Eu­ge­nia Bone finds one of Europe’s least-known food treats in the Dolomite foothills

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel -

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

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