Italian Lakes (2013)
A TASTE OF THE LAKES
Look in your supermarket trolley, and whether it’s risotto rice from Verona, polenta from Bergamo, Gorgonzola from Milan, or even a bottle of San Pellegrino water – chances are something will have come from the Italian Lakes.
With the Po Valley to the south and the Alps to the north, the location of the Italian Lakes means that there is almost nothing that isn’t produced in this glorious region, and its specialities are alive and well. Fertile river valleys are ideal for fruit-growing, and mellow climates produce ideal conditions for vineyards and olive-growing. Lombardy is one of the richest agricultural regions in Italy. The arborio rice paddies in the southern regions and the cornfields of Bergamo not only provide the key ingredients for the local staples – risotto and polenta – but also help to feed the thousands of cows and pigs which help to create the wonderful cheeses, hams and sausages with which they are flavoured.
Trentino speck for sale, Saturday market, Salò.
Neil Buchan-Grant/Apa Publications
“The cooking of Italy is really the cooking of its regions, regions that until 1861 were separate, independent and usually hostile states” – Marcella Hazan.
For such a grand city, Milan has some very simple specialities – minestrone alla Milanese , a huge full-meal soup of vegetables, rice and bacon, and osso buco , braised veal shanks slow-cooked in a white wine and vegetable stew, traditionally served with risotto alla Milanese , with saffron and ham. It is said that the recipe was invented by an apprentice glazier working on the Duomo in the 16th century. The lad was so fond of the expensive yellow saffron that he put a handful into every batch of stained glass he mixed. His colleagues joked that he would even put it into his food. At his wedding, he did just that – and so the golden risotto was born.
The cotoletta alla Milanese , a simple, breaded veal escalope, is better to known to most of the world as the Vienna Schnitzel, but was first mentioned in a Lombard cookbook in 1134. It was discovered here by Austrian Field Marshal Radetsky in the 19th century and taken back to the imperial court, where it was renamed.
Milan’s other great export is panettone , somewhere between a bread and a cake, flavoured with dried fruit and candied citrus peel. It is usually served over the Christmas season with a sweet wine or crema di mascarpone , made from mascarpone cheese (originally a speciality of the region), eggs and a sweet liqueur such as Disaronno Amaretto , the almond liqueur which comes from Saronno, a few kilometres outside Milan. Legend has it that it was invented in 1525 by a beautiful local innkeeper who fell in love with the great artist Bernardino Luini while posing for him as the model for the Madonna in his fresco of the Adoration of the Magi in the Basilica of Santa Maria delle Grazie, Saronno. She is still on view in the church, and her concoction is now the world’s best-selling Italian liqueur – success all round.
Fish drying on Lake Como.
Risotto ai funghi (mushroom risotto).
The valleys of Varese
Up the road, in Varese province, Cantello, near the Swiss border, is renowned for its white asparagus with a rosy tip. Laveno Mombello on Lake Maggiore specialises in honey, producing delicately scented millefiori honey, from the pollen of many flowers, acacia honey, perfect for eating with sheep’s cheeses and fresh fruit, and strongly perfumed, dark chestnut honey, ideal for eating with goats’ cheese or for use in cooking.
In the mountains of the Val Veddasca area, they produce “violins” – hams made from the thighs of semi-wild goats or sheep, salted and flavoured with garlic, red wine and juniper and hung for up to six months, which end up shaped roughly like a violin, with the knife held like a bow for slicing.
All of the lakes provide an excellent source of freshwater fish, particularly shad (agonia) , often salted and dried as curadura , and then soaked in vinegar as missoltini ; perch (persico) ; whitebait (lavarelli) ; eel (anguilla) , traditionally served with dried mushrooms and anchovy fillets; pike (luccio) ; chub (cavedano) , frequently used for pâtés; tench (tinca) , often oven-baked (al forno) ; and trout (carpione) .
