Eugenia Bone finds one of Europe’s least-known food treats in the Dolomite foothills
SPECK, the cured ham of Alto Adige, Italy’s northernmost province, has the distinction of being one of the least known world-class charcuterie items. Unlike other premier European products, speck comes from a region that not many non-Italians visit. Word hasn’t travelled beyond a rather small circle.
That’s a good thing for you and me, because Alto Adige couldn’t be more beautiful. Bordering Austria to the north, the landscape is a breathtaking combination of rich valley land planted with apple trees (this is Europe’s apple basket, and spectacular in the spring) and vineyards that climb the skirts of the snow-capped Dolomites.
Dour medieval castles crumble on every promontory and the farms and villages are charming and tidy (even video stores have window boxes full of roses). The smooth streets are designed for sports cars and the local people, unlike their fellow citizens further south, are delighted to share their restaurants and roads with travellers.
Alto Adige has a unique food scene derived from Austrian and Italian culinary styles and is one of Italy’s four premier wine regions, even though it’s the smallest. Alto Adige is relatively free of rumpled daytrippers and their sundry accommodations: there are no McDonald’s, precious few souvenir shops (and those feature real local crafts, such as wood carvings and embroidery), and no menus in English. However, every sign is written in German and Italian, in recognition of the region’s historic cultural mix.
Austria ceded Sudtyrol to Italy after World War I. It was joined to Italian Trentino and the two provinces now make up Alto Adige. Of the 500,000 residents, about 75 per cent speak a German dialect. But rather than seek to reconnect with the fatherland, the Sudtyroleans lean towards the more sumptuous embrace of Mediterranean culture. Ironically, the best metaphor for this cosy duality is the region’s ham. Speck Alto Adige — the full and proper name of the product, and not to be confused with German speck, which is lard, lardo in Italian or prosciutto bianco — combines the good, strong smoky quality of Germany’s Black Forest ham with the yielding tenderness of San Danielle prosciutto.
It may seem a little shabby to use the hind leg of a hog to describe a place, but not if you’ve tasted this hog.
My friend and I sit at an outdoor table at Restaurant Kuppelrain in Castelbello, look- ing over the red haze of a rose garden at a handsome medieval castle perched on a tremendous rock. Kuppelrain is well known. Chef Jorg Trafalger and his wife Sonja, the sommelier, have enjoyed a Michelin star for the past six years and serve to capacity every night, but it still feels like a private place, a secret find, so intimate is the service and ambience.
To whet our appetites, Sonja serves us a glass of Arunda Reserve Brut — produced by Joseph Reiterer in the tiny town of Moltin, the highest altitude sparkling winemaker in Europe — studded with elderberry flowers that stick to the insides of our glasses like little stars. Just as we are settling into a state of nirvana, out comes Jorg, a brooding Kurt Cobain lookalike, carrying a slab of polished white Dolomite marble. On it is a selection of tiny dishes made with speck. We eat a glistening sweet wine gelatin that holds a silver dollar of foie gras wrapped in a skin of speck; white asparagus ice-cream with thin, crispy speck chips; a kind of speck sushi roll stuffed with herbed ricotta; green asparagus wrapped in a speck envelope; and a combination of tiny sauteed apple balls garnished with minced speck.
Each dish is delicious and provocative, yet true to the local kitchen vernacular, the mark of a great chef. The rest of the meal is equally delightful: venison carpaccio on a bed of garden cress and cornflowers, and veal with mustard and wild onions served with ruby red lagrein (an indigenous grape) and fruit foams of elderberry and apricot.
Just about every little farm or destination restaurant makes its own speck, as do the many elegant charcuteries in the main towns of Merano and Bolzano.
Speck is a true synthesis of two curing styles: salting from the Mediterranean and smoking from central Europe (it represents the southernmost smoking tradition on the Continent). Speck, like prosciutto, is made from the hind leg of the pig, but that is where the similarities end. Speck is boned before curing and the meat is rubbed with spices as well as salt. This mix of spices is each producer’s secret, T. K. Recla tells me gravely when we visit the Recla company, a leading producer and exporter. I cannot tell you what ours is.’’ (Later, however, a young, clearly reckless Recla executive willingly reveals the family formula: laurel, juniper, rosemary, caraway, fennel, garlic, and pepper.)
The meat rests for two weeks, is lightly smoked for five days, and then seasoned for five months. During this period, natural moulds develop as the humidity in the meat is purged (losing up to 40 per cent of its weight). The mould rounds the flavour, according to Recla’s cellarmaster. He looks as if he would know. A stocky guy in rubber boots, there are spices all over the bib of his white apron, as if he has been hugging the speck, and he smells of pepper. At a recent dinner party, a friend from Friuli said the secret to speck is the cold dry air; it’s about the millionth time I’ve heard that. Indeed, the air of Alto Adige, even in the big towns, is noticeably clean and fresh.
The end result is a product that is creamy in texture, intensely flavoured, and significantly different from prosciutto. You can really taste the flavours of juniper berries and laurel leaves.
There are about 65 different specks produced for retail in the area, and they vary from house to house, from valley to valley: you can get a map and drive a speck trail. Each tastes a little different: Siebenforcher, from Meran, is creamy and mild, Vontauron is a bit salty and very delicate, Ortler is smokier, Sanfter is elegant, Gasser is more subtle, Martin is quite spicy and Recla has an assertive flavour of fennel. The list goes on.
In the town of Bolzano’s fastidiously restored central piazza, a dozen or so wooden booths exhibit glorious displays of speck, bacon, cooked hams and other local specialties at Bolzano’s Speckfest. On the third weekend in May (the pigs are traditionally slaughtered in December and the speck is ready to eat in May), 100,000 people come to taste speck. In the VIP tent last May, guests snacked on plates of speck and raw porcini mushrooms dressed in lemon-infused olive oil and walnut halves, the creation of Herbert Hintner, chef of Zur Rose, one of the region’s best restaurants.
At the dinner hut they served a softballsized knudel speckled with speck, rich, dark goulash, and crisp vinegary coleslaw. Teenagers in sneakers and soft whiskers sat at picnic tables, drinking glasses of the local Sciava, a light, spicy wine, and eating sandwiches of speck and sliced hard-boiled egg on a rustic bun.
On our visit, we settle for a more elegant dish of chard wrapped in speck, baked, and served with the region’s superior white asparagus from Terlan, thick as a candle, at Restaurant Walther on the piazza. www.speckfest.org www.speck.it
Rich mix: Produce markets in Alto Adige, the unique Italian region where speck is produced, top and right; a piazza in Bolzano