Watch this mountainous northern region of Italy emerge itself as being yet another jewel in the Italian wine and food scene…but make sure you are there to visit before the secret is out! There aren’t many famous art museums or cathedrals here, but if wine and food are your primary interests, and drinking and eating in stunning alpine surroundings sounds like a good thing to you, you won’t find many better examples of what this special territory has to offer.
What makes Valtellina so special is its ties with the past. That is true in many places throughout Italy, but here the connections are not with paintings or archeological finds, but rather with the land. Framed by the Alps that mark the boundary with Switzerland and Austria, this valley is pocketed by vineyards that cling to hillsides, looking much the same as they did hundreds of years ago as they can still only be worked by hand, machines can simply not get into them.
Arriving in the valley you will be astounded by the extraordinary system of more than 2500 km of terracing, built along the contours with a myriad of dry-stone walls that make vine cultivation possible in the best and sunniest areas of the Rhaetian Alps. It is a phenomenal view that showcases a great example of a hand crafted landscape, so much so that it has been listed for inclusion in the UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
The gastronomic history of this region is closely linked to the traditions of the peasant farmer. Come with us up to the alpine mountains where you will be able to taste the celebrated cheese from the high mountain pastures. The herbs that the animals eat when pasturing give the milk unique aromas which make Valtellina cheeses so special. Among the local cheeses, one of the most popular one is Bitto (DOP) which is made from the milk of cows bred in alpine pastures, and traditionally worked in copper boilers. Valtellina Casera (DOP) is another well-known cheese: it is made from cow’s milk matured for at least 70 days and it maintains a sweet milky flavour. It is used to cook the traditional pizzoccheri and sciatt, two of the regions food specialties. It has been made since at least 1500, when mountain farmers gathered all their milk to work it together in less expensive communal dairys.
We will take you to the mountain Agriturismo restaurants where you will eat the traditional foods of this regions prepared from such cheeses as well as local salamis and breasola which are largely produced from fruit, vegetables, grain and animals grown and reared on the farm itself. Another jewel of Valtellina cuisine is polenta taragna, made from buckwheat and cooked with butter and Valtellina Casera DOP cheese, continuously mixed during the cooking. One of our family’s guilty pleasures and a real traditional dish of the area are sciatt, which means toads in the local dialect because of their resemblance with these animals. They are small pieces Casera DOP cheese, coated in a thin buckwheat batter and fried. They are not a food to discuss with your heart specialist, but they are incredibly delicious! Try also chiscioi, a kind of crepe made from buckwheat and stuffed with cheese: a festival that bears the same name is organized in Tirano and Sernio at the end of August. As with the best of Italian food, Valtellina cuisine is simple and nourishing, coming from a mountain population committed to hard work in the rugged and often cold alpine climate.
To compliment the food of course there is the wine. There are two DOCG wines in Valtellina from the local grape called Chiavennasca. This is a different form of the Nebbiolo clone unique to Valtellina. Sforzato di Valtellina is typically a semi-sweet and quite tannic red wine produced from bunches of grapes which are semi-dried before being harvested and processed, much in the same way as Riciotto and Amarone. Valtellina Superiore is the other DOCG, which is broken down into different villages all of which are aged at least 24 months and if a “Riserva” then at least 36 months. The villages are Grumello, Inferno (the most powerful wines tend to come from here), Maroggia, Sassella, and Valgella (the most elegant wines tend to come from here). The DOCG status of these wines was only granted recently in wine terms, in 1998, with a consequent tightening of rules allowing for its production. Prior to this, the amount of quality wine produced in the area was mediocre at best, and whilst the wines being produced now are generally of a very high quality, they are still little recognised outside of Lomabardy. What does this mean for you? We get to taste brilliant wines and buy them for great prices.
Let us take you to private tastings with traditional producers of the region as well as to some of the new generation of winemakers who are a bit more experimental, combining old world techniques and traditions with new world ideas. We will introduce you to bitters and digestivos, the most famous of the area is Braulio, which came into being in Bormio in 1826. It is a wine based herbal liqueur made from herbs and berries picked up on the high alpine slopes of Mount Braulio just under the Stelvio Pass, and aged in wooden barrels for 2 years. It possesses quite literally the smells and tastes of the Valtellina mountains.
We will take you to sample local cured meat products and cheeses in the characteristic Valchiavenna crotti. The crotti are natural caves formed by rocks that fell from the mountainsides in prehistoric times. The sorèl, an air current at a constant temperature (+6-8° C), passes through the vents in the mass of rocks and airs the caves, making it a perfect location to season cheeses and meats and ageing wine.
The Grotta are another form of caves found in the region however this time you will find them filled not with during cheeses but with streams of thermal waters and saunas where you will be able to have a most unique day spa experience. Grotta Sudatoria di San Martino is a natural steam cave sauna, exclusive and unique in the world, a detoxifying route that takes place in two tunnels which penetrate into the rock for over 50 metres. Finished in 1827, the atmosphere in the grotto is that of a Roman Spa, but the route is traditionally thought of like a trip into Dante’s other side: from a heavenly pleasant temperature, to the warmth of the Purgatory, to an Infernal heat. There are however a plethora of modern thermal baths in the region to tempt you at the end of a day of mountain hiking, or just exploring this picturesque region.
A fun day trip is to take a ride on the famous Trennino Rosso “Little Red Train” from Tirano in Vatellina and over the border into Switzerland and the famous holiday town of St Moritz for the day. This not only a connection between Italy and Switzerland, but it is also a magic journey through the most beautiful mountains in Europe with unique characteristics: it is the highest alpine transversal in Europe and is one of the steepest railway in the world. Make sure there is plenty of space on your camera’s memory card as you will be presented with spectacular vistas at every turn of the 2 hour journey. Once in St Moritz you are presented with many options from a casual stroll around the lake, visiting the many designer shops and boutiques to get a taste of the lives of the rich and famous, tasting and purchasing some genuine Swiss Chocolate in one of the towns famous chocolate shops, or perhaps finding a nice local bar or restaurant to have a Swiss themed meal and a drink.
Another great day trip can be had up in Valmalenco in the high alpine forest where we take a cable car up into the mountains which remain snow-capped even in summer. Take a walk around the high altitude lake of Lago Palu in the forrest, stopping along the way to take a wine and some sustenance in the refuge, or perhaps we can visit the local farmers who run a small Agriturismo and make genuine alpine Vatallinese cheese for a tasting.
A day trip not to be missed is up to the semi-autonomous region of Livingo right on the Swiss border to enjoy not only the amazing view of the alps but to have an indulging day of tax free shopping.The town is bursting with perfume, jewellery and clothing boutiques, sporting goods stores, chocolate and a better priced and selection of tax free alcohol than any airport duty free shop, this is THE spot to collect your duty free purchases. There will be something for everyone. Being such a popular tourist destination, be it in summer or winter, there is a plethora of eating and drinking options as well.
For those with a more active streak, the Valtellina offers endless walking trails, access to mountain tops by cable car, rivers to raft down, downhill mountain bike trails and much more, you can choose to add as much adventure to this gastronomic tour as you fancy.
Taste of Life Tours will work with you to create your dream gastronomic vacation in the stunning Valtellina. It is also possible to customise your tour of Valtellina to fit in with the beginning or end of our Piedmont 6 day Food and Wine Tours available with Taste of Life Tours.