Callier food column: A taste of the Roaring Fork Valley’s Italian connection
Buon cibo is “good food” in Italian. To Italians, it can also mean so much more. While Italy feels so far away from us here in the Roaring Fork Valley, we are still deeply connected.
Northern Italians were among the first wave of migrants who tamed this land. There were no highways, and railroads were considered state-of-the-art travel, but these settlers persevered and established themselves for generations. Their culture, work ethic and cuisine have helped create our local identity.
I am one of their descendants. My great-great-grandparents, Jeremie and Cecile Gerbaz, brought their eight children to Woody Creek from Detroit. The couple originally immigrated from a tiny village in northern Italy called Doues.
They settled near Aspen and put their boys to work on their new ranch. Life was surely difficult for them, but they thrived there. Their children would go on to be county commissioners and successful ranchers. They even have a road named after them in Woody Creek.
During the hard times and the good, they used food to bring the family together. Like many large families, there were certain rivalries between siblings, but these could be put aside over wine and the breaking of bread.
The winters were difficult, but the summer could be bountiful. They raised potatoes and other crops that would sustain them during the long, cold months. Polenta was a staple that I even ate while growing up.
I have always been told that northern Italians loved it so much here, because it reminded them of home. I never knew this to be true until I visited their old village, Doues, in Italy. The village is in a valley called Valle d’Aosta, which is an alpine paradise. It is nestled in the Alps and is close to Switzerland and France. The valley is heavily influenced by French, Italian and Swiss cultures. One can see these influences everywhere, from language, clothing, architecture and cuisine.
The cuisine of the region is known best for its strong and rich ingredients of polenta, potatoes, cheese, meat and more meat. Did I mention cheese? The region also produces fontina which is a creamy cow’s milk cheese, with a mild, earthy flavor with a touch of honey sweetness. It is delicious and great for melting. Fontina makes wonderful fondue, which is a regional speciality. They also have the best pizzas served in remote huts and shanties.
I have been lucky enough to visit Val d’Aosta. I have distant relatives there who have stayed in touch with the American family, and they graciously invited me to their home in Doues. The area is idyllic like a pastoral dream. Ancient villages line the valley all the way to Switzerland. The back of the Mater Horn presides over the area, and the Alps rise at impossible angles. Not only is the landscape indelible, but the food is sublime.
Eating dinner is an act of grace and communion and always taken seriously. Every meal is intimate and can last hours. Supper usually begins with a light salad and several strong aperitifs. From there, it progresses to a soup, first course, second course and dessert.
Wine is mandatory throughout, and a digestif and espresso are served with dessert. It is considered rude to refuse food or not clean a plate. I never had that issue, but I did cry once in a bathroom, because I feared I couldn’t eat or drink anymore.
After living there for several weeks, and eating home-cooked meals, I left with a deep appreciation of the food and culture. I was able to gather some recipes from local cookbooks and my own family to share with you. I decided to bring a little of Italy back to Colorado.
We must not forget our ancestral connections and how they still shape us. Recipes tell tales of our struggles and triumphs, and these are my family’s stories. All recipes accompany this story.
(Serves four people)
These are served as an appetizer. The apples must be cut small enough to cook quickly and evenly, while the breading browns. After flipping them in the frying pan, make sure to gently press down with spatula. They are slightly sweet, so they can also make a light dessert.
1/2 cup milk
1/2 cup beer
1 cup flour
1 teaspoon sugar
3 apples, sliced or cubed
pinch of lemon peel, grated
pinch of salt
oil for frying
1. In a medium bowl, stir together egg, milk, beer, flour and salt into a smooth batter.
2. Add apples to batter and stir until coated. Let mixture stand for about 30 minutes.
3. Heat oil in frying pan over medium-high heat. Drop spoonfuls of mixture and fry until both sides are golden. Serve immediately.
(Serves four people)
This is a classic pasta, tomato sauce and white bean dish. You can also use fresh fava beans, but they require extra prep time. They are ideal with short cut pasta such as ditalini, but I had a hard time finding that type. Instead, I used the “Italian Trottole” that I like so much. To experiment, you could add a splash of red wine, garlic or other kinds of creamy cheeses for different flavor possibilities.
16 ounces short cut pasta
1 can northern beans
6 ripe tomatoes, crushed
1 can tomatoes, crushed
4 slices Italian Bread, cubed
1/4 cup butter
4 tablespoons butter
1/2 cup Fontina cheese, sliced thinly
1. Drain beans and save liquid separately.
2. Cut shallots into pieces and melt butter in large saucepan over medium heat. Stir in shallots and cook until shallots are soft and transparent. Add crushed tomatoes and bring to boil. Turn heat down and simmer.
3. Cook the pasta in water and drained liquid from beans until pasta is al dente.
4. Drain pasta and add to the tomato sauce, and stir in the beans. Turn heat to low, cover and simmer for about 20 minutes.
5. Fry the cubed bread in a pan with butter until bread is golden and crispy.
6. Stir fontina cheese into pasta until melted. Top with toasted bread cubes and serve immediately.
(Serves four people)
Frecacha is a fancy way of seeing meat and potatoes. Be sure not to over boil the potatoes, as they need to hold up while you simmer all ingredients together for an hour. The cinnamon and nutmeg make this more exotic than average mean and potatoes dishes. Use those with caution. Cooking time can vary, depending on how soupy you prefer.
2 large white onions
2 large potatoes, boiled and cold
14 ounces beef round steak
2 tablespoons butter
1 tablespoon salt
4 cups beef stock
pinch of pepper, salt, nutmeg, cinnamon powder
1. Boil potatoes in a large pot for 25 minutes. Remove from water and cool.
2. Slice the onions and cook in butter over medium-high heat until they are soft and transparent.
3. Cut beef and potatoes into slices and add to the pot of onions. Sauté over medium-high heat for about five minutes.
4. Stir in beef stock and bring to a boil. Cover and cook on a low heat for about an hour. Stir in salt and spices. Add more to taste, as needed. Serve after fluid has browned and reduced.
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