Valle d'Aosta: a synphony of Alpine pastures
With an extremely high average altitude (much higher than that of the other Italian regions), Valle d'Aosta's culinary traditions are those of a border people, inevitably influenced by landscape and history, and by contact with the Swiss and French. The cookery is based on local products (cabbage, rye bread, chestnuts and milk), but is nevertheless varied, and uses a whole range of ingredients from further afield. Since ancient Rome, many of the influences on the region's food have been related to its history and geographical position.
For example, the closeness to Switzerland and France accounts for the region's famous fonduta (fondue), a dish which anyone visiting the Valle d' Aosta should try. The Roman legions brought vine-growing and their culinary traditions based on hunting and the use of barley in soups. These soups - which the local people prepared with rye bread and seasonal vegetables - also abounded on the tables of the lords, where they were enriched with meat stock, cheese and butter. Still today, a favorite dish is seuppa valpellinentze, a soup of white and Savoy cabbage, fontina cheese and rye bread. The local bread has always been made in two varieties: white and black. In the past, the former was eaten only at feast day banquets and was consumed fresh; black bread, meanwhile, was prepared only once per year in an activity which involved the entire community. It became very hard, and to cut it use was made of a "copapan", a type of iron knife that can still be found in craft shops. While the discovery of America brought corn and potatoes to the rest of Europe, in the Valle d'Aosta polenta (maize porridge) was introduced only in the 18th century. Today it is the most characteristic dish, to be enjoyed in Alpine hostelries. It evokes the tastes of a bygone age, and is served with butter and fontina cheese, or with meat and a variety of sauces. Meat for centuries was a rarity, eaten only in winter, when the climatic conditions made its conservation possible. Still today, livestock are slaughtered just before Christmas and soon afterwards restaurant menus offer a whole range of foodstuffs which otherwise would be impossible to conserve, such as teteun, dried cows udders preserved in salt and flavored with herbs. The typical need in mountain areas to preserve food for long periods led to the development in the Valle d'Aosta of numerous types of high quality sausages. There are also various types of dried and cured meat, such as the salted beef which is at the basis of the typical regional dish, carbonade; also unforgettable is lardo di Arnad, cured belly pork flavored with herbs and spices. For all those who visit Valle d'Aosta, we advise them not to miss out on one of its most characteristic rituals: the coppa dell'amicizia (the "cup of friendship", with a number of drinking spouts arranged around its circumference). The ingredients are simple: a region with ancient traditions dating back thousands of years, a group of friends on holiday, and a relaxing evening after a day spent in the fresh mountain air. Passing from hand to hand, the "coupe de l'amitié" gives everyone a portion of "caffè alla valdostana" (made by mixing scaldingly hot coffee with grappa, red wine, sugar and lemon zest), making sure to make enough to allow the cup to be passed round a good few times. Each time you are likely to drink from a different spout, and this gives the ritual that touch of intimacy which helps create a friendly atmosphere.