Grown in Alto Adige

by Emily Bell
Shannon Sturgis
July 2011

From the Holy Roman Empire to Napoleon’s Europe, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Third Reich (briefly), and, oh yes, the warm, coddling embrace of Mussolini, just about every major European power has had its imperialist hands on the Germanic-Italian Alpine region of Alto Adige. Not that you’d know if you visited today. Somehow, through all the political turbulence, dictatorial mismanagement, and compulsory cultural assimilation—and division—landscape (and local morale) stubbornly endure.

That’s not to say you won’t find any collateral cultural collision here. Go to any kitchen, personal or professional, and you’ll find evidence of a different breed of cuisine rising from the centuries of sovereignty-switcheroo, with dishes like blood noodles, fasting dumplings, and frothy wine soup defining the flavors of Alto Adige. And behind it all is a pantry of distinctive local products—and a deep, well-earned pride in a sense of place.

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Product: Gray Cheese (Graukäse)
Where: Chef Mattias Pescolderung of Restaurant Kaiserkron
What: Ancient farmers’ cheese Graukäse gives you a good idea of how cheese ever came about; milk is left to its own bacterial devices, with a little help from the wild. The preparation is arrestingly simple: cows’ milk is skimmed to make butter, and the liquid remnants (i.e., the skim milk most Americans save for diet cereals) are left to ferment at room temperature. Thanks to the virility of lactic bacteria, the result is a zippy, tart curd, further seasoned with salt and pressed into a cylinder mold. A mere fortnight of aging later and you have a cheese of singular complexity—not to mention corpse-reviving funk (in most cases, they’ll be happy they came back). Graukäse actually tastes mild, so the composite experience is a sensory back and forth between pungency and mellowness. And local chefs are availing themselves of the phenomenon, vaulting this ancient cheese into modern Alto Adigean cuisine. At Restaurant Kaiserkron, Chef Mattias Pescolderung judiciously (that’s the key) seasons tender pockets of brown butter-sautéed ravioli with the heady stuff.

Product: Herb Infusions
Where: Chef Franz Mulser at Gostner Schwaige
What: The slopes of Alto Adige aren’t just prime for carefree twirling; they’re home to a thriving population of wild and cultivated herbs—the grassy, earthy, and floral accents of a cuisine that’s all about terroir. And herb infusions are one way regional chefs capture the essence of the Southern Alps and river valleys. After steeping locally picked product in sugar syrup in the summer, they’re laid by as herb “juices” until winter, when they can be mixed with anything from still and sparkling water to Prosecco. The results are typically subtle, but evocative. Elderberry (also known as sambucus nigra, a key ingredient in St. Germain) imparts a subtle, floral sweetness to Prosecco; red currant gives a rich texture and bright pop to water; and Melissa (known as lemon balm Stateside) adds a citrusy lightness to vibrantly crisp, Prosecco.

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Product: Knödel
Where: Chef Martin Loacker at Moccaria Loacker
What: Just as osso bucco and lasagna have made their unscathed, Italian way into the heavily Germanic Alto Adige culinary repertoire, German import knödel has become a bready fixture of local menus. A doughy dumpling (or “meatless meatball”) made with a mixture of breadcrumbs, flour, and/or potato, and accented with herbs and local cheese, knödel is a classic peasant food—hearty, simple, versatile, and belly-filling. Typically poached or boiled, knödel can be used in simple broths or baked into casseroles. At Moccaria Loacker, Chef Martin Loacker incorporates spinach and herbed curd cheese into his knödels, and pairs them with a bright, acidic lentil-tomato salad.

Product: Schüttelbrot
Where: Chef Anna Matscher at Zum Löewen
What: Alto Adige prides itself on its bread quality (made exactly like every other Alto Adige product—backed by tradition and well-earned local swagger). Whether it’s a hearty local rye bread, a simple pusterer breatl (flatbread), or zelten (Christmas sweet bread), regional recipes have been passed down from generation to generation of family and professional bakers. And schüttelbrot is one of the most typically South Tyrolean of Alto Adige breads. Literally “shaken bread,” schüttelbrot is a crispy flatbread that defies all bread expectation by lasting—when properly stored—for up to a year. Most chefs, of course, won’t be keeping it that long, nor will they simply serve it in all its simple, crispy glory. At Zum Löewen Chef Anna Matscher actually shaves her schüttelbrot into croutons to top her tortelloni, and cracks it into pieces to pair with a Laugen Beef Tartare (served with local mountain mushrooms).

Where: Chef Roland Trettl at Teatro di Piaceri
What: Cured ham products can range from the regionally expressive—Iberico, Prosciutto, etc.—to the over-salted, over-smoked stuff of assembly lines. Speck Alto Adige PGI is decidedly on the former team. Unlike smoked cured hams to the north and sweeter cured hams of the Mediterranean, speck here is only lightly cold-smoked and seasoned (a mixture of juniper, laurel, rosemary, salt, pepper, and possibly cumin, coriander, and garlic), and then left to cure for almost three weeks in the fresh, mild mountain air. A light coating of mold helps to contain moisture and adds a characteristic nuttiness to the delicately herbaceous and subtly smoky flavor profile. Seasoning proportions may vary (and those variations are jealously guarded), but regular inspection by the Istituto Nord Est Qualita, who perform thousands of spot-checks per year on the region’s 29 authorized speck producers, and a seal of Protected Geographical Indication means chefs can count on Alto Adige Speck as a consistent, vividly local product. Which is maybe why it makes appearances on plates all over the region. You’ll find it in something as light as Chef Anton Rinner’s Cabbage and Speck Salad at Bierkeller Latch, or as hearty as the Kastelruther Bergbauernmuas at Gostner Schwaige (a family classic from Chef Franz Mulser’s grandmother) made with Speck, buckwheat flour, gravy, and eggs, and eaten, preferably, from one communal pot, with many, many spoons. And at his South Tyrolean Teatro di Piaceri, Chef Roland Trettl uses both Schuttelbrot and Speck for an elegant dish that combines heartiness of Alto Adige with the elegance of modern cuisine.