Dishing up the Dolomites

The Ital­ian Ty­rol boasts a plethora of Miche­lin­starred chefs

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Indulgence - GWYN TOPHAM THE OB­SERVER

THE truth is, any­one com­ing to a place this beau­ti­ful to ski should hap­pily eat a spag bol and thank their lucky stars. Yet Alta Ba­dia, in the heart of the Dolomites, at­tracts the kind of clien­tele that likes its lilies gilded.

This is one of the ritzi­est Ital­ian win­ter re­sorts, so while it has some of the most ex­pan­sive ski ar­eas in the world, in the mid­dle of a UNESCO World Her­itage site, the lo­cals are ea­ger for vis­i­tors to know they do pretty good food, too.

Ar­riv­ing here via the flight to Verona is a red her­ring. Af­ter an hour on the au­tostrada to­wards the north­ern­most prov­ince of South Ty­rol, Ro­man am­phithe­atres and Ca­pulet bal­conies feel im­pos­si­bly dis­tant from the ap­ple or­chards that pave the way to the alpine slopes. An hour or so later you are in Alta Ba­dia, as Ital­ian as sauer­kraut and strudel.

The legacy of the col­lapse of the Aus­tro-Hun­gar­ian em­pire and the trou­bled decades that fol­lowed is a re­gion that still feels more Ger­manic than part of the Ital­ian state, with a wealth to match that might ex­plain the pre­pon­der­ance of Miche­lin-starred chefs, three in the Alta Ba­dia ski re­sort alone — a trio billed as the Dolomitici, or Dolomighty ones.

The Ger­man spo­ken of­fi­cially with Ital­ian throughout the prov­ince gives way in the Alta Ba­dia ski re­gion to Ladin, an an­cient Ro­mance lan­guage pre­served and spo­ken by a ma­jor­ity in the val­leys around Cor­vara. Food here re­flects the mem­ory of a more dif­fi­cult moun­tain ex­is­tence as well as its pros­per­ity to­day. The two menus it pro­motes for skiers are, first, the more del­i­cate, nu­anced dishes in­vented by its guest chefs. The sec­ond, the lo­cal, tra­di­tional food best ap­pre­ci­ated for sur­viv­ing hik­ing up a snowy moun­tain.

For the lat­ter, the best-known Ladin res­tau­rant is Maso RunchHof. Runch (pro­nounced to rhyme with bunk, rather than mas­sive lunch) is the home and in­sti­tu­tion of one fam­ily. Frau Na­gler and sons cook while Herr Na­gler is front of house, with the face of a benev­o­lent Sid James and an alarm­ingly large bot­tle of home­made schnapps, brought to help di­gest the seven cour­ses on the fixed menu.

Myfel­low diner — a lo­cal Ladin con­nois­seur — tes­ti­fies to the qual­ity of Runch’s spe­cial­i­ties of tutres and canci. These are vary­ing shapes and sizes of dough­nut and pan­cake-like con­coc­tions such as fur­taies, as well as of ravi­oli with spinach, cheese or sweet poppy-seed fill­ings wrapped in var­i­ous types of bat­ter.

The host and wait­resses look be­mused as we de­cline ex­tra help­ings, but the vol­ume of the av­er­age hu­man stomach could surely man­age lit­tle more than the ex­cel­lent, hearty pani­cia bar­ley soup and puc­cia crisp­breads, and a nib­ble at the main course — a ham hock that would keep an en­tire von Trapp fam­ily busy.

