Secret Osteria, Lake Como and a Special Risotto

Wander around the little lanes and back streets of the smaller and less touristy villages of Lake Como and you will find some real gems. One perfect but modest osteria can be found in Cernobbio, a village accessed easily by bus or ferry. I¬† prefer the ferry option, not only for the wonderful views of the Palazzi and gardens along the way, but just to hear the ferryman call out the names of the villages en route, “Torno, Moltrasio, Blevio, Cernobbio”, lazily trilling those ‘r’s and the nautical sounds of whistles, ropes and gangway planks landing.

Lake Como ferry on the way to another small village.

The day we went to Cernobbio, the wind was icy and the ferry was almost empty: we were well rugged up for the day. It was early November and most of the large gardens had closed for the season. Among our fellow travellers was a young chap, honey blond hair perfectly groomed, sporting a mustard coloured scarf carefully arranged over the shoulder of an expensive and conservative blue outfit, tanned ankles bare above sockless and effeminate boating shoes, with a newspaper tucked under one arm. Too affected to embody the insouciance of a Castiglione courtier, la bella figura gone awry. An aimless and idle palazzo owner perhaps? He was the only other passenger to leave the ferry at Cernobbio. The place looked deserted.

We wandered around Cernobbio: it had that empty, out of season look. Although not accustomed to taking coffee at 11 am, it seemed like a sensible thing to do, given the weather. And this decision led to a most wondrous find, the¬†Osteria del¬†Beuc, a small worker’s cooperative and restaurant up a back lane in Cernobbio. This is where all the locals were hiding on that cold November morning. At one large table, a group of older men in sensible jackets were grazing on morning snacks to go with their pre- lunch wines. A few tables away, couples were partaking of coffee but there was a sense of expectation in the air. More people were beginning to arrive. I glanced at the paper sheet listing the menu of the day. The gregarious waiter/front of house/barman advised that I should book immediately as there was only one table left for 12.30. Good advice. I ordered a Spritz and settled in for some more people watching, buoyed by the glowing euphoria that only a Prosecco laced with Campari can produce at such an ungodly but most welcome drinking hour.

By 12.40, the place was packed. The elderly gentlemen reluctantly vacated their morning table and wandered back to the safety of their separate homes, wives and a home cooked meal. The table was then replaced with a large group of hungry young office workers. Smaller tables were occupied by elegantly dressed couples, some accompanied by small, pampered dogs on leads: the place was alive as the enthusiastic waiter theatrically went about his business.

But then, dear reader, you didn’t come all the way with me to Cernobbio to simply ogle the locals, although if you’re a bit like me, you probably enjoy a bit of people watching as you travel through life, inventing scenarios and stories for each one. The food at Osteria del Beuc is well priced and seriously very good. Honest and simple food cooked perfectly. The lunch menu came with prices for one, two or three courses, 9‚ā¨/ AU$14, 12‚ā¨/AU18/ ‚ā¨14/AU22, which included a 250 ml carafe of wine per person. Of course I went for the three course option.¬†

For il primo, I had a composed salad of endive, spinach and soft white cheese, beautifully dressed while Mr T had a zucchini frittata. Then came a creamy risotto dish, perfectly cooked, nicely moistened, cooked in red wine, with rosemary and Taleggio cheese, the latter still visible and just beginning to melt. Sadly there is no photo, but if there were, it wouldn’t look great- just a pile of wet white rice on a plain plate. And yet it tasted sensational. The bread supply was generous. A fairly ordinary chocolate mousse followed. This didn’t detract from the overall delight of the meal and the venue: I have come to expect unimaginative desserts in Italy and should remember not to order them, unless there’s a visible¬†nonna on site who may have just baked a homely torta of fruit or nuts.

I have worked on recreating that lovely risotto dish and will continue to refine it. The Cernobbio version retained a lovely creamy white appearance and perhaps used less red wine and a little less rosemary than my version. Every time I make this, my heart flies back to Lake Como. Below is a version but feel free to play with it to suit your palate.

Risotto, red wine, rosemary and taleggio. Large serving for two or three. Ugly but good.

