The fragrance of marroni ( roasted chestnuts) the first sign of autumn, is in the air as we walk on the picturesque lakeside promenade, dotted with linden and magnolia trees. I am in Lugano, the largest city in Ticino, Switzerland's southernmost canton, near the border with Italy.
We start exploring Lugano through a food walk with local guide Patricia Carminati, which has us walking down the lake promenade to Old Town and Via Nassa, where our first stop is at Bernasconi Gastronomia, a family run bar and restaurant with tables under arcades that have large hooks on the ceiling, where once meat was hung to be cured.
The town loves its Italian tradition of aperitivo- small plates with wine or cocktails that you typically get after work- from polenta ( a cornmeal dish cooked in the past in a copper cauldron ) and goat's cheese and tomatoes, to local sausages and a barley and quinoa salad, with a sparkling wine from the region. "We love this tradition of aperitifs - meeting friends and family over a drink and small bites, before heading out to dinner. It's our way of socialising," explains Carminati.
The warm climate and sunny days, as well as the presence of valleys and lakes, makes a variety of fresh produce available on their doorstep - from Alpine cheese to fresh fish. A lot of the local food derives its inspiration from the Piedmont and Lombardy regions of Italy.
"In this region we have always tried to use leftovers creatively and not waste anything. Fish used to be cooked in red wine or vinegar so that it lasted longer and cake used to be made from stale or old bread. We also balance innovation and tradition by keeping small producers alive, and buying fresh produce from them," explains Carminati.
Another stop is at the Grand Café Al Porto that dates back to 1803, and used to be a medieval convent and still has the original wooden ceilings and frescoes. The café used to be the meeting place for Italian revolutionaries like Giuseppe Mazzini who used to plan their unification of Italy here. The café is famous for its Amaretti - small Italian macaroons made of whipped egg white, sugar and ground almonds. We also stop at a small wine bar tucked into an alley in the regenerated district of Maghetti- filled with lively bars for aperitifs and restaurants and is a great place to hang out.
We take a boat cruise on Lake Lugano, with local Gabriela Rigiani, who owns a boat and also a cellar in Meride, a small village. Raised in Meride, she started fishing when she was a young girl. Trout, pike and white fish abound in the lake. Rustic grottos or village taverns with a cave cellar and open air benches under trees are a unique part of Ticinese culture- in the past natural caves were used to age cheeses and cure meat.
Later, grotti or cellars made of stone and rock, built around the 17th century, were the hubs of social interaction when the families got together to eat and drink there. Gradually, they housed restaurants on top of the cellars or in the outdoors with stone benches and tables and a family ambience, where you can tuck into a meal of hearty, local food like freshly caught fish from the lake with piquant Alpine cheeses, traditional dishes like sausages, risottos, polenta (made from cornmeal) and white merlot wine from the region on communal tables. "Usually we play cards or a game of petanque after the meal", says Gabriela.
We have a simple but delicious meal at Gabriella at her cellar restaurant in Meride, walking through the small town where most buildings have a common cellar for residents. Gabriella makes a meal of fish risotto, salads, breads and cheese, and serves it with a refreshing sangria of young red wine and lemonade.
A favourite drink of Ticino that is on every menu is the nocino- a liqueur known for its digestive properties, the original recipe safeguarded by Capuchin friars or monks in convents. Green walnuts are macerated in grappa, sugar and spices like cloves and cinnamon. Carminati tells us that when an agreement was signed at the end of a meeting the monks would drink a glass of the liqueur saying "rata fiat" (let it be ratified) and therefore the liqueur is also called ratafia. According to tradition the walnuts had to be harvested only on St John's Day, which is on June 24rth.
Italy has a big impact in the cuisine of Ticino- risottos, polenta, home-made pastas and minestrone soup figure heavily on the menus. The favourite dessert of the region is Torta di pane-bread cake invented in the past by resourceful housewives to deal with stale bread -leftover bread soaked in milk and eggs, and baked with sugar, dried fruit and nuts, lemon zest, almonds, cinnamon, cocoa powder, raisins, pine nuts, and peanut butter.
Another grain which has seen a renaissance in the area is Farina Bona - a finely milled toasted corn flour mixed with water, milk or wine, used to be an important part of people 's diet in this poor and inaccessible valley, but by the end of the 1960s production had stopped. At Bellinzona, the capital town of Ticcino with three medieval fortresses, we have a meal of farina bona Gnocchetti pasta with yellow tomatoes and zucchini flowers. Anna Bezzola who is showing us around says, "Now farina bona is being used in everything from pastas and craft beer, to even desserts!"
Ticino is most famous for its unique white merlot wine served in traditional pottery bowls. At Tenuta Castello di Morcote, high up on the hill above the charming village of Morcote, we visit the vineyards of this family run for four generations, beneath a 15th century fortress built by the Dukes of Milan. With unique volcanic soil and the micro climate created by the lake, the terroir is perfect for the Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay grapes that they grow. Their production is organic and they make about 60,000 bottles a year besides honey and olive oil. Besides oak casks they also use terracotta amphorae, for ageing the wine.
Our most memorable meal is at the Antica Osteria De Porto, in Lugano, housed in a mustard farm and warehouse building, festooned with fairy lights, run by a local couple near the Cassarate River as it flows into Lake Lugano- a delicious meal of salads, local spaghetti in white sauce with fresh pepper, and white merlot wine, with a stellar dessert of walnut ice cream with a topping of nocino, the local liqueur made from green walnuts. I soak in the fairy-tale ambience and the Italian flavour in this corner of Switzerland.
Author's bio: Kalpana Sunder is a freelance writer, based in Chennai
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