Valle d’Aosta (Aosta Valley) is a tiny alpine region in the northwest of Italy bordering France to the west, Switzerland to the north, and Piemonte to the south and east. There is great skiing here, beautiful castles dotting the landscape, thermal baths, funiculars to panoramic viewpoints including that of Monte Bianco (Mont Blanc), Monte Rosa, and fantastic hiking in the Gran Paradiso.
Due to the region’s geographic location and history there are strong French and Swiss influences here, which are reflected in the cooking. This has long been a border region that provided access to the other side of the Alps. Travellers coming through the valley and up into the mountain passes needed sustenance and lodging before continuing their journey through the Alps. That explains why the food here is hearty and warming. In the heat of summer some of the dishes may sound unappetising but I promise you after a long morning of skiing or mountain hiking, you will be more than ready for any of these foods.
What to See
The mountains and valleys of Valle d’Aosta are breathtaking and offer magnificent views and many little villages to explore. After all, these are some of Europe’s greatest mountains. From skiing the glaciers in the winter to hiking through Gran Paradiso National Park in the summer, this region is an outdoorsman’s dream come true. I particularly enjoy skiing in Courmayeur, Breuil-Cervinia, La Thuile, Gressoney la Trinitè, and Monte Rosa. Etroubles is a beautiful village where many artists reside and Fontina cheese is made.
Bring home Cogne honey, Toma de Gressoney cheese, Fontina DOP cheese, chestnuts, Génépy des Alpes liqueur, and Valle d’Aosta Jambon de Bosses DOP (prosciutto).
The cuisine focuses on a few mountain ingredients: lardo, butter, Fontina cheese, Toma cheese, cabbage, potatoes, beef, ham, game, polenta, bacon, sausage, honey, herbs, liqueurs, wine, chestnuts, apples, pears, and bread. This is an area in which animals graze the summer pastures freely, eating the wild grasses that give their milk and cheeses so much character and creaminess. Traditionally there were many alpine huts in Valle d’Aosta equipped with ham, cheese, and Génépy des Alpes (a herbal liqueur) for whoever was hiking or skiing and in need of sustenance.
Many ingredients are sourced from the wild, from various types of game to the assorted mushrooms, greens, nuts and berries that the locals know just where to find when the season’s right.
A typical Valle d’Aostan menu will start out with a mixed antipasto of cured meats: Jambon de Bosses ham (my favourite), bresaola (dried beef), mocetta (dried chamois, goat, or beef), salami, lardo, and cheeses (Toma is one of my favourites). See recipes here.
First courses often feature soups such as zuppa di valpelline (soup of cabbage, pane di segale (rye bread), and fontina cheese with meat broth), gnocchi alla Fontina (gnocchi with Fontina cheese), or minestra di riso, latte, e castagne (rice with milk and chestnuts).
Second courses may include steak or polenta with toppings such as mushrooms, sausages, veal stew, or cheese.
Desserts usually include chocolate or chestnut confections such as tegole (round flat hazelnut cookies) served with cogne (chocolate sauce). Pere Martin Sec al vino rosso (pears poached in red wine and spices) are another traditional ending to a meal. For recipes from Valle d’Aosta see here.
Wines from this region can be very good, and are unique, often are made of local native grape varieties that are special to these valleys. The wines include Petit Rouge, Enfer d’Arvier, Torrette, Gamay, and Donnaz. Try white wines such as Chardonnay by Les Crêtes or Petite Arvine or Müller-Thurgau by La Crotta di Vegneron. Red wines of interest are Torrette produced by Les Crêtes or Grosjean; Syrah produced by Institut Agricole Regional; or Fumin produced by Les Crêtes or La Crotta di Vegneron. An interesting local sweet wine, Flétri, produced by La Crotta di Vegneron should be sampled.
Meals can be finished with a small glass of génépy, grappa, or caffè valdostano (a mixture of coffee, lemon zest, orange zest, grappa, red wine, and sugar) served in a grolla (a hand carved wooden pot with many spouts to be shared). The grolla is also called the coppa dell’amicizia (the cup of friendship) and is served on fire with sugar around the rim. Once the fire has burnt out, the lid is put on and the cup is passed with each person drinking from a different spout.
