30 August 2011

Meet Guido Ronchail, Sculptor and Ghironda Maker of Pragelato

One of the wonderful things about being married to a local mountain guy, and there are too many wonderful things to mention, but one of his many charms is that he speaks the local Piemontese dialect, which is a calling card for acceptance rather than suspicion. It is a very useful gift when we are seeking out the not so well known and sometimes inaccessible gems that there are to discover in Val Chisone and Germansca or the greater Piedmont region. Fabrizio, my husband, not only knows most of the valley, he has a way of getting most people to open the door and their life to us with just a bit of chat and genuine interest. It is a wonderful quality that I admire and benefit from in so many ways. Recently we went up to Pragelato in search of S.gr Guido Ronchail, a man of many talents who also is a bee keeper, sculptor, and maker of the Ghironda, also known as a hurdy gurdy, which is a medieval folk instrument, popular in traditional Occitan music. Our valleys are part of, if only just, the outer most border of the historical Occitania region. We were once part of France, and even longer were we part of the Savoy kingdom, but now firmly Italy. Mr. Ronchail has lovingly restored and enhanced his traditional old home with his wood working and masonry skills along with many artistic flourishes, as well as adding a gallery for his collection of mainly stringed instruments with the Ghironda, prominently featured. 
The Maestro and one of his Ghironda
Stone gate leading to his garden and musical instrument gallery
 We dropped in one day following up on an invitation from him when we ran into him at one of Pragelato's Tinber art gallery's opening, which had featured some of his work, along with fellow sculptor Carlo Piffer of Sestriere
What a delightful day we enjoyed as we chatted about his work and admired his workshop that had accomplished many projects and had so many more in various states of progress. It was a clutter workshop that he apologized profusely for it's state of disarray, but I found comfortable and fascinating as I surveyed the tidy stacks of home made tin can drawers and pieces of musical instruments strewn about. His canine companions bed tucked up in the corner and his trilling orange feathered canary were part of the charm of this well used and loved work area where he spends endless hours tinkering about on his various projects.
Various parts of instuments
Beautiful canary songs to work by
Tools of the trade

Several clock projects

Drawers made from old anchovy cans

After a bit when the stories were flowing, he pulled out a bottle of slightly sparkling local red wine and we quenched our thirsts before moving on to take in his wonderful collection of Ghironda and various other stringed musical instruments, hung whimsically from the ceiling or scattered about the spacious room. It is a delightful collection of various ages and types from different parts of Europe.
Three Ghironde

Ghironde with Appalacian dulcimers on wall and various clarinets 
He also had a mountain dulcimer whose home harkens from Appalachia in eastern America, an instrument with whom I am very familiar. It is not a proper museum per se, but he is happy to share it if we want to bring small groups to visit on one of our small tours. I am sure we will, especially as his son and daughter in law have built a small artisanal dairy shop where they make a wonderful aged Toma cheese, not unlike nearby Cuneo's Castelmagno cheese, from their 5 cows. It's a delightful cheese made by a delightful family. 

Guido's sculptures and artisan cheese shop

Where they store their cheese

The proof is in the tasting
And if all of this hasn't convinced you to get off the beaten path with us then there is always the Ghironda festival in August for some Occitan dancing. We arrange small tours that covers a wide range of interests, mainly about food and drink, although the culinary aspect is an important part of  experiencing a place, immersing yourself in the cultural parts of is interesting and of course, fun. 

We are happy to organize a variety of experinces for you depending on your interests and the time of year, through our T.E.M. association for promotion of our valley. If we have a group of 6-8 we can tailor a holiday or short break for you with our full attention, for groups less than 6 we have to consider the demands of running our B&B and balance it all out. Write us for more information, Info@bellabaita.com and have a look at out web site, Bella Baita Italian Alps Retreat. We'll be waiting for you.

16 August 2011

Itty Bitty Almond Amaretto Cookies

Yesterday was Ferragosto here in Italy and if you aren't familiar with that particular holiday, just let me tell you, it is a " the end is nigh" kind of summer holiday that Italians celebrate in some form or fashion without fail. Most picnic or go to the seaside, get together with friends and bar-b-que, or head for the mountains only to find yourself stuck in the traffic with everyone else heading off to do something for this day. Some of our guests had that experience as they trundled off to the higher mountains to walk high up with the wildflowers and others gave up and pulled off to visit with us as they couldn't bear the tedium of being stuck in the traffic. Fortunately I hade some hazelnut cake left over from the night before to offer with coffee, but I worried that if we had many more visitors dropping in due to the holiday, I just might find myself with out something tasty to offer. Horrors of horrors. Just not comfortable for me as a baker, not to have a little something baked up to tempt and delight or just take the edge off around the edges of one's ferragosto holiday traffic jam. so what to make in a short amount of time? Why, itty bitty almond cookies that fit on an espresso cup's saucer, of course. This is such a simple recipe that you will be wondering why you haven't run across it before and what other combinations might work well. I must admit that my hazelnut and hazelnut liquor combo is my favorite, as I am a fool for hazelnuts, but the almond ones are a close second. I had something like these served to me one day on the side of my Cafe Macchiato served up in the cosy coffee nook in Volare, my favorite bookstore in Pinerolo. I immediately went home and started working on reproducing that treat and have been making variations ever since. Give it a go, as I think you'll find it's a fast and tasty treat along side any cup of coffee or tea and stays perfectly fresh for quite a while. I dare say they probably won't last long enough for you to find out exactly how long before they go stale.
Anyway, try this out, stash the cooled cookies in a tin for when you need a little pick me up to go with your afternoon "cup of pick me up". You'll be glad you did.

