Doing the impossible is like getting blood from a turnip, says an Italian proverb. But there are people who get salame from turnips.
At Livigno -- altitude 1800 meters, the coldest place in all of Italy, the Little Tibet that, before becoming the duty-free paradise it is now, was isolated by the snows for 6 months of the year, and the dead were buried when the ground thawed -- the people fall into the second group.
Practical people, used to fighting ice and poverty. And therefore to coming up with the unexpected to get ahead, in a valley so high not even buckwheat will grow.
Thus, larch pitch chews for the kids watching the herds on the slopes, and turnip salame. Or better, Lughena da pasola, as they call it.
I want to make clear that present day Livigno bears little resemblance to the Livigno of 50 years ago. Even the traditions have become uniformed, and now the menus feature Pizzoccheri and Polenta Taragna, once staples of other, richer valleys.
But if one leaves the restaurants and visits people's homes, one realizes that the old dishes are still there, just that the locals prefer to enjoy them far from the swarms of tourists, and as tradition dictates. For example on September 8, Santa Maria Nascente, the Patron Saint's day. It's then that the curious traveler can discover, in addition to the lughena, the mösa, the borsàt, and the potòl.
I for example discovered turnip salami, served with a glass of Valtellinese, when I paid a visit to the last smuggler, Rocco Sertorio, a spry eighty-year-old who is now a fixture at the local folk festivals.
But the person who (thanks to the help of Dario Bormolini) told me the history and secrets of this unique cold cut is his companion at these folk festivals, one of the few, if not the last, custodians of the food traditions of the valley: Maria Silvestri, known as Maria Domenica or more usually Ménia. She lives in the only baita in Livigno that has, in addition to the standard decorative flowers, medicinal herbs and flowers hung to dry, to make flavorings, oils and remedies. At a short distance a small herb patch with a simple wooden fence to protect it from the animals and the cold. Little excess and much heart.
My asking how to make the lughena da pasola makes her smile.
"You pick turnips, the usual kind," she said, "you tie them in bunches, and you let them dry in the hay barn until it's time to butcher the pig (fed with polvin, a mixture of hay, cornmeal and water), in March. Then you cook the turnips, let them cool, and work them into the lard from the pig, if possible with a little meat as well, figuring a ratio of two to one, grinding everything and adding a little garlic, until the mixture is dark yellow. You let it drain, mix well, and then add salt, pepper, cloves, and cinnamon or nutmeg. After which you put it into casings made from sheep intestines. 15 days later it's ready to eat."
According to others, whom Ménia doesn't confirm, some also add cabbage to the mix. In Livigno salami are traditionally thin, with a characteristic curvature, and weighing a few etti (quarter pounds), which are easier to age. In the town of Trepalle (500 meters higher, the highest parish in all of Europe) they use the same technique and ingredients, but make larger salamis.
How to consume this specialty?
"In pieces, breaking it apart with the hands and not a knife, and without peeling it," comes the response. "It can be eaten raw or cooked, made crunchy by the heat of a burner, or baked. But aged (it will age well for up to two years, without detriment to flavor or texture) it's also excellent. It's perfect for herders and hikers."
She goes upstairs for a 2-year old salami, which she breaks up and hands me a piece of: a fairly intense garlicky smell coupled with aged meat, and no hints of rancidity. Its texture is almost friable, with a paste that is dry and fairly coarse, crumbling under the teeth to reveal turnips followed by garlic, meat and lard. It's not too persistent but invites another bite, like a beer sausage but less firm and less flavorful. The sip of wine does the rest.
Between bites, the conversation then turns to the past and the way things used to be. When she gets to the avalanches of 1951 Maria's tone changes and her eyes become misty. And the lughena gains a new flavor that has nothing to do with this article.
Published Simultaneously by IGP, I Giovani Promettenti.
NO STAR goes to wines that are correctly made but nothing to get excited about.
ONE STAR goes to wines that are good. TWO STARS go to wines that are very good to excellent. THREE STARS and a POINT SCORE (90-100) go to wines that are superb to extraordinary. And I will give pairing suggestions, which I consider much more important than the scores.