Fish also comes grilled, fried and stewed, in soup or risotto, or with polenta or pasta. The coast is just over an hour’s drive away, so there is also plenty of excellent seafood nearby.
Possibly the best-known local delicacy is a roughly hewn little pastry known as brutti e buoni (ugly and good), made of egg whites, almonds, hazelnuts, sugar and vanilla, created in 1878 by a confectioner in Gavirate on Lake Varese. These became so essential that luminaries from Queen Elena to Giuseppe Verdi would make a detour to buy them.
Myriad ice cream flavours at a gelateria.
Neil Buchan-Grant/Apa Publications
The Venetian influence
Across the centre of the region, the historic influence of Venice is strong, and appetites are hearty. Bergamo and Brescia specialise in the sort of food that fills you up: casconcelli (ravioli with bacon and melted butter) and foiade(pasta with porcini mushrooms). Above all, this is where you eat polenta – great buckets of it, served with everything, including cotechini (spiced sausage). In the ultra-rich polenta taragna , it is mixed with butter and cheese; in polenta e uccelletti , it is served with kebabs of small birds (possibly larks and thrushes) threaded onto a skewer, head and all, with sage, pork and pancetta. Polenta is also served with the less alarming uccelli scappati (pork wrapped in sage leaves) – check which you are ordering – and even with horse (cavallo) or donkey (asino) . Both appear on the menu increasingly frequently as you work your way east towards the Veneto, so watch out if you are squeamish.
If that hasn’t filled you up, follow it with polenta osei – sweet sponge cakes, coated with sugar and polenta and topped with chocolate birds. After all that, you may need something to help the liver, such as the medicinal waters of San Pellegrino (for more information, click here ), just up the road from Bergamo, which now also find their way onto restaurant tables around the world.
Around Lake Garda
Heading east, more and more of the land is given over to vineyards – with the great wines of the Franciacorta (for more information, click here ), Garda (for more information, click here ), Bardolino, Valpolicella and Soave (for more information, click here ) leading into the lighter wines of Trentino. But the land around Lake Garda is ideally suited to olives. Garda oil is greeny-gold and delicately scented, that of Valpolicella darker with a slightly lemony aftertaste. Both merit DOP status and are taken seriously enough that you can do olive oil tastings.
Food is taken so seriously that even the radicchio (red-leaf chicory) gets its own DOP, while the top-quality Vialone Nano rice, grown on the plains around Verona, has a dedicated route ( www.stradadelriso.it ) and a fair. The 20-day Fiera del Riso at Isola della Scala ( www.isolafiere.it ) began life as a village festival in 1967. Today, it attracts around 500,000 people, and around 350,000 risottos are cooked along with a great deal of other food, wine and merrymaking.
A selection of local cheeses at Salò’s Saturday market.
Neil Buchan-Grant/Apa Publications
Verona itself has more than its fair share of gourmet restaurants, but look for its traditional dishes and they are not for the faint-hearted – or the vegetarian. The city’s flagship sausage, soppressa , is made from roughly minced pork aged for up to a year with spices, garlic and red wine. Another traditional dish, bollito misto (mixed boiled meats), is served with pearà sauce, made from bone marrow, beef stock, Parmesan, breadcrumbs and black pepper. According to legend, a medieval tyrant killed his father-in-law and forced his wife, Dona Lombarda, to drink from her father’s skull. She was totally unable to eat until the court chef tempted her back to health with this delicious sauce. Once fully back to strength, she had her husband assassinated. The meat comes with plenty of stodge – gnocchi (potato dumplings), served to the whole city during carnival (for more information, click here ), bigoli (a hefty pasta, often served with anchovies or duck) and pasta e fagioli (pasta and beans).
The Austrian legacy
To the north, in Trentino, the food changes yet again, the mountains supplying game, from partridge and pheasant to wild boar and venison, while the region’s long Austro-Hungarian heritage has left its mark on the kitchen with dishes such as canederli , large dumplings made with bread, stuffed with liver or even prunes, and served with brood (broth) or goulasch (a rich, meat-based sauce); and wurstl , sausages similar to frankfurters.