Itty Bitty Almond Amaretto Cookies 
Yields about 80 mini cookies
115g (1/2c) butter, room temp
100g (½ c) sugar, raw cane is my preferred sugar
1 egg
2 T amaretto 
140g (1c) all purpose flour
100g (1c) almond, lightly toasted and chopped into small pieces
Toast your almonds in the oven on a sheet pan until lightly toasted or in a heavy cast iron type pan shaking occasionally until they are evenly toasted.
Chop into pieces when cooled down
Place your butter in a medium mixing bowl and whisk together with the sugar until smooth and fluffy.
Add the egg and mix till smooth and then the amaretto and mix thoroughly.
Mix in your flour and then almonds making sure all is incorporated.
Drop the mixture by using two teaspoons.
I did rows of 5 across and 6 down or about 30 cookies per sheet tray.
Bake at 180*C/ 325*F for about 8 minutes or till lightly brown. 
Cool thoroughly before storing in an airtight container.

04 August 2011

Avigliana Lake and Sacra di San Michele

The summer is flying by and we have been in the thick of it with lots of visitors, a wedding and so many activities that I can barely keep up. So I think I will share some photos of one of our recent outings with friends. I always say that you will run out of time before you run out of things to do in our area. I hope I don't run out of summer before I get to my favorites again. There are plenty of summer festivals in every little town and we start the count down in the valley until the 15th of August when everyone celebrates it being summer. According to my husband and other family members, summer is all over after that. So I think I'll share some of the things to do when you are in our part of Piedmont and the alps.
Laghi Avigliana e la Sacra di San Michele
View of Lake Avigliana from Chalet del Lago Restaurant
Off we traipsed to lake Avigliana the other day in search of lunch and a wander around the imposing Sacra San Michele over in our sister valey of Susa that runs more or less parallel to us over the mountains behind our house and is another part of our great Torino province. Sacra San Michele is one of Torino's Provincial symbols along with our own Chisone valley's Fenestrelle Fortress.  This will be part of my series of what to see and do with in an hour to hour and one half away from our door step. This day trip takes a little over an hour to get to from the shortcut that skirts around the base of our mountains landing us by the two natural lakes that lie next to Avigliana and at the foot of Sacra San Michele. It's a pleasant enough drive with a lovely destination for a sunny summers day. We didn't actually go into the town of Avigliana on this day, as we had a long breakfast and slow start to the day, but that just meant that were there just in time to have lunch at the oh so atmospheric Chalet del Lago.
The restaurant is on the way up towards the monastery and has an idyllic location to enjoy the lake view.     W have been here before for a drink and a look round, but never for lunch before. I must say, we had no idea what we were missing. The food was delicious and well presented. They serve pizza at night from their wood fired oven as well and it looks like a great place to dance the night away in their nightclub under the stars by the waters edge.  I can only imagine that it sees a fair amount of business after dinner on these warm summer nights.
Oh yes, back to our lunch. They had a seafood heavy menu, which always gives me a little pause as we are about 3 hours from the seaside and mountain fare tends to be a bit different, but my fears were soon allayed when the dishes started appearing. The fish and seafood was exceptionally fresh and so tasty, as was the quality proscuitto crudo that was classically paired with melon, one of our perennial favorites. Here are a few shots of some of our luncheon plates that were shared around the table.
Melone e proscuitto crudo
Mixed vegetable platter
Giant scallops

Mussels in a rich red sauce
Grilled swordfish with mixed seafood and veggie topping

Grilled seas bass
Potatoes and octopus
Grilled steak with rucola and tomatoes

Pink grapefruit slushy for the finish
Well, I do think we were fortified enough to make it through our afternoon visit to Sacra San Michele. Everything was light and satisfying enough that no nap was necessary. We carried on to the imposing monastery that hangs way up on the hill. You can find other photos of this building from some of my other posts about this site, here and here, as well as having a look at their web site here. It is something that is impressive and not to be missed, but then I might say the same thing about the Chalet del Lago as well. A great day out with friends indeed.

Sacra di San Michele

Carved columns

There are a lot of steps

Lots of great views

Impressive and not to be missed
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