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Andrea, Elena, and Vanessa a tavola

I haven’t seen Andrea in four years. We met five years ago while working on a farm in Tuscany together and quickly became friends. Andrea’s story is that he grew up in Aosta, the largest city in Valle d’Aosta, and was on track to become a career banker. Trimmed hair, glasses, a suit, working at the bank every day: that was his life in a nutshell. Shortly after he turned thirty he decided that such a life was unbearable. He grew out his hair, lost the glasses, wore shaggy clothes, adorned himself with leather and seashell bracelets/necklaces/anklets, left a long-term girlfriend, quit his job, and took off for a new job dressing up as Goofy at Euro Disney. After Disney, he flew to New Zealand to work on farms, then spent some time in East Asia before returning to his native Italy for more farm experience. After he and I met I would email him from time to time and invariably find him in a different part of the world living another adventure: walking across Spain on el Camino de Santiago; biking from his home in Aosta to Holland and then back, sleeping along the road or in barns; doing charity work in West Africa.

Now Andrea is back in Aosta, about as settled as is possible for such a free spirit, and currently planning his next trip to China and India. I’m lucky to have caught him here at all. He and his friend Elena cooked up a welcome dinner, and I want to share two more specialties from Aosta that were on the table: Lardo and Sanguinaccio.

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Delicate slices of Lardo di Arnad, with a drizzle of honey on warm rye bread

Lardo is an Italian specialty that has become increasingly well-known in the United States, often featured in top Italian restaurants. Chefs have half-jokingly renamed it “Prosciutto Bianco” to play down the fact that it is pure pork lard, although lardo is still the name most commonly attached to it. There are two types of lardo that are the most famous in Italy. The first is known as Lardo di Colonnata, which is from Tuscany. It is there that thick slabs of solid pork fat (usually from the back of the pig) are massaged with salt and spices and packed into special marble containers (conche) that come from the same famous quarries in Massa-Carrara that also gave Michelangelo his raw material for sculpting. The second is Lardo di Arnad, which is from Valle d’Aosta. Here the slabs of pork fat are packed into wooden containers (doil) in a salt water solution with aromatic ingredients including sage, rosemary, cloves, nutmeg, cinnamon, and juniper, and left to cure for at least three months. The lardo is sliced very thinly, and one of the best ways to enjoy it is drizzled with a light honey and draped over a piece of warm toast (usually pane nero in Aosta, a rye bread), where the lardo ever so slightly melts.

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I don’t know who first thought of combining pork, blood, potato, beet, and spices into a tight little casing, but I’m glad they did

The second specialty from Aosta that Andrea served was a blood sausage called sanguinaccio, also known as boudin. Boudin is a generic French term for sausage, but in Aosta it describes this specific preparation. I’m a blood sausage aficionado, and I become giddy for sanguinaccio, with its characteristic tang and deep purple color. It is made from a combination of ground pork, pork blood, pureed potatoes, red beets, and seasonings.

Andrea and Elena’s dinner provided enough fuel for our hike the next day high up to the abandoned Colonna mine (2400 meter altitude) in the Gran Paradiso national park. According to Andrea, the mine once housed thousands of workers, who would live in the mountain-top facility for months on end, sending down loads of iron ore from deep inside the mountain to the valley below on a sled/cable system. Abandoned since 1979, the mine is in ruins and access is technically prohibited because of the dangerous conditions. Against better judgment, we entered the mine facility and took a careful walk around. The deteriorating interior, with dark passages, rusted lockers, crumbling walls and collapsed staircases looked like something straight out of a horror film. Fifty year old records of shifts worked and sick days taken were strewn about the floor of one room, an old forgotten shoe in another. The mine even had its own chapel, bare of everything except a large fresco of Christ. The mines themselves were locked shut with solid iron gates, and the only suggestion of their depths was a chill air that hung at the threshold.

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Mont Blanc, Europe’s tallest peak, and the border between France and Italy, is visible in the distance

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Alpine peaks seen through empty panes in the mine’s dining hall

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Sunlight on the dining hall wall

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Andrea and Vanessa stand in front of a mine entry-point

1643

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The chapel

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The mine facility from outside

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