Risotto al Vino Rosso, Rosmarino e Taleggio. Risotto with Vino Rosso, Rosemary and Taleggio.

Ingredients for two smallish serves. Adjust quantities to suit your appetite, bearing in mind that it’s a rich dish and best served with a simple salad before or afterwards.

  • 150 g Carnaroli rice
  • 1/2 red onion, very finely chopped
  • 150¬†ml¬†good quality red wine ( the one you’ve opened for dinner is best)
  • 350 – 400 ml vegetable stock ( it’s always better to have extra on hand)
  • 20 gr butter
  • 40 gr or more of Taleggio ( substitute Stracchino if on a budget)
  • 40 gr grated Parmigiano Reggiano or Grana Padano or more to taste
  • a teaspoon of very finely chopped fresh rosemary
  • salt and white pepper to season

Method

In a small saucepan, warm the vegetable stock and keep it on a low heat. In a separate cast iron casserole, choosing a suitable size for the measure of rice you are using, add the butter and saute the onion gently until soft and pale golden. Add the rice and toast for a minute or two. Then add the red wine and heat, stirring, until it is fully absorbed. From this point, begin to add a ladle¬†of hot stock to the rice and stir through on low to medium heat. Don’t stir too vigorously: an occasional stir is enough. Once that stock is fully absorbed, continue to add more ladles, one at a time, for around 20 – 25 minutes, as per the usual method of risotto making. The only way to judge the readiness of the rice is by biting it. If the centre is still hard, continue cooking. Once ready, turn off the heat, and add the rosemary and Parmigiano and half the Taleggio chopped into smallish chinks. Stir through then cover with a lid and leave to steam for a few minutes. When ready to serve, add the remaining Taleggio to the dish.

For Helen Legg.

Osteria del Beuc, Via Felice Cavallotti, 1 Р22012 РCernobbio, Como, Italia

 

 

Around Lake Como, a Pleasant Awakening.

I was pleasantly surprised by Lake Como, in particular by the many small and more remote villages that are dotted around the Lake. You could say it was an awakening of sorts. My misconception about the area may have been based on all the hype one reads about villas, palazzi, gardens, tourists, film stars and wedding events. Most tourists head to busy traps such as Bellagio ( happily mispronouncing it every time), Varenna, Menaggio or Como, paying scant attention to the other 15 or so small villages of Lake Como.

Painted Laglio

A stay in Laglio in late October proved so refreshingly devoid of tourists, I wondered if we had found Italian nirvana. The small village of 600 residents included two tiny alimentari with totally random opening hours, one osteria specialising in local lake fish and a small enoteca which opened after 4 pm. There are more businesses open in the high season. I could happily head back there tomorrow, especially in October, spending a month or so jumping on and off the small ferry that leaves from Carate Urio, a two kilometre walk down the road from Laglio. I am sure that every village would have one local trattoria or osteria open for lunch. The few that I did manage to visit provided me with exquisite food memories.

Lane ways in the older part near Laglio

One week in Laglio was simply not long enough. Below are some colourful images taken on walks around the village. The collage photos can be clicked on and opened separately.

Grazie mille Stuart and Linda for your lovely home in Laglio.

Pasticceria, old painted sign, Laglio

Gardens of Lake Como

The district of Lake Como is famous for its gardens and villas, and¬†despite its proximity to Switzerland and its soaring dark wooded peeks ( over 2000 m high in some places), the weather is classified as humid subtropical. In winter, the lake helps to maintain a higher temperature in the surrounding region. Average daily temperatures range from about 3.7¬†¬įC (39¬†¬įF) in January to 23.4¬†¬įC (74¬†¬įF). Averages, in a sense, don’t deal with aberrations, like the exceedingly warm temperatures (above 25) we experienced in Como in late October recently. The lake is 400 metres deep and is Y-shaped, with two distinct arms. Travelling about by ferry, you can reach most of the 31 municipalities on the lake, all the lovely small Comaschi¬†villages that don’t feature in glossy magazines or brochures. Keep an eye on the ferry timetable though and double-check with the ferry captain about return times, especially when travelling out of season. At each spot, you’ll probably find a small¬†osteria serving the local lake fish or a good risotto. The Province of Como is more than its tourist namesake, the town of Como, which, as a single destination, is disappointing.

