Saturday, October 04, 2014

Rifugio Hopping in the Alps

Rifugio Selleries in Val Chisone Italy
As the mountain huts of the high country begin to close their doors for the winter I wanted to share with you a few thoughts and photos that have been lurking in my unpublished blog posts since this summer. 
It is my humble opinion, that one of the greatest pleasures of mountain life in the Alps of Europe, is the very civilized tradition of  hiking up to the mountain huts or rifugios, as they are known here in Italy for a meal, or drink or an overnight stay. The summer season has slipped away before I could extol the joys of hiking and staying up in the part of the world where chamois and Ibex make their home, where the marmots whistle and warn each other that people are on their way, and the occasional grazing contented cow or two will dot the mountainside.
Cows on the way to Rifugio Selleries - Val Chisone
I want to pique your interest into making sure that you put this experience at the top of your "must do someday" to sooner, rather than later, so you don't miss out on, what I consider to be, a most special experience. There is still time to hike in the high country before the weather sets in and there are a few huts that stay open all winter, but the majority of huts are put to bed for the winter. The people that run them, just like the cows and sheep that have spent their summer grazing up high, come down from their alpine eyries and do something different for the winter. 
Val Pellice
I have always had a passion for hiking since probably my teenage years of traipsing around in the woods with friends seeing the wonders of nature even in my backyard in the hollers of backwoods southern Illinois. We camped a bit as a family growing up, but we usually had a little camper and almost never used tents. Tent camping was a revelation. To be able to get to places whose beauty was so breathtaking and humbling, was intoxicating and definitely something I wanted to do as often as possible.  Fast forward past the many backpacking trips in the Rockies when I made my home in the high country of Colorado to living in "the" Alps, the Italian alps. Now having lived in the Alps of Slovenia, Switzerland, Austria, and Italy for a number of years, I have been fortunate to be able to revel in the joys of skiing or walking up to a mountain hut just to have lunch. 
Val Pellice
Who knew that there would be people living at these huts and serving up food and drink for weary hikers so they wouldn't have to drag all that equipment and food around and just be able to breath in the beauty of the wildflowers, animals and skies of blue and sometimes weather that that makes you wonder what were you thinking? But then you get to the hut and there is hearty sustaining food for the asking, reviving or numbing drinks, warm water (usually, but not always warm) and either bunks or small private rooms to rest those weary bones. I have also been fortunate enough to sometimes stay overnight and on a  few occasions been able to link a few days of hut to hut travel. What a fantastic time it is to be able to stay up in the mountains and walk to your next destination knowing you aren't going to have to find a proper tent spot, fire wood or crack out the camp stove and boil something. I must admit that I do sometimes miss that freedom, but hey, you gotta try this style of camping some time. It will spoil you rotten and you are supporting a livelihood of people who are there to provide you this most excellent service. Staying in a mountain hut is not fancy, definitely rustic, and always interesting. That at least has been my experience. 
Rifugio Selleries - Val Chisone
Basic Hut Information
When making your plans remember that most mountain huts are open from approximately June to mid June to the end of September, but that can vary depending on how high up they are and how fast or slowly the snow melts in the spring. We have a variety of huts in our valley and there is a wonderful circular itinerary close to us called the Monviso Tour / Val Pellice that circles Monviso mountain, which is the highest peak in our range of Cozie or Cottian alps. The circular takes a minimum of 5 nights in alpine huts and walks between them are gauged in manageable distances. It is good to factor in a couple of extra days just in case the weather is uncooperative or the snow hasn't gone or arrived unexpectedly. That doesn't always happen but weather does happen, so it is good to have some extra time too just in case you need to use it.
There are various huts listed on the itinerary with numbers to contact once they are back in business for the season. Most huts have quite a lot of room for travelers, so there usually isn't a problem to get a place to sleep, but usually helpful to make a reservation during the busiest period during August when most of Europe is on holiday. My understanding too is that huts can not turn you away even if all of their dedicated beds are full. They must offer floor space and shelter as is the tradition of the high country. I did see that happen once in Austria when we came down in the mooring there were people scattered all over the floor. Probably not the most comfortable night, but better than being outdoors without the proper gear. 
Most stays are modestly priced at € 25 for sleeping with breakfast, add another €20 for dinner and if you would like a sack lunch for the trail that is around €10. They provide a blanket and sometimes a pillow, but you need to carry a sheet sack so that you are cocooned in our own person sheet. these are relatively in expensive at most camping stores and are availably here in Pinerolo also. So a nights stay in a dormitory room with three meals comes in around €55 ($70 / £43, prices will fluctuate depending on the exchange rate for non European visitors).  These are 2014 prices.
Drinks are usually a separate charge. Some have private rooms for a slightly higher price, usually another €10 person, give or take. The prices reflect the effort it takes to get much of the food supplies up to the huts. Some huts are supplied by trucks, mules or helicopters, so there is some expense involved for the hut masters. 
A phrase book is always handy if you are short on languages spoken other than English.
I have always found the food to be good and the drinks, especially the alcoholic ones very welcome. 
That is some basic information that you can put into planning when you make your way to the Alps for some breathtaking vistas, chance meetings with others on the trail, flora and fauna, and awe inspiring days out.
Polenta and venison stew
latte macchiato

