In the magic of the Alps, between sacred and nature, in the 1800 meters of altitude of the Piccolo San Bernardo, there is a chalet that was once a refreshment for travelers and today offers dishes that can not be enjoyed anywhere else
The winters in the mountains were long and when it was cold you had to stay indoors, but never with your hands. From the woods came the wood that the locals knew well, each plant was suitable to become something different: a cradle, a bowl, a ladle, a couple of clogs, or rather, sabots, reminiscent of the Dutch ones in form, but they were and are absolutely local, typical of the Val d'Aosta, where the job of the sabotier is ancient and honored. Wooden shoes excellent for repairing the foot from mud, water, roughness of the ground, to be inserted over thick wool socks, roughly tailored pair by pair, one different from the other, with a little heel for the women and with ankle laces for children.
Here, allo Riondet there is a room dedicated to sabots to be made available to guests, brightly repainted by Maria Elena, daughter of the founders, and bought at the Fiera di sant'Orso, in Aosta, on 30 and 31 January, which is held by the Thousand year. Legend has it that Sant’Orso, a generous monk, used to sabot them with his hands, to give them to the poor and needy!
It is 1978 when the young man Ivano Udali, then twenty years old, notes with his mother Mary to La Thuile a chalet located on the road leading to the Colle del Piccolo San Bernardo, at 1850 meters above sea level. That is a road with a capital S, where you pass through the mists of time, where the wayfarer is sacred: and to witness the intense human presence on the territory there remain nearby magical vestiges such as the cromlech, a megalithic complex of eighty meters in diameter on the border between France and Italy, erected in the Neolithic period by the Celts Salassi, the ancestors of the Valle d'Aosta. A small Stonehenge that celebrates its summer solstice punctually every June 21 at 19:30, as the sun sets behind Mount Lancebranlette, projecting two areas of shadow that slowly embrace the ancient perimeter of stones until leaving alone an illuminated circle. A sanctuary, undoubtedly, supported by the presence of a later Gallic temple, so much so that the Romans, planning the Via delle Gallie, thought it well to respect that place and prudently turned around it. And besides, here all the stones speak: even those on the bottom of the neighbor Verney Lake, one kilometer from the border, with its rocks from the Jurassic era seabed, which even tell the drift of the continents.
And speaking of stones and rocks, from the sixteenth and up to the sixties of the twentieth century the bowels of the Earth gave silver and anthracite and the coal from the La Thuile basin was used not only for small local needs, but to feed steel industries .
Once upon a time there was a hut
The chalet is called Lo Riondet, toponym spread over these mountains and which recalls in its root the welcoming concept of a roundness like that of cromlech (riond = rond, which in French stands for "circular in shape", but also for "frank and genuine"), is a building historical: before it was a malga, where cheese was produced.
In 1980 Ivano marries Paola, a girl from La Thuile; him instead and of La Salle, a neighboring country, the same one that will be the birthplace of the Olympic champion Federica Brignone (who will become friends with their daughter Maria Elena) and develops a reception formula never seen before. In winter, the chalet is only reached with the snowcat for the evenings in the hut and then returns to the skis in a torchlight procession; in summer you can have fun at the trout pond, where there are ducks and rabbits, go trekking, go hiking. There are many sporting events in LaThuile, there are many gatherings that bring vintage car and motorcycle enthusiasts up the hill from which the Giro d'Italia and the Tour de France also pass.
From a gastronomic point of view, the mountain has its own characteristics. Ivano is very interested in the ancient art of food preservation: drying, salting, marinating, all those processes refined in the valley in times when refrigerators, freezers and vacuum systems did not exist and during the summer it was common practice to put dispenses supplies for the hard and long winter. It was the era in which an exchange economy was still practiced and the mountaineers who lived higher up came down to trade bags of exquisite mountain potatoes with vegetables that grew a little lower or trafficked to obtain the precious salt.
It is precisely these pasty and intrepid tubers that challenge the cold and adverse conditions pièce de resistance of the Riondet: the raclette.
Every mountain place has its raclette, in Switzerland, in Savoy, in Brittany: there is no recipe, because it is more a ritual than a normal gastronomic preparation. It was born as a frugal food that combines two ingredients present in the peasant houses, potatoes and cheese, and evokes raw wooden tables positioned in front of the fireplace fire inside huts with a snow-covered roof.
In French racler it means scraping and we can hardly imagine the scene, with the mountaineer intent on patiently cutting the softened cheese directly by the fire, letting it fall on the hot potatoes on the plate: a small convivial ceremony that warms the heart before the stomach and brings back to mind live paintings of a peasant civilization that is one with its mountain. The rule that applies everywhere is not to drink water with raclette, but wine or, better, a hot infusion.
