Rain. Rain. Rain.
It seems that northern Italy missed the memo that it’s fall, aka a time with beautiful, hot colors, crisp temperatures but not too crisp – vest weather. Nope, it’s raining (maybe that is fall here, but I refuse to admit it yet) and winter-cold. So even though I woke up deathly ill (or something similar) when I saw the first rays of sunshine in a week I knew I couldn’t stay inside all day.
That’s how I ended up in Albavilla, Italy, a tiny town near Como that was hosting its last Saturday night of “La Festa dei Crotti.” My friend asked me if I wanted to go with her, promptly telling me that she didn’t exactly know what a crotto was either. I was just glad I wasn’t the only one…language barriers can be tough.
Actually, a crotto is a natural cave typical of the mountainous regions in the Lombard and Swiss Alps, in particular in Valchiavenna, Canton Ticino and in the area of Lake Como where we were. They’re a natural choice for a cantina (wine cellar) because inside there is a constant current of cold air that keeps the crotto the same temperature year round.
Thus, the crotti are used still today to conserve cured meats, cheese and wine. Often, as we found in Albavilla, the crotti also have a tavern where the owners serve typical food of the area. For example, in the crotti farther north in Valtellina you’ll find pizzoccheri, a pasta dish with flat noodles and a butter, cheese and potato sauce; la polenta taragna, polenta with cheese cooked in it; and bresaola, a type of cured beef that comes from Valtellina as well, a location I’ve written about before here.
The traditional, familiar feeling, the tie to the land, the comfort food and of course the wine are the perfect combination for a proper festa!
We went not knowing what to expect. Albavilla is a microscopic town and it seemed very much “all of them who know each other” and “us.” But we found a crotto that seemed welcoming and, after seeing that a glass of wine cost just 1.50 euro we ordered two glasses of Valpolicella, a wine from Verona and the Garda region of Italy.
It was very cold, but everyone was having a genuinely good time, sampling the cheeses and meats that could be ordered with the wine or warming up by ordering another glass!
There are 34 crotti in Albavilla in all, but we only saw a handful. After sampling a couple, we decided to stop at one of the community’s food tents and ordered a grilled meat and polenta plate – with another glass of wine of course! It was a small festival in a small town, but I enjoyed the tradition of the event and really appreciated how tied it was to geography and community.