Bella Baita: The Beating Heart of Italy

9 Aug

I’m concerned I won’t do justice to Bella Baita with this blog. I can hear the collective groan when I say it can be challenging to keep up with my writing with so many exciting things going on around me. Poor me… but it would be a great disservice to Marla and Fabrizio’s grand project if that were the case. But let me start at the beginning.

We arrived late at night at Bella Baita (Beautiful Mountain House) in Borgata Serre Marchetto high up in the Piedmont mountains above Pinasca. Guests and hosts were lingering over dinner. Fabrizio bounded down the stairs, wrapped Stuart in an embrace and kissed him on both whiskery cheeks saying ‘Welcome my friends!’. I received the same warm greeting and we joined other guests for a glass of homemade grappa. A wonderful start to a memorable four-night stay.

Locally-born Fabrizio is a human dynamo. He returned to his parents’ home and restaurant ten years ago to convert it into a mountain retreat. His partner in this endeavour is Illinois-born Marla. Between the two of them they have many years experience in the international hospitality and catering industry. What Marla doesn’t know about cakes and pastries would fit on a postage stamp. Together they have a vast knowledge of local foods, wine and culture and love nothing better than sharing it with guests who come for the excellent walking, cycling, cooking classes and company.

Stuart found Bella Baita through a site he uses a lot, http://www.responsibletravel.com. The large, simple wood and stone lodge looks out across Chisone Valley to towering mountains. In summer the mountains are covered with fir trees and grass with a few small villages and single houses dotted along the road built by Fabrizio’s parents and neighbours. I met Fabrizio’s sprightly mother one afternoon on her way to work in the flower garden. She returned with some sprigs of lavender she’d cut for me. Not much mutually intelligible language, but oh, what a beautiful smile.

We spent Sunday driving down to the street market at Perosa Argentina then on up the Germanesca Valley. The busy mixed market was perfect for purchasing huge peppers, cherries, nectarines, and a spare pair of three euro reading glasses for Stuart. The only jarring note was the olive and candied fruit vendor who got quite narky when I asked if I could photograph his stall. The valley is popular with European walkers and families and Prali at 11am was full to bursting with them standing in the middle of the street with their strollers and dogs chatting. We had to inch past to avoid running over bambinos and terriers.

Monday we walked through the forest, along a snow melt stream and by farmhouses. A startled deer leapt off the path and disappeared into the brush. Fabrizio is working hard to secure his market garden from the Roe deer set on nibbling his vegies. We could hear cow bells for much of the time and glimpse them high up on pastures. A highlight was a small church in a hamlet of three houses with an immaculately kept graveyard filled with silk and real floral tributes to dear departed villagers. Lovely photographic portraits are cemented to the head stones.

Our meals were served at the large table in the common room. Dishes are made with great care using mostly local ingredients and accompanied by Peidmontese wines. Special mention for pizza night. I’ve enjoyed some excellent homemade pizzas (especially yours Marg) but nothing to equal Fabrizio and Marla’s. The day beforehand Fabrizio cut the wood and that evening they made the dough. On pizza day Fabrizio started the fire in the pizza oven in the dining room at 3pm to ensure the oven was at the right temperature. Ingredients for the toppings were lined up on the large marble block and Fabrizio and Marla worked the dough into pizza circles and invited us to choose our toppings. Mine was half and half – Gorgonzola cheese with pear and porcini mushroom with Mozarella cheese on fresh tomoto puree. Fabrizio popped the pizzas into the oven one at a time for just ten to fifteen minutes and slipped them off his paddle sizzling and fragrant onto huge pizza platters.

Fabrizio is a study in perpetual motion, singing snatches of opera and popular songs in a tuneful tenor. Marla is the quiet achiever, ever vigilant to guests’ needs and turning out a delicious stream of meals and a wonderful packed lunch for our day walk.

After the last pizza was cooked Marla baked half a dozen loaves of bread overnight in the oven.

On our final day we kidnapped (with the permission of Fabrizio and Marla) the resident young WOOFer, Sarah from Marin County, California, who is working at Bella Baita, and drove through the Piedmont wine country south of Torino for a day of wine tasting and eating. Sarah was a great sport and an excellent navigator. A few notes from the day:

Polenzza: Home of the slow food university and wine bank. No time to stop but worth a return some day.

Lazzano: Tidy town with great railway station coffee.

La Morra: Hilltop village with 300 degree panoramic views from the church square to Castiglione and Barola. Green patchwork of vineyards.

Barolo: Tasting of a five vineyard vineyard Nebiola in the information centre in a deconsecrated church. Bought a bottle as a gift. Lunch outside at La Cantinetta. Melt in your mouth gnocchi.

Monforte d’Alba: Sleepy town under repair.

Barbaresco: Population of 700 at 274 meres above sea level. Gorgeous sculptures dotted around the village. Tasting of a couple of reds from an elderly woman and bought a bottle of Barbaresco to share with our dinner companions.

We regretfully left Bella Baita after another of Marla’s amazing breakfasts. Today’s cake was a warm berry cake. Marla wrapped us a big hunk to enjoy with coffee on the road. The dining room was humming with conversation and laughter. Fabrizio was about to distill his current batch of grappa under production and Sarah had just returned from watering and ‘de-slugging’ the vegetable garden.

May the heart of Bella Baita, Marla and Fabrizio, continue to share their beautiful Italian Alps with many more visitors and achieve their vision of a sustainable cooking school. Arrivederci Bella Baita!

Further information and Marla’s blog is linked at http://www.bellabaita.com

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