Among castles, valleys and cheeses: from Aosta to the discovery of the little Loire of Italy

One hundred gems set in the mountains dot the Aosta Valley. These are the castles of the medieval era that one after another come back to light, open their doors to visitors and welcome in the small North-West region (only 3,266 square km) those in search of frontier panoramas and flavors that sink their own origins in the Middle Ages and in Imperial Rome. Not surprisingly, the claim for the 2022 summer season is “Find time here again”. In other words, in an area that, thanks to slow tourism and the promotion of food and wine excellences, is trying to seasonally adjust the winter tourist flow and attract trekking, eBike, tasting and cultural visits enthusiasts.

To discover the “little Loire of Italy”, the starting point can only be the castle of Aymavilles. Easily reachable from the center of Aosta, along a cycle path that gently follows the slopes of apple orchards and vineyards, it reopened on May 14 after 22 years of work. The complex of 1207, subsequently made great by the nobles of the Challant family (with the construction of four towers on the respective corners of the original massif and the creation of as many new facades), is the backdrop to the tastings of the Cave des Onze Communes social cellar, born in 1990, brings together about 170 producer members who work on a total of 60 hectares for a total of 500 thousand bottles. Small plots that can be visited comfortably by bike along a path divided by vines that, together, make the fortune of wine lovers with 24 labels such as the indigenous whites Petit Arvine and Muscat, the international Muller-Thurgau or the reds from Fumin to Turrette Superiore passing through the drinker Mayolet. To certify the quality, a single controlled designation of origin that is valid for the whole region and is divided into 7 ottozones. Terroirs that are often the scene of heroic viticulture, which challenges slopes and altitudes. An example? The refinement project started three years ago in the disused quarries of Cogne. Here, Petit Arvine bottles rest in Mont Blanc granite crates as they did in the past.

Arvier vineyards (Photo Archive of the Autonomous Region of Valle d'Aosta)

Arvier vineyards (Photo Archive of the Autonomous Region of Valle d’Aosta)

A sort of food and wine “back to the future”. The same can also be seen on the frescoed lunettes of the arcades of the Castle of Issogne. Currently owned by the Region (like 8 other buildings of this type out of about a hundred scattered throughout the territory), the “Castle of dreams” reached its maximum splendor in 1500 thanks to the embellishment interventions of Prior Giorgio di Challant, then restored from Vittorio Avondo at the end of 1800. Here, among the frescoes of medieval daily life, unmistakable fontina and lard emerge. Two of the excellences of the territory whose production is intertwined with history.

Lardo d'Arnad DOP.  Photo S. Venturini

Lardo d’Arnad DOP. Photo S. Venturini

As the Bertolin family testifies, owner of the homonymous cured meat factory where, among other things, the famous Arnad Dop lard is produced. Obtained from the pork shoulder, the lard is subsequently placed inside the doils (ancient containers in chestnut or oak wood, inside which, the layers of lard, alternate a mixture composed of salt, water, spices, natural flavors and aromatic mountain herbs) for a maturation of at least three months. Once ready, Bertolin offers it for tasting with black rye bread, with a drizzle of walnut oil or with local honey. All accompanied by a glass of bubbles. But the combinations don’t end there. In fact, 70 different types of cured meats are produced inside the 3000sqm plant in Bertolin, including mocetta, boudin (sausage made with lard, potatoes and beetroot), Reinhold Speck with juniper (in honor of Rinaldo Bertolin, second generation at the helm of the company and died prematurely at the age of 49) and teteun (cured meat produced with salted bovine udders).

Authentic tastes that taste of alpine tradition. The same one that can be tasted in the center of Aosta, in two addresses for as many gastronomic experiences. The first is the Osteria da Nando. The restaurant, opened in 1957, is one of the reference points of the Aostan cuisine especially after the change of location in 2007 which coincided with a return to a more refined cuisine, focused on the excellence of the territory and typical recipes. From the traditional fondue with PDO fontina, to the platter of cured meats (including Jambon des Bosses) passing through the fresh sautéed snails of Morgex (mountain location in the center of the Valdigne), the salmon trout fillet and the Aosta Valley crepes (with Jambon fontina de Saint-Oyen).

Cheeses, polenta and cured meats.  (Valle d'Aosta Autonomous Region Archive)

Cheeses, polenta and cured meats. (Valle d’Aosta Autonomous Region Archive)

The other address, on the other hand, is Ianua: more Savoyard cuisine (in the geographical sense of the term, therefore with excursions from Piedmont to Sardinia) in a unique environment. The restaurant, in fact, was set up inside the Porta Pretoria, a symbol of the city’s Roman past. Inside, the austere stone with which the ancient rulers had built the city (and of which there is also traces in the Arch of Augustus of 25 AD which marks the entrance to the city) gives way to warmer atmospheres in which the customer can order from “messada” beef (a sort of Aosta Valley tartare) to veal with tuna sauce, from corn gnocchi with the pinstripe shape of Bagnod to Ligurian-style cod cream, from tartiflette (winter dish based on potatoes, onions browned in bacon and Reblochon cheese) to tagliatelle with meat sauce, from Cogne cream to bunet. In both restaurants, the wine list completes the experience. With some goodies such as Tacsum from the Vintage cellar: 100% white muscat, expression of the farm’s love for macerated wines. Or, Gargantua Blanc, which takes its name from the Gressan winery of the same name and is composed of 80% Prié Blanc for a dry and vertical result like its land. Finally, the Pierrots di Feudo San Maurizio: red that can be defined as the Aosta Valley version of Amarone from Torrette grapes.

Giangiuseppe Barmasse.  Photo P. Celesia

Giangiuseppe Barmasse. Photo P. Celesia

To digest it all, the Aosta Valley focuses on trails dedicated to trekking: five thousand kilometers of free paths and various itineraries accessible even to those less used to hiking. Like the Balteo Walk, a circular hiking itinerary of almost 350 kilometers divided into 8 stages which, crossing 40 municipalities, mostly at medium and low altitude, combines nature, culture and food and wine. Starting from the locality Torgnon, for example, it is possible to take a path that leads the visitor to the discovery of the Petit Monde ethnographic museum, where the settlements built between 1463 and 1700 are perfectly preserved; the workshop of the wood sculptor Giangiuseppe Barmasse and, finally, the rich dishes of Alpe Gorza comfortably placed on a real terrace overlooking the valley where, among castles, vineyards and paths, the Aosta Valley is looking for a revival of tourism.

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