Classic Italian Dishes: Valtellina Valley in Lombardy

My journey of discovering the classic Italian dishes starts in Lombardy (a Northern region of Italy), inspired by the words of Mario Soldati (Italian writer, film director and passionate foodie):

Traveling is getting to know places, people, countries. And what is the simplest, elementary way to travel? It is to eat, of course, to practice the cuisine of a country where one travels. Because, if you think about it, in cooking there is everything: there is the nature of the place, the climate, agriculture, pastoralism, hunting, fishing… and in the ways of cooking there are people’s traditions, the history, the culture of this people…”

(From the documentary “Journey into the Po Valley, in search of genuine foods”. Possibly one of the first ever made Italian food and wine tv documentary, aired on Rai TV, between 1957 and 1958).

Traditionally a rich region, you can visit Lombardy for lots of reasons, be it for tourism, fashion or business.
From lakes to mountains, from the countryside to art cities, there is no shortage of opportunities for recreation and entertainment in the name of sport, well-being, culture and food, of course.

As per Italian custom, the recipes are jealously guarded and handed down from generation to generation; it’s likely that there are as many recipes as there are people who pass them down.
Truth to be told, the way of cooking across the Italian peninsula it varies from town to town, (or rather from landing to landing), yet with some common elements.

The story behind most of the Italian recipes tells of “cucina povera“. Literally “poor cooking” it refers to a frugal/rural/peasant type of cuisine, where all dishes are somehow linked to local events, customs, rituals, ingredients & products.
The idea behind the recipes it’s similar in most of them, a quick and easy solution to whatever ingredient were at hand: working with leftovers (if any), foraged vegetables or herbs, and dairy by-products (cheeses were normally sold). Meats, fish and eggs where an exception, sometimes prepared on Sundays, deserving the central spot in our celebratory feasts and holiday dishes.

Lombardy Staple Food

Polenta, Classic Italian Dishes in Lombardy photo: eva elijas pexels

In Lombardy there are three main staple foods – also PAT certified traditional type of grains (prodotti agroalimentari tradizionali certificati aka PAT) – and all naturally gluten-free:

  1. buckwheat from Valtellina (a valley enclosed in the Northeastern regional Alps). Locally called “nustran” – its flour is called “furmentùn” – tipically produced in the town of Teglio (Sondrio province).
  2. Corn (or maize) produced in the provinces of Bergamo, Lecco and Cremona, with its typical polenta flours; and
  3. rice, that finds its cradle in Pavia, Lodi and Mantua areas.

My recipes wish list

Choosing was tough, so many recipes, all tempting and awesome. These are the result of those one that I’d like to taste at least once in my life.

In an alphabetical order that goes from z to a, I begin with

  • Valtellina (Sondrio and its county), where many specialties are based on buckwheat and its flour. There are the Sciatt, Ravioli with Bresaola, Manfrigole, Chisciöi, and Pizzoccheri (which I’ve already had the opportunity to enjoy).
  • Following is the town of Parre in Valcamonica (Bergamo) with its Scarpinocc;
  • the Pumpkin Tortelli from Mantua;
  • the Nettle Ravioli from Luino (Varese);
  • the Maltagliati with Mascarpone from Lodi;
  • the Agnolotto from Canneto Pavese (Pavia);
  • the Tortelli from Crema; the Marubini from Cremona;
  • the Casoncelli from Brescia and Bergamo.

Valtellina Classic Dishes

A a large and sunny valley located in the Northern part of Lombardy, within the town of Sondrio and its county, it lays between the Rhaetian Alps, the Orobie mountains, on the border with Switzerland (Grisons District), until the Lake Como.

Known for its high altitude vineyards (we go up to 995 meters above the sea level), cheeses, cider and landscapes of rare beauty; if you enjoy skiing, winter sports in general, long walks, trekking, hiking and climbing, and then indulge in relaxing and restorative thermal baths, the Valtellina is your destination.

“My Italian grandmothers taught me to cook, but more importantly, they showed me that food is the most basic way to spread love and to care for others. I suppose that I’ve been brainwashed.” (Ed Garrubbo)

Without any further delay I wish you a happy reading.

Sciatt (Aperitif and Starter; Vegetarian)

The Sciatt are an irregularly shaped buckwheat flour-based fritter which, once in frying fat (originally lard), swells into a rounded shape, with a kind of tiny tail. They are crunchy on the outside, with a generous and melting heart made of local cheese: usually the Valtellina Casera or Bitto.

A Valtellinese specialty originally from the town of Teglio, the name means “frog” in the local dialect. Some say it’s due to the shape that the batter takes in cooking or to the fact that when frying they jump.

The flour combination vary between buckwheat flour to white flour from 50/50 to 70/50. It could be also 100% buckwheat, finely ground.

The liquid elements range from sparkling water, grappa, brandy, beer or red wine.

Originally served in the morning, at breakfast time, with a glass of fresh milk, they can also be a delightful appetizer, served with a green chicory-radicchio salad… However, you can eat them at any time of the day.

Wine pairing:

They pair well with the freshness of a Terrazze Retiche di Sondrio (white vinification); or with a 100% Nebbiolo such as Valtellina Superiore Sassella. And, if you used wine to prepare the dough, it could paired with the same one.

Gluten Free Tips:

You could use buckwheat flour only, preferably finely ground, but the resulting dough would be difficult to handle. I’d suggest starting with a light batter made of one part of buckwheat flour to one made of rice flour and potato starch (or corn starch), obviously the recipe is to be tested.

