The Aosta Valley is a mountainous area in northwestern Italy. It is bordered by the Rhône-Alpes in France to the west and Switzerland to the north. it is the smallest, least populous and least densely populated region of Italy. It is the only Italian region that no longer has any provinces. The province of Aosta was dissolved in 1945. However, the region is divided into 74 comuni (communes) and Italian and French are the official languages. The population density of Aosta Valley is by far the lowest of all the Italian regions.
The region is very cold in the winter, especially when compared with other places in the Western Alps. This is probably due to the mountains blocking the mild winds from the Atlantic Ocean. Places on the same altitude in France or western Switzerland are not as cold as the Aosta Valley. In this climate the snow season is very long, as long as 8 or 9 months at the highest points. During the summer, mist occurs almost every day. These areas are the wettest in the western Alps. Temperatures are low, between −7 °C (19 °F) and −3 °C (27 °F) in January and in July between 10 °C (50 °F) and 13 °C (55 °F).
The first inhabitants of the Aosta Valley were Celts. Rome conquered the area around 25 BC to secure the strategic mountain passes, and they went on to build bridges and roads through the mountains.
The Aosta Valley remained agricultural until the construction of hydroelectric dams that brought the metalworking industry to the region. Agriculture has become increasingly specialized, retaining only a small output of cereals, potatoes and fruit. Animal feed crops supply the region’s dairy herds which are pastured in the high Alps during the summer period.
The region’s cheeses are renowned throughout the world. Fontina cheese has been made in the Aosta Valley, in the Alps since the 12th century. It has a milk fat content around 45% and can be identified by a Consorzio (Consortium) stamp of the Matterhorn including the label, “FONTINA”.
As with many other varieties, the name “Fontina” is also known as “Fontinella”, “Fontal” and “Fontella”. Although the version from Aosta Valley is the only original and the most famous, a derivative production occurs in other parts of Italy, as well as Denmark, Sweden, Quebec, France, Argentina and the United States. The original Fontina cheese from Aosta Valley is fairly pungent and has an intense flavor. The Swedish and Danish versions are often found in US grocery stores and can be distinguished from Aostan Fontina by their red wax rind (also prevalent in Argentine Fontina).
Aostan Fontina has a natural rind due to aging, which is usually tan to orange-brown. It is noted for its earthy and woody taste and it pairs well with roast meats and truffles. Its rich and creamy flavor gets nuttier with aging. The interior of the cheese is pale cream in color and riddled with holes known as “eyes”. Fontina produced in the Aosta Valley must be made from unpasteurized milk from a single milking, with two batches being made per day. Young Fontina has a softer texture (and can be suitable for fondue or for a table cheese board). Fonduta alla valdostana (in Italian) or Fondue à la valdôtaine (in French) is a traditional dish of Fontina whipped with milk, eggs and truffles. Mature Fontina is a hard cheese used for grating.
To make Fontina Cheese, cow’s milk is heated to 36 C (97 F.) Calf’s rennet is then added to curdle the milk. The milk is left to sit for 1 hour as is, then it is heated to 47 to 48 C (116 to 118 F) and left to sit for another two hours held at that temperature. This is why you’ll sometimes see this cheese called “semi-cooked” (or “semi-cotta”, drawing on the Italian phrase.)
The curd that forms is cut and drained in nets, then put into round molds for 12 hours. When the cheese is taken out of the molds, it is salted and, then, rested for two months in a cool place. At the end of two months, the cheese is taken to caves where it is aged for a further 3 months (The aging apparently still happens in caves or grottoes, on pine shelves.) During this period in the caves, the rind is washed with brine every other day and, on the alternating days, it is brushed to take away any mold that forms on it.
