Bergamo and area, have a tradition of hearty dishes of meat, often game, cooked in butter, good local cheeses and wines.
Typical dishes include:
Casconcelli - meat stuffed ravioli - often filled with tangy sausage and topped with butter, bacon and sage
Gnocchetti di patate - potato dumpling with sauce and cream
Coniglio - Rabbit
Many wonderful cheeses
Wide variety of Bergamo salamis
Val Calepio Doc wine
Polenta - every dish is accompanied by Polenta in both classic form and taragona (with cheese). Polenta is made from coarsely or finely ground yellow cornmeal. It is cooked by boiling to a paste, in water or a liquid such as soup stock. After boiling it may be baked, fried or grilled.
Literally every meal we had in Bergamo had Polenta included in the dish. I think I ate enough Polenta to last me a lifetime.
On my first visit to Bergamo, I'd stopped off at a bar for an early evening aperitivo of my favourite Aperol Spritz, and was surprised to find that this was accompanied by a plate of nibbles - crisps, olives, pizza squares etc. I later learned that this is a Begamask tradition.
From around 17.00 - 20.00 'Happy Hour' attracts locals to unwind with a drink - an aperativo, beer, glass of wine or soft drink etc, and a small snack, (similar to the Andalucian tradition of tapas accompanying your drink).
Unlike in England, where 'Happy Hour' is an excuse to throw as many 1/2 price glasses or bottles of alcohol down your neck, before the prices return to normal, here, the emphasis is on relaxing, chatting with friends and enjoying a drink with food. As Italians usually eat quite late, this is a welcome custom.
Some bars such as VOX (Via Papa Giovanni 94, Citta Bassa), provide a full cold buffet for the price of your drink.
So here are some typical drinks that you'll see being drunk during Happy Hour
Aperol Spritz (spritz con Aperol) -The distinctive orange coloured drink, Aperol, is made from bitter orange, gentian, rhubarb and a blend of herbs! Produced by the Milanese Campari company, it was invented in Padua in 1919. Spritz are made with Aperol, white wine and topped with soda - served with a slice of orange and a green olive. White wine can be substituted by prosecco.Spritz con Campari is more bitter than the Aperol version.
Martini - Red or white, sweet, medium, - dry and extra dry vermouth - served neat, with a mixer or in a cocktail
Cinzano - A sweet or dry Vermouth from Turin - more bitter in taste than Martini. Served neat, or with a mixer
Campari - A red sweet-bitter vermouth, invented by David Campari in Milan in 1860. Can be drunk undiluted or mixed with soda,mineral water or white wine.
(As an 18 year old on my first visit to Italy, I thought that Campari and soda sounded the height of sophistication - myself and 3 friends ordered one each and posed for photos, holding our glasses. One mouth full and I thought it was awful -at that time I had a sweet tooth, so found this too bitter. Thirty years later, and I decided to try this drink, as I now prefer dry wines, bitter ale etc. - Nope, still don't like it! I'll stick to Aperol Spritz)!
Prosecco - Sparkling wine - a local equivalant to Champagne
Bellini - Invented in Harry's Bar, Venice - Sparkling wine (Champagne or Prosecco) and White Peach juice. - A favourite of Ernest Hemmingway.
Montgomery - another Hemingway tipple! - named after General Bernard Montgomery. A very dry Martini- 15 parts gin to 1 part Vermouth.
Garibaldi - named after the Italian Hero - red campari and Sicillian oranges represent the red shirts worn by Garibaldis soldiers. A low alcohol cocktail.
Martini Cocktail - Shaken not stirred? The original cocktail was invented in 1910, by an Italian bar tender working in New York, named Martini. He wasn't a member of THE Martini family.
8 parts gin to 2 parts dry Vermouth served with an olive.
Negroni-Possibly invented by Count Camilo Negroni in Florence in 1919 - Gin, Campari and Red Martini in equal measures, shaken with ice. Served garnished with a strip of orange peel, that is held over a flame and twisted to release the oils, which produce a distinctive burnt orange flavour.
If you walk down the Via Porta Dipinta (on my last day I walked up this street with 15 kilo’s of luggage on my back!) you will pass this large arch fountain.
