It’s all very confusing. I am in Italy but I am not. From one village in Trentino to the next in Alto Adige, no one speaks Italian anymore, at least not natively. They speak it halteringly, searching for the correct translation in their heads. Even the character of the people changes….suddenly rules and regulations take on real meaning.
While all of this is rather disconcerting, I am distracted by the towering green alpine mountains dotted with fairy tale castles. Upon inspection the mountains are terraced with trellised apples and grapes. Here is the land of apples, apricots, berries, chestnuts, rye breads, alpine honey and lingonberry jam.
The panorama included little wooden houses nestled in valleys beneath towering mountains with waterfalls cascading down them. These Tyrolean houses with their characteristic sloped wooden roofs and wooden terraces lined with bright coloured flowers are the standard. Meadows of wildflowers, the sound of cow bells ringing and countryside restaurants with picnic tables outside serving huge plates of apple strudel and coffee to chatting locals. Every town has a beautiful church clock tower marking the centre of town. Sculptures are placed throughout even small towns and frescos and decorative script decorate the buildings and wooden ceilings.
I have for some time suspected that Germanic food has been maligned and misunderstood. Images of anaemic white sausages, pickled cabbage and boiled potatoes springs to mind at the mention of German food. Names like Schultzkrapfen and Kaiserschmarrn don’t sound appealing but are a hidden language disguising delicious ravioli and fluffy pancakes. Canederli in brodo are matzah ball soup, improved by the addition of speck (smoked ham).
Chanterelles feature prominently on the menus during our visit. They are served with pasta, polenta, risotto, grilled steak, roast veal and chicken and in omelettes.
The varied use of different grains should not have surprised me. While growing up we had a German foreign exchange student live with us. He had failed his examinations in Germany which meant he was not put on the track to go to university so he came to California to finish secondary school. He then went on to UC Berkeley and Cambridge so shows what use those exams are! But I digress.
Our foreign exchange student was horrified by our bread. We were in constant search of bread made of anything besides white flour to make him feel less homesick. Our brown bread while it may have looked the part, had a hybrid texture of sponge and cardboard- it was hard yet simultaneously sucked any moisture from your mouth.
Despite this experience, the astounding variety of delicious breads, cakes and polenta made from buckwheat, rye and cereals flavoured with seeds, nuts, caraway and fruit came as a surprise. We stopped by an outdoor baker with hot bread and strudel emerging from the oven as we arrived. Crisp rye flatbread flavoured with caraway, schuttlebrot, was on every table. Their desserts were an unexpected delight. It seems patently unfair that the French are so famous for their desserts when these desserts mainly remain unknown. I have had super light and barely sweet pastry encasing creamy ricotta, gianduia, fruit preserves and fruit like apple and apricot. Short crust pastry is used to make tarts (crostata) filled with fruit preserves or sliced fruit or used to make biscuit sandwiches filled with jam. Fritters filled with poppy seeds, chestnuts or jam is another local specialty.
They also have artisan wood carvings, cuckoo clocks, traditional knitwear, medicinal teas, tonics and beauty products made from mountain herbs, flowers and trees.
We visited the enchanting spa town of Merano and strolled along the cooling river following the Passeggiata d’Inverno along one side and crossing over to return back along the Passeggiata d’Estate. Musicians played outdoors while children played. Merano was one of the highlights of our trip with its beautiful Tyrolean architecture and thermal baths frequented by Empress Elisabeth of Austria no less.
Outside Merano there is also the Trauttmansdorff Castle and it’s amazing gardens which can be visited. They do music concerts around water lily pond in the evening during the summer.
Next up was a visit to Bressanone (Brixen), the artistic and cultural capital of the Eisack Valley (Val d’Isarco). We passed by candy coloured 10th to 13th century churches and buildings pretending we were more interested in the architecture than the pastry shops heaving with displays of cakes and biscuits with every combination of cream, chocolate, fruit and nuts imaginable.
It was in Bressanone that we found one of our favourite restaurants of the trip, Finsterwirt Oste Scuro, located in a 500 year old hotel. Initially we were slightly concerned entering with our two young sons as everyone else seemed more likely to have grandchildren than children and they seemed engaged in serious business discussions. However, the food, ambience and service were excellent and not long after, other families joined. My husband tucked into a plate of venison with buckwheat polenta while I enjoyed buckwheat and speck canederli. We both silently wished our sons would not finish their weinerschnitzel which was delicious but that then happily left us room for the trio of strudels – apple, ricotta and cherry. I would urge you to go to Bressanone if only to eat at Oste Scuro.
Outside Bressanone is one of the most significant monasteries in the region, Abbazia di Novacella, which is 900 years old. The monastery is notable not only for its Baroque church and medieval cloister with frescoes but also for its winery, the Cantina di Abbazia di Novacella.
