Pleasures in Alta Badia: Height of good taste
For many recreational skiers, lingering over a long lunch in a wayside hut high on the slopes is the focal point of the day. After a morning of skiing and mountain air, there’s nothing better than freshly cooked, hearty fare. Unfortunately, the expected feast often fails to materialise. Not surprisingly; preparing meals in a location where every raw ingredient – even, sometimes water – must be ferried up the mountain by lift and snowmobile, and cooking them on an often primitive stove does tend to cap culinary ambition.
Alta Badia, the corner of Italy’s Südtirol that includes the ski areas of Corvara, San Cassiano and La Villa, is a long-established gastronomic hot spot. At valley level, more than a dozen restaurants have one Michelin star or more, among them is the St Hubertus in the Rosa Alpina Hotel & Spa. Norbert Niederkofler, a former downhill ski racer, presides over its kitchens. Having swapped his racing suit for chef’s whites, he has won two Michelin stars for the St Hubertus and is one of Italy’s celebrity chefs.’We have a remarkable number of starred restaurants in the region, and while we are rivals, all the chefs get on well together and we regularly exchange ideas. We even have an annual chefs’ ski race which I organise.’
It was during this event that Niederkofler came up with the initiative now known as A Taste for Skiing. ‘I thought of it as a chance to introduce the skiers on the mountain to our restaurants in the valley. His scheme worked like this. Chefs from a dozen of the region’s Michelin-starred restaurants were invited to draw from a hat the name of a local ingredient: grappa, speck (cured ham) and so on. Then the chefs were asked to create a dish worthy of his or her reputation, based on the ingredient, provided that it was simple enough to be prepared by a less masterful cook in the confines of a mountain hut.
The dishes produced, he said, are ‘mostly pleasing; you should try as many as you can’. So I did, and went some way towards understanding how it feels to be the goose that provides Niedkofler’s signature composition of four inventively different types of foie gras, including one smoked and marinated in a green-apple-and-tangerine soup, and another sautéed on an apple crème brulée with passion-fruit and pine-needle jelly.
A couple of lifts and a short, easy descent take me and my ski guide to Ütia Piz Arlara, 2,040 metres above Corvara, where we settle into marble trout marinated in Swiss pine grappa and rye bread with juniper butter, and a couple of glasses of fruity Müller-Thurgau. Outside on the terrace, light snow is falling softly, briefly obscuring what would be a 360-degree panorama of the world’s most magical mountain range. ‘Craut è bun!’ says my guide enthusiastically. ‘Bëgnodüs!’ replies the waitress with a beaming smile. This exchange, in Ladin, means: ‘The trout is good’ and ‘You’re welcome.’ The trout dish was invented by Claudio Melis at the one-star La Siriola, in Hotel Ciasa Salares in San Cassiano, where I had worked my way through an eight-course dinner the previous night. The fish is soft and succulent, but surprisingly bland. It could easily have been conventionally poached. I was hoping for something more spectacular.
Our next stop, Ütia Jimmy, on the Frara piste at Colfosco, is run by Jimmi Schrott. He is the perfect picture of the jocund padrone of a mountain restaurant. His speciality is homemade grappa, and insists we try a few glasses while we talk. The featured dish is a pudding created by Anna Matscher of the one-star Zum Lowen in Tisens, a small town north of Trento, about 50km away. It is supposed to be a long potato dumpling with caramelised apples, vanilla foam and apple liqueur. Schrott’s interpretation involves substituting pineapple for the vanilla and topping it with an extra measure of no-doubt home-brewed apple grappa. It costs €10 and is delicious.
We can’t linger: lunch is far from over. Pumpkin spätzle (tiny dumplings) with porcini and game sauce, served with red turnips, speck and smoked ricotta, await us in the very simple surroundings of Ütia I Tablà. This is creation of Arturo Spicocchi at the one-star La Stüa de Michil, in the celebrated Hotel La Perla in La Villa. The recommended wine is a local Pinot Noir, and it seems churlish to refuse it. The dish interpreted by Roberto Gianetti at I Tablà, tastes an awful lot better than it looks. The whole €12 plateful gets no points for presentation, but this is just the kind of heart-warming fare that you hope to find in a mountain restaurant.
The following day I have a new ski guide. ‘First you must try Norbert’s brisket,’ she says by way of greeting. ‘It’s delicious.’ Brisket is the breast of beef; the word comes from the old Norse for ‘cartilage’. But don’t let that put you off; it is a fine cut and today at Ütia de Bioch, above San Cassiano, it makes a fine late breakfast. The brisket is cooked in a crispy crust, and the hut’s chef, Goffredo Valentini, has got it spot-on. It is served with a sauerkraut-and-radish salad, and we toast it with glasses of a fragrant Lagrein from Bolzano, all raspberry and plum with subtle hints of nutmeg and cinnamon.
The best lunch is the last. Club Moritzino is one of just a handful of huts around the world where the cuisine and the ambience fuse to produce the perfect lunchtime ski destination. Former rally driver Moritz Craffonara has been running it for an incredible 43 years. He specialises in fresh fish, flown in daily and carried up the mountain on the ski lift.
His allotted dish comes from the one-star La Passion restaurant at Vandoies, in the Val Pusteria. It is roasted red mullet fillet on parsley soup with radicchio; but it’s not on the menu today. ‘No mullet,’ says Craffonara with a smile. One gets the impression that he didn’t try too hard to find any, because he values his own chef’s cuisine above that of any outsider. Instead we tuck into a fish ‘starter of the day’, a combination of oysters, prawns, salmon and marinated hake. It is followed by perfectly al dente spaghetti with a whole grilled lobster. Unquestionably, this is the finest lunch of the five.
‘The problem we have had,’ Norbert Niederkofler tells me that evening over an eight-course dinner at St Hubertus, ‘is in choosing the right mountain huts to prepare the dishes. Not all of them have got it, but we’re not discouraged.’ For the coming winter, A Taste of Skiing dishes will be served in a different selection of local huts; and while Melis and Spicocchi will once again participate, along with Niederkofler, the other contributions will be from chefs elsewhere in Europe, among them Holger Stromberg from Munich and Reto Mathis from St Moritz. Niederkofler had hoped to involve Heston Blumenthal, who happens to be a dedicated skier; but unfortunately we won’t find out how snail porridge or egg-and-bacon ice cream would go down on the mountain, because creating molecular gastronomy in a high-altitude hut proved impractical.
Published in November 2010: by Peter Hardy at http://www.cntraveller.com/
All photos by Preston Schlebusch