The ideal way to enjoy leisurely meals like these is to share them with good friends in a small stone restaurant beside a roaring fire after a day spent outdoors.
More relevant articles:
- Skiing in Courmayeur
- The real reason I go skiing: the food of Valle d’Aosta
- The joy of alpine milk
- Arnad: The proud land of lard
What to Eat
A list of typical Valdostan dishes (Classic dishes are written in bold):
Pane nero / Pane di segale (rye bread)
Salumi (Cold Cuts)
Many of the salumi are named after their place of origin and have been made since ancient times.
Boudin (pork sausage with beet juice (formerly cow or pig’s blood was used), potato, lardo, garlic, cinnamon, nutmeg, sage, rosemary, and juniper berries either eaten fresh while raw or broiled, fried, or boiled when aged)
Coppa al ginepro (shoulder ham flavoured with juniper berries)
Lardo d’Arnad / Valle d’Aosta lard d’Arnad DOP (shoulder and back pig fat cured with salt, garlic, bay leaves, rosemary, sage, cloves, cinnamon, juniper berries, nutmeg, and achillea (alpine herbs), when matured it will also include white wine)
Mocetta / Motzetta / Motsetta (chamois venison, goat, or beef prosciutto cured with salt, garlic, thyme, sage, bay leaf, rosemary, and savoury)
Pancetta steccata (pork belly cured in juniper wood)
Saucisse (beef and pork sausage with spices, soaked in wine and dried)
Fonduta valdostana (Fontina cheese fondue made with Fontina cheese, milk, and egg yolks, served with croutons)
Fontina DOP (A medium-firm, full-fat raw cow’s milk cheese )
Primi (First courses)
Gnocchi alla Fontina (baked potato gnocchi with Fontina cheese and butter)
Polenta valdostana (polenta with Fontina cheese and butter)
Minestra di riso alla valdostana (rice with turnips and butter)
Minestra di riso, latte, e castagne (rice with milk and fresh or dry chestnuts)
Zuppa alla cognenze / Soupe cogneintze (bread, rice, and cheese soup)
Zuppa di valpelline/ Zuppa di valtellina/ Zuppa alla valpelleunentze / Soupe valpellinentze (cabbage, bread, and Fontina cheese soup)
Secondi (Main courses)
Camoscio al civet / Camoscio al civé (chamois venison stew – marinated in red wine, herbs, and spices and stewed in butter, lardo, and the marinade)
Carbonada / Carbonade (chopped salt beef stew with onion, red or white wine, herbs, and spices)
Costoletta alla valdostana / Valdostan (baked breaded veal cutlets with fontina cheese and ham)
Lepre al civet/ Lepre al civé (hare stew – marinated in red wine, celery, carrot, onion, garlic, parsley, thyme, bay leaf, juniper berries, cinnamon, and peppercorns and stewed with hare liver, served with polenta and boiled potatoes)
Trota al vino rosso (trout in red wine)
Cogne cream (chocolate cream, served with tegole)
Montebianco (a mountain of rum-flavoured chestnut purée, topped with whipped cream and decorated with marrons glacés (candied chestnuts))
Salignoùn (a lightly smoked, crumbly, fatty, creamy ricotta with chili or paprika and herbs, sometimes with dried flowers from Lower Valle d’Aosta, often made to be served at home with beer)
Séras / Séra / Ceré (fresh or smoked and matured, soft, grainy cow’s, ewe’s, or goat’s milk whey ricotta cheese from Valle d’Aosta. This is an ancient cheese)
Valle d’Aosta Fromadzo DOP (a firm mixed cow’s and goat’s milk cheese from Valle d’Aosta, sometimes flavoured with seeds or aromatic plants)
Caffè valdostano (coffee with lemon zest, orange zest, grappa, red wine, and sugar)
Génépy (herbal grappa)
Vin brulé (hot mulled wine made with cloves, cinnamon, and lemon or orange zest)