Monday, August 28, 2017

Winery of the Abbey of Lake Viverone

Walking, prayer, new people and places, and food and wine constitute the four cardinal points of any Pilgrim Experience. So it is appropriate to finish this series of articles on our on Pilgrimage in the Via Francigena this year with a report on a winery, located on the site of what was for centuries a Cella (a cell) a small Benedictine monastery overlooking Lake Viverone.

We had white wine at the winery
at the Cella (a "cell" or mini
ex-Benedictine Monastery)
with our plate of risotto.
"Procul Hostes, Ab Hostis" was carved in stone above the doorway of the entrance to an 12th century ex-Benedictan Monastery, la Cella di San Michele, on a hilltop overlooking Lago Viverone. It is a play on words: "Welcome to the Hospitality, free from Hostility".

Mist covers Lago Viverone
For Christians in general, and for Catholics in particular, the Eucharist is an essential part of our belief in Christ. Jesus, knowing that His End was close, decided to leave his presence forever, and he chose Bread and Wine. So wine making has always been something special to the Monastic life.

When we arrived to the town of Viverone,
we realized that the local people
understand that that they live on a 
Pilgrims' trail when we saw
this pedestrian sign
To understand the wines of Viverone, and even to understand Val D'Aosta, it isn't enough to go back to the 12th Century, it isn't even enough to go back to the times of the Christ and the Roman Empire. We have to go back thousands of years, tens of thousand of years: the foundation of the wine industry is what the Italians call "la morenica", the moraine.

The vegetation and ecosystem of Lago
Viverone is quite exotic for Piedmont,
with a temperate climate that alloys
   a verdant landscape that includes
abundant palm trees
The Alps (the Swiss Alps and the Italian Alps) covered a much more extensive area during the Ice Age than today. These glaciers ruled Val d'Aosta and Piedmont for milleniums. The glaciers left the moraine as they passed: an accumulation of debris, crushed rock, stone, boulders and a find sand called glacial flour.

 The owner of the vineyard gave
us a personal tour to a group
of businessmen from several
countries, sponsored by the
Chiorino Group, from nearby
Biella, Italy.

From the moraine, the vines extract potassium, zinc, magnesium, iron, and transfer them to the grapes. In this land, besides the streams and the rivers, there are important underground streams taking the water thawed out from the Alps every spring throughout the land to the south.

The sap running out of the vine
stems is the first sign in the
vineyard that Spring is close.
The grape vines near Lake Viverone grow 3 or 4 meters above the ground, while roots of the vines search underground up to 15 meters for moisture in the underground streams, wells as well as in the aquifers.  
In mid-March, not only the dormant vines
 but the trees as well come back to life,
 such as this cherry tree in full bloom.
The minerals of the Moraine give the Erbaluce White Wine their special character.
 Doorway of the ancient Cella
with the sign in Latin "Procul
Hostes ab Hostis"
Every year, 3% of the vines die, and new vines of Erbaluce need to be planted.
Rolling hills of the vineyard climbing up
from Lago Viverone.
Traditionally, the vine training system has followed the tradition used since the time of the Romans of building a “pergola”, but this makes the grape collection more labor-intensive.

The rows of the traditional pergolas in
the vineyard.

Now the tendency is to use the Guyot technique.


Estela and Alex enjoying a
beautiful day in the vineyard
overlooking Lago Viverone.
Here near the lake, the yearly grape production is between 80 and 110 quintals per hectare.  
Abundant conifers side by side the
vineyards at the Lago Viverone.

The prestige of Cella Grande di San Michele are white wines, particularly the Erbaluce White Sparkling wines. The first step is the picking of the grapes: it must be done as early as possible in the morning. Every precaution must be made to avoid "mistreating" the grapes, of "non violentare le grappole" (a common expressing used in the Italian wine industry) during this critical stage. 
Once the grapes are squeezed, the juice
 is put into these stainless steel vats.

These "grappole" or freshly-picked grape clusters must kept in a cool and shady place, until they are squeezed.

