Ask me to name the first Italian meals that come to mind and I’ll list off pizza, pasta, and risotto. Maybe veal parmigiana if you insist I include some meat in there. But bresaola? I had no idea what that was until I arrived in the town of Chiavenna.
When I hopped on the train bound for the Italian Alps, all I knew was that there would be a food festival taking place. What kind of food? I wasn’t entirely sure. It wasn’t until I arrived in town on the morning of the festivities that I discovered this festival – Dì de la Brisaola – was all about the bresaola. In other words, every carnivore’s dream (or every vegetarian’s nightmare depending on who you talk to)!
So what is bresaola? Well, at first glance it looks a lot like prosciutto. It is an air-dried meat that has been aged for a few months until it becomes hard and takes on a dark red colour.
What sets it apart from prosciutto is that bresaola is made from beef, whereas prosciutto is made from pork. Also, bresaola is very lean and you’ll hardly find any fat on it, whereas prosciutto generally leaves a nice thick strip of fat for a little extra flavour. The bresaola tradition originates in Lombardy right on the footsteps of the Alps, so I was definitely in the right place at the right time.
Since food festivals are all about eating, Sam and I made it our mission to eat at every bresaola stand in town. We grabbed our little maps which highlighted 14 stands spread out across Chiavenna and began the hunt for meat.
Although the bresaola was tasty, I have to admit that my favourite part of this little food adventure was the destinations it took us to. Sampling stations had been set up inside restaurants and courtyards, grottos and shop fronts. Each location had its own unique flavour, not only in terms of how the meat tasted but also in terms of presentation and layout. It was a great way to get to know the town without focusing on the traditional attractions.
Along the way we got to listen to the various bands which were playing across town, with instruments ranging from xylophones to trombones and trumpets to drums. It livened the mood and got everyone excited about the day considering it was pouring rain for most of the morning.
By the time lunch time rolled around Sam and I had somehow managed to visit all 14 bresaola stands in town (seriously, Chiavenna is so easy to explore on foot!) so we were feeling pretty stuffed. However, we weren’t going to turn down the opportunity to have lunch at a grotto, so we made our way to Crotto al Prato.
I thought we would be eating inside the grotto, but it turns out that it’s a little too cold to eat inside a grotto outside the summer months, so they had set up large tents outside instead.
At this point in the day the mood was very festive and the people gathered inside kept exploding into random song, clapping, and plenty of laughter – it kind of reminded me of Oktoberfest, except everyone was drinking wine and eating bresaola.
The food was hearty and the portions were large – platters full of deli meats, followed by gnocchetti bianchi, polenta, and more meat dishes. I barely made it through the starters, but the locals kept pushing through dish after dish. And that’s another thing that impressed me during this trip to Italy – seeing the Italian ability to eat, eat and eat. That takes some serious talent!
By the time I hopped on the train back to Milan I was stuffed beyond belief and ready for a nap. I watched as we pulled out of the station and left the town of Chiavenna behind with the looming Alps in the backgrounds. I couldn’t have asked for a better introduction to the Lombardy region – exploring the place through its food – and I hope I get to return again, next time with an extra-stretchy pair of jeans.