Can't commit to more than the day? Well, there are still a number of huts that make for a great day out with a hearty and delightful lunch up, sometimes, in the clouds and certainly closer to the heavens. 
Start planning your hut trip now so you have something exciting to anticipate for the next nine months. 
If you have any doubt that it's worth the effort, come and stay with us before your hut to hut adventure and we can help you plan it or visit us afterwards and enjoy a bit of pampering and reentry into putting up your feet and relaxing.  We can even teach you to make some local specialties if you want to join in one of our Cooking Together classes whist you are here. Our Bella Baita is a great choice for starting or ending a trip or just making this base camp for your alpine adventures. We'll be in the garden or kitchen whipping something up for your arrival. Ci vediamo presto! (See you soon!)
You can never have too much fun in the Alps!

Wednesday, August 06, 2014

Lemon Verbena Panna Cotta, a Piemontese Treat

What a funny summer we have had here in the Alps. I don't know about you, but I am just a tad disappointed in the lack of hot glistening days so far this summer. However, there is one Italian dessert that I am certain will lift your spirits or top off a perfect hot summer day and that would be the crown jewel of Piemontese desserts that is panna cotta. This simple ending to a meal is perfection on a plate. It's light and yet indulgent. The name "panna cotta" literally translates as "cooked cream". Piedmont, one of Italy's northern regions in which I live, and that borders France, is famous for it's dairy rich cuisine and oftentimes overlap of  French culinary influence. Piedmont was once the kingdom of Savoy, whose royal house spawned many a tradition both culinary and culturally that have passed down through the ages and households of its loyal subjects.  This dessert will win your heart with its simplicity, versatility and easy preparation.  

Poued into cups before they have been refrigerated
The most traditional way of eating this dessert is just plain relying on the goodness and quality of the cream, however it certainly lends itself to many variations of sauces to accompany it or various liqueurs, or herbal infusions that if done with a light hand, adds layers of intrigue. 
I love this version of infusing the cream with a small amount of fresh lemon verbena leaves for the summer as a lighter version from my winter version that utilizes my homemade walnut liqueur called nocino. Both are winners and only a steeping off point to vary this lucious creamy dessert that you can whip up in the morning and enjoy for dinner that evening or the next. I have noticed that a few restaurants are starting to serve their panna cotta in a clear glass jar that insures that they don't have to worry about the dessert setting up on time or being anxious that the delightful little wiggle that a well made panna cotta has when turned out onto your plate and carried to the table, that insures a few oohs and aahs from your adoring dinner guests.  
I have added a subtle amount of lemon verbena and so you made find you want to add more or less, it could depend on how large your leaves are or whether or not they are fresh or dried. When infusing the cream, just make sure to taste your cream a while after it has sat in order to insure you have as much flavor as you want. If not strong enough, add more crushed leaves and reheat if it has cooled took much. It's up to you.
Colle di pesce geletin and lemon verbena leaves

Lemon Verbena Panna Cotta

with a Blueberry Compote

5 servings
  • 2 long gelatin sheets, long sheets or 4 short sheets (place in bowl of cold water)
  • 400 g of heavy cream (2 cups)
  • 120 g whole milk (½ cup)
  • 70 g sugar (6 T vanilla sugar is nice)
  • 8 or so lemon verbena leaves, fresh (approximately 2 T  or so)

