There’s a large region in Southern Europe that can’t be found on any map. It’s a hidden country, an idea, an identity: Occitania. It’s the ancient land of the “Lenga d’oc”, the language of its founders and the medieval troubadours who invented the modern love poem and the “courtly” culture. But it’s also a land of heresy and religious persecution, of turbulence and territorial disputes spanning across centuries from Catalonia in Spain to Southen France to Northern Italy. The language today is almost extinct, and has, for the most part, become merely a local dialect. The legacy that continues to endure from this culture, however, is a great culinary tradition that includes popular dishes like cassoulet and tapenade.
Considering its varied, expansive and ever-evolving nature, Occitan culture offers seafood dishes like the bouillabaisse, as well as more mountainous dishes from Northern Italy like “Supa mitunà” made with stale bread. One of the most famous examples of an Occitan recipe that has been modified and interpreted over the centuries is aioli, the renowned garlic-mayonnaise condiment that is widely used from Barcelona to Marseilles to the Italian city of Cuneo.
In the mountainous region between Italy and France, the Occitan culinary tradition is still alive and thriving, thanks in part to a young chef named Juri Chiotti, who is fighting to conserve and reinvent the ancient recipes of the mountains Italian region of Piedmont. Together with Diego Rossi, he ran the Michelin-starred restaurant Alle Antiche Contrade in the city of Cuneo. Chiotti will soon be embarking on an even more ambition venture: the opening of a new restaurant – located at an elevation of 1,800 meters – where he will be surrounded by a plethora of ingredients taken directly from the surroundings of the Varaita Valley. Chiotti believes that there is something incredibly modern about the humble mountain culinary tradition, rich with history, values and perspective. It’s a way of cooking that can be incredibly low-cost, for both the cooks and the customers: he uses wild herbs and weeds that grow in the area, and relies on a network of local producers to supply the produce and base ingredients of his menu – helping to boost the local economy in doing so. His is a true example of social entrepreneurship and a forward-thinking mindset – while respecting and showcasing old and largely forgotten recipes from the Occitan culture.
The infinite repertoire features key regional ingredients like buckwheat, potatoes and chestnuts alongside wild snails, artisanal cheeses and berries, mushrooms and herbs, which the chef himself forages in the mountains. Chef Chiotti regularly uses about thirty or so wild herbs in his cooking: from the rare wild spinach to the barba di becco – a kind of leek whose taste resembles something between an artichoke and asparagus. Chiotti’s signature dish, “The best of the Occitan Valley”, includes potatoes, the exquisite toumin dal mel cheese, aioli, spinach and lavender – and is a creation that he has “reinvented” from his own knowledge and research.
Because what makes Occitan cuisine so special and unique is the very lack of cookbooks and codified recipes – one must be inspired by domestic recipes, passed-down secrets, and the region’s own ingredients. And, of course, the spirit of the Occitan people – who have known poverty, displacement, frugality, as well as imagination, immense fortitude and an inherent respect for nature. Could there be anything more modern than that?