It looks like there once was a door. In fact there was before it was frescoed during the Renaissance times. It used to be a “porta” through the medieval walls.
The name Via Porta Dipinta derives from it.
Our salame ('salami' is just plural of salame in italian) has a special flavour and it's softer if compared to the other types around Italy. That's due to the fact that it's made of fresh pork meat. Its special flavour is given by the addition of black pepper, red wine, spices and fresh grinded garlic.
You say 'Bergamo' and the Italians think of 'polenta', the grinded corn flour boiled in water and cooked for more than one hour in special copper pans.
And, to get the real polenta alla bergamasca, you need the special flour obtained by grinding the local corn with special stone mills and at low temperatures. The flour can be white or yellow (most common): remember that the polenta made with yellow flour is suitable for meat and cheeses while the white one is perfect for matching the fish.
That's the wonderful wine producted in the Bergamo province despite the area does not have a huge fame compared to others in Italy.
This wine has three varieties: red, white and the uncomparable Moscato Passito di Scanzo. The latter is the symbol of the Bergamo enology - famous for its sweetness, tasting of pepper, cinnamon and rose - it finds its perfect match with sweets like almond biscuits. Only few thousands of bottle are produced every year and its price varies between 20 and more than 100 Euros.
This cheese is a local production from the Brembo Valley (the left of the two main valleys that converge in Bergamo). It's taken from the cow's milk. It's quite pricey because few farmers still know how to make it. That's due to the fact that the Strachitund is made of two different milks - the one taken and prepared in the evening and the morning one. This cheese is made of stripes pressed together.
Arlecchino is one of the most popular masks of the Comedy of Art. He was born in Bergamo (in the Brembo valley, at Oneta) and soon moved to Venice. He was poor and wore a dress made of colourful cloths stitched together. Arlecchino is naive and simpleton but cunning, embodying the countryside illiterate.
Polenta is a mushy mass of corn meal, which accompanies most meals in the Lombardy region.
Originally, it was a "poor mans" meal - to provide a padding for small portions of meat. It is still widely served up in various ways today, the same as rice and potatoes can be.
During my second visit to Bergamo, I had my first taste of Polenta, which came flavoured with sage. I really enjoyed it.
Throughout the Citta Alta, you'll come across these yellow domes of calorie laden sweetness displayed in Patisserie shops, advertised as being a typical Bergamo cake.
This isn't strictly true -
Originally Polenta e Osei were made of polenta and songbirds (such as larks and thrushes) A dish that is believed to date back to Roman times.!- a practice that is now outlawed!
It is thought that the recipe for this sweet version goes back a century or more, and was invented in the kitchens of the Pasticceria Balzer, near the Teatro Doninzetti, though it might have been known as the Pasticceria Isacchi at the time.
The cakes sold today are made to resemble a pile of polenta, with chocolate and /or Marzipan birds decorating the top.
There are variations on the recipe - A sponge cake, (some have a hazelnut cream filling, some have alcoholic liquor as well!), is covered in a yellow fondant icing (or marzipan - almond paste), and rolled in sugar crystals.
On top of the dome, may be a dollop of apricot jam, and the decoration of birds, which again vary in artistic merit!
Click here for a recipe
If Piazza Vecchia is the heart of Citta Alta than via Colleoni could be considered as its soul. It is where visitors spend most of their time, strolling up and down this street which reminds to an artery. There is number of very pitoresque window shops on both of its sides offering suveniers, cloths, works of art etc. In case you feel too tired to walk and need a rest, I suggest the gallery of cafe-pastry Donizetti.
Unfortunatelly, via Colleoni isnt stricktly pedestrian area as it should be. Your strolling might be disturbed, from time to time, by the residents of Citta Alta or supplaying cars.
It reminds its ancient relative: this dessert is the most common in town and it took after the local specialty, called 'Polenta e Osei'. The real one is a winter must: it's composed of a polenta base with wild birds on it.
This dessert resembles the former in colour and shape; it's actually made of almond paste and chocolate birds on it. It's stuffed with sponge cake.
If you like simple good quality food, then Bergamo is the place for you. Save some room in your suit case for a few locally produced cheeses, cured meats and of course wine!
