The culinary tradition of the Orco and Soana valleys and more generally of the Canavese valleys (Sacra, Chiusella, Malone) is strongly tied to the territory and its resources, as well as its ancient history. Thus, the practice of breeding has given rise to the traditional production of milk and dairy products.
Before delving into the description of individual dairy products, it should be noted that not all dairy products worldwide are the same, as scientific studies have now widely demonstrated that the diet of milking animals profoundly affects the chemical and nutritional characteristics of the final products. From milk obtained from pasture-fed fresh grass and/or mountain forage, we get butter and cheeses rich in polyunsaturated fatty acids, namely the famous “omega-3,” whose anti-tumor and productive properties of the so-called “good cholesterol” are now widely recognized in literature. In the Canavese valleys, you can find this type of cheese!
Toma is a cheese made from whole or partially skimmed raw cow’s milk by flocculation, with a soft or semi-hard texture, of medium seasoning, with a cylindrical shape and flat or slightly convex faces. The weight of Toma forms usually ranges from 3.0 to 7.0 kg; the smooth crust is straw-colored/grayish. It may show the typical indentation on a plate due to the traditional forming technique that uses only natural fiber cloth, without a mold. The paste ranges in color from straw yellow to white with small and widespread eyes, with a consistency between soft and semi-hard; the taste, with a characteristic aroma, is harmonious and delicate, linked to seasonal varieties of flora, becoming more intense and fragrant with aging. For its production, whole or partially skimmed milk is used, combining the milk from two milkings (it is left to settle in pots in the evening and then added to the milk from the morning milking); the milk from a single milking can also be used.
The milk, placed in a copper pot, is heated to a coagulation temperature of about 35–37 °C, which is maintained for an average of one hour, using both liquid and powdered animal rennet. For this reason, it is called a “semi-cooked” cheese. Subsequently, the breaking of the curd begins, carried out with a harrow, until the grains are reduced to the size of corn/rice, which serves to separate it from the whey. The curd thus obtained is then formed in molds or, as is usually done in mountain pastures, simply with a canvas cloth. An additional pressing phase is sometimes carried out to improve drainage and the consistency of the curd, which is then salted.
Aging takes place in cellars or “crottini” (environments with ceilings, walls, and floors in natural stone) or other suitable environments for this phase. The aging boards can be made of wood; the minimum aging is 15 days for smaller forms and 60 days for larger forms.
Il Brus is a re-fermented cheese cream, crumbly when cut like a dry ricotta, a fresh cheese without a crust that can be consumed young or after 5-6 months of aging, produced from the whey. The processing involves adding a certain proportion of freshly milked milk or the evening milking to the whey from the previous day, then letting it rest for 2 to 3 hours up to an entire night, sometimes adding a variable amount of cream. The whey is then drained in cloths. The paste can be mixed with salt and pepper or chili.
CREAM AND BUTTER
Butter comes from the processing of cream, obtained by natural settling, letting the milk rest in refrigerated tanks; the cream thus settled is then transferred to the “zangola,” a tool where, through centrifugal action, it is beaten, favoring the agglomeration of fat and its separation from the whey. Once beaten, the butter must be washed with plenty of cold water and kneaded by hand to facilitate the drainage of the whey and make it as homogeneous as possible. Finally, the dough is placed in specific wooden molds, carved with characteristic motifs, where it takes on the shape of a block of varying sizes. From 100 liters of milk, about 10 liters of cream and only 3 kilograms of butter are obtained.
Polenta is a dish made from water and cornmeal, which in the past was long the staple food of many Alpine and Apennine regions. In addition to cornmeal, it was sometimes also prepared with chestnut flour or by mixing the two types of flour. In the traditional preparation, water is salted and brought to a boil in a copper pot, then the flour is added gradually, stirring with a specially shaped wooden stick (the “talup”) to avoid the formation of lumps. The cooking lasts about 45 minutes, and the polenta is considered cooked when characteristic crusts begin to form on the edges of the pot; it is then removed from the heat and overturned onto a wooden board, where it is cut into portions using a thread. The polenta was consumed as is, perhaps accompanied by a dish of vegetable soup or cheese, or cut into small pieces and mixed with milk (polenta and milk), typically for dinner and/or breakfast. Particularly delicious is polenta prepared with Pignoletto Rosso corn, a local Canavese variety ground with stone.
