluctance to drink from the same pot – especially the same spout – but that hesitance quickly disappeared after the ceremony began. (I am not sure that reluctance would disappear in today’s world). The grolla is not the most efficient of drinking vessels since it is carved from a thick block of wood making it difficult to determine the temperature of the coffee inside, so frequently participants burned their lips and tongues on first sip. Nor is it leak proof. By the time the last drop was drunk, Sheila’s beautiful lace tablecloth was spotted with dark brown sticky stains. Grolla calamities also extended to the kitchen. Later I learned that the stove and countertops were saturated with espresso and liquor and granules of sugar covered the floor in front of the stove.
The question of whether suburban Chicagoans would actually purchase a grolla pot and conduct this ceremony in their own homes – a potentially messy one – was not answered that evening. Nor was I convinced that the hilarious conclusion to our meal had anything whatsoever to do with the true meaning of this Valle d’Aosta tradition.
A large shipping crate arrived at Convito just in time for the holidays. I unpacked each pot, tucked a coffee recipe inside, and arranged them next to an assortment of beautifully packaged panettone, Milan’s famous Christmas bread. The holidays came and went. So did the panettone. But the grolla pots remained; their little wooden crevices and spouts eventually collecting dust. A few were purchased I think. And a few I gave away.
But as I began writing about my regional Italian experiences, seeing and touching an actual grolla pot – so much a part of my Valle d’Aosta weekend – became an obsession. Where were the unsold grolla? I sorted through box after box of discarded memories. Nothing. Finally concluding that mine (I must have kept at least one) had been misplaced or lost during the many moves of a messy divorce, I turned my attention to friends and relatives who might possibly have tucked one away in a basement or closet. Several phone calls later I located two – one functioning as a planter in my friend Sheila’s kitchen (ironically the very room of the “Chicago-grolla-experiment”) and the other in a dark corner of my sister Karen’s attic.
All the customs, traditions and rituals I observed or participated in during my years of total Italian immersion are too numerous to count. But the ritual in Aosta was my first. Thirty years later, I can still feel the magic. It brings me back to beginnings. To uncluttered enthusiasm. To possibilities. I was on the precipice of learning about a country I so came to love absorbing the kinds of tastes, sights and culture that would inject a kind of authenticity into the Italian business Paolo and I would soon launch.
Selling grolla pots was not a Convito success story. Totally suited for the mountains and valleys of Valle d’Aosta this ancient grolla ceremony would never have translated to the suburbs of Chicago. That fact became abundantly clear. But some thirty years later the grolla custom I participated in that giddy night in Aosta, the deep and complicated taste of the coffee, even my throbbing headache marks a beginning for me. It was the beginning of an adventure that carried me to the four corners of Italy and every region in-between. It was also the beginning of another kind of journey – a personal one that opened up possibilities I never considered or knew existed. It was a heady time for a girl brought up in the fifties.
Caffe alla Valdostana
6 cups of espresso
½ cup grappa (can substitute vodka)
½ cup Aurum (can substitute Grand Marnier)
¼ cup fernet (a type of amara, a bitter aromatic spirit)
1 orange peel strip
1 lemon peel strip
6 teaspoons sugar
Prepare the coffee. Pour it into a medium saucepan. Add the liquor, orange & lemon peel and sugar. Heat the mixture. When mixture is about to boil, flame it. Pour into individual coffee cups and serve.
Or if for some reason you have a grolla pot in your cupboard, pour the coffee mixture into the grolla pot, then flame it, replace the lid to extinguish the flame and begin the ritual.
Note about grolla pots: purists never wash their grolla pots – just rub them clean with a damp cloth.
The grolla is arguable the strongest visual image of Valle d’Aosta. Its origins are a mixture of religious and communal traditions.