Italy's Forgotten Little Lake Orta

Gastronomy is putting this Cinderella of spots on the map and menu

Next to its three large and beautiful sisters - Lakes Garda, Como, and Maggiore - modest little Lake Orta looks like a mere puddle on the map.

But here in northern Italy's beautiful lake district, a group of talented chefs and restaurateurs at Lake Orta join in semi-yearly festivals (in autumn and spring) dedicated to their singular passion - superlative food.

The purpose is to keep the region's gastronomy alive and, as the affair's title "Riso e Lago" - Rice and Lake - suggests, it prods restaurants to outdo each other in creating dishes based on local products.

The varieties of rice and lake fish - including carp, perch, trout, and pike - as well as wild mushrooms, berries, and venison from the local woods supply the inspiration for this celebration.

Some dishes are variations of traditional fare. Others, like Risotto with Mint and Prawns, or Rice in Fish Broth, with Almonds and Perch Fillets, are more innovative and modern.

And yet some of Orta's chefs feel at a disadvantage, as do many of Orta's inhabitants, and a bit resentful that their lovely lake is overshadowed by the bigger and more famous nearby lakes, and being the smallest, it is sometimes considered the Cinderella of them all.

Lake Orta, being within Piedmont and close to Lombardy, is faithful to the culinary traditions of both regions. No surprise then to find on local menus Piedmont's popular, thinly sliced raw beef dish - carpaccio - or to see the freshest of garden produce come together in a thick Lombard minestrone.

The vicinity to the rice paddies of Novara and Vercelli make any dish involving rice a local specialty.

The mention of "off the beaten track" suggests visions of wild, untouched territories. Applied to Lake Orta, that phrase is quite removed from reality.

A mountain crest away (16 miles, as the road goes) from fashionable Lake Maggiore, Orta's clear waters reflect the massif of the alps; 8 miles long and 1.5 miles wide, the lake, although small, is large enough to sport its own island, and warrants a system of vaporetti, (water buses) and water taxis as transportation among the villages that dot its shores.

The main town is named Orta with the appendix San Giulio, the same as the little island that fronts it. The well-kept secret attractions of the place are many and include from sailing, windsurfing, and associated water sports. There are several pocket-sized beaches around the lake where you can swim, as well as woodsy hillsides for hiking.

The idyllic character of the area could suggest a local population with a relaxed attitude toward work. It turns out that the area is a beehive of artisans. Among them is a booming handcrafted, brass instrument business. The trombones, saxophones, tubas, and piccolos produced here are highly prized throughout the world.

One might expect the bucolic quiet of the hills to be pierced at any moment by a blaring rendition of "76 Trombones," from the "Music Man," but fortunately the instruments' testing and tuning is done out of earshot.

Handcrafted kitchen implements are also made here. Everything from spoons and forks to mortar-and-pestles carved out of local box-wood, and, in a classic example of artisan activity graduated to industrial production, the making of pots and pans from copper and stainless steel.

The ultramodern factories, located around the town of Ortegna, at the eastern shore of the lake, are at the leading edge of industrial design for table and kitchen utensils.

A peculiarity of the area between Lake Orta and Lake Maggiore: The warm air rising from the lakes meets with clouds descending from the Alps and creates a semipermanent white cloud stationed over the town of Gignese. Taking a hint from it, the industrious local residents have dedicated themselves, since the early 18th century, to the making of (what else?) umbrellas, an activity that has made the fortune of many enterprising locals.

The beauty and the gastronomy of the Lake Orta region (which includes the villages on the mountain slopes as well as the ones on the shores) have been appreciated since the 17th century by European artists and writers (Balzac and Nietzsche among them) who obviously kept this little corner of paradise quietly to themselves.

And yet, for all its anonymity, the area has several elegant multistarred hotels, restaurants, and eateries to satisfy the needs of a discerning and, mum-is-the-word, reticent clientele.

Lake Orta: "Off the beaten track?"

Perhaps. But just enough for metaphorical validity: Lake Orta is 26 miles from the international airport of Milan-Malpensa, and 50 miles from Milan-Linate, the busy national airport.


Trota All'uva

Poached Rainbow Trout with Raisin Sauce

4 rainbow trout, about 8 to 10 ounces each

1/4 cup golden raisins

1 celery rib, chopped

1 small onion, chopped

1 small carrot, chopped

1 sprig of parsley

3 sage leaves

1/2 teaspoon salt

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

1 heaping tablespoon flour

3 tablespoons balsamic vinegar (or wine vinegar)

2 tablespoons lemon juice

Rinse trout and pat dry.

Put the raisins to plump in a cup of warm water.

In a pan large enough to accommodate the trout in one layer, put 5 cups of water and bring to a boil. Add vegetables, spices, and salt. Simmer 20 minutes. Add trout. (Liquid should cover fish.) Reduce heat, and simmer for 5 or 6 minutes. Remove trout to warm platter. Remove skin from trout (optional). Strain and set aside two cups of cooking liquid. Drain the plumped raisins.

In a small saucepan melt the butter, whisk in the flour and cook, whisking continuously for two or three minutes or until a pale roux is formed. Slowly whisk in the vinegar and lemon juice, then stir in 2 cups of cooking liquid.

Add the raisins and cook, stirring, over low heat for another two or three minutes until the sauce is the consistency of heavy cream. Adjust seasonings. Spoon sauce over trout, and decorate with lemon slices if you wish.

Serves 4.

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