Founded in Piedmont in 1986, Italy’s Slow Food Movement now has over 100,000 members in 150 countries. Its aim is “to rediscover the flavours of regional cooking and banish the degrading effects of fast food”.
Smoked meats are common, served with pickles, sauerkraut and bean salads. The local speck , unlike the slices of fat common further south, is small square pieces of pork, cured with garlic, bay, juniper, pepper and herbs, then lightly smoked. It is eaten for breakfast, as a lunchtime antipasto or just as a snack. Stinco doesn’t really live up to its name – this is simply a shank of meat. For some reason, gnocchi with spinach, served with sage and butter, are known locally as strangolapreti (“strangled priests”). There are wonderful forest mushrooms, while the warmer areas of Lake Garda are perfect fruit- growing territory, providing apples, figs and even the famous lemons that gave Limone sul Garda its name.
With a Germanic heritage, Trentino really wins out when it comes to desserts. Italian ice cream may be the best in the world, but here you have all the benefit of the gelaterie alongside Austrian strudels (spicy apple pie) and sacher torte (chocolate cake), and home-grown delicacies such as fregolotta (a light crispy cake made from flour, sugar and almonds).
Grappa, the Trentino hooch.
The rich green grass of the whole lakes region makes for perfect dairy country and a huge variety of local cheeses. Although incredibly famous, Bel Paese, meaning “beautiful country”, is a relative newcomer, created by Egidio Galbani in 1906. He wanted to give Italy a light soft cheese similar to those he had tasted in France, and named it after a book by Abbot Antonio Stoppani, published in 1875 and popular amongst the nationalist middle classes. Made in Melzo, near Milan, its mild flavour has assured its popularity in nurseries across the world.
Something with a little more bite and age is the local rich and creamy blue cheese, Gorgonzola, made from whole cows’ milk, that has been produced in the region since at least the 9th century. Now named after the area in which it is produced, it was originally known as stracchino after the word for “tired”, as it was made after the long journey back from the summer pastures in the high Alps.
North of Bergamo, Val Taleggio has also been producing a cheese for about 1,000 years that has now burst out into the factories and supermarkets. Taleggio is a soft cows’ cheese that strangely smells much stronger than it tastes. There are several strengths – all of them utterly delicious.
Probably the most famous cheese to come out of the Brescia region is Bagòss, a deep-yellow, hard cows’ cheese that is rubbed with linseed oil and develops some holes and a slightly grainy texture. It can be eaten raw but is mainly used for cooking, as its rather strong, rather harsh flavour mellows as it melts and is perfect for the pot.
Across in the Veneto, Grana Padano serves much the same purpose and is used locally instead of Parmesan which it closely resembles, although a little sweeter. Made of unpasteurised cows’ milk and formed into 36kg (80lb) wheels, it is aged for about 20 months before eating.
Add to these less well-known but equally delicious cheeses such as formai de Mut and Branzi from the Brembana Valley of Bergamo, Monte Veronese from the Verona region, which comes in three strengths – all mouthwatering – and the soft goats’ cheese, formaggella del Luinese, from Luino on the shores of Lake Maggiore, and you have a cheeseboard that is unsurpassed.
The regions of the Veneto and Trentino are the foremost producers of the famous firewater known as grappa . It is made by distilling the pomace (grape skins, stems and seeds) that remains after pressing wine. A true grappa is clear, aged in the bottle for about six months (giovane) , although some, aged in wood (affinata) for up to 18 months, take on a faint tinge of colour from the barrel. A good grappa should be served chilled, in a long-stemmed flute or tulip glass. At 80 to 140 percent proof, it was traditionally drunk as an after-dinner digestive, sometimes added to coffee in a caffè corretto , although it is now also drunk like vodka, icy cold in shots.
Limone sul Garda.
Neil Buchan-Grant/Apa Publications
The rooftops of fair Verona.