Behind the Scenes column: The rebirth of a mountain hamlet
Ryan Summerlin July 29, 2013
Editor’s note: This is the second part in a two-part series. Visit www.vaildaily.com to read the first installment.
Our Sunday adventure to the high pastures of Castelmagno with Barolo winemaker, Chiara Boschis, took an exciting turn. Literally. The narrow, winding road to Colletto lay behind. Ahead, the unpaved road to Valliera lacked barriers and the flimsy barriers balanced on thin patches of earth between the Colletto road and oblivion hadn’t reassured me.
Taking the metaphorical high road is often fraught with perils. The real ones can be risky, too. The steep gravel road with sharp turns and switchbacks was just that, risky. I trusted Chiara with her dogged determination and experience with the road, but my fear of heights plagued me.
Although I sat in the front passenger seat, I thought perhaps the back of the pickup may have suited me better, preferably under a blanket with my eyes squeezed shut. The lovely view ahead through the thick forest captivated us, but it was the absence of any road to my right and the sheer drop down the tree-lined mountainside that opened the door for fear to creep in.
“Don’t look,” I kept telling myself. Unfortunately, the plunging landscape mesmerized me. Chiara tried reassuring us that we weren’t really high up. Given the valley floor was 1,500 feet below, down the near vertical mountainside, I found no solace in her words. The chicken in me would not rest.
Finally, we were out of the forest. Valliera appeared above like the Emerald City. As we parked in a clearing above Valliera, I released my death grip on the door handle and took my first easy breath since we left the valley floor.
Beneath us in the distance, we could see tiny Colletto far below. Through breaks in the forest, I could see the steep road we traveled. Chiara jumped out and quickly set up an aperativo of Italy’s holy trinity – bread, cheese and wine. The scrumptious late morning snack consisted of two loaves of crispy baguettes from the frowning lady’s shop, soft, flaky Castelmagno cheese and a bottle of Chiara’s own exquisite Dolcetto. It was one of the best tailgate parties I’ve experienced.
Torino’s Siren Song
For centuries, the inhabitants of these high mountain hamlets tended their cows, sheep, goats and gardens in the summer and, with the animals, retreated indoors when the snows arrived. They made good use of the long, solitary winters. While barricaded in the hamlet until the spring thaw, they whiled away the hours repairing tools and making furniture. It wasn’t an easy life.
In the 1950s and ’60s, the lure of jobs at Fiat and promises of the good life prompted mountain dwellers to abandon their villages and head for Piemonte’s capital, Torino. People simply took what little they needed, left the rest and fled their harsh life. Valliera, like other hamlets in the Castelmagno commune, was abandoned.
For five decades, the abandoned hamlet endured Mother Nature’s high country winter wrath on its own. When the members of the Des Martin consortium arrived, the hamlet, though decaying, was mountain life frozen in time. Clothes still hung in closets. Plates lay on tables. Mattresses were on beds. Chiara likens it to the Gold Rush when people abandoned lives they knew for promises of riches in a different world. They simply vanished.
For an hour, we explored the buildings before arriving at Des Martin’s renovated buildings – modern on the inside, rustic on the outside – that housed the consortium’s living and cheese production quarters. Cheesemaker Ilaria Tomatis was busy draining forms of wet cheese. We popped our heads into the two refrigerated rooms where 5-kilogram blocks of precious alpeggio cheese were aging. The short, five-month season yields 500 forms of Castelmagno. Obviously, much more is needed for economic viability. However, for now, the owners are content with saving the hamlet and starting up the operation.
By 1 p.m., Chiara ended her intriguing guided tour of the Des Martin project. It was lunchtime!
Finding refuge at the table
Huts of all sorts dot the high mountain landscape throughout the Alps. In Italy, rifugi alpini (Alpine shelters) provide resting spots for trekkers across the mountains. Rifugio Valliera provided us a place to sit and enjoy a typical Occitania lunch al fresco.
At the long picnic table, we joined Flavia Arneodo, manager of the Rifugio, Tomatis, Flavia’s father Piero, workers and Des Martin’s cow herder. It was a feast!
As with every Italian meal, antipasti were set out on wooden boards – frittata, lardo, and salami with the obligatory grissini. Travel in Piemonte is not a time to watch your cholesterol. Besides, this was fresh food free of chemicals. Small pitchers of house Dolcetto were set out, but Chiara produced another bottle from her cellar – Barbera d’Alba. What can I say about her wines other than each one, even those from the humblest grapes, is stellar?
First course was salsiccia with fresh tomato sauce over polenta, the starch of choice for meat in Piemonte. On the table were plates of Gorgonzola and creamy, fresh butter to add to the dish, as though additions were needed. What the heck? Cheese is one of my favorite food sins so I happily sinned on the region’s famous soft blue cheese.
Flavia then offered gnocchi with fonduta. This was an epicurean no-brainer. Despite having gorged myself on salsiccia, a meal in Castelmagno is incomplete without the most typical of dishes – gnocchi with a silky sauce of melted Casltemagno. It’s really a splendid dish that, despite what you may think, is not heavy. It was as though we’d come upon the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.
Dessert of crostada and panna cotta perfectly punctuated the meal. Cost of this feast? A whopping $15 per person. Just the view and the delightful ambience of sharing a meal with the locals were worth far more.
It was now time to say our good-byes and head down the road. The wine had done nothing to assuage my fears, so my husband Dani and Marie Therese Van Riel joined me for the steep hike down to Colletto. Chiara tried, but failed to convince Marie Therese’s husband, Willy, to drive the truck down so she could walk. Hiking gave me a chance to safely view the steep drop from the narrow road. Just as scary walking as driving.
Marie Therese perfectly stated the experience of visiting Valliera with Chiara and those dedicated to preserving this cultural gem, “It was an exclusive experience money could not buy.” Chiara mentioned we were probably the last to see the buildings as they were left decades ago. Renovation will continue all summer during which time the ghostly remains of clothes, furniture and bedding will be removed.
The high road we had taken lead us back to Chiara’s cellar. Sipping her beautiful wines while she wove stories about their production was the perfect finish to an intriguing day.
Chiara and her brother, who is director of Des Martin, Cesare Boschis possess an infectious passion for the project. Their vision is for Des Martin to have both cheesemaking and lodging facilities, making it an agriturismo experience connecting old with new. I can’t wait to check in, but I think I’ll walk up next time.
Suzanne Hoffman is a freelance writer specializing in food, wine and travel. Her blogs are www.suziknowsbest.com and www.winefamilies.com. Email comments about this story to email@example.com.