The Oltrepò Pavese is a place where good food and family hospitality are still at the heart of daily life. Unsurprisingly, its cultural and gastronomic curiosities are in perfect harmony with its vast and prestigious wine production. Winemaking has been practiced in the Oltrepò Pavese for at least 3,000 years, a period established by the imprint of a cluster of grapes on a sandstone rock discovered in the district.
Gianni Brera, a famous journalist and bon vivant, claims that in the Oltrepò Pavese “wine is wine”. In saying this Brera is reflecting upon the geographical layout of the Oltrepò Pavese, which is shaped like a bunch of grapes. As a result he has deduced that this area is, and was always bound to be, a land of wine. It is basically, one endless vineyard. To an untrained eye the vineyards may look similar, but in reality a wide variety of different grapes are planted throughout the area.
The main white grapes of the Oltrepò Pavese region are Riesling Italico and Renano, Moscato bianco, the tasty Sauvignon, the brash Cortese, the brilliant Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio (Gris) and the aromatic Malvasia. Red grapes grown in the area include Pinot Nero (Noir), Barbera, Croatina, Merlot, and the native Uva Rara, Ughetta, and Vespolina, which are blended in various quantities to make the wines Buttafuoco, Bonarda or Rosso Oltrepò Pavese. As if that were not enough, there are also sweet and dry sparkling wines for those unforgettable toasts!
The market for the Oltrepò ‘s wines was already a flourishing activity by the Middle Ages. Loaded onto large boats, the wines were floated down the rivers Po and Ticino to the market of Pavia. Shipments were organized by monks, who also attended to the unloading and storing of the boats’ cargoes in the city’s convents. From Pavia, a substantial share of the wine was sent by convoy to Milan, which represented a major centre of consumption. Medieval chroniclers reported, in fact, that in 1288 as many as 6,000 carts of wine would enter Milan at a time. It is estimated that such shipments amounted to about three million litres.
To check the heavy consumption of wine in Milan, municipal authorities promulgated an edict in 1263 that prohibited “the selling of wine except for two hours a day, one hour before and one hour after the ringing of the bell of the Commune…to curb the disorders caused by the unbridled license in drinking wine in the taverns.”
Wine production in the Oltrepò, an inexhaustible reservoir of wine, is now regulated by a single discipline that covers a range of 10 different types. Barbera is one of the best known and most highly regarded wines of the Oltrepò Pavese, whilst currently the light and fizzy Bonarda is enjoying an extensive marketing campaign as a “funky”, versatile and easy drinking red.
Apart from the wine, which is mainly guaranteed by DOC and DOCG status, there is also a host of good food in the Oltrepò Pavese area. It is home to one of the most famous salames in the world – the superb Salame di Varzi. Salame di Varzi is made from coarsely minced pure pork, and is a traditional product of Varzi, a small town in the Valle Stàffora, in the deep south of Lombardy. It is no coincidence that this delicately flavoured salami was awarded the seal of Denominazione d’Origine Protetta (DOP) by the EU, which protects it from its many imitators, and guarantees respect for tradition in terms of raw materials, production methods and the maturing process, which relies on the natural microclimate of the surrounding hills.
In general, the food in Oltrepò Pavese is simple, and rich in traditional flavours. Like everywhere else in Italy, first and foremost, the importance is always given to using only top quality ingredients, which are respected and appreciated for what they are.