Wednesday, 22 January 2014

A happy New Year in the Italian Alps

Over New Year we treated ourselves to a week in the Italian Alps skiing and, I must say, eating magnificently. As a novice, my skiing didn't come close to being magnificent, but the food and drink in this spectacular corner of Italy certainly were.

We flew into Milan on Sunday 29th where we were collected and driven northwest to Champoluc in the Monterosa district near the border with Switzerland. Our two and a half hour drive took us towards Turin and then inland up into the mountains, following a stretch of the Aosta river. I was on the lookout for vineyards and our route went past Carema with its steeply terraced Nebbiolo vines. From the motorway it almost looked like a slate wall the way the terraces are supported, with snowy peaks in the near distance. What a feat of human endeavour. Zig-zagging higher and higher it became clear that we were in cheese territory, noticing signposts to dairies and even a 'cheese route'. If we were going to be generating big appetites on the slopes, there'd be plenty of delicious local options to choose from.

We were staying in Champoluc, a small traditional Alpine town nestling in a long narrow valley with a gondola/cable car in the centre to whisk you up to the pistes. We had half board accommodation at the family run Hotel Petit Tournalin, our comfortably arranged family room had a mezzanine level for children. Champoluc is a town with a strong ski bias, rather than a full-on ski resort. Apparently each year when the snow melts, the area reverts to dairy farming and cheese-making. There are several bars, restaurants and hotels, a market and the shops include a number selling ski equipment. Three feet of snow had fallen on Boxing Day so it was looking like a classic winter wonderland, especially with all the Christmas decorations. Gorgeous.

Over the course of the week, learning to ski, I pushed my forty-something body well and truly out of its comfort zone, giving it the fullest workout its had in years. Even after a carb-laden lunch (see above!), by evening, we were ready for another lot of food. Most evenings began in the bar in front of the fire with a local beer or 'vin brulé' before decamping to the dining room for several calorific courses. Highlights included melt-in-the-mouth cured meats, mushroom pasta and local cheeses – especially Fontina, and great value house wines Arneis and Dolcetto. At Le Petit Tournalin the cooking was reassuringly unshowy and sensibly economical, with most dishes served family style, helping yourself from large platters.

The exception was on New Year's Eve which was a more formal banquet, with an array of dishes, accompanied by local wines. I particularly liked the soufflé like 'leek flan' with bagna cauda, gnocchi with bleu d'Aoste and taglionini with shrimps and red caviar. Cotechino sausage with lentils was another great local dish – rather cassoulet like. Apparently the more lentils you eat, the more prosperous you will be in the year to come! The main course, pork shanks with almonds was creamy and tender. For dessert was semi freddo with chocolate sauce and sprinkled with amaretti crumbs – simple, but really effective. We toasted the New Year with Alpine fizz Blanc Fripon and some super-light panettone (although barely touched by the replete revellers). The panettone reappeared later in the week in tiramisu which tasted much more interesting than the usual creamy cliché. Another idea to bear in mind for Christmas leftovers (I have two lurking in my larder).

As a treat on our final evening we selected Gaia's Sito Morsco to have with venison braised with pancetta, cloves, bay leaves and orange. This was a wonderfully seasonal foil for the intense, warming Nebbiolo – from vineyards in the Langhe region, near Barbaresco and Barolo and, consequently sensibly priced at 40 Euros. A happy New Year indeed!

(The picture of the sparkly snow was kindly provided by Jessica James.)

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