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.
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”.
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.”
A feast with the family
It’s that trust that’s the foundation of all home-cooked meals here, as I’m soon to find out. A short walk from town is a hamlet called Pussey. On the slopes here lives Ivette Clavel, Ale’s friend, who’s invited us for Sunday dinner. We climb the steep stairs of her house, which is split into various levels: her parents are on the ground floor, her brother’s family home is off to the side, and Ivette and her family occupy the space above.
It’s a typical setup for families here, and is handy for Ivette, a 43-year-old architect who runs her family’s furniture business. Unsurprisingly, given her job, her home is beautiful. There’s an open-plan living space with a huge wooden dining table and sky lights, and a cosy kitchen area with mountain views. “Italian families will always have one big dining table,” Ale tells me. “Eating together is important.”
To one side, a cluster of wooden chicken figurines (said to bring luck to Courmayeur families) perches on the top of a ceramic stove. Elsewhere, china cow figurines are artfully arranged on a bookshelf. Hints of lemon and vanilla waft through the space and swing music is blasting out of the radio. “Do you mind?” Ivette smiles. “When I cook, I have music.”
What follows is some of the most impressive kitchen-based multitasking I’ve seen. It starts with the end of the meal: dessert. This particular dish has no official name, but it’s a pudding that’s been passed down through the generations from Ivette’s grandmother, after whom she was named.
“She died when I was six,” Ivette tells me. “But this is a dish that’s always been in my heart and mind because of her. She’s the person who taught me to peel potatoes, to make my favourite comfort food of fried potatoes and eggs. I’d take the eggs from her hen house and pick vegetables from her garden.”
Today, the rice pudding-esque dish represents a special meal for the family. Ivette starts by pouring the ingredients into a bowl — “freestyling, like my grandmother,” she laughs. Apples, raisins, sugar, rice and milk are piled into a pot, which Ivette sets on the stove to heat and thicken. As she works, her four-year-old daughter, Virginia, charges through the dining space, pigtails bouncing as she goes. “She loves to be involved in the kitchen,” Ivette tells me. “Always keen to chop vegetables.” On cue, Virginia heads over to her little play kitchen, pouring imaginary liquids into cups and glasses, coyly glancing over every so often to check we’re still watching.
Ivette sets the hob to low and starts tackling the rest of the dishes, unwrapping weighty parcels and spreading them out on a board. Before me is the most generous display of cheese I’ve ever seen. Huge, pale-yellow chunks of fontina, a local toma (a cheese made in high mountain pastures) in a light brown skin, bleu d’aoste (creamy white, threaded with electric blue) and several goat’s cheeses, one sprinkled with dried local génépi flowers, another flecked with fennel seeds and chilli flakes.
“For us in the valley, food isn’t just something to fill you up — it’s an opportunity to feel good and do something good to your body,” Ivette says. “That’s why they take care to find the best products — not ingredients from the supermarket, but from local shops and our own gardens.”
With that, she reveals more. First up are thick slices of boudin, a traditional ruby-pink salami made from beetroot, pork and potatoes. Then it’s motzetta (thin, dark, soft slices of dried beef) and, finally, lardo di arnad e castagne — slivers of pork fat, which Ivette layers over fig and chestnut rye bread and tops with chestnuts marinated in honey syrup. It’s a starter so ingrained in family meals that it’s likened to our British cuppa.
“These three meats are like the holy trinity of cold cuts,” Ale says. “You never get tired of eating them.” Ivette moves them around the serving board for a few minutes, adds a sprig of pine for decor and finally nods. She’s confident it tastes good and now it looks good, too.
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.
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.”
Four flavours to try in Courmayeur
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.
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.
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
Follow us on social media