Winter is here (well, sort of in the Colorado Rockies) and it’s never too early to start planning your summer escape in the Alps. I highly recommend a retreat from the world — digital and otherwise — with a trip to Des Martin’s Rifugio Valliera in Castelmagno.
In 2007, Barolo wine producer Chiara Boschis, her brother Cesare, and her fellow group members of the Des Martin consortium turned their attention to Castelmagno to renovate buildings and revive the area’s cheese-making traditions. At the timberline in the commune are abandoned hamlets where families once lived off the land year-round. The group purchased half of Valliera, a hamlet nearly 5,000 feet above sea level at timberline. They named their consortium “Des Martin,” after the hamlet’s last inhabitants. Yet another group that shared the vision purchased the remaining Valliera property, and the hamlet’s renaissance was under way.
That same year, Des Martin hired an experienced casara (cheese maker) who began experimenting with various forms at a nearby dairy during the construction of Des Martin’s casei-ficio (creamery). By 2015, the Des Martin cowherd exceeded 40 head. Chiara often quips that while other women buy great cars and take exotic vacations, she buys cows.
Chiara and the other members of the consortium dream of more groups coming to the mountains to transform the remaining hamlets. Already her fellow Barolo producer Elio Altare has rejuvenated mountain life in the hamlet of Campo Fei above Rifugio Valliera. Life begins anew above timberline.
In June 2015, Agriturismo Des Martin opened. The nine (9) apartments provide warm, homey lodgings for visitors seeking the peace and tranquility that communing with nature and the past provide. Chiara envisions the rebirth of a vibrant mountain culture through her passionate nurturing of agricultural restoration.
Book soon for this unique mountain experience!
Piemonte is calling!
For more information on visiting Agriturismo Des Martin or to book an exclusive, customized Labor of Love tour of Piemonte, contact Suzanne Hoffman at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I met Barolo winemaker and nature lover, Chiara Boschis, on a research trip to Piemonte in March 2013. One of the first woman wine producers in the Langhe, Chiara is the proprietor and winemaker of E. Pira e Figli, a 30,000 bottle annual production winery in Barolo.
In that first interview, she told me the intriguing story of the Des Martin ethical project in Castelmagno, a commune high in the Valle Grana in western Piemonte.
In 2007, Chiara and nine others, including her brother, Cesare Boschis, embarked on a mission to procure and renovate a portion of Valliera, an abandoned timberline hamlet in the commune. Their goal: resurrect Valliera to preserve a dying cheese making tradition.
The project embodies Chiara’s passionate dedication to honoring nature and preserving tradition. The intersection of her enthusiasm for the project and my love of the cheese prompted me to ask her to take my husband and me to Valliera for a firsthand experience. Chiara promised to do so. Chiara makes no empty promises. Early in the morning on the last day of June 2013, our exploration of this bit of history began.
Not really a day of rest
Three months of relentless rain and cold nights stymied Piemonte’s vines in the early growing season. However, two weeks of warm sunshine in early June coaxed tendrils to reach for the sky and begin their summer grape-making chore. Developing vines demand attention and already Chiara had her own chores in the vineyards. Nevertheless, she willingly dedicated her Sunday to guide us on a unique mountain adventure few visitors – and locals – have experienced.
It certainly wasn’t a “day off” for Chiara. Truth is I’m not certain if such a thing exists for someone easily described as “The Energizer Bunny of Wine.” She volunteered to drive to Valliera, nearly two hours to the west of Barolo. Given her pickup was more suited for the rough mountain roads to the alpeggio than our low-to-the-ground rental car, I ceded driving responsibilities to her.
Chiara’s longtime Belgian friends, Willy and Marie Therese Van Riel, joined us at her winery in Barolo early that morning. For the past 17 years, the Van Riels have returned to Piemonte at least twice a year. This was their first trip into the Occitane valleys that lie along Italy’s western, alpine border. Together, we piled into the double cab pickup like excited kids on a field trip.
Traversing Varying Landscapes
Piemonte consists of three geographically distinct areas – mountains, plains and hills. Our drive west at Chiara’s leisurely pace – unusual for a Piemontese under the age of 80 – took us through all three. First, we drove along winding roads through rolling, vineyard carpeted hills in the southern reaches of the Barolo appellation. The lush, green canopies were in stark contrast to the barren vines of winter and spring, and vibrant gold and yellow leaves of autumn I’m used to seeing.
Soon, the hills were behind us as we reached the flatland between the Langhe and mountains. Here, instead of grapevines, the earth nourishes crops such as fruits, particularly apples and kiwis, vegetables and Cuneo’s famous climbing beans. Chiara gave us a lesson in all the crops, the increasing climate change issues, particularly hail, and the history of the region’s many frescoed churches and chapels. This really was a school field trip! Like sponges, we absorbed Chiara’s wisdom and knowledge.