  1. In a saucepan add heavy cream and milk along with the lemon verbena leaves
  2. Heat till it is hot to the touch and turn off heat and let the milk cream mixture infuse with the lemon verbena for about 1/2 hour. Test the mixture after about 10 minutes to see how the flavor is coming along and perhaps adjust by adding a few leaves if needed. 
  3. Place your gelatin sheets in cold water to soften while your cream mix infuses. 
  4. Strain out the leaves once your cream is flavored to a good strength but not too strong. Remove leaves earlier if you think it is getting to strong for your taste. I prefer a more subtle flavor but still to be strong enough to know it is there. 
  5. Once the mixture has cooled some and flavor has developed, I usually strain the leaves out into a bowl and clean out the bottom of the pan to make sure it won't stick when warming up the cream and sugar.
  6. Sprinkle the sugar over the bottom of the pan and pour the infused milk and cream mixture back into the pan.
  7. Gently squeeze the sheets of gelatin dry and add sheets to the cream mixture.

  8. Stir until sheet of gelatin has dissolved, reheating if necessary to dissolve the gelatin if the cream has cooled too much..Pour into cups and let set at room temperature until cool to touch. Refrigerate  or several hours until gelain has set and ready to serve.  (at least a couple of hours or overnight is good)
Suggestions: Any liquor or flavoring(vanilla, amend extract, Amaretto, Frangelico, Gran Marnier, Nocino, you get the idea) may be substituted for variety or taste preference.

Blueberry or other berry Compote

2 c.  fresh blueberries (200g)
4-5 T sugar (50 - 70 g) (can a bit more or less depending how sweet you want it to be)

Combine berries and sugar in a sauce pan and cook gently till the berries pop and make a soft creamy  compote for the panna cotta.

To Serve:
Unmold the pannacotta by running a small blunt knife around the edge of the cup.  Place a plate over the panna cotta and flip over. Tap gently on the bottom of the cups. (I have used plastic yogurt cups before and they have a little give when you are tapping that helps) The panna cotta should come right out. If not you can let gravity help you or place your plans over as the heat of your hands will help encourage the panna cotta to come out. Spoon your room temperature berries on the plate by the panna cotta.
Panna cotta with fresh cherry compote

Friday, July 04, 2014

Hazelnut and Sun Dried Tomato Pesto

Here's an easy condiment that you can whip up in minutes when you have all of the ingredients on hand and will be such a welcome addition or finishing touch to so many dishes, you might just want to have a jar of it in the refrigerator at all times for adding that little pizzazz that lifts your dish from ordinary to extraordinary. Really!
Red, White and Blue Crostini
I came across the recipe as an addition to a grilled cheese over at "Kalamazoo Outdoor Gourmet" blog  and it was love at first bite. Since I live in the land of hazelnuts here Piemonte, and they just happen to be my all time favorite nut, it didn't take me long to whip this pesto up.  I am able to get soft and salty sun dried tomatoes at our Pinerolo market, straight from the producers in southern Italy. They are a delightful treat that I find more versatile than the ones in the oil. Naturally if you don't have access to hazelnuts almonds or walnuts can step in with a different twist but tasty no less. If using the tomatoes in the oil, I would drain the oil and measure it for the oil that you would be using in the recipe and maybe use a bit less. 
Chunky version hazelnut tomato pesto
The first time I made this I blended the tomatoes with the oil and everything else but the nuts first to a rough stage before adding the hazelnuts so that I had larger pieces of nuts, which I found to be an unexpected crunch that I really appreciated. This last time  when I made it I chucked everything into the small hand blender's food processor attachment and blended it all up making a very smooth paste. Not sure which I prefer. It's a bit like smooth or crunchy peanut butter. Sometimes one is preferable and other times you just want the other. 
Ricotta and Hazelnut Tomato Pesto Farinata 
I have used it on top of a celery stick filled with a bit of mascarpone cheese, farinata (which is a chickpea pancake Ligurian specialty) that has had ricotta smeared on top and the pesto on top of that, crostini, with ricotta or other soft spreadable cheeses and as a great substitute n your favorite burger, meat or veggie. The list is endless. I have yet use it on pasta cause I am usually too busy dunking my grissini in it. It is a perfect picnic addition as we found out one afternoon.
Picinic fare
When the weather isn't cooperating, all you need is to make a batch of this pesto and it'll feel like the sun is shining on your palate and what could be better than that?
The smooth pesto version 
I've slightly adapted the recipe and you should too to what ever you have on hand, but if you can find hazelnuts, or filberts, the domesticated American variety of hazelnuts, you will find them worth seeking out. Now get in the kitchen and mix up a batch!