At least 8 of the local cheeses have Doc (docg or dop) status (Controlled and guaranteed, protected denomination of origin) Doc products (wine and food products , commonly wine and cheeses) have achieved European -regulated Quality Assurance labels.
Bergamo boasts many independent shops - There are very few 'chain stores here', and many restaurants and trattorias are family run, serving local traditional dishes.
The Orio Centre (opposite the airport) has a huge supermarket that stocks locally produced cheeses and cured meats etc too.
Some Local and Traditional Dishes
I picked up a free guide (in the Tourist Information Centre), to restaurants that the Bergamo Chamber of Commerce, have merited as being a Ristorante dei Mille Sapori (Restaurant of A Thousand Flavours)
Bergamo is known as The City of A Thousand, due to the high number of men from Bergamo, who enlisted for Garibaldi's army campaign in 1860, so this is recognised in the Chambers awards for traditional flavours and quality restaurants.
There is quite a long list of requirements and standards to warrant being awarded.
1. They offer own cooked courses, and have been run for at least one year by the current manager
2. They offer the Traditional Menu and Traditional dish at lunch and dinner every day
The Traditional menu includes - starter, first,main course, in house dessert, garibalda bread if available in the area , Bergamasca white wine or Valcalepio doc wine and Bergamo produced mineral water
The Traditional dish - single course meal with garibalda bread if available in the area , Bergamasca white wine or Valcalepio doc wine and Bergamo produced mineral water.
both should be inspired by typical local cuisine, using seasonal ingredients, particularly traditional products with the Mille Sapori mark. They should be quoted inclusive of cover charge and service.
Other stipulations are in regard to the outside appearance -signposted, well lit, car parking, the inside - comfort of noise, temperature, lighting, maintainance, reception of guests, local information, waste management, food miles, energy efficience, low packaging, recycling etc.
In the back of this guide is a Glossary of Local products and dishes, so here are some that may be familiar, but many may not be;
Agri - soft cheese produced in the upper Val Brembana from fresh cow's or goat's milk
Bitto - Doc cheese made in Valtellina from unpasteurised milk, which is then matured from 70 days to a year, which gives it a distinctive 'deep taste and intense character'
Branzi - one of the most typical cheeses of the Orobian Alps and is named after one of the villages in Val Brembana.
Formai de mut - a semi cooked Doc cheese, made from whole cow's milk - again this is produced in the Val Brembana.
Gorgonzola - veined blue cheese, made from unskimmed cow's milk - varieties can be 'buttery or firm, crumbly and quite salty' The tangy flavour arises from the blue veins.
Grana Padana - One of Italys most popular Doc cheeses. Grana refers to the grainy texture, while padana is either the Po plain or Pianura Padana area of Bergamo.
Mascarpone - White soft cheese made from sour cream. This is a speciality of Lombardy, and is used in many dishes
Ricotta - 'Recooked' cheese. Produced from the whey - a by product of cheese production, which is nutritious, with a low fat content.
Scamorza - stretched curd cheese, made from cow's milk, which is similar to mozzarella. White (unless smoked) and pear shaped. I brought some of this (smoked variety) back from my last trip, and neither liked nor disliked it!
Stracchino - Produced from cow's milk, a typical Lombardy cheese. A young cheese with soft creamy texture and a mild delicate flavour.
Strachitunt - Produced from raw cow's milk. A blue gourmet cheese with a sweet tangy flavour.
Taleggio - Doc cheese named after the Val Taleggio. Washed rind and smear ripened!! it has a strong aroma, with a quite mild flavour and 'fruity tang'
Tomino - Produced from raw cow's milk. A short maturation period leads to this fat and soft cheese, being white and rindless.
Botto Ham - This is produced exclusively from pigs that have been raised in Bergamo, and are over a year old. The ham is ripened, for 16 months, in halls scattered with hay, which gives it it's distinctive flavour.
Carpaccio - Raw meat (or fish), thinly sliced and served as an appetiser. This famously originated in Harrys Bar in Venice, but is a popular dish through Lombardy.
