Breaking bread: an Alpine family feast in Courmayeur, Italy

In Courmayeur, in the shadow of Mont Blanc, family meals are hearty affairs, involving plenty of cheese and suitably mountainous portions of carbonara and focaccia. Pull up a chair — dinner is served.

Tuesday, July 21, 2020,
By Hannah Summers
Photographs By Karolina Wiercigroch
View from Entrèves: Courmayeur is not the Italy you may be familiar with. For starters, there’s ...

View from Entrèves: Courmayeur is not the Italy you may be familiar with. For starters, there’s the setting — in the north west of the country, in the shadow of Mont Blanc, close to the French and Swiss borders and a 30-minute drive from chichi Chamonix. 

Photograph by Karolina Wiercigroch

I’m squashed in among a group of elderly ladies hustling for space at the counter of Panizzi. In front of us, shopkeeper Marcello is scurrying around, distributing slices and scoops as he splits glorious gold and white hunks of dairy into containers. He spots me and approaches with a board laden with fontina, a semi-soft cheese that’s a local speciality. 

“Try it!” he commands with a big smile. I take one. And another. OK, one more, I decide, already addicted to its buttery, nutty flavour. On Sunday morning in Courmayeur, shopping is top priority. Not so much for jewellery and clothes — although the streets are lined with boutiques — but for produce. Cheeses, salamis and wines poke out of oversized handbags as shoppers stock up on the local bounty. 

Courmayeur is not the Italy you may be familiar with. For starters, there’s the setting — in the north west of the country, in the shadow of Mont Blanc, close to the French and Swiss borders and a 30-minute drive from chichi Chamonix. It’s all snow-smothered mountains and ski runs, rather than ancient history and cobbled streets. Come summer, the empty trails that weave between forests and peaks are a magnet for hikers.

Aesthetics aside, Courmayeur and the surrounding Aosta Valley stand out in another important respect: food. Behind the smart ski resort is a community that once led a humble, rural life built around farming. “Back in the day, it was a very poor region where farmers had to make the most of the animals. So we are very good at cheese,” explains Ale Borre, a local who grew up here and who’s joined me on my shopping spree. So, rather than the pizza and pasta you might expect in Italy, this place is “really keen on cheese and cold cuts”.

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A glance into a handful of restaurants reveals menus awash with fontina — it smothers gnocchi in a thick, creamy duvet, and lies sandwiched between layers of polenta. Forget light bites — this is a mountain town whose culinary roots are centred around hearty dishes that keep energy levels up and stomachs round.

We walk on, weaving between the passers-by, who are fare la vasca (literally, ‘doing la vasca’, a Courmayeur pastime that consists simply of strolling back and forth along the pedestrianised streets). Outside Ortofrutta Santino, a crowd has formed; a poodle in a shiny pink puffer jacket waits patiently for her owner. Inside, Santino, the 60-something shopkeeper, is filling paper bags with tomatoes and large, shiny apples. 

“People come to our shops because they can taste the produce, unlike in the supermarkets,” he tells me. “There’s also a really important connection between the customer and the owner — an implicit trust.” 

Santino Grosso, the owner of Ortofrutta Santino, holding provolone piccante Sigillo Rosso (Red Seal) cheese.

Photograph by Karolina Wiercigroch

Classic comfort food

Next, it’s time to prepare the main: carbonada, a beef stew that will be served with polenta — the latter soft, like a cross between mashed potato and floury porridge. “Polenta was a typical meal here in the Aosta Valley; it was a poor meal,” Ale tells me as Ivette tips maize flour, water, salt and milk into a pot. “My granny used to bring it to me after a night out — it was one of my favourite things to cure my hangover,” Ivette adds. I commit the tip to memory. “Now it’s less about function and more about being sociable, because you can share it.”

Big cubes of pink meat are unwrapped for the carbonada. The classic regional dish has been served here since the end of the 1800s, although at that time it was made using dried, preserved meat. Today, every family serves their own twist — more wine, less wine or huge glugs of red and white combined, as is Ivette’s style. She tips the meat into a pan of butter and softening onions to brown it. “We use a lot of butter in the valley,” she says. “For every recipe, there’s at least a spoonful of butter. Some olive oil for salads, but otherwise? More butter.”

The final dish, however, doesn’t involve butter. The region is the biggest producer of apples in Italy and is famous for the Renatta apple, with its wrinkly skin and powdery texture (it’s more appealing than it sounds). Ivette combines chunks of the fruit with pieces of celery, stirring it all up with yoghurt from Courmayeur’s cows, a dollop of mayonnaise and a handful of walnuts sprinkled on top.

