Alpine eats in Italy’s mountain shelters
Comfort food year round
If you are planning to take advantage of restoring yourself in the mountains in one of the many rifugi (huts) and you haven’t already, you should develop a taste for polenta. You may have your choice of toppings: melted cheese (usually a Northern Italian type such as taleggio or toma or maybe fontina), slow cooked meat with a gravy type sauce or perhaps mushrooms or sausage. It is a hearty dish and certainly will warm you as it fills you up so it is great mountain food. With it’s comfort food type qualities, you might be inclined to think that it is reserved for winter meals, but Italian rifugi seem to show no such seasonal distinction, important to note as food rules in Italy are quite rigid and some foods, despite their deliciousness, have been relegated to only being offered at specific times of the year .
The above image shows Polenta prep at one of Italy’s the Sagra del Polentone ( Polenta Festival) this one held every June in Roccaverono, Piemonte.
This tradition cornmeal dish comes from Piemontese farmers and montanari, mountain people, and is also called pane dei poveri ( bread of the poor) since it was the daily meal of those with less disposable income, but now even those sporting 1200 euros worth of trekking gear will plunk down about eight euros for a plate of polenta.
While originally other grains may have been used, today the various recipes start with boiling corn meal and water, ideally in a copper pot and stirring, than adding the topping of choice. It can range in texture from creamy to grainier, I prefer a grainier texture, more like oatmeal than cream of wheat. It can also be offered in the less porridgy, crispier form of grilled polenta but this seems to be reserved for lower elevations where Gore-Tex sightings are less frequent.
Love the one you’re with
While I love the whole rifugio thing they have going on over here in Italy, and the home made foods they serve, I admit sometimes I would just like a good burger. You may be able to find pasta, or pasta al forno, or maybe soup, but a burger is hard to come by. So polenta it is.
The portions of rifugio polenta are generous (more American sized than Italian sized) and should fill you up after a busy morning of mountain activities without a problem. At times, I find it somewhat daunting to think of finishing it all, but people do and as filling as it seems, it does not seem to sit uncomfortably while digesting. The one time I was able to finish my portion was on a particularly brutal day on a snowshoe to the Laghi di Boden , reminding me of the weather one not so infrequently encounters at the top of the Breckenridge T-bar. (Colorado, not Italy)
Beyond the rifugi: All you can eat polenta (within a half hour)
If you happen to develop a hankering for polenta, and like to eat at an efficient pace, I have heard about a new chain called Trenta Polenta. In Italian, trenta means 30, and the concept of this Italian version of fast food, is that you can eat all the polenta you want in 30 minutes. In the country with hour and half lunch breaks and that invented the Slow Food movement at a reaction against fast food (with a snail as its logo), the Italian chain has created an unlikely business model for this nation, but hey maybe they figured there was a group of people without much time wanting to wolf down large portions of polenta.
So if planning to dine at an Italian rifugio give the polenta a try, it is definitely part of the experience.