Thursday, June 28, 2012

Garantito IGP: I Balmetti di Borgofranco

This time I take the Stand:

If you drive north from Torino towards the Valle D'Aosta, you'll find yourself following the valley now occupied by the Dora Baltea. It wasn't carved by the river, however -- it's glacial in origin, and shortly after Ivrea you'll come to something unique, so far as I know: Borgofranco D'Ivrea's Balmetti.

Balmetti are houses with cellars built into the glacial moraine along the line where the mountains jut up from the flat valley floor, and what makes them unique are ore (singular ora), fissures in the moraines that emit steady streams of cold air. And I do mean cold; they're 8 degrees C (45 F) in summer, and a little more in winter. In short, the people of the town have naturally refrigerated cellers, and they're fascinating, as is the story behind them.

Borgofranco has existed at least since the 1200s, and the town proper is located a ways out on the valley floor. People must have known about the cold air issuing from the fissures along the valley wall, but don't appear to have thought about putting it to use until the 1600s, when the first balmetti were built, and used primarily to store wine.

It wasn't until the early 1800s, however, that the townspeople decided to exploit the resource in earnest, building an uninterrupted street of balmetti along the valley wall (if you walk down the street, you see a row of low houses built back into the mountain), and it would appear that the decision stemmed at least in part from changing customs:

Historically, an organization called the Badia had handled popular festivals and fairs (especially Carnevale) in Borgofranco. However, it declined in popularity in the mid-1800s, during which time two things were happening: First, the breath of cultural fresh air associated with the brief establishment of the Napoleonic government had led to new ideas about how to celebrate Carnival and otherwise make merry; Second, the Church, reacting to the innovations, had clamped down. Put simply, those who wanted to have a good time decided to do so out of town, where churchly-inspired moralists would neither see nor comment, and built the Balmetti as a sort of party row, as it were. Even the street names reflect the area's destination: Via del Buonamore, Via di Bacco, and Via della Coppa, respectively the Street of Good Love, Bacchus's Way, and The Cup's Way.

Of course once the balmetti were built, they were also put to other uses, including storage -- primarily grapes and wine -- and industry, though one that fits perfectly with the purpose of the street: In about 1900 the Degiacomini family, brewmasters from Sondrio, built a brewery, using the cool air from the ore to regulate fermentation temperatures. It has since gone out of business (there is talk of readapting the structure), but you can visit the balmetti -- there are about 200 of them, kept cool by close to 300 vents, and the local tourist office has set up a small museum in one of the nicest ones, while its offices are in the second story of the building.

The old brewery
In addition to the concentration of balmetti on these streets there are several individual balmetti built into the valley wall just a little further up the valley. When should you think about visiting? The balmetti are central to three celebrations: Carnevale, in February (when you could stop during a ski trip), in June, when there's the Andoma ai Balmit (Let's go the the Balmetti) festival, a very convivial open house, and in September, at the harvest. Italy has many unusual treats, and this is one of them.

Getting there: Borgofranco is just north of Ivrea. Exit the A 5 highway at Quincinetto, and turn right towards Settimo Vittone. The balmetti are in a hamlet called Quinto. For further information, contact the Pro Loco, through the town's site.

Published Simultaneously by IGP, I Giovani Promettenti.

We Are:
Carlo Macchi
Kyle Phillips
Luciano Pignataro
Roberto Giuliani
Stefano Tesi

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