Anyone who has seen Ermanno Olmi's masterly film L'albero degli zoccoli (The Tree of the Wooden Clogs) will be aware of the life-giving properties of polenta. Olmi's poor Lombardian peasants seem to survive on little else and that's how it is was in northern Italy in the 19th century. In common with other great Italian dishes, polenta was the staple food of the dispossessed, those at the bottom of the heap.
I first ate polenta in London 13 years ago, in Riva, the restaurant in south-west London owned by Andrea Riva. The dish, prepared by the unassumingly brilliant chef Francesco Zanchetta, did not look grey and wasn't remotely thick or heavy. I love eating it in a modest portion, as an accompaniment to game especially.
Not long ago I did just that at La Felice, the Riva family's home overlooking Lake Como at Pianello del Lario. La Felice is described as a locanda, which means inn, and that seems the appropriate Manzonian word for an idyllic place far removed from the conventional hotel, luxury or otherwise. The restaurant, which dates back to 1905, has been reopened by Andrea and his brother Vincenzo, who does all the cooking. His polenta, made with yellow and black maize flour, is guaranteed not to sit on the stomach, unlike the stodge posing under that name one often encounters.
When I stayed at La Felice in the spring of 2003, I sat in the garden working on a novel. On this second trip, I had another purpose in mind. I was there to learn more about the local food and wine, and had been encouraged to do so not only by Andrea Riva but also by Demo Nardone, the managing director of the London-based Enotria Wine Cellars. Thanks to them, my companion Jeremy and I were invited to the Nino Negri estate in Sondrio, in the region of Valtellina, not far from the Swiss border.
At the Casa Vinicola in Chiuro, one of Nino Negri's directors, Paolo Bombardieri, amiably and lucidly bombarded us with information about the company's history and the process of winemaking as we toured the premises. A grape press made in 1867 could still be used in an emergency, he joked. After the tour, we tasted four red wines, beginning with Le Tense, a Valtellina Superiore from the Sassella zone, then a Mazér Inferno (mazér is a dialect word meaning bello and buon antico and the inferno indicates th e wine comes from the vineyard that attracts the most sunshine). Our tasting ended with the 5 Stelle Sfursat, the prize-winning wine that is 100 per cent Nebbiolo. The Sfursat is, quite simply, superb - full-bodied, but nowhere near as heavy as the average Barolo.
The Negri estate owns a restaurant, Fracia, which specialises in regional dishes. We had lunch on the terrace, which commands a breathtaking view of valley and mountains. We were offered two kinds of bresaola, the dried salt meat that originates in Valtellina. There was the familiar beef, available in most Italian delicatessens in Britain, but also the horse variety, ringed with peppercorns and darker in appearance and stronger in flavour. (The donkey bresaola wasn't available, but friends assure me that it has a piquant taste.) The second course was pizzocheri, which is virtually unknown beyond Lake Como and its environs. It's a buckwheat pasta, cooked with diced potatoes and a green vegetable - either spinach or cabbage - and cheese. One can imagine poor Lombardy people eating this as a change from polenta, for as its ingredients suggest it is very filling.
During our stay at La Felice, Jeremy and I took the ferry from Menaggio to Bellagio to have lunch with a friend of his, a literary agent named Laura and her family. As it was a sunny afternoon, a table was set up on the lawn. Laura's mother warned us that one of the dishes might not be to our liking. There was a wry expession on her face as she issued this warning. We were taken to a shed, where the family's former gardener was stirring something in a big copper pot over an open fire. This was the mysterious dish, it transpired, and its name is toc, yet another dialect word not to be found in any dictionary. The gentle old man had been stirring for three hours in order to prepare the perfect toc yellow polenta with masses of butter and cheese (onion is sometimes added). I could see the cardiologist at Hammersmith Hospital wagging a cautionary finger in my direction as I sampled the finished toc. It tasted, Jeremy observed, like delicious cheesy mashed potato.
That evening Vincenzo cooked us lavarello, a delicate freshwater fish from Lake Geneva. Among the pleasures of staying at La Felice is Vincenzo's endless resourcefulness in the kitchen. He reigns supreme in his Salon des Artistes, picking fresh vegetables and fruit in his garden and collecting newly-laid eggs from his hens. It's a tranquil setting, the only noise coming from the boats on Lake Como and the squawl of seagulls when a storm is due.