Hazelnut and Sun Dried Tomato Pesto

3/4 cup raw, whole hazelnuts, shelled
3 ounces sun-dried tomatoes, cut up
1 clove garlic, peeled and roughly chopped
1/2 teaspoon coarsely-ground black pepper
1/4 teaspoon fine sea salt
1 1/2 teaspoons light brown sugar
3/4 cup extra virgin olive oil

Optional: a squeeze of fresh lemon juice to brighten the flavors slightly, being carrel not to add too much so that it covers the subtle hazelnut flavor

Preheat a small skillet over medium-high heat. 
Add the hazelnuts.
Toast the nuts in the dry heavy skillet, tossing occasionally, until they start to pick up color and are fragrant, approximately 7 minutes. 
Remove from heat, allow to cool without picking up too much color and set aside.
Combine all the other ingredients in a food processor and process until relatively smooth. Add the reserved hazelnuts and process further until the hazelnuts are chopped, but the "pesto" maintains a chunky texture.
Cover and refrigerate for a few hours before use to give the oil time to rehydrate the tomatoes. 
Stir before use. 
Will keep, refrigerated, for well more than a week. 
Chunky style

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Fragrant Days

"Romeo" Iris,  Elderberry in flower,  Mock orange jasmine, and petunias surefine - All fragrant
The sweetness of mock orange blossoms and elderflowers waft through my open windows these days, making my heart go pitter patter. As the first color of spring has deepened into a full on explosion of green, accentuated with every type of flowering bud, bulb and tree, it is impossible to ignore the colors and fragrances of life happening all around me these days. It perhaps happened earlier where you live and perhaps you are already wilting from the  heat of summer, but here at a bit of altitude, we are just getting fully under way with color, berries, birdsong and intoxicating floral scents of every variety. Today, the Linden trees in the market were just starting to bloom and the sweetness made me stop and look up to behold these massive trees' alluring essence. We just had a small cloudburst and now the air is fresh and full of the wet fecund earth and cut grass aroma wafting up through the open windows. Perhaps I have just have had a bit of time recently to enjoy all this bountiful green growth and natural perfume that is so abundant this time of the year. My indulgent time to savor the season is in no small part to the help of our volunteer workers that have helped get our garden in, weed, watered and be generally well looked after, thereby giving me a bit of breathing space. Many thanks to all of them for that bit of respite indeed.
Woofers and Workawayers this season so far
This seasonal switch has been more hectic then usual for me this year, with plenty going on here at Bella Baita. We've been painting, patching, planting, and tidying up after all of that. I'm sure you know what I mean. You probably have had the same going on at your house.
Fabrizio painting our big room in anticipation of the season
I did a quick trip to the states to tidy up some of my affairs in the high country of Colorado, before enjoying a little family reunion at my brothers in Broomfield. We have a few significant birthdays this year amongst the siblings, nephews and nieces, so it was a great excuse to get together for a few days to enjoy each others company as we enjoyed the Colorado Rockies.
Part of the Gulley clan at the Stanley Hotel in Estes Park
You may not have realized, but I kind of have a thing for mountains. I'm drawn to them, marvel at them and love living in them in all their glory. This blog has been a celebration of my life here in my husbands family slice of Piemonte's Alpi Cozie (or Cottian Alps in English). I'm happy to be a part of the fabric of our little community, able to savor all the large and small personal and sensory pleasures that mountain living has on offer.
My little rock garden outside my window
Although I haven't been able to write much lately, I do have a few recipes that I will be sharing soon.
I had friends here at the end of May and got out and about up the Chisone valley to play tourist in my neighborhood that I don't always get to do when we are busy.

