Wednesday, October 17, 2018

TMB Day 4: Resting and Digesting in Courmayeur

Day Four
July 20, 2018

Starting point: Courmayeur, Italy
Ending point: Courmayeur, Italy
Distance: 0 miles
Height gain: 0 feet
High point: 3rd floor of Hotel Edelweiss
Lunch: Le Vieux Pommier
Accommodation: Hotel Edelweiss

An inconspicuous sign at the top of the Col de la Seigne on Day 3 indicated that we had walked from France into Italy.  On the TMB trail, it was not immediately noticeable that we had crossed a national border besides the fact that people started saying "Buongiorno" rather than "Bonjour," but the moment we sat down to eat our first meal at the Rifugio Elisabetta was the moment we realized that we were definitely in Italia!  The Italians do not mess around with food - they are dead serious about what they put on the table.  As if we weren't already dying of happiness from the polenta, pizza, and cured meat plate from Day 3, the following "rest day" in Courmayeur turned into a gastronomic exploration into the cuisine of the Aosta Valley.  Courmayeur is a small Alpine resort town in northwest Italy, nestling at the foot of Mont Blanc in a region known as the Aosta Valley.  It ain't Rome, Venice, or Florence, but this town is somewhat of a hidden treasure with a vibrant local culture all its own.  We were really grateful to have a full day to relax and basically eat our way through Courmayeur after three very tough first days on the TMB.  Despite being a very small town, Courmayeur has so much to offer, with its intimate alpine atmosphere, its charming cobblestone streets, and those quaint yet exotic Fiat Panda Four-by-Four's.   In between snoozing and feasting, we learned so much about Italian culture in the just-over one day that we spent there.  

We woke up without an alarm in this quiet corner of Italy to the smell of freshly baking bread wafting through the open window of our third-story room.  The purr of car engines and the beep of horns were oddly comforting.  We had our own bathroom, a hairdryer, elevators, and the whole day ahead of us.  No tape, no socks, and no need to fill our packs with water!  This alone was so worth the extra miles we had hiked yesterday.

Moments after we stepped out into the sun, Wes began to take note of all of the cool Italian cars (I almost wrote, "import," ha!) that were parked everywhere.  I don't know if it's just the name, but he was especially obsessed with these Fiat Panda 4x4' can tell that I'm weirded out that he wanted to take a picture of me with them.

We were on our way to coffee when we passed a small, homey-looking bakery and gourmet food store with a wide open window display of golden pastries.  Lattice crust fruit pies, puffy beignets, layered croissants, rustic loaves of bread, and two large trays of focaccia beckoned us from the other side of the glass.

We wanted one of everything, but we couldn't possibly do that to ourselves at the first place we stopped into today!  So we settled on sharing one thing: a cube-shaped pastry that looked most unfamiliar to us.  Some other people were ordering them as well.  It was dusted with a semolina coating and had the texture of silken tofu inside, sort of like a flan, but a lot less sweet.  Maybe it was ricotta or mascarpone?  We tried to ask the owner, but it was too hard to catch what she was saying in Italian.  There was a long line of locals coming out of the bakery after we got our little treat - I was embarrassed that I took so long to ask questions and fumble with payment.  This was definitely a locals-only kind of spot.

We finally arrived at Cafe Della Posta for espressos (it was already almost noon by now, because we had taken forever to get out of the hotel and kept getting distracted on our way).  When we walked in, the barista asked simply if we wanted espresso or Americano. Then he motioned for us to sit at any one of the round little tables. 

The espressos came with a little pewter tray of meringues and sables. As we were sitting there, I suddenly remembered that the worker at La Casermetta the other day had told us to get an Italian hot chocolate while in Italy, so I added an Italian hot chocolate on a whim.  The barista probably thought that we were so weird for getting two espressos and a hot chocolate at noon, but we don't look like locals so I think we got away with it.  

Photo doesn't do it justice, but this Italian hot chocolate definitely did not disappoint - it was chunky and thick, and bittersweet.  I simply can't imagine a more sumptuous hot chocolate than this!  It came with a cinnamon shaker, so we put a little bit on top.

We ate lunch at this place, Ristorante Le Vieux Pommier, in direct view of the cablecar, with its happily-swinging gondolas taunting us for being too tardy to ride it down the day before.  For lunch, we ordered food that was typical of the Aosta Valley region.  A little foodie research revealed the following: pasta is not the predominant dish here.  Very cold winters mean even heartier fare, such as polenta, gnocchi, risotto, chunky minestrone soups, meat stews, and lots of fontina cheese (both hot and cold).  Pane nero ("black bread"), is the sacred bread of the Aosta Valley - there is even a holiday that revolves around its making.  As in the rest of Italy, charcuterie is also a big deal.  In the Aosta Valley, there is a special type of charcuterie called mocetta.

Let me just preface this meal by saying that this was by far the cheesiest meal I've ever eaten, and I actually enjoyed it all.

Affettato tipico valdostano - typical sliced meats and cheeses of the Aosta Valley: prosciutto, speck, lardo, mocetta, salami, coppa, fontina, Tête de Moine.

Such generous portions of each meat, and this platter was just 12 Euros!

Seupetta - vegetable soup garnished with whole wheat crostini and baked fontina cheese
It was a little scary to dig into so much cheese, but I tried it and enjoyed the browned flavor of it.  The soup underneath was really chunky and good - overall just a nice, warming soup.