Smoke on the water

The clement weather helps explain the presence of palm trees and the luxuriant gardens that make Lake Como so special. The gardens of famous villas can be visited when open during the main tourist season. Many¬†provide backdrops for American weddings. You’ll see plenty of ‘Wedding Planner’ signs around the province of Como. After all, the property rich but cash strapped marchesi¬†need to keep up a certain bella figura.¬†

Concrete transformed by garden

Not all the lovely gardens are attached to villas. Public spaces are transformed through careful planting. Simple boxy looking houses take on more glamour when draped in Autumn creepers. Some gardens are wild, using the native chestnuts and pines of the ridges above: others are over manicured and formal. The synergy of garden and built environment ( house, village, church, dock, villa) results in a harmonious and glorious whole. It’s a lovely place to visit, especially if you get away from the main tourist traps.

The following collage is a media file full of gardens. Click open the first, then use the arrow to view some of Lake Como’s gardens.

 

Next post: village restaurants of Lake Como.

I See Fire. Wildfire in Como.

Now I see fire, inside the mountain
I see fire, burning the trees
And I see fire, hollowing souls
And I see fire, blood in the breeze.   Ed Sheeran.

One of my favourite Ed Sheeran songs came rushing in as I watched a blazing wild-fire gain momentum on the peaks of the densely wooded forest high above Lake Como. It was a windy night, following yet another unseasonably warm late autumn day. The dark mountains near the comunes of Veleso and Tavernerio were on fire, the lines gaining speed and the fire front broadening. The few people we saw around the village and in the local osteria in Laglio didn’t look perturbed, and as I didn’t have access to the internet or television, I had to assume that this was a controlled burn off. Or an out of control controlled burn off. If I had been at home in Australia, I would have been terrified.

Il bilancio degli incendi nel Comasco: distrutti 400 ettari di bosco E il fuoco non è ancora domato (Il video)
Photo by Andrea Butti, La Provincia di Como.

The next day we woke to the low buzzing sound of helicopters and Canadairs. The war was on. Not unlike a scene from Apocalypse Now, the planes swooped down into the lake, filled their tanks with water, then rose back into the sky in a circular aerial ballet before dropping their load on the smoking mountain. The mission went on all morning, though I did notice that all action ceased at 1pm: nothing, absolutely nothing, gets in the way of an Italian lunch! After the first day, the fire was still visible and threatening to take off once again. The helicopters and Canadairs kept up their vigilant water bombing for three more days until the area was declared safe.

Coming from a bushfire prone district in the low wooded hills, the designated Green Wedge and lungs of  Melbourne, and having been personally affected by the disastrous Black Saturday bushfire of 2009, I was keen to find out what was going on. This required those old-fashioned and timeless investigative skills- chatting  to locals, asking more questions, and buying the local newspaper in Como from a very happy dope smoking giornaliao. 

The gentle dock master down at the Urio ferry stop was concerned about the lack of rain. It was late October, only a few days before All Saint’s Day, and yet it hadn’t rained for two months. The weather had been warm with temperatures in the mid twenties. The little lakes and sources of water high up in the mountains had dried up, and at night the ‘cinghiali, caprioli, volpi, lepri e cervi scendono per bere al lago’,¬†(¬†the wild boars, roe deer, foxes, hare and deer come down to drink at the lake). He looked concerned, apprehensive even, like some modern day St Francis. ‘They hide during the day,’ he said, ‘even the wolves come down to drink at night.’

By Monday, the newspaper was full of reports, with pictures of fire fighting scenes taken at the fire front, which was estimated to be around 400 hectares. The local brigade, i vigili del fuoco and the local fire fighting volunteers were praised, and along with the aerial bombardment, the fire was kept away from hilltop farms, ancient trails, and the densely populated small lakeside villages. There was some discussion about pyromaniacs and the careless cigarette butt throwing drivers. The following day, another article suggested that the blaze began as a result of a contadino, a peasant farmer, doing some cleaning up by burning off.

