I haven’t settled back into my cooking routine yet, mostly because my fridge hasn’t seen a real shopping since before the holidays. Since we got back I have used up pretty much every boring leftover I could in the freezer (so why is it still so full?), I have started opening jars of expired Laksa paste and used my last bag of dried beans. I can’t wait to fill the kitchen with fresh fruit, vegetables and herbs and start cooking up some recipes for 2012.
What I did do is some eating out on the aforementioned holidays, so if you ever happen to be in my corner of the world here are a few tips for where to get a good meal.
We had more than one lovely meal with family and good friends in this charming restaurant tucked away in Madesimo (Valchiavenna) called Dogana Vegia. The owner Dario and his lovely wife Brita and daughter Nadine make each and every meal a cozy and pleasant experience. The dishes served are traditional mountain recipes, but with a little twist: a touch of ginger here, an unexpected cut of meat there (braised buffalo meat to die for...unfortunately the picture I took in the dark was out of focus so you'll have got to take my word for it). This may not be haute cuisine, but quality is a guarantee and you go there for the unique ambience and hospitality as much as for the food.
The building, what remained of a 17th century custom house (thus its name, literally the Old Custom House) and inn for travellers, was painstakingly restored by the family over the years. Walking through the rooms brings you back to a time long gone. Dario used antique lumber sourced throughout Italy for the refurbishment and covered the whitewashed and wood panelled walls with works of art, old farming tools and everyday utensils that helped people survive in the mountains over the centuries. The light comes from a fire crackling in the hearth, fairy lights and candles on every table (a much appreciated touch often lacking in Italian restaurants).
|Part of the abundant house antipasto: porcini mushrooms preserved in olive oil|
The music, mostly a mix of favorite Italian oldies from the Fifties and Sixties, is not exactly folkloristic but more an indication of this place’s second nature, a pub in the late hours. You will often catch your host walking to or from the kitchen whenever a cow bell rings, singing a tune. While you pay the bill (about €45 per person for a meal complete with wine a-plenty and a homebaked dessert) you might get lucky: Dario generously offered us a round of homemade blueberry grappa (divine) both times to face the harsh winter cold that awaited us outside.
|The local pizzoccheri bianchi with mountain cheese, butter and garlic|
|Kid goat with polenta|
|Cervo in salmì: venison stewed in aromatic wine sauce (apparently one of the best F has ever had)|
Nadine is lovely with children and made us feel extremely welcome, but for those of you who don’t have kids, no worries, it is certainly not your typical family restaurant. We went for an early dinner and back for lunch the next time, so as to allow people to enjoy the peaceful, romantic atmosphere without disturbance.
|Grolla or caffé alla fiamma|
Before we knew we would be drinking grappa to top it off, we ordered a grolla for my family to taste, a tradition of this area of the Alps consisting in coffee mixed with grappa that comes in an artisanal wooden decorated cup with as many spouts as the people drinking it. It is lit and brought to the table, where you then proceed to spoon the liquid over the sugar on the rim to sweeten it. The longer you let it burn, the less alcoholic it becomes, naturally. When you are ready to drink, you just close the hole with the spoon to kill the flame.
Last but not least, if you are going for lunch I strongly recommend you walk along the river to get there, immersed in a breathtaking winter (or spring/summer/fall) wonderland. It is a good 20/30 minute walk from town and a little uphill (but hey, downhill on the way back!), however I promise you will be glad you did it after the butter and cheese and polenta.
Another great meal awaits you in a restaurant with a similar name in the town of Madesimo, Osteria Vegia. This place was already a favorite of the poet Carducci who used to sit in one of the rooms to enjoy a cup of wine and a game of cards at the end of the 19th century. The place has kept its authentic low ceilings, wood finishings and small windows and doorways. It is a nice, quaint little place for an Italian-style hot chocolate or a bombardino (a warm, strong egg-based liquer) after a day of skiing or hiking but also probably the best place in town for its pizzoccheri. Wait, let me rephrase that: the pizzoccheri neri (from the nearby Valtellina, not to be confused with the less famous pizzoccheri bianchi made in this valley, Valchiavenna, photographed above) I had there are the best I have ever had anywhere. So if you go, my suggestion is to order a nice plate of bresaola (dried, cured beef also typical of Valtellina, but well loved all over Italy) to start, a piping hot, cheesy, garlicy plate of pizzocheri afterwards, and if you are still hungry a nice plate of grilled meat to end. And then you will love me and hate me at the same time, hehe.
|Pizzoccheri neri: handmade buckwheat pasta with crispy garlic (yes, those brown chips), cabbage, butter and mountain cheese. Don't you just love those plates?|
Have a great week end my friends!