Wines of high quality are produced in small quantities in the Aosta Valley. All are entitled to the Denominazione di origine controllata (Valle d’Aosta DOC / Vallée d’Aoste DOC) label. The wine making region is generally divided into three areas. In the northwest, the Valdigne area south of the commune of Courmayeur is home to the highest elevated vineyards in Europe at 3,937 feet above sea level. The white grape Prié Blanc (also known as Blanc de Morgex) is the main production grape in the area and is used to produce the wine, Blanc de Morgex et de la Salle in both a still and sparkling wine style.
The Central Valley is the region’s most productive area and is further sub-divided into four areas: Enfer d’Arvier, Torrette, Nus and Chambave. The Enfer d’Arvier is a red wine producing area around the village of Arvier. The wines from this area are blends made primarily from the Petit Rouge grape with lesser amounts of Dolcetto, Gamay, Neyret, Pinot noir, and/or Vien de Nus. Previously Enfer d’Arvier had its own DOC designation but was subsequently incorporated into the Valle d’Aosta DOC.
White wines are made in this area from a Pinot Gris clone known as Malvoisie including a sweet passito straw wine.The red wines made here are composed of at least 60% Petit Rouge with some Dolcetto, Gamay and/or Pinot Noir. The white wines made here are from the Moscato Bianco grape. The Lower Valley is known primarily for two styles of wine: a medium-bodied dry red wine made from at least 70% Nebbiolo with some Dolcetto, Freisa, Neyret, Pinot Noir, and/or Vien de Nus and a wine made from at least 85% Nebbiolo with some Freisa, Neyret, Pinot Noir and Vien de Nus.
The cuisine of Aosta Valley is characterized by simplicity that includes “robust” ingredients, such as potatoes, polenta; cheese, meat and rye bread. Many of the dishes are made with Fontina cheese. It is found in dishes, such as the soup à la vâpeuleunèntse (Valpelline Soup). Other cheeses made in the region are Toma, Seras and Fromadzo (which have been produced locally since the 15th century and also have PDO statu).
Regional specialities are Motzetta (dried chamois meat, prepared like prosciutto), Vallée d’Aoste Lard d’Arnad (a cured and brined fatback product with PDO designation), Vallée d’Aoste Jambon de Bosses (a type of ham, likewise with the PDO designation) and a black bread. Notable dishes include Carbonnade, salt-cured beef cooked with onions and red wine and served with polenta; breaded veal cutlets called costolette; teuteuns, salt-cured cow’s udder that is cooked and sliced; and steak à la valdôtaine, a steak with croûtons, ham and melted cheese.
Grappa is an Italian brandy distilled from the fermented residue of grapes after they have been pressed in wine making.
For 4 people:
- 4 cups Italian brewed coffee
- 2 small glasses grappa
- Zest of one lemon zest
- 4 teaspoons sugar plus extra for the pot
Pour the coffee into a small saucepan. Add the grappa, half of the lemon peel and the 4 teaspoons of sugar.
Stir the mixture over the heat and bring to a low boil. Turn the heat off and remove the lemon zest.
Pour the coffee into the grolla pot or friendship cup having sweetened the openings or mouths of the cup with extra sugar. Then light the mixture with a match or lighter and you will see a blue flame. After a short time, put out the flame and add the remaining lemon zest. Drink from the grolla, together with the other diners passing the cup around.
If you don’t have a grolla or friendship cup, use a fondue set. Place the coffee ingredients in the fondue pot and bring it to a boil. Boil and light the liquid with a flame. Serve the coffee in individual cups sweetened with sugar.
Pasticcio di Penne alla Valdostana (Baked Penne Aosta Style)
- 1 lb mushrooms, cleaned and thinly sliced
- 1 whole garlic clove, peeled
- 4 tablespoons butter, plus extra for the baking dish
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 10 oz penne (about 2 1/2 cups dry pasta)
- 3 oz Italian Fontina cheese, thinly sliced
- 1/3 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
- 3/4 cup heavy cream or half and half
Saute’ the mushrooms with the whole garlic clove in 2 tablespoons of the butter over a high heat. Add salt and pepper, lower the heat and cook for 3 minutes. Discard the garlic.
