The aroma of marroni (roasted chestnut) is the first sign of autumn when we walk the picturesque promenade by the lake, dotted with linden and magnolia trees. I am in Lugano, the largest city of Ticino, the southernmost canton of Switzerland, near the border with Italy.
We begin our exploration of Ugano via a foodie walk with local guide Patricia Carminati, walking us along the lake to the Old Town and Via Nasa, where our first stop is at Bernasconi Gastronomia, a family-run Below the bar and arcade is the restaurant with tables. Large hooks on the ceiling, where meat was once hung for fixing.
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The town loves its aperitivo—its Italian tradition of small plates with wine or cocktails you usually get after work—polenta (a cornmeal dish cooked in the past in a copper skillet) and goat’s cheese and From tomatoes to local sausage and barley. Quinoa salad with sparkling wines from the region. “We love this tradition of aperitifs—meeting friends and family over drinks and small bites before going out to dinner. It’s our way of socializing,” explains Carminati.
The warm climate and sunny days as well as the presence of valleys and lakes provide a variety of fresh produce from alpine cheeses to fresh fish at their doorstep. A lot of local food draws its inspiration from the Piedmont and Lombardy regions of Italy.
“In this region we have always tried to use leftovers creatively and not waste anything. The fish was cooked in red wine or vinegar to make it last longer and the cake was made from stale or stale bread. We also balance innovation and tradition. By keeping small producers alive, and buying fresh produce from them,” Carminati explains.
Another stop is at the Grand Café El Porto which dates back to 1803, and used to be a medieval convent and still has the original parquet and frescoes. The cafe used to be a meeting place for Italian revolutionaries such as Giuseppe Mazzini who planned the unification of Italy here. The cafe is famous for its Amaretti – small Italian macaroons made from whipped egg whites, sugar, ground almonds. We also stop at a small wine bar nestled in an alley in the revitalized district of Maghetti—full of lively bars sipping on aperitifs and restaurants—and a great place to hang out.
We take a boat cruise on Lake Lugano with local Gabriella Rigiani, who also owns a boat and a cellar in the small village of Meride. Growing up in Meride, she started fishing when she was young. Trout, pike and whitefish are in abundance in the lake. Cave cellars and open-air benches under trees, with rustic grottoes or village inns, are a unique part of Ticini culture—in the past natural caves were used to make cheeses and cure meats.
Later, the grottoes or cellars made of stone and rock, built around the 17th century, were centers of social interaction when families gathered there to eat and drink. Gradually they placed restaurants in or out of the cellar with stone benches and tables and a family atmosphere where you can dine on hearty, local cuisine such as sharp alpine cheeses, traditional dishes with fresh-caught fish from the lake. Sausages, risottos, polenta (made from cornmeal) and white merlot wines from the area at communal tables. “We usually play a game of cards or petanque after a meal,” says Gabriella.
We have a simple but delicious meal at Gabriella’s in her basement restaurant in Meride, walking through the small town where most buildings have a common cellar for residents. Gabriela fish makes a meal of risotto, salad, bread and cheese, and serves it with fresh sangria of young red wine and lemonade.
One of Ticino’s favorite drinks that is on every menu is nocino—a liqueur known for its digestive properties, the original recipe preserved by Capuchin friars or monks. Green walnuts are made into grappa, sugar and spices such as cloves and cinnamon. The Carminati tells us that when an agreement was signed at the end of a meeting, the monks would drink a glass of wine saying “rata fiat” (let it be ratified) and so the liqueur is also called ratafia. According to tradition, walnuts were harvested only on St. John’s Day, which falls on June 24.
Italy has a big influence on the menu, with dishes such as Ticino-risottos, polenta, house-made pasta and minestrone soup. The region’s favorite dessert is Torta di Pan-Bread Cake which was invented in the past by resourceful housewives to deal with stale bread – leftover bread soaked in milk and eggs, and sugar, dried fruits and nuts, lemon zest , baked with almonds, cinnamon, cocoa powder, raisins, pine nuts, and peanut butter.
Another grain that has seen a renaissance in the area is farina bona – a finely ground corn flour mixed with water, milk or wine, used to be an important part of the diet of the people in this poor and inaccessible valley, but eventually By the 1960s production had ceased. In Bellinzona, the capital of Ticino with three medieval forts, we have a meal of Farina Bona Gnochetti Pasta with Yellow Tomatoes and Zucchini Flowers. Ana Bezzola who is showing us around says, “Now farina bona is being used in everything from pasta and craft beer to desserts!”
Ticino is most famous for its unique white Merlot wines, served in traditional pottery. In Tenuta Castello di Morcote, on the hill above the charming village of Morcote, we visit the vineyards of this family, which lasted four generations, beneath a 15th-century fortress built by the Duke of Milan. With the unique volcanic soil and micro-climate created by the lake, Terroir is perfect for the Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay grapes that they grow. Their produce is organic and they make about 60,000 bottles a year in addition to honey and olive oil. In addition to oak casks they also use terracotta amphora for wine aging.
Our most memorable meal is at Antica Osteria di Porto in Lugano, housed in a mustard farm and warehouse building drenched with fairy lights, run by a local couple near the Cassarete River as it flows into Lake Lugano Flows—a delicious meal of salads, local spaghetti in white sauce with fresh black pepper, and white merlot wine, accompanied by a stellar dessert of walnut ice cream with a topping of nocino, a local liqueur made from green walnuts. I soak in the fairy-tale atmosphere and Italian flavor in this corner of Switzerland.
Author Life: Kalpana Sundar is a freelance writer based in Chennai
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