It feels slightly sur­real, even be­fore a mid­dle-aged man in shorts and a green-feath­ered cap comes in with his ac­cor­dion to sing. But the high camp of the Alps is not re­stricted to Ladin agri­t­ur­ismo. The Ho­tel La Perla, lo­cated me­tres from the Col Alt ca­ble car, puts on a bizarrely en­joy­able show for its guests — not in its L’Murin barn turned club, com­plete with go-go dancers, nor in its un­der­ground spa, where age­ing, naked Ger­mans wade solemnly an­ti­clock­wise be­tween icy and warm pad­dling pools to boost their cir­cu­la­tion. La Perla’s real coup de the­atre is its wine cel­lars and, al­though there are some proud col­lec­tions among its 30,000 bot­tles, what truly as­ton­ishes is the ef­fort and imag­i­na­tion that has gone into cre­at­ing some­thing en­tirely un­ex­pected.

With­out overly spoil­ing the sur­prise for fu­ture guests, it’s as if the ho­tel had film­maker Adam Cur­tis and Willy Wonka on stage de­sign. Call­ing it the Ma­hatma cel­lar may be a some­what du­bi­ous trib­ute to the ascetic Gandhi, but this is a tour to de­light non- drinkers as much as wine glug­gers, from the mo­ment the som­me­lier starts danc­ing in the first vault.

Up the cel­lar’s fire­man’s pole is La Stua de Michil — La Perla’s own Miche­lin-starred res­tau­rant, where con­coc­tions such as veal tongue and oc­to­pus are served up for the gour­mand ( with one re­fined main dish cost­ing more than a night at the Runch). This room is one of nu­mer­ous stubes, or tra­di­tional par­lour rooms, where guests can dine; each is dif­fer­ent, but with the es­sen­tial decor of wooden pan­els on floor, wall and ceil­ing, a throw­back to the past when only one warm room in the house would serve, thus in­su­lated, as a place for the fam­ily to con­gre­gate, cook, eat and sleep — on top of the oven.

As if to lure the hol­i­day­ing gas­tronome out of the re­sort and on to the ski slope, Alta Ba­dia’s plusher moun­tain huts have also launched ski­ing taste trails — one tra­di­tion­ally Ladin, one the cre­ation of a con­sor­tium of South Ty­rol’s Miche­lin- starred sons. The Ladin menus can be found on the slopes lead­ing up to the mag­nif­i­cent peak of Santa Croce. Close up, the Dolomite rock is a more colourful cof­fee stone than the som­bre grey it ap­pears when viewed across the Alps.

In this for­mer place of pil­grim­age, where a Catholic chapel still stands, skiers can walk up the last stretch from the high­est lift to try Ladin del­i­ca­cies at the Cr­usc hut — al­though the possl I tried would be recog­nised through the Alps as what Aus­tri­ans call kais­er­schmarrn, a mish­mash of shred­ded pan­cakes and red-fruit com­pote.

Else­where for the chef chasers are 11 huts in each of which one dish has been spe­cially cre­ated by a Miche­lin-starred son of Ty­rol. At the Pra­lon­gia, for ex­am­ple, there is pork belly with In­dian spices on kraut with a grap­pa­soaked plum sauce. And, given ski-slope mark-ups, the dishes are not un­rea­son­ably priced at

($14-$30). Then you’ve just got to ski back down. The slopes here aren’t as ver­tig­i­nous as some. There are some great long red runs, in­clud­ing most of the 26km Sella Ronda cir­cuit that can be skied in one day. A com­bined Dolomiti Su­perski pass links 1200km of pistes in a dozen re­sorts j oined by long stretches of al­most hor­i­zon­tal lifts. That means many chair­lifts give the dis­con­cert­ing sight of rows of skiers head­ing to­wards each other rather than all go­ing up a moun­tain — grate­ful, per­haps, for a chance to di­gest all that rich food.

FREDDY PLANINSCHEK

Chef Rosa Pic­col­ruaz puts the fin­ish­ing touches to a cake at one of the moun­tain huts of­fer­ing Ladin spe­cial­ties

PIC­TURES: TOUR DE SAS (LEFT); FREDDY PLANINSCHEK (RIGHT)

There are plenty of ski runs around Alta Ba­dia, but the lo­cals are proud of their food too, in­clud­ing sweet treats such as fur­taies

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