Editor’s note: This is the first installment of a two-part series.
Last March, I met Barolo winemaker and nature lover Chiara Boschis. She told me the intriguing story of the Des Martin ethical project in Castelmagno, high in western Piemonte’s mountains. In 2007, Chiara and nine others, including her brother, Cesare Boschis, embarked on a mission to procure and renovate a portion of Valliera, an abandoned hamlet in the commune. Their goal: resurrect the high mountain hamlet to preserve a dying cheese-making tradition.
The project is the embodiment of Chiara’s passionate dedication to honoring nature and preserving tradition. Her enthusiasm for the project and my love of the cheese prompted me to ask her to guide my husband, Dani, and me for a firsthand experience when we returned in June. Chiara promised to do so. Chiara makes no empty promises.
Not really a day of rest
Three months of persistent rain and cold nights stymied Piemonte’s vines in the early growing season. However, two weeks of warm sunshine in early June coaxed shoots to reach for the sky and begin their summer grape-making chore. Developing vines demand attention, and already Boschis had her own chores in the vineyards. Nevertheless, she willingly dedicated her Sunday to guide us on a unique mountain adventure few visitors — or locals — have enjoyed.
It certainly wasn’t a “day off” for Chiara. Truth is, I’m not certain if such a thing exists for her. She volunteered to drive for the two-hour ride to Valliera. As I discovered later, her pickup was more suited to reach the high mountain hamlet than our low-to-the-ground rental car.
Chiara’s longtime Belgian friends, Willy and Marie Therese Van Riel, joined us at her winery in Barolo early that morning. For the past 17 years, the Van Riels have returned to Piemonte at least twice a year. This was their first trip into the Occitane valleys that lie along Italy’s western, alpine border. Together, we piled into the pickup like excited kids on a field trip.
Piemonte consists of three geographically distinct areas — mountains, plains and hills. Our drive west at Chiara’s leisurely pace — unusual for a Piemontese under the age of 80 — took us through all three. First, we drove along winding roads through rolling hills in the southern reaches of Barolo. The lush, green canopies were in stark contrast to the barren vines of winter and spring, and vibrant gold and yellow leaves of autumn I’m used to seeing.
Soon, the hills were behind us as we reached the flatland between the Langhe and mountains. Here, instead of grapevines, the earth nourishes crops such as fruits, particularly apples and kiwis, vegetables and Cuneo’s famous climbing beans. Chiara gave us a lesson in all of the crops, the increasing climate change issues, particularly hail, and the history of the region’s many frescoed churches and chapels. This really was a school field trip! Like sponges, we absorbed Chiara’s wisdom and knowledge.
Once the province’s capital Cuneo was behind us, the geography once again changed as we began our climb into the Valle Grana. Our first stop was the 15th century chapel of S. Sebastiano in Monterosso Grana.
Earlier, as we drove across the plain, Chiara pointed out churches and chapels that house frescoes painted by 15th century artists who traveled from town to town. The wealthy House of Savoy ruled the region from the 11th century until the end of the Italian monarchy in June 1946. The noble family commissioned artists from Italy, France and beyond creating what today is a fresco museum of sorts spread across Piemonte. The chapel of S. Sebastiano is one of those hidden-in-plain-sight gems.
Located steps away from the busy road, adjacent to a cemetery, the chapel’s nondescript exterior belies the art treasure that adorns its ceiling. Only a simple sign on a tilting post provided hints of the chapel’s significance.
Pietro da Saluzzo was one of the prolific traveling Renaissance artists. We peeked through the large viewing window cut into the exterior wall and marveled at his incredibly detailed and well-preserved fresco, described by some as “remarkable and witty.” It was a bit surrealistic viewing this five century-old painting while standing beside a road, with cows grazing nearby. This is what I love about Italy. Not all its treasures are locked away in traditional museums. Had Chiara not stopped there, my ignorance of Piemonte’s Renaissance fresco painters would still exist.
The field trip continued as we piled back into the truck and continued our drive along the Grana River. Chiara was now on a mission. Next stop, a small bakery where sought-after baguettes are baked daily.
Two baguettes and a smile
This bakery — sorry, didn’t get the name — is legendary for its crusty baguettes, an unusual bread in Italy, no doubt a result of the French influence in the valley under the Savoys. Buying one, however, is challenging. As we approached, people leaving the shop clutched their treasured baguettes and glanced sideways as though suspicious we would snatch their bread.
Chiara was not only determined to buy baguettes for a late morning snack at our destination, but to coax a smile from the old, rather grumpy woman who ran the shop. Smiling is something Chiara has mastered. Her throaty laugh combined with her broad smile that easily spreads across her face could make anyone grin. Except this woman.
Chiara pleaded with her to sell us two baguettes. It wasn’t an easy task since the day’s allotment of this caviar of bread was dwindling fast. I couldn’t quite understand the exchange between Chiara and the guardian of the bread, but whatever she said worked.
Delicious, crispy bread with a somewhat salty crust deserves something very special to go with it. Since we were in the land of one of the most revered cheeses in Italy, Castelmagno was a no-brainer choice.
As we climbed back into the truck, Chiara offered a loaf to us to try. It was still warm. Had we turned around and driven back to Barolo, the drive for the bread and cheese would have been worth it. However, waiting up the valley were more delights to tickle our senses.
Walk, don’t drive
In late autumn 2008, Dani and I explored Castelmagno’s villages. Therefore, when we began climbing the excruciatingly narrow and steep road to Colletto, the tight 180-degree switchbacks didn’t worry me. Well, at first that is.
The truck’s tight turning radius and difficult gearbox weren’t suited for the road. Chiara had to turn, shift gears, roll backward, shift and turn again to navigate the tight switchbacks. Remember, I told you the road’s steep. Little did I know, this was child’s play compared to what awaited us between Colletto and Valliera.
As we reached the tiny, cliff-side village of Colletto, I breathed a sigh of relief. My easy breathing and lowering heart rate lasted all of 10 seconds. We began the final climb up the rocky, even narrower and steeper road — if that was possible — through the forest to Valliera. Cows and herders walk this road twice a year. Now we were driving it. I vowed to walk down, if we made it up.
Check back next week to read part two of this story.