Polenta concia is prepared by adding butter and diced cheese to the cooked polenta. There are numerous preparation variants: the simplest involves simply adding butter and cheese and continuing to stir until the said ingredients melt; others involve transferring the cooked polenta to terrines or pans, alternating it with layers of butter and cheese, and then baking it in the oven or on the stove for a few minutes.
Typical recipe from the municipality of Ribordone (TO), in the Orco Valley: it is a ball of polenta filled with cheeses, toasted on cast iron.
SPONTANEOUS HERBS IN THE KITCHEN
Another characteristic of mountain cuisine is the use of edible wild herbs, which in the past constituted a precious dietary integration for mountain populations, linked to subsistence agriculture. Among the most commonly used herbs are nettle (Urtica dioica), cujet (Silene vulgaris), bistort (Polygonum bistorta), sorrel (Rumex acetosa), ajucche (Phyteuma sp.), wild spinach (Chenopodium bonus-henricus). The young shoots of hops (Humulus lupulus, locally called luvertin), as well as those of hen’s milk with yellowish flowers (Ornithogalum pyrenaicum), were cooked like asparagus. Below, we list some traditional herb-based dishes.
WILD HERB SOUP
A typical spring dish, it is prepared simply by gathering, washing, and boiling the leaves and/or tips of numerous edible herbs, depending on what is available locally.
WILD HERB SOUPS
These soups are cooked by recovering hardened bread, boiling and softening it in broth along with cooked herbs, adding cheese flakes, and optionally baking everything. Particularly sought after is the ajucche soup, a typical dish of Valchiusella, where this type of herb is abundant.
FRITTATA DI GITULLE
Characteristic of gitulle is its sour taste, similar to lemon juice. The frittata is prepared by blanching the gitulle in a pan, then adding beaten eggs.
In the Gran Paradiso area, numerous liqueurs are produced from various species of aromatic herbs. The most famous and characteristic is certainly the genepy, obtained from the Artemisia genipi and Artemisia umbelliformis species: an excellent digestive with expectorant properties and an alcohol content ranging from 35 to 42°. Other characteristic liqueurs produced in the area from various species of aromatic herbs include ruta (Achillea erba-rotta), “kummel” (or cumin, obtained by macerating the seeds of the umbelliferous Carum Carvi), gentian (bitter obtained from Gentiana lutea or gentiana acaulis), and blueberry (from Vaccinium myrtilus).
Chestnut cultivation has been an essential component of the diet and rural economy in the Alpine and Apennine regions for centuries (the so-called chestnut age). Chestnuts were consumed as they were, boiled, or prepared as roasted chestnuts, and they were also ground to obtain flour. In the Canavese area, two varieties traditionally cultivated are neirana, with a shiny small-fruited, particularly tasty; and verdese, with a light medium to large-fruited suitable for industrial processing.
The rich local flora allows the production of various types of mountain honey in Canavese:
- Multifloral: alpine flora and honey with a prevalence of chestnut and lime;
- Monofloral: chestnut, rhododendron, lime.
It is a resinous substance collected by bees in the buds of certain plants (birch, willow); propolis is recognized for its antibacterial, anesthetic, healing, and anti-inflammatory properties. Recommended for respiratory infections, it is now used by those who want to treat themselves with natural means.
The original recipe was created in the late 19th century. After kneading butter, cornmeal, sugar, wheat flour, eggs, and lemon, the pastries are placed on a tin, using a tinned copper syringe to manually push the dough through a piston, and baked at a temperature of 170 degrees for 20 minutes. The result is a cornmeal paste that is unmatched in quality and fragrance.