In the north of Lombardy, just across the Swiss border, you enter Italy gently, accompanied by the charm of a Renaissance that refuses to let itself be forgotten and by determined craftsmen who slip everywhere on the tables. Because it’s better that way, of course!
My train stops in Saronno. Does that name ring a bell? But of course, the amaretti, those little almond biscuits that sometimes accompany coffee in Italian establishments of a certain standing (or taste). My route continues towards the centre of Milan, where I will spend the night before meeting my guides and travel companions. In Milan, despite the late hour (22:00), I won’t be able to resist the call for a pizza: I’m in Italy, what the hell.
In the early morning, after swallowing my remaining half of the pizza, I reach the central station. I know it by heart from the inside, from all my trips south and back when I was a kid. For the first time, I get out of it and embrace its grandiose beauty, the time to board the minivan that will take me to Chiavenna, close to the Valtellina Mountains, in the province of Sondrio.
Lombardy: brisaola and other blessings in Chiavenna
In Lombardy, as elsewhere in Italy, people think of feeding you first, as if an empty stomach (even a little) was intolerable. So, the first stop on our arrival in the town of Chiavenna is a bar slash pastry slash restaurant, the Mastai café-bistro where we will be served a light, but light Italian-style meal (read: sell it and ask for more).
The star of the meal is: the brisaola, a salted and seasoned raw beef (a little differently depending on the village) from Valtellina. As renowned as it is exquisite, the one called bresaola elsewhere in Italy and in the rest of the world is easily exported and you will probably find it on the shelves of your favourite Italian grocery store. It is tender and melts on the tongue.
Extravagance (and grape variety) at Palazzo Vertemate-Franchi
At the Bistrò Mastai, I accompany my meal with an Anfora, a fresh, full-bodied white wine, matured in terracotta amphoras. The Italians at my table greet this choice with enthusiasm because the Anfora is produced very locally. Its vines are grown 35 minutes’ walk from the bistro, in Palazzo Vertemate-Franchi, a 16th century villa; in fact the only building that withstood a landslide in the adjacent village of Priuro in 1618.
Palazzo Vertemate-Franchi has survived through the ages, passing through several hands, including that of the antique dealer Brianzi, who restored and redecorated it with period furniture in 1902. In 1988 it became the property of the town of Chiavenna. This priceless heritage houses two frescoes depicting the landslide as well as a multitude of other paintings and decorations with impressive graphics and geometry that give it a rare modernity.
It is also a symbol of good living, due to its (voluntary) location in the heart of nature and its gardens, orchards and vineyards, thanks to which honey, preserves and other artisanal products are still produced.