An hour from Milano

When lockdown was lifted, it all felt like someone’s idea of a joke as it rained for what felt like an eternity.

Then it stopped, and the heat arrived.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with Italy, and in this case northern Italy, there is heat and there is northern Italian heat. It’s the muggy, relentless kind where the air stands still, and the mountains play hide and seek under the haze of a lost memory. It’s heat that induces lakeside aperitivos in settings that have appeared in Hollywood films (the lake being Lake Como) and dinners in squares in places that someone knows. It’s that all-Italian summer with a heavy dose of dolce vita, home to the beautiful adorned in beautiful clothes and sunglasses.

Today though, I’m the one who’s in a haze, mainly because I was up gardening until the early hours on my balcony. There was a breeze, and besides it was nice just to chill with my son and make trips to the garage at midnight to find things we really needed. Gardening on my balcony is one of my joys in life that goes with planning trips around what I’m going to eat and driving 300 kilometres to see what’s round the corner.

Today I have a brand new baby tomato which is almost as exciting as the baby guinea pigs which were born during lockdown. We never even realised she was pregnant, just walked in one evening and there was another little guinea pig. We called him Luce, or light, because that’s what we needed at the time. Another two arrived about a month later. And there you have it, the miracle of guinea pig birth or what happens when you thought you bought two girls and mother nature shows you that you didn’t.

I shall be launching a new series here soon called An hour from Milano. Milano because for those of us who live here Milan can never be anything but Milano. It’s a bit like Rome can only be Roma, and always with attitude.

I’ll be exploring places that you can get to that are – you guessed it – an hour (or so) from Milan. I’ll be giving the local lowdown on those places I’ve got to know during the twenty and more years I’ve lived here, and others I’ve always wanted to visit but never quite got round to.

I began my travels around Italy, getting on and off trains. Shortly afterwards, I met an Italian boyfriend (now husband) who introduced me to mountains, food in mountain refuges and flying up and down mountain passes in an Opel Corsa in the early hours of the morning. The Opel Corsa is long gone but the love of all the rest is still the same.

Check back soon for more.

Photo: View of Milan from the Brianza countryside, Rachael Martin

Up Lake Como without a plan

It started off as it often does with a vague idea to go off somewhere that ends up somewhere else which is always the best thing about it.

On this day in particular, I wanted to explore the part of Lake Como between Como and Bellagio. The other side from Como leads up past Cernobbio and Cadenabbia as far as Menaggio, all of which draw the tourists in. But I wanted to get away from this and go to the quieter parts of the lake where you can still feel a whisper of the past.

I ended up in Molina, a hamlet of Faggeto Lario up on the mountainside on the hunt for a trattoria I wanted to try. A couple of locals recommended another one, Hosteria Antica Molina, where I ate a starter that included polenta with melted lardo – yes, that really does mean lard, not to be eaten regularly maybe, but delicious when you do.

And while I was sitting eating my brasato (slow-cooked beef in red wine) and polenta, I got chatting to some fellow diners who told me about the old torchio or wine press in the nearby hamlet of Palanzo further up the road. And before I knew it we were talking cows, as you do when you’re halfway up a mountainside in the local trattoria.

“At one time there were about three hundred cows during the 1940s, and now I have the only two cows left in the village,” the large man sitting on the next table tells me. It’s the same story to be heard wherever there are villages that were once self-sustained by agriculture. The young people have now left, some gone to Como and there is no one left to make the cheese or the wine like once upon a time.

So after lunch, off I went up to Palanzo and as chance often has it met the brother of the large guy who showed me the wine press. It’s dated 1572 and is now a national monument. It was in use until the 1960s but nowadays is only used for the yearly October Sagre del Torchio, the highlight of the village year that this year takes place on the weekend of 7th-9th September. The grapes are no longer grown there of course. They get them in especially for the occasion, and there are concerts and the band plays just as you’d expect in a small village on the side of a mountain. He tells me about how things used to be years ago. “It was beautiful here,” the man tells me. “A real sight. Everything gold, all these golden fields of grain. It was all cultivated from the lakeside as high up as 800m, and all terraced too.”

He tells me about the cycle of the seasons: the planting of grana saraceno or buckwheat followed by the potatoes in turn followed by the wheat. He shows me the large pestle and mortar that was used to grind chestnuts. The flour was then used to make pasta and can I imagine it being rolled out into sheets and cut into tagliatelle, thick and slightly uneven. People had everything they needed here, and it wasn’t until the 1950s, he tells me, that the road came up here.

He could have been any man all over Italy remembering past times and past lives weathered by change. Yet it’s easy to be blinded by nostalgia, and especially on a beautiful sunny Spring day, to forget the harsh realities that often lie within.

Hostaria Antica Molina, Piazza San Antonio, 2/2, Molina di Faggeto Lario, 22020 (CO), 031 3370199 https://www.anticamolina.com/

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Clockwise from back: mortadella, grilled polenta with lardo, local salami with melted cheese and fresh soft cheese dressed with pepper and oil.

Eating chisciöi above Lake Como

True to every stereotype, it’s a beautiful Spring day up on Lake Como and I’m sitting on the sheltered terrace of Crotto di Biosio, feeling like I’ve hit the jackpot in some game called la dolce vita. Of course living in Italy isn’t all dolce vita, by any means. My life is very probably your life, and the only real difference is I’m doing it in Italian. And besides, we’re up in the north and the dolce vita always reminds me of Rome and Anita Ekberg in the Trevi Fountain in Fellini’s film of the same name. Any nothern Italian version would have to be in Milan, and not the usual frenetic face of Milan, but an older Milan, slightly more weathered with age and only truly discovered on a closer look. And if you want to apply it to Lake Como, it would definitely be more Grace Kelly in a vintage convertible with a silk Hermès headscarf. Not sure my B-Max would have quite the same effect.

