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Living La Dolce Vita in Northern Italy
Rumour has it that deep in the heart of Northern #Italy at harvest time, the cuisine, climate, and countryside combine to cast a memorable spell over all those fortunate enough to be there. Always up for a bit of #culture and Italian #foodanddrink, my wife and I hopped on a flight from Liverpool direct to Venice for a 6-day stay.
My grandmother Marcella Paoloni was admittedly a bit of a snob. Born and raised in Rome, she believed anywhere else was a provincial backwater. However, she often talked about hockey trips with her SS Lazio teammates to Northern Italy at harvest time with a distant, dreamy gaze in her eyes. Her tales of beautiful sunsets, moonlit vineyards and fettuccine garnished with freshly gathered truffles had been setting me up for this trip all my life.
After touching down in Venice, the shuttle bussed us directly to Residence Progresso in Lido di Jesalo for a five-night stay.
Hotel Residence Progresso
Murano Glassblowing and Burano Lacemaking Tour in Venice
Lido turned out to be a wonderfully serene beach resort on the Venetian Riviera and the hotel was first class, close to the beach, very clean, with a well stocked, Mediterranean style kitchen, a generous balcony on which to soak up the sun, and only a short stroll from a Familia Superstore. For our first dinner, Familia provided us with fresh prosciutto, olives, mozzarella and melanzane (matured eggplant). We snacked at leisure, watching the sun set over the snow-tipped peaks of the Veneto range, glistening like cones of Italian gelato in the distance.
Next morning we were up and early for our Italian cooking course. I had chosen Maria’s Cookery Course for two things. One, because it’s held at Villa Castel Venezze, a stunning 16th century villa set in the heart of the Venetian countryside. And two, because the owner, Countess Maria Giustiniani, reminded me of my grandmother.
Maria's Cookery Class
Murano Glassblowing and Burano Lacemaking Tour in Venice
Over the next four happy hours, we hustled and bustled in Maria’s impressive kitchens, with the Countess’s proteges patiently showing us how to make a satisfying, full Italian meal from appetizers to dessert, using only fresh, seasonal produce and eggs from their own hens.
Thanks to my grandmother, I’m a whiz at making Rome’s famous matriciana sauce.
Thanks to my grandmother, I’m a whiz at making Rome’s famous matriciana sauce with bacon, accompanied by fresh pasta, made with eight eggs and cranked out into fettuccine, using my hand-operated Imperia Tipo Lusso pasta-making machine – still manufactured in the little Piedmont commune of Sant'Ambrogio. But I was very much a one-trick pasta pony until Maria’s course, which has opened up my mind to so many other delicious variations.
After having indulged in the cuisine and culture, it was now time for the countryside.
For an authentic vineyard tour and wine tasting experience, we had carefully picked out Novaia, a timeless 15th century vineyard in the Marano di Valpolicella region. Set in the picture-postcard Marano Valley, the vineyard is actually situated where two very different environments meet, Valpolicella and Lessinia. It’s a real cultural crossroads here.
The hardier, rockier Lessinia, with its broad fields and cow-and-cottage dotted meadows, has been shaped by its former settlers from Germany, the bold and warlike Cimbrians, whose Germanic language is once again being revived in local schools, with signposts now sprouting up in duel Cimbrian and Italian.
Valpolicella on the other hand is a much gentler spirit, with a balmy Mediterranean climate, olive groves, cherry trees and Palladian villas dotting the rolling hilltops, with fields ready for harvest, shining with a wholesome golden light.
It was in this pastoral paradise where we first met our hosts, the Vaonas. The Vaona family came here to live in the 18th century and, 100 years later, patriarch Paolo Vaona started producing Valpolicella and Recioto wine. Paolo passed the vineyard on to his son, who died young, leaving behind two young sons. These orphans, Gianpaolo and Cesare, are the founders of modern day Novaia – and while elderly, they are both still as strong as oxen, glowing with typically good Mediterranean health.
In true family style Gianpaolo’s son, Marcello, and Cesare’s daughter, Cristina, are very much involved with the business, helping Novaia convert to organic production, with the vintage from the 2014 harvest completing the certification.
We enjoyed an unforgettable wine tasting session with Marcello in the restored cellar, located in the ancient manor house. Later, he was joined by Gianpaolo and Cesare, who took us for a stroll around the property, the ruins of the ancient castles on the hillside just adding to the magical harmony. Cesare exhorted us to come back next year, on the last Sunday in April, to experience an ancient annual procession. From the Santa Maria Valverde church above Marano, locals carry a statue of Virgin Mary made in 1600, sing songs and recite the rosary, while gunners fire great blunderbusses belonging to the twelve ancient families of Marano, a time-honoured custom meant to invoke protection for harvest.
The custom seems to have worked, because the area is famous for cultivating some of the finest Italian reds, including Amarone, Recioto, Valpolicella Classico and Ripasso. My favourite was the Valpolicella Ripasso Classico Superiore, a deep, ruby red wine with a lovely hint of spices.
The area is famous for cultivating some of the finest Italian reds.
After the wine and great company, it was unusually heart-wrenching to say arrivederci to Novaia. While we had started off as strangers, in true Italian style, we left the Vaonas as family, with email addresses and Facebook details exchanged.
While Novaia was the highlight of our gastronomic getaway, we also loved the cruise along the velvety canals of Venice to St. Mark's Square. Venice is much like a dream, in which every second is precious. On the dazzling Piazza San Marco, we sipped espresso in the same 18th century cafe Casanova was said to have visited. We wandered across the Bridge of Sighs beneath the opulent Ducal Palace, strolled along the Rialto Bridge that spans the Grand Canal, explored hidden squares and enchanting old shops, and ‘snacked’ at cosy trattorias serving genuine Italian casa cucina (home cooking).
Charles Dickens once mused that even 'opium couldn't build such a place' as Venice, an insight we especially appreciated when the late afternoon light of autumn gilded the domes, oriental spires, and velvety canals in a bewitching, dreamlike sheen.
Charles Dickens once mused that even "opium couldn't build such a place" as Venice.
By the end, I too was touched by the magic of Northern Italy. An ageless magic that my dear grandmother had so poetically passed on to me, all those many, many years ago.