Alexander and Estela at Cella
Grande with its iconic Romanic
period bell tower in the

The first historical record of Cella was in Eugene the IIIrd ‘s Papal Bull, May 18th, 1151:(“… ecclesiam Sancti Michaelis de Velverono cum pertinentijs suis , as the Pope made it clear that this Cell was subordinate to the Abbey of Saint January: “Cella de veverono subest abbati Sancti JanuariiThe Benedictine What we have remaining from that period however is only the Romanic Bell Tower, a symbol of the Lake Community.

The apse of the Chapel at Cella di
San Michele on Lago Viverone

The small chorus of the Chapel at
Cella Grande.

The coat of arms of the former
owners of Cella di San Michele

A few pews still remain in the chapel
 which isused in present times
for weekend weddings.

The baroque altarpiece of the
Chapel at Cella di San Michele.

The mosaics in the apse are faint
memories from another period
of time.

One of the interpreters for this
 international group of visiting 
businessmen, an important
executive in an important
industrial company in nearby
Biella. She volunteered to help
explain the history of Cella
the operation of a modern
Italian vineyard. She, like
many of her coworkers, are a
tribute to the modern woman
of Piedmont: cultured,
dedicated, professional,
trilingual, warm and

The stone floor tiles have been restored
 several times, but follow the original
style of the 16th Century Monastery.

Even during the 20th Century, this
chapel livedanother exciting chapter
 in its life. The German troops used
it as an officers quarters during
World War II, not aware that the
partisan troops were hiding their
weapons right under their noses,
or more exactly, in a secret
compartment under this chapel

Behind this wall, the World War II
Partigiani hid their rifles from
the German Troops.

Here we have the revered statue
of the Madonna of Oropa.
During the invasion of Napoleon's
troops at the beginning of the 19th
Century, monasteries were
secularized and even desecrated.
Fearful for their patron Madonna
the local Catholics of Viverone
painted the dress of the Our Lady
with the colors of the French
Flag. Astute. The French
become devoted to the Virgin
of Oropa.

The chapel window bears the
symbol of the grapes of Cella
The Benedictines ceded their administration to a different religious order in the 16th Century, and what little still remains of the monastic structures in Cella di San Michele come from this period, particularly its small, but beautiful chapel.

 Part of the fermentation of the Cella
Grande wine is in the stainless steel
kegs. The second part of the
fermentation is inside the bottles.

The proprietor explains the fermentation
process in the bottles.

The bottles must remain in a
dark cool cellar.

And remain in a horizontal position.


At a certain point, sugar is added, to create
 the sparkling quality of the wine. But then
 the bottles must be turned upside down,
 so that all the undesirable impurities go
 to the neck of the bottle.

Similar to what is done in the
Champagne process, the necks
of the bottles are frozen.

Then the bottles are uncorked,
the frozen content removed.

Cella di San Michele is no longer a monastery, no longer ora et labora, just labora. But in the Cella, a tradition continues, and gives life to a community, and a delicious refreshment for passing pilgrims along the Via Francigena.

Our visit to Lago Viverone was
 on the last day on our trip to Italy
March 17th, coinciding with my
saint's day, Saint Patrick. I
enjoined this delicious cake
on that occasion.
It has been a great pleasure to discover the Via Francigena this past March for Estela and for me. It has been even a greater pleasure to write down these memories and share them with you.
The Cella Winery offered us a
special wine to accompany our
desert. The desert wine was
darker and sweeter than their
normal white sparkling wine.

Our pleasure will become our satisfaction is what we have described to you motivates you to visit the Via Francigena for yourselves. An if not the Via Francigena, any other pilgrimage that suits you.

Just do it. Your soul deserves a pilgrimage. Take your soul out for a walk!


Monday, August 21, 2017

Confienza, rice fields and the Panissa, a gastronomical gem.

