The bubbling, steaming cauldron pot is for all the world like Madame Mim’s in Walt Disney’s The Sword In The Stone. For a long time it seems like nothing’s happening, then all of a sudden a dense whitish cream appears on the surface. The margaro, or dairyman, starts to collect it and transfer it into a cloth-lined mould. I’m in the Val Pellice, in one of the 15 mountain dairy huts that still operate, and I’m watching the crucial part of the preparation of seirass. In the local dialect, the word seirass means ricotta, and in fact ricotta is obtained from the whey, a liquid containing mineral salts, casein, fatty flocculants and lactose that is left in the pot after cheese has been produced. With the use of heat and an acidifier, the solid residue coagulates and forms a skin on top of the water.
Ricotta is born of hunger. It was invented in the days of ‘waste not, want not’. From the very beginnings of the art of cheese-making, man has learnt how to use this humble food resource. In Italy all shepherds make ricotta, and we Italians are great eaters of the stuff. Pasolini even titled one of his movies La Ricotta. We use ricotta to fill ravioli and cannoli, to prepare cassata, to flavor cakes and to make pasta sauces. This Mediterranean delicacy par excellence is generally eaten when very, very fresh. However, in places such as in mountain regions, where communications are poor and the conservation of foodstuffs is essential, man has learnt to preserve and age even this most perishable of dairy products.
This is what happened in Val Pellice, the homeland of the Waldensian religion, a valley which remained isolated for many centuries. Peter Waldo was a merchant from Lyon who in 1170 sold his worldly goods and organized the ‘Poor Men of Lyons’ movement, a band of lay preachers. The history of the Waldensian community is one long sequence of succession of persecution, hostility, massacre and deportation – to think that its is one of the most tolerant, civilized religions in the western world. In 1686, the Waldensian community, which had embraced Protestantism a little more than a century earlier, became the vanguard of Lutheranism in Italy, where it was mercilessly persecuted. Piedmontese and French troops literally wiped out the Waldensian presence in the valleys, forcing the few survivors to go into exile. In the end, it was the tenacity of this small religious minority that prevailed. In 1848, an edict by Carlo Alberto recognized this community’s civil rights and, from then on, despite occasional periods of intolerance, the Waldensians managed to lay roots in the Val Pellice, Val Germanasca and lower Val Chisone, where they opened churches and schools and applied their religious principles to civil affairs. Today there are about 30,000 thousand Waldensians in Italy, of whom half still live in these valleys. Albeit tenaciously attached to the few austere rules and symbols of their religion, these people blend perfectly into society.
This appears in their culinary traditions as well. For example, the have retained the habit of teatime at five o’clock, the result of frequent contacts with their Swiss brethren. They have also imported the production of fruit jellies, jams and cream cakes from their countries of exile, which have little in common with the traditions of Piedmont. Yet the one product that most characterizes these valleys is seirass. This ricotta has been transported down into the valley from the Alpine pastures where it is produced every day. To protect it and to add flavor, the round forms of cheese were wrapped in hay. The historic name for this dairy product is Seirass del fen. With the help of the local Comunità Montana, or Mountain Community, a Slow Food Presidium has been set up to promote this outstanding example of the area’s diversity. As I said, 15 producers are still active in the alpine dairy huts, and each one preserves their own style of making the cheese. Some add milk, some press it, some add salt to the mix and some produce it in a dry form. Then there is a producer who jealously guards an ancient recipe used to produce an infusion that is added to the whey as it boils, a mixture of herbs, spices, and roots that acts as a binding agent, giving the seirass an original, rich and fragrant flavor.
The farming and culinary heritage of the Waldensian Valleys has been handed down to us intact over the centuries, and it is our duty to preserve it. Fortunately, there is a restaurateur in Torre Pellice, Walter Eynard, who has turned his kitchen into a permanent showcase of this heritage. All the dishes prepared at his ‘Flipot’ restaurant have something to tell about the area and almost all feature seirass. One such is supa barbetta – from barbet, the Piedmontese dialect word for the Waldensian preachers – the dish of the house. The recipe reflects the ability to make optimal use of everything that is available, including leftovers such as cabbage, stale bread, pork and chicken stock, seasonal vegetables and cheese. This soup’s very simple ingredients, put together by the skilled hands of one of the best young chefs in Italy, is a miracle of flavor.
Chosen for you by Franco Turaglio
Fiduciary of Slow Food Pinerolo
Where to stay
Corso Lombardini 1
Torre Pellice (Turin)
Tel. 0121 932477
Four stars – 31 rooms with satellite TV, pay TV, safe, telephone, mini bar.
