Around 80 kilometers southeast of Turin in the High Langhe hills can be found a relatively unknown hamlet with a history — and present — steeped in black magic.
With a population of just 230, Paroldo is a maze of medieval alleys, abandoned stone dwellings and chapels decorated with masks.
But the most fascinating thing about this tiny village is, for centuries now, it’s been home to a group of shaman women believed to possess healing powers.
Named “Masche,” the women are described as “good white sorceresses” with the ability to cure illnesses, as well as conjure up bewitching culinary treats.
“The art of preparing homemade specialties is linked to and enhanced by their magic to heal all kinds of skin diseases,” explains local Romano Salvetti, owner of the 100-year-old Trattoria Salvetti.
The tavern, which is open all year round, was once his home. He says he watched his mother, said to be a Masche, cure people while he was growing up.
Although the downstairs serves as a dining establishment, upstairs is being converted into a bed and breakfast aimed at guests keen to get the full Masche experience.
Nowadays Salvetti is something of a modern day witch hunter, although his intentions are good.
He says his life’s mission is to track down all the surviving Masche in the High Langhe and create a network between them to help preserve traditions.
“The last well known Masche who lived here, Teresina, died in the 1930s. But there are still many of them in Paroldo,” he adds. “They just like to keep to themselves and don’t want to spread the word.”
According to Salvetti, the Masche in the area were once regularly called upon to step in and help heal sick people when traditional medicine failed.
They were apparently required to work “shifts,”‘ with the evening bells at Paroldo’s main church tolling the end of a busy day of healing.
Rite of passage
The power to heal skin diseases ranging from herpes, to St. Anthony’s fire and psoriasis, is said to be passed down across generations of women in the same family.
Before the oldest Masche dies, she must transfer the gift of healing to her granddaughter or daughter through a simple touch, although training is also necessary.
This invariably means that females hold much of the power here.
“If the dying Masche has no next of kin who is female — or none are around when death comes, she must touch and pass her ability on to an inanimate or animate object. Be it a cat or a broomstick, it doesn’t matter,” says Salvetti.
“If she fails to do so, the healing power dies with her.”
Local Anna Rossi, 30, is currently being taught Masche skills by her grandma, but says it’s been a lengthy challenge.
“I am trying to learn the tricks of the trade from my granny before she dies,” says Rossi. “But it will take years. I can’t yet feel that electric current sensation running through my hands.
“She [Anna’s grandmother] says I will know how to master the Masche art when I reach 40 and become a mature woman.”
The healing ritual involves the Masche chanting prayers while she rapidly “cuts” the air with her fingers three times over, creating a cross close to the patient’s body without touching their skin.
This exercise serves to sever all ties with “evil” — as the Masche deem incurable diseases as works of the Devil.
“It really works. I’ve seen granny do it many times,” adds Rossi. “And people do heal. They come knocking at her door for help. But she’s getting old, so it can be tiring.”
Paroldo’s iconic “witch dish” is Bagna càuda (or “hot bath”) a creamy sauce made with garlic, extra virgin olive oil and anchovies served in a ceramic pot.
Fresh vegetables, mainly cardoons and celery, are dipped inside, while slices of bread are left to soak in the savory broth and eaten at the end.
To celebrate the Night of St. Martin, the feast day of St. Martin of Tours, in November, local housewives open their homes to visitors for gourmet candle lit dinners featuring Bagna càuda.
“Everyone gets together around a cauldron,” says Salvetti. “We tell witch tales as the sauce is prepared in a slow, magical ritual. It’s a party, but you need to be a fan of garlic.”
While legend has it that garlic repels witches, the plant is actually an essential ingredient in Masche dishes due to its health benefits, such as improving digestion.
At midnight, Salvetti puts on a felt hat and an old wool mantle made by his mother and leads the revelers along the Witch Promenade for a guided tour through the village.
Highlights include the Masche’s alleged hang out spot, an altar built on the remains of a Celtic stone pillar worshiped over centuries ancient Romans as well as Christians.
The next stop on the tour is Borgo dei Cavallini, the most ancient part of the hamlet.
It’s filled with abandoned farms, stables, unusual brick ovens and quirky wooden and stone cottages with crumbling balconies.
There are plans to convert this area into a small resort to help lure in more visitors, but it resembles an open air theater/museum today.
The eerie presence of straw scarecrows dressed in traditional clothes and positioned in wooden carts, makes the setting — and Salvetti’s walking narrative — all the more disquieting.
Time seems frozen in the Borgo, with its elderly farmers, Masche grandmothers and stray sheep dogs chasing after chickens.
It’s also home to a goat museum as well as a medicinal herbs research center that reveres the Masche tradition.
Salvetti’s tour ends at a tiny chapel built on a stratified cemetery dubbed the “Well of the Souls.”
Standing on a rock, which is said to vibrate energy from the bellows of the earth, its stone walls are covered in grotesque masks and shaman symbols used to ‘”bite away” evil spirits.
It overlooks a wide field of bright green grass, creating a mystical, yet primitive vibe.
“According to witnesses, night Sabbaths were held here in the 1900s,” says Salvetti. “Naked women would dance around a huge bonfire during fertility ceremonies.
“After spreading a poisonous unguent made from Belladonna plant under their armpits, a few might fly around. The men stood behind them quietly, wearing wolf skin masks.”
There’s no better way to end a visit to the Witch Promenade than tucking in at Trattoria Salvetti, where Salvetti’s sister Clelia is at the helm of the kitchen.
Each day a hunter hand delivers fresh white truffles, which are ground and sprinkled on bruschetta or Tajarin, handmade long, curly spaghetti.
“The Masche have taught us to preserve traditional recipes and cooking ways from modern twists,” she says.
“Our dishes are genuine and made with local produce.”
Clelia’s most popular dishes include Ravioli del Plin and Vitello Tonnato, veal covered in a delicate tuna sauce, and fowl roasted in rosemary.
While she denies being a Masche, or perhaps just shies away from it, her culinary skills are nothing short of magical.