When we were in Vercelli, we looked for a specialized delicatessen or fine foods store, so as to be able to see and buy all the specialty rice Vercelli has to offer.
In early March, the rice fields of Vercelli are cold dusty and barren, as they await the planting season in the early weeks of Spring.
Vercelli has been the center of the Italian rice production region for centuries. It was here, that Dino de Laurentis, filmed his famous movie, Riso Amaro, Bitter Rice, back in 1949.
At times,our souls feel as cold and as barren asthese rice fields. For centuries, pilgrims havewalked by these fields, and may have done so at times with a heavy heart, with a feeling of remorse, at the loss of a love one, or a person ill left back hom.
So the woman at the Vercelli speciality-foods shop sold us several types of rice: Arborio,  Nero Venere, Carnaroli, Sant'Andrea, Badio and  Roma.   
The mystics often have passed through a long period, similar to this rice field, which some called the "dark night of the soul" (Saint John of the Cross).
When she rang up the bill, I told her: "I have to drive up north this afternoon, towards Novarra. Could you recommend some place to stop and have lunch on my way there, and enjoy a good plate of risotto?" The friendly lady behind the register answered one word only: "Confienza."
I was perplexed with her answer: I thought she was telling me to "confess." What would this lady want me to confess?
She must of understood the dumb look on my face, that she had uttered a proper noun: "Confiesa no!Confienza", she clarified : "with an 'n' and a 'z'.

"Confienza is about 20 minutes from here. Take the road out of town and head west, towards Novarra. In the center of the town there is a church. In front of the church, a restaurant. You can't miss it."

The city of Vercelli is in the center of the Italian rice industry, but you don't understand the first thing about Italian rice, until you go out to fields, in places near towns like Confienza, and stop by the processing plants, where they take off the shell, and polish the grain, pack it and getting it ready for the kitchen table.

These irrigation ditches, canals and aqueducts are everywhere in the Vercelli plains. 
A modern rice processing and packing plant.

The rice fields have canals and irrigation ditches. There are aqueducts, made of brick and stone. But this time of year, the fields were dry

Past the canal, the road leads to the center of Confienza.
This street leads to the center
of Confienza
Instead of writing anymore, I will let the photographs we took finish the story of our visit.
The typical main street of a Piedmont town.

We found our way to our
destination: "in front of the Church".
The entrance to the restaurant.
Scales, old pans and other
memorabilia of the family in
the foyer of the restaurant.

An old-time meat grinder with a
The table dressed with cups, white tablecloth, and underneath golden tablecloth.
Restaurants in rural Piedmont
many times give you a feeling of
being in your grandmother's
house: elegant, good taste in the
furnishing and decoration tranquil,
and full of delicious aromas
pouring out from the kitchen door.

It was close to two o'clock in the afternoon when we arrived to the restaurant, and we were concerned that they might tell us that the kitchen was closed for midday service.
To the contrary, our hostess, wife of the chef, sat us down at a table and made us feel at home.

The chef offered us this antipasto, which looked so beautiful, that we did not want to eat it.

Breadbasket with breadsticks and
 homemade rolls on a lace napkin

"Vitello atonnato" was our
appetizer at the restaurant.

The "Vitello atonnato" is literally
"tuna-fish-ed veal", made with
veal, tuna fish, egg yokes, 
mayonnaise, olive oil  and capers.

Risotto Panissa, typical of the
Vercelli region: Sant'Andrea rice,
carrots, celery, fagioli (beans),
tomatoes, red wine, butter and
Parmesan cheese.

The "Panissa" is a hearty dish,
a peasant tradition, that only in
the last years has been revived
elegant restaurants as a
gastronomical gem.

 Panissa Vercellese sometimes is
seasoned with cotica di maliale
(pork rinds).

We finished our lunch with a
"Semifeddo Ofelia" and an

The ambiance on the late winter afternoon was dark but very cozy.

Estela had a cappuccino with her assortment of desert biscotti cookies

A hearty lunch or "pranzo" as it is called here in Italy, is  essential for a good pilgrimage.

An assortment of homemade cookies were
our complimentary farewell gift.