The day we all agree on the stuff legends are made of it’ll mark the end of heroes and saints and miracles as we know them. Oddly enough, in the case of Saint Ursus, biographic sources agreed on the month and the day of his death, February 1, but on nothing else. His life stretches out like an elastic band – and with plenty of leeway – from the sixth to the eighth centuries. As to the place of the saint’s birth, the claims of the Val d’Aosta dwellers match the opinions of historians, thus dispelling the rumor that Ursus was born in Ireland. The ninth-century author of his life described him as a sort of St Francis of the mountains. Besides describing him as possessing all the qualities it takes to be a saint, the writer adds that Ursus also talked to the birds – hence the iconography that always portrays him with a bird on his shoulder and a prior’s crook. The saint’s habit of providing Val d’Aosta families with sabots and piun , two types of traditional footwear made respectively of wood and fabric, and agricultural tools led to him being made the patron of one of the oldest fairs in Italy.
Last year, the Fiera di Sant’Orso, the Fair of Saint Ursus, celebrated its thousandth birthday, though the first written document to mention it was a 1243 parchment signed by Amedeo IV of Savoy. Between the fourteenth and eighteenth century, the importance of the fair declined due to plague and war, but it returned to its former splendor in the middle of the nineteenth century. It featured wood tools hand-carved in front of warm fires, and of utensils and fabrics bartered and sold at the end of January, the first chance the valley communities had of meeting up after the long, cold winter months.
The times have changed since then, of course; nowadays people come to buy stylish as opposed to functional objects. Yet the fair is still as exhaustive a display of a region’s crafts as you’ll find anywhere, one in which the worlds of agriculture, the mountains and art blend as one. The event reaches its climax on the night of the veilà, or vigil, between January 30 and 31,when the streets are lit up and crowded with people through until dawn.
During the two days of the fair, the stalls in the town center display all sorts of goods: masks made of pine, walnut, chestnut, maple, beech and cherrywood plates, dishes and trays made of earthenware like the characteristic green-colored stoves of the craftsmen of the Valtournenche. Some crafts are common to the entire Val d’Aosta: wrought iron, leather (used in the old days to make saddlebags and wineskins), vannerie (interwoven clematis or willow branches). Others are typical of certain valleys or villages. Pillow lace, for example, is a tradition of Cogne, where it was introduced in the sixteenth century by Benedictine monks from the monastery of Cluny in France. Valgrisenche is famous for the weaving of rough sheep’s wool drapes, drap in dialect, Valgrisenche for hemp cloth, used, in turn, to make shirts and towels in Champorcher.
But two truly cult objects that invariably sell like hotcakes are the grolla, a communal drinking bowl, and the coppa dell’amicizia, the ‘cup of friendship’. The name of the first, packed with religious and magical connotations, derives etymologically from the twelfth-century term graal (from the medieval Latin gradalis, the classic Latin crater and the Greek krater) and has the appearance of Christ’s mystical chalice. The second is a large wood saucer bowl with a lid from the nozzles of which friends can drink à la ronde the typical piping hot Val d’Aosta coffee, a mixture of grappa, sugar and spices, or else vin brulé, mulled wine.
The Val d’Aosta also boasts a range of unforgettable culinary specialties: from diary produce to cured meats (Fontina, fromadzo, the lard of Arnad, mocetta, or cured chamois meat, and jambon de Bosses), from hearty mountain soups to main courses, such as the stews,fricandeau and carbonade. It’s worth sampling delicacies here and there from the stands of the crowded Aosta city center streets, or stopping off at the Enoteca La Cave for a plate of something and a wine from the endless list, or at the Trattoria degli artisti, to taste the fonduta, cheese fondue, or the mocetta At the end of the meal, after a warming caffè à la Cogneintze, there’s yet another regional tradition to respect: that of a glass of génépy, distilled mugwort, whose alcohol potency is tempered by a high sugar content.
First published in Specchio di La Stampa, 13/01/2001
Alessandro Monchiero, a journalist, works for Slow Food Editore
Adapted for Sloweek by John Irving