On the Road in Valle Maira
…with the wind in your hair
by Faustina Gilbey
Memories of Georgio Diritti’s brilliant 2005 documentary film ‘Il Vento Fa il Suo Giro’ (‘The wind blows round’) kept coming back to me as we drove up Valle Maira, in the province of Cuneo, with it’s spectacular view of Monviso at the top. Diritti was assistant to one of the great Italian Directors, Ermanno Olmi, and like Olmi in his film ‘l’albero degli zoccoli’ he movingly documents the traditional life of the ‘contadini’ (farmers) living on and with the land….accurately portraying the harshness and prejudices of community life, as well as its simplicity and beauty.
We drove up on a hot, cloudless sunny day stopping for a ‘pasta con funghi’ lunch in Dronero – which was the nearest main town for Diritti’s mountain village.
As we turned off the road out of Dronero the road got narrower and narrower and the scenery got more and more sensational each bend we rounded – until we were fit to burst with the beauty of it all by the time we reached the highest village of all – Elva.
Elva has an extraordinary legacy of being the ‘place of hair-gatherers’. You might well wonder as I did what on earth this meant – but as luck would have it I found a small hair gatherers’s museum….yes, there’s even a museum!
Like all the other mountain villages Elva had for centuries relied on agriculture and sheep farming for their livelihood, but life changed in the 19th century and this way of living could no longer supply peoples’ needs. To supplement their income the local men had to leave the village for months at a time in search of extra work and money.
Wig-making meanwhile was a lucrative business in the great European cities at this time and so too was gathering the hair for them. Who knows exactly how, but I imagine that a persuasive travelling tradesman always on the look-out for new hair discovered the women of Elva in desperate need of extra food and money ….and, presto, a new business link was formed!
The Elvese women now had jobs processing all the hair that had either been directly cut or gathered from women’s combs and brushes…carefully sorting, colouring and finally tying it into ‘sticks’ for the wigs. It seemed business grew and flourished – even up to about the 1970s, but then the introduction of plastic fibres finally put an end to it.
And on that note we too had to leave Elva to drive up and over the pass into Val Varaita and back home. As a reminder, and in absence of any hair, I bought some local herb-scented cheeses for supper that night …. I thought cheese from sheep and cows who enjoyed views like this every day would taste very special – and I was right!
And then there we were – parked at the very top with the magnificent view of Monviso in front of us. As we stood awestruck, an eagle way up in the blue, blue sky flew slowly and regally over the valley on his way to the distant mountain peaks. There was no sound…..an infinite peace reigned over the whole vast area. The only thing that moved was a tiny whisper of a breeze that ruffled my hair gently reminding me not to forget the women of Elva and the gift they gave the world of their hair.
For info on things to do in Valle Maira:
Faustina is English but, for the past 8 years, has been living in Italy. The first couple of years in the Alta Langhe, Piemonte and is now based in Albino near Bergamo. She is the author of “The Little Canadian Cookbook” and wrote for about 6 years for a daily Canadian CBC Television cooking show in Vancouver. Whilst living in South Africa she was assistant manageress of an African restaurant in Capetown as well as writing a pilot TV programme on African food. In London she did private catering and event organising as well as working for the media and independent Film & TV producers.
Faustina moved to Italy to be with her partner, Fiorenzo, and they now have a Feldenkrais, Floating and Food Therapy Centre: www.spaziof.org
She continues her love of food and research by exploring all the wonderful places and products here in Northern Italy; She is a member of Slow Food Italia and teaches seminars on healthy eating and juicing, as well as writing her food/health blog www.eatingcloudsinitaly.com