Cook the pasta al dente according to package directions. Drain and dress with the remaining 2 tablespoons of butter.
Butter an ovenproof dish and cover the bottom with a layer of penne. Distribute about a quarter of the mushrooms and the sliced cheese evenly over the pasta and sprinkle with 1 tablespoon of Parmesan cheese. Add another layer of pasta and cover with mushrooms and cheese as before.
Repeat until you have used all the ingredients, finishing with a layer of sliced cheese. Pour the cream over the pasta layers, sprinkle with salt and pepper and bake, covered with foil, in a preheated oven at 400° F for 10 minutes.
Bake uncovered for a further 10 minutes, or until a light crust has formed on the top. Remove the pasta from oven and allow to rest for 5 minutes before serving.
Fontina-Stuffed Breaded Veal or Pork Chops (Costolette alla Valdostana)
- 4 veal or pork chops, bone in (1/2 inch thick)
- 1/4 pound Fontina from Val d’Aosta, rind removed, cut into 4 slices
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- 1/2 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
- 1 large egg, beaten
- 1 cup fresh breadcrumbs
- 5 tablespoons unsalted butter
Cut a horizontal slit in each chop, leaving the meat attached at the bone end. Open the two flaps of each chop and place 1 slice of Fontina over the bottom flap; lay the top flap over the cheese to close. Using a meat mallet, pound each chop gently to seal the pocket. Season both sides with the salt and pepper.
Place the flour on one plate, the beaten egg in another and the breadcrumbs on a third. Dredge the veal chops in the flour and shake off the excess; dip into the beaten egg, coating both sides well; finally, dip into the breadcrumbs, pressing on both sides to help them adhere.
Melt the butter in a 12-inch skillet over medium-high heat until foaming. Add the chops and cook until golden on both sides, turning once; it should take about 5 minutes per side. Serve hot.
Twisted Cookies from Val d’Aosta
Makes about 4 dozen cookies
- 1 cup warm water, about 110 F
- 2 ½ teaspoons active dry yeast
- 3 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
- ½ teaspoon salt
- 5 tablespoons unsalted butter, cold and cut into tablespoons
- About 2/3 cup granulated sugar for rolling out the cookies
Combine the water and yeast in a small bowl, stir to dissolve the yeast. Cover and set aside while you get the other ingredients ready..
In a food processor fitted with the steel blade, pulse the flour and salt a couple of times to mix. Add the butter and pulse until the butter is finely mixed in but the mixture is still powdery.
Add the yeast mixture all at once, and pulse until the ingredients form a ball.
Put the dough into a greased bowl, turning the dough over so that the top is greased as well. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and let the dough rise until it is doubled in bulk, about an hour.
After the dough has risen, press it down to deflate it. Chill for at least 1 hour and up to 24 hours.
Cover two large baking sheets with parchment paper or silicone mats. Set aside.
When you are ready to form the cookies, remove the dough from the refrigerator and press it into 8-inch square. Scatter some of the 2/3 cup of sugar on the work surface.
Cut the square of dough into eight 1-inch stripes, adding more sugar as needed to keep the dough from sticking. Cut each strip into 6 equal pieces, to make 48 pieces total.
Roll a piece of the dough on the sugared surface under the palms of your hands to make a pencil-thick strand about 5 inches long. Form a loop by crossing over the ends about 1 inch up from the ends of the dough.
As the cookies are formed, place them on the prepared pans, leaving about 1 ½ inches space around the cookies. Let the cookies stand at room temperature until they puff slightly, about 20 minutes.
Center an oven rack and preheat the oven to 325 F. Bake the cookies, in batches, until they are light and the sugar has caramelized to a light golden crust, about 25 minutes.
Turn the cookies from back to front after the first 15 minutes of baking. Cool the cookies on a rack. Store in an air-tight container at room temperature.