Risotto alla valdostana - made to order to guarantee the most amazing, fresh experience.  It was not mushy and not overly cheesy at all.  I was surprised because initially, we wanted to order the one with mushrooms in it, but the waiter insisted that we stick with the basic risotto with nothing added to it.  It was really rich, but we ate almost all of it (even after all of that charcuterie and that filling soup).  It actually tasted and felt really nutritious and invigorating.  Again, such a huge portion!

In the bathroom were these weird automatic hand-washer stations that spouted water and soap and heat at pre-programmed time intervals.  All you had to do was hold your hands inside of it.  I doubt that I'm the only tourist to have taken a photo.

We were super duper full after this and so we walked around the quiet town.  Most stores were closed because everybody was observing siesta, which we totally hadn't known about until this trip.  It's great that everyone takes a break in the middle of the day...wish that we had something like that in our culture.

I thought I had literally no ability to eat more dairy at this point, but then we walked by the gelateria...

At this gelato place, we met two other TMB hikers from Toronto and chatted with them, but conversation was cut short by rain.  I was pretty worried about the rain for looked like a storm was rolling through this part of the TMB.  Anyway, after consuming two scoops of delicious gelato, I knew that I was super sleepy, but we took the long route back to our hotel just to see as much of Courmayeur as possible while we still could.

We also ended up buying a buff with the TMB map printed onto it from Ardi, a local outdoor store, after seeing a sample on display at the gelato store.  Apparently, the Ardi store owner has a personal relationship with Buff® and he has designs custom printed for only his store. Very, very cool.

We eventually made it back to hotel after ogling at more Italian cheese/meat/fruit/bakery/focaccia/outdoorswear stores.  We crawled into bed and fell asleep for about 45 minutes. It was a great nap- so indulgent!  I had not slept well on any of the nights of the trek so far, so this was probably just what I needed.

We rolled out of bed to go watch a cooking demonstration at the Maserati (of course) stage, just steps away from our hotel.  The chef was just basting a piece of trout for-EVER while the emcee garbled on in Italian. By the way, the luxury car scene here was a feast for Wes's eyes, all in their "natural habitats."  Anyway, that might be the last time either of us would watch a cooking demonstration in Italy!

We still weren't super hungry for dinner and the grey weather made us lazy, so we just went right back into the hotel and quietly did random things.  I looked through the TMB guidebook, journaled, and we organized our rocks that we had collected from each day.  Finally, just as we had mustered up the energy to step back into the world for dinner, it began to rain hard.  Shocked, we retreated back up and put on rain coats and got the umbrellas, only to see that it had stopped again when we got back outside. We felt like a couple of idiots and pretended that the person at the front desk hadn't noticed.  These clothes and the umbrella ended up coming in handy on our walk home, anyway.

That's where we'll be headed tomorrow morning!

Dinner was at La Terrazza, which was a traditional Italian restaurant with a combination of more generic Italian dishes plus a menu section for Aosta Valley specialties.  It was an easy walk from the hotel.

We couldn't come to Italy and not eat pasta! We shared two primi piatti, one secondi, and a dessert.  Everything was delicious - I guess it wasn't a "cheap meal," but it definitely cost less than any comparable high-quality Italian restaurant would have in the U.S.!

Whole wheat spaghetti with pistachios and sun dried tomatoes.

Potato gnocchi with tomatoes, sardines, and small bits of buffala mozzarella.

From the Aosta Valley menu, we got the polenta gnocchi with veal carbonara. It looked like falafel at first glance, haha.  It was both grainy and pillowy at the same time.

Then, we indulged in a slice of wine-soaked pear tarte for dessert.

It took a while to get the check (see culture note below) but it was interesting to people-watch and discuss our observations.  Across from me was a woman eating a bowl of melted cheese - yes, nothing but melted cheese.  The kids at the large table behind us were coloring or drawing on paper; no iPads or phone screens were present.  There was wine on every table (except ours!).  Oh and the water- was it a sign of class when you get the bottle of water rather than the pitcher of tap water?  Well, we allowed ourselves to be shameless pitcher folk, then.

We talked about things that we noticed from the rest of the day, too.  It seemed as if the owners of food establishments (whether it is a charcuterie store, a bakery, a coffeeshop, or a full-blown restaurant) always seemed to be present, and things just felt more genuine because of that.  Patrons took their time to eat, drink, and make merry.  Servers get to you when they get to you, and there does not seem to be any special treatment for out-of-towners or tourists.  They don't rush you out, but they also don't try to anticipate your needs (such as, getting the check).  The restaurant owners do not go out of their way to waltz around and chitchat with their customers.  They are hard at work and often a bit stern.  This was all very refreshing to us as Americans, and it was nice because it sort of reminded us of the no-nonsense Chinese restaurants that we grew up eating at.  Sadly, just as Italy was growing on us, we realized that it was time to leave.

That night, we packed our things and happily discussed how fortunate we were to have been able to take this unplanned rest day in Courmayeur.  It was raining rather hard, but we were not sure what the weather would be until the next morning.  We previewed the hike in the book and it looked like it would be only 12 km and the terrain did not seem too hard to do in the rain if we stuck with the main route. We decided right then and there that we would NOT be opting for the high route this time- blame it on the weather or on fatigue- but we behaved like overachievers the first three days and should really save our energy if possible.  Five more days!

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