A gourmet hike in the Alps nourishes body and soul, says Mia Aimaro Ogden.
From a small chalet kitchen high in the Alps, Rida Mhah has just conjured up a six-course gastronomic feast. There are no Michelin stars at La Luge, just a few tables amid the late-summer flowers of a mountain meadow in Valle d’Aosta. But the beauty of this two-day hike along Monte Cervino’s ancient paths, in search of great local food and vast Alpine views, is its simplicity.
“Spring and autumn are the loveliest times for trekking round here,” says Tommaso Pession , from Explore Cervino. “The mountains are beautiful, but the paths are so quiet.”
The standard hikers’ lunch of a dry panino washed down with warm Orangina was never going to cut it for this foodie, though. So he conceived the idea of Trekking Gourmet to showcase the abundance of this northwestern corner of Italy in the green months either side of the ski season.
We’re staying at the Sertorelli Sport Hotel, in the brutalist heights of Breuil- Cervinia: one of my walking companions, Parker, has four legs and a tail, so needs a dog-friendly base. (He’s too big to fly, so we drove here.)
The Carlo Mollino-designed hotel monoliths up here have dramatic appeal; walkers who favour a mellower vernacular can hike back down the valley to the B&Bs of Valtournenche, a town where gingham curtains flutter at chalet windows and residents still speak Valdôtain, a sing song dialect of Franco-Provençal.
Our first day’s walking begins at 9 am sharp in the centre of Breuil-Cervinia, 6,581ft up. It’s a crisp morning, but here, at the top of the valley, the sun has yet to emerge. The jagged peak of Monte Cervino disappears into the clouds. At 14,692 ft, its summit is one of the highest in Europe — you might know it better as the Matterhorn — and, as such, it demands respect. Tommaso has brought along a guide, Antoine Casarotto, who has lived in these mountains for most of his life: he knows every path up here, every couloir, every stream. We puff our way up through the thin air of the lower slopes to a wooden chapel built in memory of the Alpine troops: its giant cross can be seen for miles.
Pope John Paul II, a keen hiker, celebrated Mass here in 1991. The valley stretches below us: though the trees are turning tawny, the glacial lakes are still an uncanny blue.
From here, as the sun rises, we turn our backs on the mountain and follow the ancient trail from Breuil down to Valtournenche, past the highest golf course in Italy and across the historic avalanche scars. Behind us, cowbells jangle; in front, a lone marmot whistles in panic. Then it’s into woods, hugging the banks of the Marmore river. There are wild raspberries here; blueberries, too.
“Walking these tracks is like a meditation” Antoine says. “You can only think about putting one foot in front of the other.” Now we’re on Sentiero 107 — this path was how everyone got around until an asphalt road came up the valley in the 1930s. I imagine a steady stream of men and mules trudging up through the early snows. After 2 ½ hours of walking, we leave the woods behind.
Meadows open below us and, suddenly, there is La Luge: a stout little chalet in a field full of flowers, run by Paolo Perron and his wife, the sommelier Manuela Cheillon. Inside, it’s all dark wood and relaxed bonhomie. Outside, the deck looks out across the valley to the high pastures and the outline of a silent ski lift; the season will now be in full swing.
At our long table in the grass, we ask Paolo and Manuela to bring us what’s best today. What arrives, courtesy of Rida Mhah, is six (or is it seven?) spectacular courses, a mix of Valdôtain and modern Italian: cannoli with fontina and smoked salmon; a delicate heap of wild mushrooms; ultra-traditional ravioli del plin; chestnut spaghetti with cauliflower and anchovies; pork belly with crackling; tarte tatin; gianduja with 24-carat-gold ice cream; and petits fours. Each course is paired with a local wine.
Under the table, fielding the scraps, Parker groans with contentment. Walking back up the valley is hard and, just as the sun dips below the massif at 5.45pm, we reach Breuil. Supper is antipasti in the hotel dining room — and wholly unnecessary. But by 9am the next morning, we’re ready to do it all again.
We drive to Cheneil, just five miles away and 6,702ft up. In the Hotel Panorama al Bich, surrounded by the 10 or so old stone chalets that make up this absurdly charming village, we order a shot of grappa with our espresso and drink it while we check out the ancient jumble of ice skates, skis and boots decorat ing the bar. Then we set off towards Cervino’s epic Gran Balconata, back on the Sentiero 107 towards Valtournenche. As we climb the almost vertical 800ft to the balcony, past the little pink church of Notre Dame de Guérison, my heart is leaping out of my chest. Parker dashes ahead, on full marmot alert. As the path levels out among the high peaks, the undulations become gentler; it’s the views that are immense.
To a soundtrack of stridulating crickets and whistling marmots, with eagles soaring, silent, overhead, we walk for four hours, saying little, through forest and pasture, past distant waterfalls and strange rock towers. Every now and then, Antoine stops to point out a tiny edelweiss or an ammonite that time forgot. It’s a sublime journey. We don’t see a soul until the final descent.
By 1.30pm, we’re at the Alpage restaurant. The sunshine gives way to a downpour. The wild ponies in the meadow run for cover. But inside the long, low chalet, a fire is roaring, there’s noisy chatter in Valdôtain, and low-hanging cowbells clunk as unwary diners hit their heads. A walk as big as this one deserves an even bigger lunch. And in this temple to Slow Food, the Tamone-Barmasse family go large on rustic flavours from the best local produce. The antipasti alone would be enough. Lardo, fried goat’s cheese and carpaccio of beef covered in bleu d’Aosta cheese is followed by gnocchi with fonduta; then cabbage soup with drunken bread; beef and polenta; and zabaglione with a shot of genepi.
It’s 5pm by the time we get up from the table. Back on the low path to Breuil, we pass the Lago Blu, the mountains mirrored in its surface glaze. The light is fading and it starts to snow.
We hurry on — there’s hot chocolate waiting up the valley.
Mia Aimaro Ogden was a guest of the Valle d’Aosta tourist board (www.lovevda.it) and Explore Cervino; its two-day Trekking Gourmet tour, which runs from June 27 to September 6, starts at £210pp, including half-board accommodation at a hotel in Valtournenche, lunches at La Luge (luge.it) and the Alpage (www.alpage-cervinia.com), route maps and 24-hour assistance (explorecervino.com) . Guiding by Antoine Casarotto costs £164 a day. Fly to Turin with British Airways.