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Bergamo - culinary centre of Northern Italy

Updated: Feb 19, 2019

When thinking of Italian cuisine, we might be challenged to have memories of pasta and excellent tomato sauces. This is the true flavour of Italy, right? Well, wrong… Although Italy is the homeland of European pasta, there is much, much more to the tastes of Apennine Peninsula than that. And Bergamo, province near Milano and in the pre-Alps, is just the perfect place to indulge into real gastronomy of Italy. Bergamo is one of the Italian culinary capitals and this article will explain why.

Delightful settings and landscapes, Alps, lakes, and rivers, are places where unique flavours and tastes blend in a unique marvellous Bergamasque cuisine. From the charming Citta Alta, upper part of Bergamo, the region of the same name goes south to the rich and verdant plain, dotted with castles and medieval villages. To the east, region goes as far as the river Oglio and the lovely lake Iseo, reflecting the colours of the mountains. To the west is the river Adda. The rolling hills of the Bergamo province are full of vineyards and are steeped in history. To the north, the region ends in pre-Alps, where the landscape changes with every season, and where culinary specialities abound.

Between the peaks of pre-Alps are numerous mountain huts and hiking trails circumnavigate the valleys and high mountains. Unspoiled nature and vast open areas allow wildlife to enjoy the slopes of mountain ranges. The mountain valleys contain interesting examples of rural architecture, such as those in Val Imagna and Val Taleggio. They bear witness to the human settlement and keep alive age-old customs of the farming communities. This ancient culture keeps the local produce, that are made in pastures and mountain huts. Such are the cheeses from the upper valley Brembana, and numerous PDO cheeses, made today using the modern technology and traditional recipes, often passed down through the generations.

Realm of cheeses

Modern dairies in the valleys produce high quality cheeses, several of which have a PDO designation, such as Quatrirolo Lombardo, Provolone Val Padana, Gorgonzola, Grana Padano, and Taleggio. These are known and appreciated all over the world. These and other local specialities are painstakingly made according to the local traditions and customs, together with modern technology used for the high-standard quality and genuine ingredients. Each type of cheese has its own characteristic taste and smell, based on the type of grass and herbs that animal eats on the mountain pastures. The range of cheeses made in the Bergamo area is vast. Each mountain valley, as well as each part of the plain, makes its particular kind. No less than seven Bergamo cheese have PDO designation, the largest number of a single province in whole of Italy.

Formai de Mut is only made in the upper valley Brembana, made from the raw cow's milk from Alpine brown cows. It has a blue mark if it is made on the high pastures during the summer, or a red one if it is made during the other seasons in the dairies down in the valley. Another typical cheese is made in Branzi, also in valley Brembana. Mild and delicate, Branzi is made from full cream cow's milk. The cheese is now processed in modern dairies. Val Taleggio is home to another PDO cheese known worldwide, Taleggio. This soft, uncooked cheese made of cow's milk is now produced on plains as well. In kitchen, Taleggio is important in many tasty dishes. Another product of Val Taleggio is Strachitunt, uncooked blue cheese made from the full cream cow's milk. It can be considered as an archetype of more famous Gorgonzola. Throughout the province, Formagella is made, a characteristic half-cooked cheese. It has a typical flavour of cheese produced on high-altitude mountain pastures.

Two cheeses with a special world attention are Grana Padano and Gorgonzola. It seems that the grana padano’s ancestor was born in the Chiaravalle abbey in 1134, where the Benedictine Monks named it caseus vetus, or “old cheese”. However, over the time the popular name prevailed, which referred to the grainy and crumbly texture of the cheese: hence the name “grana padano” (“grainy cheese from the Po Valley”). The fame of this cheese is due to its high quality, resulting from the careful choice of raw materials, as well as to the long and demanding processing. In fact, to produce two wheels of Grana Padano, which will weight 36 kg at the end of the aging period, it takes 1000 kilos of milk! Its taste is savoury, sweet and slightly sour when it’s fresh. Its flavours remind of melted of cooked butter when it is ripened. You will also feel the aromas of dry mushroom, caramel, hazelnuts, almonds, broth and leather.

Gorgonzola: you love it or you hate it. It is a strong cheese with a very intense taste. Many people are intimidated by its strong smell and its unusual appearance: in fact, its moulds often prevent picky eaters from taste it. Don’t make this mistake! You would miss something really delicious. Gorgonzola D.O.P. is an actual wonder of nature! It is made of pasteurized cow’s whole milk to which lactic cultures, calf rennet, Penicillium spores and selected yeasts are added. It is soft, creamy, wet and soluble, it tastes like cream, butter and mushrooms: yummy!

Clear waters and historical remembrance

The crystal-clear water that springs from the mountains still operates several old mills, where the superior quality flour is made. The maze is used to make the well-known Bergamo Polenta, a staple of local cuisine and an emblem adopted by the people of Bergamo that goes under the name „La Vera Polenta“ (the true polenta). The most delicious variety is Polenta Taragna, in which different mazes from the valley are mixed in right until the end of cooking. Ordinary wheat flour is used to make pasta, another staple for many local specialities. Casoncelli, with its distinctive flavour, is well known outside the province. It is served with sage leaves fried in butter.

The water going down to the valley is renowned for its therapeutic quality. There are numerous spas that attract those in pursuit of wellbeing. When the water reaches the lakes, characterised by typical fishing boats, it helps grow the local fish that make up exquisite dishes, dressed in extra-virgin olive oil produced in the lakeside villages. There you can enjoy culinary delights, history, and culture. Guarding the lakes are ancient hamlets and medieval castles and forts, Romanesque churches and historical residencies.