Coppa - Traditional cold cut of pork from the nape or shoulder (coppa literally means nape) which is dry-cured whole.
Cotechino - chartuterie product. Cotica means rind, which is filled with pork meat,fat, salt and spices.
Guanciale - unsmoked Italian bacon from the pigs cheek or jowl.
Involtini - translates as 'little bundles' thin slices of meat, rolled with a filling, held together by a tooth-pick.
Lardo - Another charcuterie product - strips of fatback cured with rosemary, other hebs and spices.
Pancetta - bacon, salt-cured and seasoned with pepper, spices and herbs, then dried for at least 45 days.
Prosciutta - ham from the thigh and buttocks of the pig.
Tagliata - literally means 'cut' - Thick sirloin steak, grilled and then carved into thin slices.
Pasta, Polenta and Rice etc
Cappellacci - A stuffed pasta, similar to ravioli. From the province of Ferrara
Carnaroli - medium grained rice, traditionally used in risotto. From the province of Vercelli
Casoncelli - or casonsei, Stuffed pasta dish similar to ravioli, A filling of bread crumbs, egg, cheese, sausage, raisons, amoretto biscuits, pear and garlic. This is served with melted butter and sage leaves. There are many versions, with each restaurant having their own recipe. I've tried this a few times now, and it's a favourite!
Foiade - home made pasta, roughly cut into diamond shapes.
Gnocchi - thick soft dumplings made from potatoes, flour and eggs.
Paperdelle -Pasta -very broad noodles, which are thicker than tagliatelle, served with meat ragout.
Penne or Pennette - translates as 'feathers' - cylinder shaped pasta
Polenta - dish of boiled cornmeal. Fine grain = polenta fioretto, coarse grain = polenta bramata
Polenta taragna - buckwheat flour polenta cooked with cheeses and butter
Risotto - rice cooked in broth, and stirred to a creamy consistancy. Various ingredients are added for flavour
Scarpinocc di Parre - ravioli style - pasta filled with cheese, eggs,butter, bread crumbs and spices.
Strangolapreti or strozza preti - translates as 'priest choker'!! an elongated form of hand rolled pasta
Tagliatelle -from tagliare -'to cut' - long thick ribbons of pasta, served with a variety of sauces.
Amor polenta - soft cake made from fioretto - a fine polenta flour
Donizetti cake -named after the famous composer - It consists of flour, starch,butter, sugar, eggs, vanilla, candied pineapple and apricot, with marashino
Panna cotta - literally 'cooked cream' - simmered cream, milk and sugar, then mixed with gelatine and left to cool and set.
Polenta e osei - sponge cake, cream, marzipan and chocolate - decorated with chocolate or marzipan birds (osei)
Tiramisu - literally 'pick me up' -popular dessert made of sponge biscuits dipped in coffee and a liquor such as marsala, layered with a whipped mixture of egg yolks and mascarpone and served with a dusting of cocoa powder.
Treviglio cake - pastry cake filled with ground almonds, sugar, egg yolks and egg whites.
Zabaione -whipped custard dessert made with egg yolks, sugar and sweet wine.
Bruschetta -appetiser - Toasted or roasted bread, rubbed with garlic and topped with tomatoes, extra virgin olive oil, salt and pepper.
Garibalda - The bread that won 'A bread for Bergamo' contest in 2009.
Borettana Onion - small bulb, flattened at the poles, so good for pickling.
Porcini - edible mushrooms, fresh in autumn, but often purchased dried.
Radicchio - leaf chicory
Moscato di Scanz0 - Doc wine produced from carefully selected aromatic red grapes, which are put to wither before vinification
Valcalepio - Bergamask Doc wine - red, white and passito varieties.
Coming across this, quite near to where I was staying, had quite an emotional impact, when I realised that the 'cute' cartoon babies and multi lingual messages weren't identifying a baby clinic or nursery.
Una Culla Per La Vita, translates as Cradles for Life. I'd walked past this sign a few times before 'the penny dropped'!- the 'bin' on the gate (pic 2) confirmed my thought.
In the late 12th Century, Pope Innocent 111, came up with the idea of The Foundling Wheel- a revolving wooden cylinder, that was installed in churches and convents.