In any case – dolce vita or not – there’s something about this place that just encourages a more laid-back, chilled approach to the whole affair of life. And Lake Como really is as beautiful as they say. Wordsworth, Shelley and Byron all waxed lyrical about it, and you only have to come up here to understand why.

So here I am at Crotto di Biosio, a typical rustic restaurant that lies in the hamlet of Biosio just above Bellano. It’s a homely, friendly type of place that sells itself to you not just for the food but also for the view. Originally known as Crott de Balin, it’s a usual stop along the Viandante that stretches along the eastern fork of Lake Como. Viandante literally means a route on foot, or in this case path along the lower parts of the mountains that stretches 45 km from Abbadia as far as Colico at the north of the lake. Crott de Balin was (and still is) the type of place where you knew you could stop off for a drink and something to eat. It was also a popular place for the Bellano locals to while away a Sunday afternoon, playing cards whilst drinking the odd carafe of wine and a plate of salumi or cold meats.

The crotto passed to the Denti family during the 1960s, and today I’m welcomed by Mauro Denti’s grandson. It’s a family business that’s stood the test of time and some of the family are on a table next to us as they take a break from producing the olive oil in the building below the terrace. It’s also a place I’ve come to with my family when family and friends have visited and we’ve brought them to Lake Como. I have photos of a lunch we had when my elder son was christened, of my son’s first birthday party and other more recent visits. It’s part of the home, my home, in what was once only foreign.

Mauro’s grandson recommends the chisciöi. Chisciöi is a word in the dialect that comes from the Valtellina valley, the large flat valley that begins above the top of Lake Como. They’re literally pancakes made with buckwheat flour and fried until crisp, and then filled with Casera Valtellina cheese, a cheese produced in the province of Sondrio that’s been around since the 16th century. It’s a bit like a type of pancake sandwich, crisp and oozing with melted mountain cheese, and all served on a bed of thin sliced chicory, a typical accompaniment to dishes from this area. And oh my word, are these moreish.

As I sit and eat my chisciöi and survey the view of the lake, it’s easy to imagine how the crotto formed a welcome break (and still does) for walkers along the Viandante. Only today I haven’t walked the Viandante. I’ve driven up via a stop at Varenna, and a fascinating encounter with an elderly lady who used to own the bed and breakfast in the square where some of family stayed when I got married there. It turns out she’s an Italian teacher and a writer of children’s books, who came to the lake with her family to escape the genocides in Armenia nearly a hundred years ago. She gives me her phone number and we agree to meet another day. Another chance encounter, and another story to be told.

Crotto Biosio, Via per Biosio, 1, 23822 Bellano, 0341 821362, http://www.biosio.it

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The view from Crotto di Biosio

Easter cakes in Lodi

The Agnello di Pasqua (Paschal Lamb or Easter Lamb) is a classic Easter cake from the Lodi area or the Lodigiana. It’s made of flaky pastry and is usually filled with crema pasticciera (Italian custard). Variations are fillings of Chantilly cream or chocolate.

At Pasticceria La Lombarda (the Lombard) in Lodi, they have been preparing cakes and other sweets for 90 years. It was Easter Saturday and preparations were well underway for the big Easter lunch the next day. The agnello di Pasqua is the pasticceria’s strong point and very popular.

I remember once being in Paris and walking away from a patisserie with a little cake wrapped in a box (Parisian style and incredibly chic) and thinking it was the most heavenly thing I could possibly hold in my hands. This had a similar effect, the ritual of something special all wrapped up, in this case freshly made cannoncini. 

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Pasticceria La Lombarda, Via Garibaldi, 16, Lodi.

Montespluga

“Go there today,” the woman in the café tells me. “You don’t get many days like today.”

“No?” I ask her.

“Not up the Spluga. You probably get about five clear days every summer, really clear days.”

I’d set off that morning, passport at the ready, with the intention of going up the border into Soglio in Switzerland, what was once voted the most beautiful village in Italy. And it would have been beautiful, perfectly Alpine, picture postcard, and I would have sat in a bar and drank coffee and eaten a brioche or whatever else was on offer and thought I was in some earthly paradise.

She mentioned Spluga and I was off. I’d forgotten the road or rather I remembered it as far as Campodolcino and had forgotten about the sharp bends on the stretch afterwards up to Madesimo. The part where you literally traverse up the mountain pass and if my husband were driving, he’d have been belting his way up there, and I’ve have been shouting (possibly screaming) SLOW DOWN. Just SLOW DOWN. It never had that effect when I first met him. We’d be up and down mountain passes at all times of the night, on icy roads and with thick snow falling, and I don’t remember screaming at him. Then I got a bit older, and I’d met mortality. And that made me want to slow him down.

Anyway, today I was in control.

There’s something about travelling alone that makes me ever more convinced it really is the perfect way to travel. I don’t think I could ever do group holidays. It’s not that I don’t like the people who I could have a group holiday with, I just don’t like the idea of it. It’s the whole idea of getting up in the morning and deciding where to go. It’s a no go from the start.

Then after I’d driven up the few hair-raising bends, the whole landscape opened out. I’d left the trees behind. It was late March and the snow was still on the ground, although not as much as some years. Where it had melted, the mountains were brown and in need of more days of sunshine before they would take on the colours of summer.

It was strange being up there in the snow. It gave the whole place a sense of false calm, as if the snow was covering its true nature. I’d expected it to feel wilder, more remote. Whereas it felt crisp and beautiful and slightly too perfect. Maybe that was the effect of the clear blue skies.

I remember coming up here to go walking one spring. It had seemed like a good day.

After a couple of hours we were huddled by the side of the mountain refuge, trying to protect ourselves from the sleet.