In later discussions with other Lombardi, it was suggested that these fires may have been deliberately lit by those wanting to buy land cheaply. Start a fire, watch your neighbour’s land burn, then snap it up for a bargain price. The pernicious Sicilian mafia are alive and well in Lombardy. This behaviour is well documented in the rural areas of Sicily but in Como?

I raised the issue of global warming and the need for more care and vigilance in summer and autumn. The locals do worry about long, hot and rainless autumns that are becoming the norm, as well as the perennial yellow smog that chokes the beautiful historic towns, villages and hamlets within a 30 kilometre radius of Milano. They are also concerned about the long-term pollution of their underground drinking water, necessitating reliance on plastic bottled drinking water in some parts, about the nuclear waste buried under a recently constructed road in Lombardy that can never be removed (construction contracts have been handed out to the mafia as local government corruption takes hold in the North) as well as a raft of other environmental issues confronting Northern Italy. But global warming? Beh, what can you do? The issues are huge.

The blaze in the Comasco hills cost around ‚ā¨500,000 (AU$750,000) to quell. Let’s hope this fire was an aberration, but also a warning and a message.

And a link to that song can be found here.

 

 

 

Lost in Lake Como

Along the journey, I lost my way, though not in any real or physical sense. I lost my writing muse, a frequent visitor to my early morning half wakefulness. She still made some attempts, and suggested I take up the pen again but being out of touch with that older, and more time-consuming form of editing, I repelled her constant intrusions.

This drastic shift in daily habit came about due to the absence of WiFi. Our friend, SK, had generously offered us his house on Lake Como, and along with it, a non functional internet service. Ironically, this same friend is an IT programmer and when he left Como to return to London, he assured us that the internet would be up and running¬†within a day. It didn’t happen, and while I don’t wish to sound terribly ungrateful for the opportunity to live in his gorgeous house just up the road from George Clooney, the internet free time had profound consequences.

During the first two days, I became extremely anxious and fidgety and came to understand my addiction as a physical thing, not unlike addiction to cigarettes, coffee, or obsessive behaviour. I felt totally lost and cut off and didn’t know what to do with my hands. I had been permanently connected for the previous 12 years, including during visits to the Australian outback and along remote stretches of the Mekong River in Thailand. After some tearful moments, I was ready to leave Lake Como.

Slowly things improved as I adjusted to the reality of the situation. We were staying in the small village of Laglio, some distance from the larger towns dotted around Lake Como. Our village was in November mode, with only one operating osteria and a tiny alimenatari with totally random opening hours, both a kilometre or so away. There were no internet cafes to tap into and the supposed community WiFi service near the bus stop was dysfunctional. So we walked, and asked more questions, and bought newspapers again, and read timetables on walls and at Batello stations. The nearest ferry stop was 2.5 kilometres away: the ferry left and returned three times a day and was the only reliable way in and out of the village. We never mastered the buses due to lack of faith or trust. We did have a car, but left it safely locked up in the garage, given the¬†Lake’s goat track and hair pinned roads and serious dearth of parking. Getting out of the village meant access to other towns, tourist brochures, and a variety of restaurants, often stumbled upon and not tediously researched. We walked at least 10 kilometres a day in our search for food, services and information.

Knowing how to relax. No phone.

And as the week went by, I noticed a few things. I slept really well. I thought nothing of walking the 5 kilometers round trip to catch a ferry, even in the rain. Or walking late at night to the only winter surviving restaurant at Laglio. I became fit. I read Italian newspapers back to back, and read the books laying idle on my Kindle. And then I stopped writing.

Don’t pay the ferryman.
Another village along the edge of Lake Como

In hindsight, I enjoyed the break and intend to do this more often. Even when reconnected once we arrived in Pavia, my addiction had abated and I rarely tapped into the service.

How do you cope, dear reader, when the internet is unavailable? Do you feel anxious, or relieved to have a break from constant communication and availability?