Its purpose? For mothers to leave their babies, that they couldn't care for- either due to poverty, or the stigma of being unmarried etc.
This Pope had been shocked into action after seeing numerous dead babies floating in the Tiber River.
The mother could leave her baby in the cylinder, turn the wheel, then walk away, without being identified. A bell would then ring, to alert the inhabitants of the convent/church etc to its new arrival.
This system continued through parts of Europe until the 19th Century.
(Previously, in a convent in Santiago de Compostela in Spain, I'd come across a revolving 'cupboard' that I guessed could have been used for this purpose. When I tried to confirm this, I was met with embarrassed or non committal reactions)
Now, I'm not sure why the practice ended - Babies not being abandoned anymore???? Possible-but-
Fast Forward to the 21st Century...........
Newborn babies are still being found abandoned - dead and alive in garbage bins, in telephone boxes, on hospital steps etc. Not just in '3rd World Countries' but in 'Wealthy, Educated and 'Permissive/open'' European cities, with Social Services etc.
One solution has been to install modern day equivalents of the Foundling Wheel in hospitals and convents etc - a cylinder that the baby is placed into (Known as Cradles for Life or Baby Boxes), which after 2 minutes, starts to activate a heated mattress and ventilation system, with electronic sensors linked to an alarm, that notifies the presence of the baby, which in turn alerts an ambulance and medical team. The aim is that the baby is saved, and is then adopted by a caring family.
This system is in operation in many European cities as well as in India and Japan.
The reason that I was unaware of this service is that apparently under English law it is illegal to abandon a baby/child.
I'm not sure how many babies have been deposited in these 'cradles'.
I can't imagine how these mothers must feel, being so desperate as to abandon their babies, having carried them through pregnancy (probably hiding this as best they could, or mistakenly expecting the father to stick around etc) then walking away-possibly comforted that their baby might have a better life, but having little or no support for themselves.
This Cradle in Bergamo was installed in February 2007.
It is fixed to the exterior side of the gate of the Dominican monastery on Via A Locatelli 16.
Curiosity got the better of me, and I walked towards the cradle. I got quite a shock when I heard a bell ring in the distance, the gate swung open and 2 nuns were hurrying towards me!! I turned round and hurriedly left!
I'm sure that it was just a co-incidence that the gate opened etc. (I hadn't touched the cradle)- but it spooked me a bit- imagine if I had been a young scared mother about to abandon my baby anonymously - would I have left it or not?
Hmmm -so many mixed feelings on this one, so many questions and answers!
Google Una Culla Per La Vita or Cradles for Life for more info/ views etc.
Bergamo's Citta Alta had been a walled city since Roman times and when the Venetians took control in 1428 much of these walls remained but were in poor condition.
It wasn't until 1556 that the Senate of the Republic of Venice decided to commit the resources to a complete rebuilding of these walls in order to consolidate Bergamo's position as the Venetian empire's most western landward outpost. The walls' bastions were finally completed in 1588 at which time they comprised the present-day masonry structures topped with earthen embankments (the latter being more suitable for the absorption of artillery strikes). During the construction stone from the original Roman walls was used and over two hundred and fifty buildings, including houses, churches and even the Roman sewerage system, were demolished to provide further building material.
The walls never did get tested by military action during Venetian reign and were demilitarised following the 1861 establishment of the Kingdom of Italy.
The present day structure, without the earthen ramparts, has been cleaned and restored during the 1970's and 80's as part of the city's development as a tourist destination.
As one of the Venetian's largest land-based fortresses the walls are a major attraction and are completely circumnavigable on foot with great views across the surrounding countryside and over the Citta Bassa. They are especially atmospheric at night when they are subtly lit and a walk down from the upper city to the lower is like going back in time - you can imagine yourself in the sleeping Venetian Citadel with only the night guards for company.
As with pretty much anywhere else in Italy the locals here in Bergamo enjoy their evening stroll and the Citta Alta main streets of Gombito and Colleoni are ideally suited for the passtime. From early evening until late people ascend to the upper city on the funicular, have their stroll, maybe drop into a bar or cafe and then head back down - all very civilised!!