If you use beer, it must necessarily be gluten-free.

Ravioli “Valtellinesi” (First Course; Vegetarian)

The pizzoccheri (*) changes shape to enclose the typical flavors of its valley in a rustic pasta dough made with buckwheat flour.

It is a basic dough – the ingredients are those indicated by a local code made by the Academy of Pizzocchero located in Teglio municipality: water and flour – 4 parts of buckwheat to 1 part of white flour.

The filling is made of potatoes, cabbage, Casera cheese. Topped with butter and sage, and a sprinkle of grana cheese.

(*) Pizzoccheri are a kind of short-n-flat noodles prepared with buckwheat flour and served with cabbage, potatoes, butter and cheese, usually Casera.

Wine pairing:

They happily pair with the local “alpine wine”: 100% Nebbiolo such as Rosso di Valtellina. For those who prefer a more structure wine, there is the Sfursat (Sforzato). A full-bodied red, that you could happily sip with no substantial food – in Italy we called it “meditation wines” (vini da meditazione). Made from selected grapes, left to dry for about three months in special lofts, before pressing.

Gluten Free Tips:

Use the buckwheat flour finely ground and replace the white flour part with a mix for fresh pasta, et voilà!

Buckwheat, Classic Italian Dishes in Lombardy (Valtellina) photo: eva elijas pexels

Manfrigole (Starter and Main Course)

Manfrigole (or Manfrigoli) are typical crêpes (a thin pancakes made without baking powder) of the upper Valtellina. They are also made with buckwheat and wheat flour.

Once ready they’re filled with a stuffing made of cheese, bresaola, stale bread softened in milk (often it was rye bread), or other typical ingredients of the area; then rolled and cut into two or three cylinders (depending on the size of your crêpe).

Next placed in a baking dish, dressed with cubes of Casera cheese, few curls of butter and baked in a hot oven for au gratin finishing: 3 to 5 more minutes, until cheese is melted, with a deep golden bubbly touch.

Exuberant appetizer, or a single dish perfect for colder days, it’s really substantial. Should be enjoyed hot from the oven.

Wine pairing:

They happily pair with local reds like a Valtellina Superiore and its subzones:

  • a Grumello (austere and velvety at the same time); or
  • a Sassella (an elegant red with a vigorous structure); or
  • a Valgella (smooth and lightly tannic).

Gluten Free Tips:

Replace the wheat flour with a gluten-free mix for fresh pasta and the stale bread with a gluten-free one (or crackers).

Polenta Taragna and Its Variations (Main Course; Vegetarian)

A typical nutritious and satisfying dish, particularly on colder days, (it’s also prepared in Brescia county and Bergamo valleys). At its base is the “black flour” polenta (100% buckwheat), to which some yellow corn flour is added.

Topped with butter – added gradually during cooking – and cheese (Casera, Bitto, Fontina, Ribelle, Taleggio, Branzi, Formai del Mut all locally made), combined toward the end of cooking, (the creaming phase). Excellent as a single dish, it can be paired with locally cured cold cuts, mushrooms, or meat or game.

The name “taragna” derives from “tarai”, the stick used to turn the polenta to prevent it from sticking while cooking.

Polenta in fiur

Usually made of 100% buckwheat flour, cream (or double cream) replaces the water in the preparation of this polenta. Any of the cheeses listed above are to be added just before removing the pot from the heat.

Polenta Cròpa

Typical of the Arigna Valley, an area located in the middle of the Valtellina Orobie Alps, polenta cròpa is a variation of polenta in fiur (buckwheat flour with some corn one). Its peculiarity is the addition of mashed potatoes during cooking.

Polenta Taragna from Valchiavenna

Valchiavenna is an alpine valley north of Lake Como and part of Valtellina. Their polenta is made from equal parts of wheat, corn and buckwheat flour, cooked in salted water and well seasoned with butter and cheeses such as Bitto or Magnuca.

Wine pairing

Enjoy it with a local red, 100% Nebbiolo, blessed with elegance and great drinkability. Or a Valtellina Superiore, a Grumello would be very nice indeed, with its brilliant ruby red color, almost garnet, and its floral and citrusy notes.

Gluten Free Tips:

The wheat flour in the polenta from Valchiavenna can be easily replaced by a gluten free flour mix for fresh pasta.

Other classics from the area:

  • Taroz – fluffy mashed potatoes combined with green beans, butter, onion and the typical Casera cheese are added.
  • The Slinzega, a type of cured meat very a similar to Bresaola: both are cold cuts made of salt cured beef.
  • Bisciola – a round loaf of sweet bread filled with raisins and dried fruit, with a consistency similar to panettone.
  • Taneda – an amaro (bitter) made from a local type of yarrow leaves. This liqueur is famous for its digestive properties and is usually served at the end of a meal.
  • Brolio – a digestif bitter made from medicinal herbs, fruits, roots and berries that were collected on the slopes of the Braulio valley (at least originally). The recipe is still secret, only four ingredients are known: yarrow, assenzio (wormwood), juniper berries and gentian roots.

Watching Italians eat (especially men, I have to say) is a form of tourism the books don’t tell you about. They close their eyes, raise their eyebrows into accent marks, and make sounds of acute appreciation.” (Barbara Kingsolver)

To be continued…