In recent years, Bergamo and its province have picked up on a nationwide trend that is increasingly taking hold: the production of homemade beers. Thanks to the clear waters, there are at least nine micro-breweries in the province: Elav (Comun Nuovo), Endorama (Grassobbio), Maivisto (Sedrina), Maspy (Ponte San Pietro), Orobia (Gorle), Sguaraunda (Pagazzano), Val Cavallina (Endine Gaiano), HopSkin (Curno) and Via Priula (San Pellegrino Terme).

The Bergamo plains go all the way to the Sotto il Monte, the birthplace of cardinal Roncalli, who became Pope John XXIII. There one can see the farming collection of the Roncalli family, a staring reminder of how hard the farm work can be, and how blessed the people of Bergamo are with the plentiful natural resources. People here are devout Roman Catholics and many sanctuaries are present here, such as the one in Caravaggio, where noble families once lived, or the monastery of Fontanella. You can also visit the historic re-enactments in many castles here.

If you take the road of Via Priula, you can enjoy the spectacular landscapes and historical towns such as Clusone, where you can admire the Dance of the Dead fresco, but also the local speciality Bergamo Casoncelli, which shows how humble origins of Bergamo peasants transfers into beautiful flavour. Numerous ethnographic museums bear witness to the rural culture. The wooden tools led to the production of different types of cheese and flour, pork produces, wines, and other produce.

Glorious wines and splendid meat

All along the gentle slopes between mountains and plains, vineyards abound, offering excellent reds as well as whites, especially those from the Valcalepio (red, red reserve, white, and Muscatel wines). The Bergamasque countryside was once well known for its wine production, which at the time was focussed above all on quantity. Today it demands excellence, and this can be seen in Valcalepio DOC red and white wines, which are produced on the sunny slopes of a large hilly area at an altitude of between 300 and 600 metres. The Valcalepio wine and food routes wind through this prestigious and environmentally important area.

Justifiably renowned, Moscato di Scanzo DOCG is a classic vino da meditazione, a “meditation wine” or wine to be savoured alone, produced from vineyards introduced by the Romans or possibly even earlier by the Etruscans. Muscatel is made from Moscato di Scanzo grapes. Reds are predominantly Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, aged for at least one year. The red reserve, which is left to mature for at least three years, is ruby red with a smooth, dry taste, ideal for roasts, aged meat, and game. The whites are usually served with starters or fish, or simply as an aperitif. A blend of Pinot Bianco, Pinot Grigio, and Chardonnay is best known white variety, tastes smooth and dry, with a hint of almonds. The wine makers also do sweet wines and sfumante, which ideally go with local cakes such as Polenta e Osei and Turta de Trei.

From the plains and stock farms comes prime beef and pork, that go into numerous local specialities, served in many local restaurants in the province and in the Bergamo itself. Dried and smoked products feature prominently. In rural life, pig farming long plays a profound role for the local economy. Everyone knows the saying: „No part of the pig is thrown away“, and nowhere is this truer than in Bergamo. Pork fat is used to make lard, even the blood is ingredient in various recipes. Today, Bergamo is known for its sausages and salamis. One worth mentioning is excellent bacon, which has aromatic herbs added to it, and is left to mature in special wooden trails, just as they did it centuries ago. Polenta is ideal companion to this tasty dish.

Bergamo salami is the most characteristic feature of the rural culture. The best way to enjoy its unmistakable taste is with a glass of good red wine and gather with friends. Equally tasty are varieties of different bacons and pancetta, and sausages called codighi, after the large amount of codiga or pork skin.

Beautiful and sweet Bergamo

The city of Bergamo lies in the heart of the province, nestled between plain and hills. It encompasses beautiful cultural and artistic heritage. The old part of town is surrounded by high walls erected by the Venetian Republic. It is a delightful blend of medieval streets, old shops, churches, palaces, and museums. The true heart of the town is Piazza Vecchia, displayed in all its splendour, surrounded by striking examples of civil and religious architecture. Here, visitors can find the ideal blend of art and good food.

Numerous restaurants and trattorias offer both traditional dishes and inventive modern elaborations, which is why Luigi Veronelli, a famous Italian gastronomy expert, made his home in Bergamo. The famous flavours of this town have also the sweet twist. Did you know that the stracciatella-flavoured ice cream was born in Bergamo? Sumptuous and almost baroque, with its embroideries of chocolate on a soft and smooth bed, it is a must-try dainty! The history of stracciatella begins in the mid-Eighteenth Century at the southern side of Sant’Alessandro Gate, in Bergamo’s Upper Town, where a place called Bettolina used to be. After World War I, it was replaced by a café named “La Marianna” after its owner: in 1953 La Marianna was purchased by Oriana and Enrico Panattoni, a couple of Tuscan migrants who already run a small patisserie and ice-cream parlour in via Colleoni. They also opened a restaurant where they used to serve a type of soup with broth and beaten egg called “stracciatella”. In 1961 Enrico had an idea: after a few tries, he managed to create an ice cream that actually tore itself up (“stracciare” in Italian) and named it like the soup. This is how this delicious ice-cream flavour was born!

Sugar, chocolate, sponge cake, marzipan: here’s a different version of the traditional “polenta e osei” dish. Vegetarians will love it, and so will gluttons! When we mention polenta and birds, we usually think about a traditional main course from Bergamo: did you know that there is also a sweet version of it? It was created in 1910 by the imaginative baker Alessio Amadeo and his wife, and it is a real work of art: from the outside, it really looks like a corn-polenta dish, but it hides a tender and sweet heart. Layers of sponge cake alternate to a filling made of chocolate, hazelnut and liqueur, all covered by yellow marzipan decorated with chocolate-flavoured almond paste little birds. Delicious and beautiful: this cake soon became a common heritage for Bergamo bakers.

Parts of the text are written by the Tourism Board of Bergamo.


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