The raclette of the Riondet is the trendy Savoyard style, where the potatoes are served "dressed" en robe de champ, that is, with the peel, and the dish is enriched with compotes from the vegetable garden in oil and in vinegar, packaged according to ancient recipes and special sliced cold cuts, famous since the Middle Ages, such as the special Saint Marcel ham and the mocette .
Among the mocette, cured meats whose origin dates back to the mists of time, made with lean meat, muscle or thigh cuts flavored with mountain herbs and salt and left to age in particular microclimates, that of chamois stands out, because another characteristic of gastronomy montana is the presence of game. In the Riondet menu, chamois is also cooked in civet, that is stewed with onions, vegetables and red wine. Do not miss the gibier tapelun, the game tapulone, a sort of finely chopped stew flavored with herbs and cooked wine until it becomes a sort of delicious ragout.
This is a land where selection hunting is practiced, explains Ivano. This means that hunters, who must pass a very severe exam (after a course of months during which they study subjects such as Fauna and Flora, Veterinary, Legislation, Use of Arms and First Aid), are allowed to shoot down a very limited number of clothes of a certain age and in certain periods. These are precisely wild boars, deer, roe deer and chamois, the same ones that we find in the menu of the Riondet. Hunting is considered indispensable by the residents to preserve the balance of the territory, where in the absence of control not only the very prolific wild boars would cause serious damage to crops, but also the voracious deer, greedy of fir and larch flower heads, up to being able to consume a thousand in a day that will end up in his belly and will not populate the forests, and roe deer that apparently have a soft spot for the tender shoots of the vines.
The path of centuries
Along the watershed between the streams of the lanches Savoyard and the Dora di Verney, the Colle del Piccolo San Bernardo has always marked the natural border between Savoy and the Aosta Valley. It is the lowest pass in the north-western Alps and has therefore remained the most easily passable "passage" for centuries.
Today's wayfarers are not the same as in the early days Maronniers, the ancestors of the alpine guides who stopped with their customers for refreshment on the Colle road making a final stop before tackling the climb to the pass: there are no longer the brigands or devils that worried San Bernardo di Aosta, founder of the first local hospice to shelter pilgrims, soldiers, merchants and also protect them against the climatic oddities of the Piccolo «San Bastardo, as the pass would have been renamed for its meteorological intemperances by such a pastor Cesar, forced to spend the summer in the pasture with its flocks.
"Up there in the Alps there is a place where, driven by the power of Graio, the rocks lower and give way to those who climb; there is a place sacred to Hercules. In winter a great snow covers it and raises its white peak to the sky ", writes Petronius in Satyricon, describing the pass as a titanic work by that Hercules Graio, that is, Greek, who is a hero so legendary as to be able to level mountains.
But if today's customers have changed, they come from distant countries, they are sportsmen who run to some gatherings, they are fans who follow the Giro d'Italia, they are passionate about trekking or nature or simply families eager to relax, hospitality is always the same: at Riondet they want to let us know that we are all welcome with them, for a snack with a rustic tart, for a frugal lunch with a plate of polenta, for a refined and romantic champagne dinner, while outside windows of the chalet the sun goes down on the profile of the mountains just where a god wanted to give way to men.
Spring herb soup: the recipe
This is the recipe that Lo Riondet gives to readers of "La Cucina Italiana", while waiting to welcome them in person on its splendid mountain.
At high altitude there are nettles, plantain, borage, wild spinach, mallow and field asparagus, but many of the ingredients are replaceable with less rare herbs, such as chicory, cultivated spinach, herbs (beets) and asparagus or asparagine. Even walnut oil is replaceable with good extra virgin olive oil: excellent for purifying!
Cold, 1/2 white onion and 1 small leek. Bring to a boil for 10 minutes. Season with natural nut. Add, chopped, 2 handfuls of wild spinach, 4 chicory, 1 bunch of fresh nettles, 1 handful of chard, 1 handful of plantain leaves, 4 borage leaves, 1 handful of mallow, 1 handful of field asparagus, 4 potatoes to small pieces, plus 2 whole potatoes. If you like, a freeze-dried garlic scent is excellent. Cook for 30 minutes. Salt to taste. Add a handful of rice and, in the meantime, mash the whole potatoes to thicken and add them when the rice is cooked. Serve with raw walnut oil, a grated pepper, and cheese.
National road 26 of the Piccolo San Bernardo, n. 4, 11016, La Thuile (Ao)
Tel: +39 0165 884006
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