Switzerland’s ingenious cooling caves

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Nothing is more representative of Ticino life than its “grottos”, village taverns whose forerunners were natural caves used to store wine, cheese and meat.

It was a crisp, clear summer’s afternoon, and our boat was drifting on the sparkling blue waters of Lake Lugano in Switzerland’s Italian-speaking canton of Ticino. Local fisherwoman Gabriella Monfredini Rigiani, who organises boat tours and local meal experiences in Ticino, had offered to take me around the lake and its picturesque mountain-clinging villages, many of which are only reachable by boat. As part of my half-day tour, we stopped at some grottos lining the shore of the glacial lake.

“Nothing is more typical of Ticino life than the grotti,” she told me, noting that these natural caverns represent authentic Ticino and define the lifestyle of its people.

We docked at a jetty and followed an uneven path to Grotto Descanso, a village tavern housed in a simple stone building with a shaded terrace overlooking the lake. As we got closer, I could see a huge wooden door near the main entrance, below the terrace. We were greeted by the grotto’s owner, who, on Rigiani’s request, unlocked the door to what looked like a cave. I instantly felt a rush of cold air. Inside was a long wooden table covered with an old-fashioned chequered tablecloth and a wall-mounted wine rack loaded with bottles.

This was one of Ticino’s famed grottos, traditional storehouses fashioned out of the natural landscape. Mostly dating to the 17th Century, they were originally used as family cellars, preserving wine, salami, cheese, fruit and vegetables. Similar grottos can be found throughout Ticino, and while some remain as private storehouses and others lie unused and abandoned, many, like this one, have been repurposed as cosy watering holes and village taverns.

The Italian word “grotta” means a large natural hollow in rock or the earth, and that’s how these cellars began. In Ticino, landslides once covered vast areas of the Alpine foothills, often creating caverns between the rocks. Living as they did, in often-isolated villages, the Ticinese took advantage of these natural elements to keep their food fresh for longer.

“Until about 1950, 99.9% of people in Ticino were farmers,” Rigiani explained. “The grottos enabled many farmers, especially those residing in remote lakeside settlements, to grow their produce and stock it up.”

The reason grottos worked so well as natural fridges is due to their excellent ventilation. Since they usually occurred on rockfall or on an accumulation of scree, they have a porous foundation that guarantees internal air circulation and results in a year-round stable temperature that’s ideal for ageing wine. (Some grottos have a mere 1C temperature difference between summer and winter.)

They were struck with the idea of using caves as natural refrigerators to store cheese, meat and even milk awaiting processing

Legend has it that goats, sensing the cool ground on a hot summer’s day, were the first ones to discover these grottos. “Hundreds of years ago, some goats were found poking their heads inside the holes in the cave walls, up in the mountains,” explained Patricia Carminati, who organises walking tours and food tastings in Ticino. “Soon, the farmers realised that they were doing so to feel the cold air blowing through the walls’ holes. That’s when they were struck with the idea of using caves as natural refrigerators to store cheese, meat and even milk awaiting processing.”

Whenever supplies dwindled at home, the men went off to the grotto to fetch more. In their leisure time, usually at the height of summer before harvesting started, they would sit in front of the grotto, enjoying the cool air flowing out, eating salami and swapping anecdotes or sharing their troubles over a glass of wine.

Hours would go by before the children were sent to fetch their fathers home. Soon the women started to join them, until the grottos became a place for people to mingle, eat together and sing.

Over time, the Ticinese started expanding the caves, creating simple architectural solutions that skilfully incorporated the natural resources. If there was a large opening to the cave, for example, some people added a door at the entrance or carved out extra rooms. If the cavern was only accessible via a small hole in the rockfall, families might build an entire house over the top, using the airflow from the cavern below to keep the internal temperature of the home constant.

“Inside rock caves, they built cellars with arched ceilings. If there wasn’t enough room for all the supplies, the caverns would be hollowed out a bit more or small stone structures would be built in front of the entrance,” Carminati said.

After World War Two, households started to acquire modern refrigerators and the caves’ function started to change. “Very few maintained their original function of preserving food and wine,” explained Alessandro Rezzonico who formerly arranged grotto-hopping boat tours around Lake Lugano. “In other cases, owners expanded their grottos by installing stone tables, benches and other kinds of seating in the forecourt area. They also began selling their stored produce to passers-by.”

Eventually, many of these rustic storehouses, often sitting at the forest limits or on the banks of lakes or rivers, transformed into atmospheric taverns for the public to enjoy regional specialities and conversations in a laid-back, welcoming environment.

Today, grottos are synonymous with Ticino gastronomy and attract both locals and visitors with a warm, family-friendly atmosphere and live music. Despite featuring on the tourist map, most have managed to retain the homely feel of the region’s past, serving hearty food made from seasonal produce using recipes passed down through generations.

There is nothing very fancy about it, and perhaps that is what makes it so special

“Eating at the grotto is like savouring your grandma’s cooking. Imagine a Ticinese grandmother wearing a poppy-print apron and bringing you food that’s flavourful, comforting and prepared with love. There is nothing very fancy about it, and perhaps that is what makes it so special,” Carminati said.

In addition to the many typical products produced in Ticino – such as nocino (a walnut liqueur), gazzosa (a semi-sweet carbonated drink made with Sfusati lemons that have been grown on the Amalfi Coast for more than 300 years) and pepe della Valle Maggia (pepper from the Maggia Valley) – expect to feast on traditional Ticinese delicacies like minestrone alla Ticinese (a soup with beans and vegetables), spezzatino (Italian beef stew), busecca alla Ticinese (tripe soup with garlic bread) and torta di pane (Swiss bread cake made from leftover bread and dried fruits).

“Through my grotto tours, I love introducing guests to authentic flavours and succulent dishes that are little known, but very important to the region,” said Rigiani.

During my time in Ticino, I visited various other grottos in and around the towns of Lugano, Locarno and Bellinzona.

The 400-year-old Grotto America, located on the banks of the Maggia river in the village of Ponte Brolla, not only offered homemade meals but also a glimpse into Ticino’s difficult past as an impoverished agricultural region. As I feasted on luganighetta con risotto (typical Ticino sausage served with risotto), I looked at old paintings and pictures on the walls that told the emigration stories of more than 30,000 Ticino natives who fled to California between 1850 and 1918 to escape the widespread poverty and unemployment in their homeland.

Antico Grotto Ticino, located in the town of Mendrisio was built more than a century ago. Its wine cellar is a hollowed-out calcareous rock that promises excellent conditions for storing large quantities of wine. Managed by Peter and Odette Raith, it was recently refurbished and has a menu featuring traditional recipes from Ticino, Lombardia and the surrounding area, such as luganighetta (grilled snails) with onions.

And from the outdoor terrace at the Grotto San Michele, which lies between the walls and vineyards of the medieval stronghold of Castelgrande. I took in the panoramic views over the roofs of Ticino’s capital city of Bellinzona. Slowly sipping a Ticino merlot, allowing its intense flavour to linger in my mouth, I came to understand that while the original purpose of the grotto may have changed, its social customs remain well-preserved.

For many locals, snacking on piquant Alpine cheese at a grotto while playing cards or boccia (a bowls game traditionally played at grottos), remains an ideal way to spend a Sunday. Favoured by both young and old, these ingenious structures, a blend of natural and human architecture, remain symbols of tradition, culture, conviviality and a sense of home.

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