Nestled below the highest peaks of the Alps is the Valle d’Aosta, Italy’s smallest region and the only one that is officially bilingual Italian and French. That detail is so important because the culinary panorama of the region combines its franco-italian history with its mountain landscape.
Valle d’Aosta is a historic thoroughfare of culture. Named Valley of Augustus for none other than Rome’s favourite emperor, Augustus took advantage of its mountain passes to dominate the Celts and established Augusta Prætoria Salassorum (modern-day Aosta). In the centuries to follow, that pass was strategic for emperors, kings, and popes from all over Europe, as well as Napoleon, whose French forces intermittently governed the area until Italian Unification. Though we’ve just touched on its millennial history, Valle d’Aosta and its mountain location sum up the culinary fare of Valle d’Aosta – hearty cuisine that can withstand extreme weather and overbearing emperors.
Cheese of Valle d’Aosta
O dio, o dairy. Valle d’Aosta is known for its milk and cheese thanks to the Alpine cows at free range pasture. Aostans love their cows and their traditions including the territory’s official pastimes is La Battaille des Reines, the Battle of the Queens, an annual cow fighting (more like posturing) tournament. It’s the high altitudes, practically untouched pastures and hundreds of aromatic forest herbs that make the region’s prized DOP (Protected Denomination of Origin) cheeses like Fontina and Toma the very best.
Fontina is prized for its soft and subtle taste, and faithful adherence to rules and regulations that keep the cheese protected and unique. The semi-cooked cheese is made with whole milk “from a single milking”. Yep, only one time. The cheese is repeatedly salted and matured for up to four months in warehouses, which traditionally are tunnels and caves dug into rock. Fontina is the gift that keeps on giving, leading to many of the region’s typical dishes.
Toma means “wheel of cheese made by the farmer”, and it is in fact an entire series of Alpine cheeses that can be raw or partially cooked. (The most sought-after are from Gressoney in the Lys Valley, Brusson and Valgrisenche.) Again, cylindrical, the ivory-ecru toma is salty in taste, soft and excellent for melting.
We’d be remiss if we didn’t mention a Valle d’Aosta cheesy contender. Réblèque is another delicious fresh cow’s milk cheese. It is very fatty, as it is taken from the processing of only the surfacing cream, which makes it the perfect dessert cheese, often garnished with sugar and cinnamon.
Six typical dishes of Valle d’Aosta
Don’t expect pastas. Polentas, fondutas, smoked meats and more, Valle d’Aosta cuisine is meant for the mountains, hard hikes and long nights, which all go down great with a shot of Valdostana grappa and even ratafia (a locally-made sweet liqueur of the colour, taste and aroma of Amarena cherries). Here are six quintessential dishes from Valle d’Aosta.
Civet di camoscio – a stew of marinated, chopped mountain deer, herbs and vegetables.
Costolette alla valdostana – a hearty favourite are Valdostan cutlets of panbaked breaded veal, ham and fontina.
Fonduta – the most famous of dish of the valley is is fondue, melted fontina cheese with cubes of hard bread to dip.
Polenta concia – layers of polenta and fontina baked in an oven.
Seupa à la Vapelenentse – a “soup” by name only, the seupa is solid layers of stale bread, Fontina and cabbage simmered in beef stock.
Café à la cogneintze – a community ritual served in a terracotta grolla, cafe a la cogneintze is hot coffee, grappa, red wine, sugar and lemon peel, shared by everyone at the table.