Prices: single L. 130,000, double L. 180,000 (including breakfast).
The most comfortable in the area, with a beautiful garden and covered swimming pool, sauna and conference rooms for up to 130 people. The restaurant has international and regional dishes and house wine (roughly L. 45,000).
Piazza Barbieri 22
Tel. 0121 322157
Three stars – 15 rooms with bathrooms, satellite TV and mini bar.
Prices – single L. 80,000, double 130,000.
In the center of Pinerolo, managed by the Rissolo family for three generations. Guests are housed in an atmosphere reminiscent of an old Piedmont drawing room. The restaurant is excellent and offers local dishes such as bollito misto (mixed boiled meats), involtino di carne (stuffed meat rolls), grilled vegetable terrine with spiced tomato, agnolotti alla piemontese (roughly L. 50,000 without wine).
Where to dine
Corso Gramsci, 17
Torre Pellice (Turin)
Tel. 0121 953465
Closed Tuesdays (open every day in summer)
This is a must when returning from a walk in the mountains, perhaps visiting the numerous alpine cabins where seirass d’l fen is produced. This is the temple of Waldensian cuisine, where Walter and Gisella Eynard skillfully blend tradition and innovation. Specialties include carp scented with mountain cumin, the famous supa barbetta, ravioli stuffed with seirass, leg of goat cooked in freshly mown hay and roast breast of pigeon on a bed of cep mushrooms. The cheese trolley is exquisite, with the finest tomini cheeses – plus, of course, seirass. The desserts are excellent and the wine list superb. You can also stay over in one of eight lovingly restored bedrooms (L. 150,000 – double room with breakfast).
Taverna degli acaia
Corso Torino 106
Tel. 0121 794727
Closed on Sundays.
Price: L. 70-80,000 without wine.
‘Surf and turf’ dishes. Depending on the season, courgette flowers) with spring onion-flavored seirass and creamed shallots, steamed prawns with cream of borlotti beans, bigoli with lobster and seirass-filled ravioli. Main dishes include bass fillets with fresh tomato sauce and fillet of beef in Barolo wine sauce. To finish, a wonderful choice of cheeses and desserts, including woodland berries, wafer and cream and three-chocolate pyramid with Barolo chinato. Comprehensive wine list.
Via Ponte Palestro 11
San Germano Chisone (Turin)
Tel. 0121 58822
Closed on Thursdays (never in summer)
Price : L. 60-70,000, excluding wine.
Seriously damaged when the Chisone flooded last October, this historic restaurant at the gateway to Val Chisone is back in business with a bang. Don’t let the number of covers put you off. Antipasti range from snails in herb and butter sauce to salad with mixed herbs, creamed mushrooms and courgette flowers stuffed with seirass and borage. The starters include potato gnocchi and mushroom with paglierina di Cercenasco cheese and seirass and thyme-filled ravioli. Main dishes include rolled rabbit with herbs and olives, and spit-roasted leg of suckling pig. After the local cheeses, desserts feature iced Zurigo with Strega-flavored cream or iced moscato and honey -scented zabaglione with woodland berries. Excellent wine list.
Via Maestra 27
Bobbio Pellice (Turin)
Tel. 0121 957747
Closed on Thursdays
Seats for 45 + 30 outdoors
Price: L. 45,000 excluding wine.
This pleasant rustic restaurant is at the bottom of Val Pellice and it offers cuisine that is based on the traditions of nearby France. It therefore includes dishes such as fondue bourguignonne or savoyarde, and la pierrade. The desserts include excellent blackcurrant bavarois and hazelnut cake with zabaione.
Where to shop
Azienda agricola Goia & Galfione
Regione Canali 4
Tel. 0121 56423
Sheep farm producing raw milk tomini cheeses, seirass, and natural yogurt made from pure sheep milk. Sold directly to the public.
Via I maggio 78
Luserna San Giovanni (Turin)
Tel. 0121 900031
The best agricultural produce Val Pellice has to offer. Biological fruit and vegetable, preserves, bread and cheese, and seirass d’l fen.
Open on Sundays.
Azienda Agricola Plavan Oscar
Via Savoia 7
San Germano Chisone (Turin)
Tel. 0121 58593
The Plavan family is the only producer of seirass d’l fen that still uses an ancient recipe, including an acidifier made from an infusion of herbs and spices left to soak in whey.
Piero Sardo, a gourmet and f&w writer, is a Slow Food vice-president and manager of the association’s Presidia Office.