Finally, heading back towards Bolzano, I stopped at the tiny town of Chiusa (Klausen), known as the miniature version of Bressanone. The town seemed lost in time with little craftsmen’s shops lining the narrow stone paved streets. There is an outdoor stand with country style bread being baked in a brick oven in front of you. Hot breads, strudels and fritters are served from a simple wooden display case.
I sat outdoors with my two sons at a countryside restaurant overlooking the area nearby Merano. My sons were nervous as the locals included some rather mischievous marauding geese. We kept a wary eye out for any intruders and ordered Kaiserschmarrn, a dish which looks like it has been dropped before being put on your plate. It turned out to be another well-disguised local delicacy which is a hybrid of soufflé and crepes rolled into one and served with lingonberry jam. Utterly delicious.
Here is a recipe for Kaiserschmarrn by the Accademia Italiana della Cucina
Frittata Dell’Imperatore / Kaiserschmarrn / Schmarrn (thick crepes with raisins and lingonberry jam)
3 tablespoons flour
1 tablespoon granulated sugar
20 gms butter
icing sugar for topping
lingonberry jam to serve with (can buy at IKEA)
Separate the eggs and place the yolks in a bowl. Slowly sift the flour into the bowl with the yolks and add the salt, sugar and raisins. Beat the mixture quickly with a whisk.
In a separate clean bowl, beat the egg whites with a clean whisk or over low speed with an electric mixer until it forms stiff peaks.
Take a spoonful of the egg whites and combine it well with the flour mixture. Once it is incorporated, add the rest of the egg whites, gently folding in with a rubber spatula so as to not lose the air whipped into the whites.
Heat a larger frying pan and add the butter. When the butter has melted and is evenly distributed, add the batter. When it is golden (the browned parts are the best), flip over and cook the other side until golden.
Using two forks, break up the pancake. Place the pancake pieces on a serving plate, sprinkle icing sugar over the top and serve with lingonberry jam.
SigmundCorso Liberta, 2 I-39012 Merano Tel: +39 0473 23 77 49 [email protected]
Located on the passeggiata d’estate (summer promenade) which has live music some nights in the summer, Sigmund is a great place to people watch while enjoying well-prepared national and local specialties.
Recommended dishes: scallopine (breaded and fried veal or pork), canederli di albiccoca (dumpling filled with apricot)
Agriturismo NiederhofVia Quadrat 11 39020 Parcines – Merano Alto Adige +39 0473 967017 [email protected]
A holiday farm with a spectacular view of the valley. They have cows, pigs, ducks, chickens and geese on the property. In the summertime sit outside overlooking the valley while eating local specialties.
Recommended dishes: pasta con ragu alla contadina (pasta with meat, mushroom, cream and onion sauce), kaiserschmarrn (pancake with lingonberry jam)
Between Bolzano and Chiusa:
Romantik Hotel Turm (see details below)
Eat outside during the summer with the Dolomites as your backdrop. Be warned that the food service is slow (no fault to the servers).
SasseggVia Schlernstr. 9, 39040 Siusi Tel: +39 0471 707498 Email: [email protected]
This classically formal seafood restaurant also has south Tyrolean specialties.
Finsterwirt Oste ScuroDomgasse 3 39042 Brixen Südtirol Tel. +39 0472 835343 E- Mail: [email protected]
Recommended dishes: zuppa di sylvaner con krapfen (white wine soup served with a doughnut), controfiletto di cervo rosolato con salsa di pepe, pure di sedani e polenta di grano saraceno (venison in pepper sauce with celery puree and buckwheat polenta), canederlo pressato di grano saraceno allo speck con spinacino marinato (buckwheat and speck dumplings with marinated spinach), weinerschnitzel (breaded and fried veal chop), strudel (thin pastry rolled with apple, cherry and ricotta and baked).
Between Bolzano and Chiusa:
Romantik Hotel TurmPiazza Chiesa 9 39050 Fie allo Sciliar Alto Adige +39 0471 725 014 [email protected]
This boutique hotel is a designer hotel is in a 13th century building. This designer hotel has art covering the walls including a Picasso. There is an excellent restaurant (although the food is very slow coming out do the kitchen). Definitely book a table outside in the summer. There is a nice indoor/outdoor pool and a spa featuring hay baths and wine infused beauty products. I love this hotel.
There were loads of outdoor activities which we unfortunately did not get around to on this trip, but I noted down the companies in case it is of use to someone else.
White water rafting
There are many adventure parks (courses of rope through the trees, zip lines, power fans and jumps)
Walk through the woods with children’s activity areas