Vessalico is a small village of the Alta Valle Arroscia, a valley behind Albenga located on the ancient street connecting the western Italian Riviera with the near Pedimont. Here since the Eighteenth century each 2nd day of July the great Vessalico Garlic Fair takes place.
In this occasion, then and now, the all the small local farmers get down from the downstream slopes with their garlic heads braided for the occasion and sell them in the town square.
Today Vessalico garlic (Aglio di Vessalico), or better the garlic of the Alta Valle Arroscia, is one of the highest quality food products not only of the Italian Riviera but also of Italy. Indeed a small group of farmers – those who succeeded in handing down the original ancient bulbs up to date –was appointed as Slow Food Presidia of the Italian Riviera .
The Vessalico garlic is very fragrant, its aroma is delicate, the taste intense and a bit hot. It is also famous for its high digestibility.
All these characteristics made the product well known outside the small valley where it is farmed and this also because they are permitting to recover many traditional recipes that today’s tame palates would consider too “rustic”, such as the real Genoa pesto, the Aiè (a traditional kind of mayo with garlic, see recipe below) or the Pedimont bagna cauda (a soup of garlic).
Thanks to the constantly increasing demand, the production is increased and today the Vessalico garlic is sold not only at the annual Fair as in the past, but also from June (period of harvest) up to November.
But don’t think that this happens thanks to the use of pesticides, chemical fertilizers or cold storages, far from that! What I discovered with big surprise when I met this summer Alberto Marini, president of the cooperative “A Resta” (which group all the farmers of the Slow Food Presidia), is that their garlic is produced by 100% organic farming and treated and stored with the same ancient techniques.
A great help in making this possible, indeed arrived from the Agricoltural Univeristy of Pisa, which projected, built and donated to the cooperative some agricoltural machines tailor made for the cultivation of this garlic in the narrow terraces clinging to the mountain slopes.
The cooperation between the members of the cooperative to increase the production always preserving their basic values and ancient techniques is an aspect emerged during the conversation with Alberto that impressed me a lot. Just a couple of clue examples.
Before sowing (which takes place October to December) the members exchanges each other the best bulbs, so to avoid that diseases develop and spread in their lots.
They use the machines put at their disposal by the University of Pisa on rotation.
If a member is not able to fulfill the request of one of his clients, he asks for the garlic to the other members, so to keep the offer alive.
The cooperative set up also an e-shop where orders (which luckily now arrives on a daily basis, Alberto confesses me smiling) are assigned to members on rotation as well.
Another amazing thing of the Vessalico garlic production is the typical way it is stored. The garlic heads are not cut from the plants, nor trimmed of their roots, but woven into long braids called “reste”. The leaves are kept because they contain nutritive substances which keep nourishing the heads for some months ahead and permit to preserve the product for even 8 months.
When I visited the garlic farm of Alberto I had the very pleasure to meet Alberto’s grandmother, 92 years, cleaning and braiding garlic heads with those regular and sure gestures that only a long rural life can give.
This made me think that there are gestures which we all must protect from the globalization progressing oblivion. The guys in Vessalico are doing their best, with this post I hope to have played my part.
And my trip ended with an heart full of hope and a car full of smelling garlic braids!
A nice way to taste Vessalico garlic in all its majesty is preparing the Aiè, the traditional garlic mayo of the western Italian Riviera.
Here below the recipe. This sauce is perfect spread on a bruschetta or to season potatoes or other steamed vegetables. Just be careful: just prepared the flavor is gentle and very fragrant, but then when time goes on, it gets hotter and hotter!
- 2 cloves of garlic (better of Vessalico), skin removed
- 1 egg yolk
- 1/2 lemon, its juice
- 1/4 cup of extra virgin olive oil
- 1/4 cup of seeds oil
- a pinch of salt
- Put the garlic cloves in the mortar and smash with the pestle until they become a soft paste. If you don't have a mortar a blender will be fine as well (less vintage but more practical!).
- Add the yolk, the lemon juice and a pinch of salt and blend for a minute.
- Mix the two different oils in the same cup and pour the oil so obtained little by little (like a thin line) in the mortar whilst blending quickly but gently.
- Continue blending for 5 minutes or until the sauce is creamy, soft, shiny and clear (like a mayo).
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