The meal comes together just as Ivette’s American husband, Peter, a tall, bearded mountain guide, walks through the door. Their eldest daughter, nine-year-old Maëlle — fresh off the slopes from a ski race — follows; Ivette’s friend, Emanuela, arrives soon after and, finally, Ivette’s father, Ottone, climbs the stairs and grins at the delicious scenes before him. The crowd is ready — dinner is served. 

Every inch of the table is covered with bowls and plates. Everyone piles in from all sides, excusing fingers and loading plates with cheeses and meats. I commit to trying it all — twice — and go back for thirds of my favourite, the lardo on the fig and chestnut rye bread. With a dollop of Ivette’s mum’s homemade pear jam, it’s the perfect balance of soft, salty, crunchy and sweet.

Ale, a local who grew up in the area, and nine-year-old Maëlle, tucking into their feast.

Photograph by Karolina Wiercigroch

A huge dish of polenta is shared out and Ivette ladles on the carbonada, with a few extra spoonfuls of sauce for good measure. “A mountaineering portion,” she says, as my plate is filled further. It’s warming comfort food, the perfect antidote to the snow outside. My host tops up my glass with torrette superieur, a regional red, and urges me to head back to the shops to buy a few bottles of Cave Mont Blanc, a local sparkling white that holds the title of the highest-produced white wine in Europe. 

It’s a relaxed meal, refreshingly free of formality. “For our family, eating together at the table is a chance to share a special moment, a feeling of pleasure of being together,” Ivette tells me. “It’s a social event that’s precious and memorable.”

She glances at Maëlle, who’s reluctantly joined the table after not getting to eat her first-choice meal. “What would you rather have?” Peter asks her. “Nutella on bread,” she tells him, visibly sighing at the prospect of polenta. On the other side of the table, her younger sister, Virginia, has clambered onto Peter’s lap and is making short work of dinner. Maëlle admits defeat, grabs her fork and tucks in as well. 

Once plates have been mopped dry with focaccia, Ivette proudly places her grandmother’s dessert at the centre of the table. The room fills with the scent of nutmeg. The mixture has been poured into a deep china dish, topped with amaretti biscuits and baked. It’s bouncy but also squidgy and, although it’s made with rice, it’s slightly reminiscent of an English bread and butter pudding.

With our belts loosened, we finish the meal and sit back in our chairs. Coffee would be the smart way to round off the evening, but Ivette has other ideas. She sends Peter to the ‘cave’, or cellar, beneath the house, and he returns with several huge bottles of yellowy-green liquid. Beneath the dusty labels are the ominous words ‘40% alcohol’. “Génépi,” Ivette says, filling shot glasses with a grin. “My father and I picked the flowers from the mountain. He added them to the alcohol with sugar to make our own liquor.” 

We work our way through the different bottles in different states of readiness, eyes smarting at some, easily sipping the herbal liquid with others. Glasses are shared between us as we each choose our favourite. “Food in this region is an act of love,” Ivette says, once we’re all several glasses down. “Not love of the food, but the love of sharing with friends and family.”

Ivette grandma’s dessert (rice pudding with raisins and amaretto biscuits).

Photograph by Karolina Wiercigroch

Four flavours to try in Courmayeur
 

Polenta concia
This dish is made up of thick slices of polenta layered with fontina cheese. Melted butter is drizzled on top for extra indulgence, and the whole thing is then baked for 10 minutes. It can be served as a meal in itself, or as a side with dishes such as carbonada.

Gnocchi alla fonduta
Soft potato gnocchi is cloaked in a thick molten cheese sauce, made using a combination of nutty fontina and sweet and punchy toma. Naturally, butter is also added. You’ll find this dish in plenty of Courmayeur restaurants — try Brasseria La Padella for huge, inexpensive portions and a menu full of other regional classics.

Boudin
Aosta Valley’s signature salami stands out at the charcuterie counter thanks to its flouro-pink colour. Inside, it’s an addictive combination of beetroot, boiled potato, spices, wine and pork fat. Once considered a dish of the poor, today it’s a popular starter, with most families having their own recipe that’s been passed down through the generations.

Seuppa a la vapelenentse
This solid ‘soup’ is made with layers of bread, cabbage broth, fontina and cabbage leaves, all baked in the oven. The dish originated in nearby Valpelline and, like many local specialities, it was originally a cheap meal for farmers. It’s still popular in restaurants today, and even has a weekend-long festival dedicated to it each July.

Essentials

Courmayeur’s nearest airport is Geneva, around a 1.5hr drive away. It’s typically served by EasyJet from several UK airports. Hotel Croux offers B&B doubles from £101 in 2021. courmayeurmontblanc.it

Published in Issue 9 (summer 2020) of National Geographic Traveller Food

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