Marla's creations (that would be me)
It was wonderful as always to marvel with my friends, at the Fenestrelle Fortress, sometimes called the Great Wall of Piedmont, and wander through the small hamlets of Usseaux, Balboutet, and land over at Lago Laux, for wine with a delightful slice of Marienella's "torts del giorno". Although there is more that one can do than the few things I have mentioned.

I think that will dip your toes into our Chisone valley stream and have you wishing for more. We'll be waiting for your visit and in the meantime I'll be savoring these fleeting and fabulously fragrant days.
Bella Baita, our Home Sweet Home

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Spring is sprung, well sort of....

It's been an interesting winter and spring. We've had such a variety of varying conditions that I find it difficult to say what "normal" is anymore. It is probably the same in your part of the world too.  When I first arrived here in Val Chisone, our winters have been quite mild with never enough snow for me to feel like it was a proper winter. Then about 6 years ago we had a record amount of snow and consistently snowy winters that made me believe that we were back in a normal pattern. Well then we had a few late cold springs and on and on until this winter.  What do you know, we had a fair amount of snow, but pleasantly, it was a rather mild winter over all.  March however, came in like a semi liony lamb and departed pretty much the same as such. In between  we managed to have summery days and mild spring conditions that brought out the flowers and pushed the trees to bloom quite early.

Fabrizio working in the family garden
Wouldn't you know it, but here it is now getting on towards the last part of April and just to make sure you remember that Mother nature is still in charge, we have  enough snow coming down to be concerned for our garden's early coming forth. We were convinced that peas were about the only thing that was safe enough to put in early, but the raspberry, currant and blueberry plants were sadly fooled. We shall see how it shakes out in the end.
Our patio yesterday

Lulled by the seductive spring green and flowers and leaves popping out everywhere, you would think I would be immune to wintery surprises after all these years living in the mountains. 
But no, it always comes as a sobering surprise. 
Poor wild cherry trees

Our side yard this morning. It's already melting out now.
We are both good. This year has seen its various ups and downs with one family member getting well and coming back from a scary illness and another losing their battle with a disease, ALS, that no one should have to suffer through. So it goes in life, ups and downs and sometimes it is hard to find the chatter to carry on with. It has found me somewhat unable to just carry on with subjects of food and recipes, or what we have done that might be of interest to anyone. It's not that I don't have anything to say, but it does seem quite trivial at times when loved ones have such struggles, and losses. But as time passes and grief wanes I wonder back to let you know a little of what has gone on in our lives. Time flies and we carry on with our daily challenges and triumphs, enjoying the process and the subtle joys that lift the day and reminds us of the sweetness of life in all of its tiniest manifestations. On so my life goes. I am grateful for all that I have and all that is shared. You are part of the sharing and I thank you for stopping by and being interested. 
Fabrizio and I continue on with our various on-going myriad of projects, that for me, sometimes seems difficult to see progress on. Fabrizio with his ever growing piles of wood for our heating grow and impress, and his fresh coats of paint to the various parts of the building are noticeable and welcome. I however am tasked with making improvements to our web site in hope of attracting more guests that would love to find us if they only knew about us, and that my friends is is harder to see the progress on. I also keep the troops fed and experimented on with new dishes to add to my repertoire and keeps me absorbed with learning and amused to boot. 

Here's Tom and Fabrizio mugging it up just before Tom goes back home to the U.K. after his Workaway boot camp with Fabrizio.  Thanks for all the hard work blind up the winter wood heating  supply.
Bye Bye to Tom, our first volunteer helper of the season
So, I think it is now time for me to get back to my latest project and that oil be shortening the new curtains for our  little "baita" salon. We moved in downstairs last June, but still have much to do to make it have a more finished feel to it and ready for this coming  season. 

Bella Baita dining room in the original "Baita" (which means rustico in the mountains)
If you have never been to visit with us or haven't been since we moved into the downstairs "baita" part of the building, you need to put that on your "to do" list, pronto.  We, of course, still have much to do, but it keeps us out of trouble naturally and on our toes. We look forward to your visit, new or returning, sometime soon.  In the mean time, we hope you have a blessed Easter weekend with friends and family and a wonderful welcoming of spring with the return of the natures quickening life force and graces. With love from Bella Baita, we wish all of you peace. 
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