Earlier, as we drove across the plain, Chiara pointed out churches and chapels that house frescoes painted by 15th century artists who roamed from town to town. The wealthy House of Savoy ruled the region from the 11th century until the end of the Italian monarchy in June 1946. The noble family commissioned artists from Italy, France and beyond creating what today is a fresco museum of sorts spread across Piemonte. The chapel of S. Sebastiano is one of those hidden-in-plain-sight gems.
Located steps away from the busy road, adjacent to a cemetery, the chapel’s nondescript exterior belies the art treasure that adorns its ceiling. Only a simple sign on a tilting post provided hints of the chapel’s significance.
Pietro da Saluzzo was one of the prolific traveling Renaissance artists. We peeked through the large viewing window cut into the exterior wall and marveled at his incredibly detailed and well-preserved fresco, described by some as “remarkable and witty.” It was a bit surrealistic viewing this five century-old painting while standing beside a road, with cows grazing nearby. This is what I love about Italy. Not all its treasures are locked away in traditional museums. Had Chiara not stopped there, my ignorance of Piemonte’s Renaissance fresco painters would still exist.
The field trip continued as we piled back into the truck and continued our drive along the Grana River. Chiara was now on a mission. Next stop, a small bakery where sought-after baguettes are baked daily.
Two Baguettes, Cheese and a Smile
This bakery – sorry, didn’t get the name – is legendary for its crusty baguettes, an unusual bread in Italy, no doubt a result of French influence in the valley under the Savoys. Buying one, however, is challenging.
As we approached, people leaving the shop clutched their treasured baguettes and glanced sideways as though suspicious we would snatch their bread.
Chiara was not only determined to buy baguettes for a late morning snack at our destination, but to coax a smile from the aged, rotund and rather grumpy woman who ran the shop. Smiling is something Chiara has mastered. Her throaty laugh combined with her broad smile that easily spreads across her face, could make anyone grin. Except this woman.
Chiara pleaded with her to sell us two baguettes. It wasn’t an easy task since the day’s allotment of this caviar of bread was dwindling fast. I couldn’t quite understand the exchange between Chiara and the guardian of the bread, but whatever she said worked. We scored two loaves, but no smile.
Delicious, crispy bread with a somewhat salty crust deserves something very special to go with it. Since we were in the land of one of the most revered cheeses in Italy, Castelmagno was a no-brainer choice for Chiara to add to her bread purchase.
As we climbed back into the truck, Chiara offered a loaf to us to try. It was still warm. Had we turned around and driven back to Barolo, the drive for the bread and cheese would have been worth it. However, waiting up the valley were more delights to tickle our senses.
Walk, Don’t Drive
In late autumn 2008, Dani and I explored Castelmagno’s villages. Therefore, when we began climbing the excruciatingly narrow and steep road to Colletto, the tight 180-degree switchbacks didn’t worry me. Well, at first that is.
The truck’s poor turning radius and difficult gearbox weren’t suited for the road. Chiara had to turn, shift gears, roll backward, shift, and turn again to navigate the tight switchbacks. The flimsy metal-pipe guardrail offered no solace to the terrified. Remember, I told you the road’s steep. Little did I know, this was child’s play compared to what awaited us between Colletto and Valliera.
As we reached the tiny, cliff-side village of Colletto, I finally exhaled. My easy breathing and lowering heart rate lasted all of 10 seconds. We began the final climb up the rocky, even narrower and steeper road – if that was possible – through the forest to Valliera. Cows and herders walk this road twice a year. Now we were driving it. I vowed to walk down, if we made it up.
Taking the metaphorical high road is often fraught with perils. The real ones can be risky, too. The steep gravel road with sharp turns and switchbacks was just that, risky. I trusted Chiara with her dogged determination and experience with the road, but my fear of heights plagued me.
Although I sat in the front passenger seat, I thought perhaps the back of the pickup may have suited me better, preferably under a blanket with my eyes squeezed shut. The lovely view ahead through the thick forest captivated us, but it was the absence of any road to my right and the sheer drop down the tree-lined mountainside that opened the door for fear to creep in.
“Don’t look,” I kept telling myself. Unfortunately, the plunging landscape mesmerized me. Chiara tried reassuring us that we weren’t really high up. Given the valley floor was 1,500 feet below, down the near vertical mountainside, I found no solace in her words. The chicken in me would not rest.
Finally, we were out of the forest. Valliera appeared like the Emerald City. As we parked in a clearing above Valliera, I released my death grip on the door handle and took my first easy breath since we left the valley floor.
In the distance, we could see tiny Colletto far below. Through breaks in the forest, I could see the steep road we traveled. Chiara jumped out and quickly set up an aperativo of Italy’s holy trinity – bread, cheese and wine.
The scrumptious late morning snack consisted of the crispy, slightly salty baguettes from the frowning lady’s shop, soft, flaky Castelmagno cheese and a bottle of Chiara’s own exquisite Dolcetto d’Alba. It beat any tailgate party I’d experienced.
