In Italy, food is more than just something to eat. Food is family and friends; it is good
wine and lots of laughter; it is the slow swirl of wood smoke and the aroma of onions sautéing in olive oil; it is a recipe passed down from generation to generation but still never quite as good as when Nonna makes it; it is huge misshapen but oh-so-sweet tomatoes and aubergine that go straight from the vine to the saucepan; it is cheese ripened to perfection. In other words, it is serious stuff.
The Sagra dei crotti is a four-day gastronomic adventure centred around the crotti of Chiavenna, Lombardy, in September every year. It celebrates all that is wonderful about
the area’s food, wine and tradition. The crotti are hollows formed by rock movement in prehistoric times still cooled by the sorei, a natural breeze from underground which keeps at a steady 6-8 degrees, perfect for maturing cheese, hams and salami and storing and ageing wine. Highlight is the Andem a Crot Chiavenna where you create a full meal by choosing four different crotti, enjoying a different food tasting at each. All four are accompanied by a boccalino of selected local wine, drunk from traditional pottery di vino “jugs” which you keep as a memento.The crotti groupings allow you to choose from a number of set tours so you can slowly mooch around Chiavenna between courses or are slightly further afield to which you drive or hop a shuttle bus. It is also possible to simply drop in at any crotti and pay to sample the food or wine.
Our first stop is Crotto Bossi in Pratogiano, close to the railway station. We pass an attractive row of houses and restaurants until our route arrow directs us up inside the cliff itself. Here Lorenzo welcomes us and directs us to a table in an area that seems hewn out of the rock face, tables looking out over a jumble of tiled roofs and chimneys. He serves plates piled high with flat ribbons of dark, rich brisaola the air-dried salted beef that is an Italian staple, and fills our jug with di vino DOC Valtellina. The brisaola is subtly smoky, close textured and delicious. We are early but already there are a dozen or so people eating and drinking. And soon, more arrive. There is laughing and pictures taken as people toast each other with the little earthenware jugs.
From Crotto Bossi it is a pleasant walk through the charming centre of the city, its narrow streets crammed with people wandering and browsing in the shops and market stalls. A male choir, dressed in the traditional trousers and check shirt of this Alpine region, is serenading diners; flowers cascade from balconies. We cut through the network of even smaller alleyways, past large intriguing wooden doors with heavy metal knockers, past the Convento del Cappucino,
cross the bridge over the river, to Crotto Osvaldo Villa e Crotto San Giovanni. Here they are serving the degustazione polenta taragna with salsiccetta and un boccalino di vino Valtellina. Even without the little blue arrows pointing us in the right direction, the smell of salsiccetta (Italian sausage) is as good as a GPS.
In impressive English (the result of a period as a pizza chef in England) Nicolas explains the waist-busting qualities of the polenta (heavy dollops of butter and cheese), the virtues of the giant coil of salsiccetta (perfecto!) and the delights that await us with our boccalino di vino Valtellina Superiore (Rioja he says, solta voce, as if a sin is about to be committed). It is well into the Italian linear lunchtime and the crowds are building. Smoke from the open-air barbecue where the salsiccetta is cooking swirls around the cobbled courtyard drifting through the improvised dining room of long tables and benches. Afterwards, Nicolas shows us the actual crotti, a dark, chilly larder, the sorei tangible against your skin. Although some of the crotti are owned by one person, he explains, many are shared by larger groups, often extended families, parts of them having been divided and handed down over many generations.
Our third stop is at Crotte De Peverelli in Poiatengo, up a pretty, windy street on the
edge of the city not far from a large botanical park that includes the strange ice age formation, the Marmitte del Giganti, and then up an equally windy staircase. Here there is the degustazione formaggi locali (ricotta, goat’s cheese, mild and strong cow’s cheese) served with fresh bread, grapes and spoonful of truly delicious local honey. Like everywhere, the people serving are friendly and welcoming despite what is now a real lunchtime rush. Three boccolino of wine consumed and the cross table conversations are increasing.
Another amble through Chiavenna, time to pop in at a special exhibition of carved wooden statues and marquetry “paintings”. Too soon, we are at our fourth and last crotti; Pratogiano and the Crotto Stampa. This is a charming, prettily-decorated crotti, that feels like we (and fifty of our new friends) have been invited into someone’s house. Here is a perfect selection of di dolci, coffee and, as the constant chorus of corks popping signal, sparkling wine. The plate of sweet desserts includes the traditional chocolate salami (much better than it sounds) made with chocolate, broken biscuits, butter, eggs and often rum or port wine.
Even as we are packing up to leave, people are still pouring into Chiavenna. The Andem a Crot tickets remain available until 6pm and the last servings are at 8pm, but people will be settling for conventional dinner at crotti and restaurants until much, much later. A disco is warming up in one of the main squares entertaining a group of uninhibited children who have moved on from the bouncy whale. The stalls are still selling everything from cuckoo clocks to stuffed olives; tiles painted with local scenes to large wheels of cheese; lavender soaps and creams to traditional stoves.
Chiavenna itself is a very attractive historical city well worth visiting even without the Sagra due Crotti although it does run a number of food-themed events during the rest of the year. The Collegiate Church of San Lorenzo, for example, is directly under the impressive glare of the nearby mountains and has a beautiful atmospheric quadrangle. The Church houses the Treasure Museum including the unique Peace of Chiavenna, an exquisite 11-12th Century gold cover for a religious book heavily decorated with jewels and miniatures. Watch out for the beautifully preserved 16th and 17th century gateways and facades that are all across the city.
The Sagra dei Crotti is held in Chiavenna every September usually on the first Sunday then the subsequent Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Tickets for the Andem a Crot Chiavenna, which takes place on the second Sunday, can be booked online, or by ringing organisers.