Torino’s Siren Song
As we stood savoring Chiara’s treats, I felt haunted as I looked down at the ghostly hamlet Des Martin is bringing to life and thought of the centuries-old mountain culture that came to an abrupt halt in the 1950s and 60s.
For countless generations, the inhabitants of these high mountain hamlets tended their cows, sheep, goats and gardens in the summer and, with the animals, retreated indoors when the snows arrived. They made good use of the long, solitary winters. While barricaded in the hamlet until the spring thaw, they whiled away the hours repairing tools and making furniture. It wasn’t an easy life.
In the 1950s and 60s, the lure of jobs at Fiat and promises of the good life prompted mountain dwellers to abandon their villages and head for Piemonte’s capital, Torino. People simply took what little they needed, left the rest and fled their alpeggio life for the unknown – but promised – riches of the city. Valliera, like other hamlets in the Castelmagno commune, was abandoned.
For five decades, the abandoned hamlet endured Mother Nature’s high country winter wrath on its own. When the members of the Des Martin consortium arrived, the hamlet, though decaying, was mountain life frozen in time.
Tattered, moth-eaten clothes still hung in closets. Empty plates lay on tables. Stained, musty mattresses were on rickety beds. Chiara likens the exodus to the California Gold Rush when people abandoned lives they knew for promises of riches in a different world. They simply vanished, blending into Torino’s population.
For an hour, we explored the dwellings before arriving at Des Martin’s renovated buildings – modern on the inside, rustic on the outside – that housed the consortium’s living and cheese production quarters.
Cheesemaker Ilaria Tomatis was busy draining forms of wet cheese.
We popped our heads into the two refrigerated rooms where 5-kilogram blocks of precious alpeggio cheese were aging. The short, five-month season yields 500 forms of Castelmagno. Obviously, much more is needed for economic viability. However, for now, the owners are content with saving the hamlet and starting up the operation.
By 1:00, Chiara ended her intriguing guided tour of the Des Martin project. It was lunchtime!
Finding Refuge at the Table
Huts of all sorts dot the high mountain landscape throughout the Alps. In Italy, rifugi alpini (Alpine shelters) provide resting spots for trekkers across the mountains. Rifugio Valliera provided us a place to sit and enjoy a typical Occitania lunch al fresco.
At the long picnic table, we joined Flavia Arneodo, manager of the Rifugio, Ilaria, Flavia’s father Piero, workers and Des Martin’s cow herder. It was a feast!
As with every Italian meal, antipasti were set out on wooden boards – frittata, lardo, and salami with the obligatory grissini. Travel in Piemonte is not a time to watch your cholesterol. Besides, this was fresh food, free of chemicals.
Small pitchers of house Dolcetto were set out, but Chiara produced another bottle from her cellar – Barbera d’Alba. What can I say about her wines other than each one, even those from the humblest grapes, is stellar?
First course was salsiccia with fresh tomato sauce over polenta, the starch of choice for meat in Piemonte. On the table were plates heaped with Gorgonzola and creamy, fresh butter to add to the dish, as though additions were needed. What the heck? Cheese is one of my favorite food sins so I happily sinned on the region’s famous soft blue cheese.
Flavia then offered gnocchi with a rich, creamy fonduta of Castelmagno. This was an epicurean no-brainer. Despite having gorged myself on salsiccia, a meal in Castelmagno is incomplete without the most typical of dishes – gnocchi with a silky sauce of melted Casltemagno. It’s really a splendid dish that, despite what you may think, is not heavy. It was as though we’d come upon the pot of culinary gold at the end of the rainbow.
Dessert of crostada and panna cotta perfectly punctuated the meal. Cost of this feast? A whopping $15 per person. Just the view and the delightful ambience of sharing a meal with the locals were worth far more.
It was now time to say our good-byes and head down the road. The wine had done nothing to assuage my fears, so my husband Dani and Marie Therese Van Riel joined me for the steep hike down to Colletto. Chiara tried, but failed to convince Marie Therese’s husband, Willy, to drive the truck down so she could walk. Hiking gave me a chance to safely view the steep drop from the narrow road. Just as scary walking as driving, but the awe I felt gazing at the splendid vistas quickly replaced my fears.
Marie Therese perfectly stated the experience of visiting Valliera with Chiara and those dedicated to preserving this cultural gem, “It was an exclusive experience money could not buy.” Chiara mentioned we were probably the last to see the buildings as they were left decades ago. Renovation continued all summer during which time the ghostly remains of clothes, furniture and bedding were removed.
The high road we had taken lead us back to Chiara’s cellar. Sipping her beautiful wines while she wove stories about their production was the perfect finish to an intriguing day.
Chiara and her brother, Cesare Boschis, who is director of Des Martin, possess an infectious passion for the project. Their vision is for Des Martin to have both cheese-making and lodging facilities, making it an agriturismo experience connecting old with new. I can’t wait to check in, but I think I’ll walk up next time.
Note: Des Martin’s agriturismo at Rifugio Valliera is scheduled to open in August 2014. Stay tuned for more details on these lodgings in the sky.