The ancient Italian custom of Carnevale has begun and the traditional Lenten fast that begins on Ash Wednesday is a few days away. The word “carne vale” in Latin means “meat farewell” and 40 days of meatless Fridays can be a challenge. So what’s a carnivore to do? Channel your inner Italian for dishes inspired by the culinary and cultural history of Northern Italy influenced by the food traditions of the SudTirol, a mere yodel away from Switzerland.
The southern half of the region (Trentino) is ethnically Italian, the northern half (Alto Adige, or SüdTirol) is ethnically Germanic and the entire region was once part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire until Italy annexed it at the end of World War I. Although you are in Italy, the geographic boundaries and historical alliances of the region make the South Tyrol a melting pot with a distinctive mixture of flavors and food customs. One unique specialty of Tirol cuisine are canederli, large round dumplings (similar to gnocchi) that are found on just about every table in the Trentino-Alto Adige. With a cuisine influenced by neighboring Germany, Switzerland and Austria, where they are known as Knödel, these little bread balls are often flavored with speck (a regional aromatic cured meat, similar to prosciutto, flavored with juniper, laurel and rosemary). You can make them a meatless meal by using spinach, mushrooms, sauerkraut, cheese, herbs or beets (canederli di barbabietola served with a tangy horseradish sauce like they do in the Dolomites near Bolzano).
Another region of Italy a mere yodel away from Switzerland is the Aosta Valley in northwest Italy that borders Switzerland and France. For a memorable meatless Friday melt into a Valdostana fondue . A recipe from the Italian Alps that has its origins in the traditional Swiss fondue, but it differs in the presence of egg yolks, instead of wine or liquor. Should you need to make this alpine fondue even less penitential add a glass of Italian Sauvignon Blanc.
- 1 lb Fontina cheese or Italian Truffle Cheese from Trader Joe’s
- 1 ½ cups whole milk
- 4 egg yolks
- 8 slices cubed toasted bread
Slice the cheese and place it in a container to rest overnight, covered with some milk.
When preparing fondue, melt the cheese soaked in milk in double boiler (not allowing the water to boil) with beaten egg yolks. Stir continuously with a wooden spoon until you have obtained a thick cream. Serve the fondue in terracotta bowls with slices of toasted bread. Alternatively, you can use the typical fondue pot with its heater at the table, and allow each diner to dip pieces of toasted bread into the pot using long stem forks. 30 minutes preparation + 20 minutes cooking.
The Italian pig is revered. One of Italy’s most famous salumi comes in the form of cured hams known as prosciutto crudo. The celebrated hams of San Daniele, Parma and Toscana are so valued for their flavor, aroma and methods of preparation that they are given DOP aka PDO (Protected Designation of Origin) certification, the Italian government’s seal of approval that they are a product of a food tradition that can occur nowhere else. DOP certification sets out strict rules regarding the genetic make-up and breeding of pigs that will be wearing the ducal crown (the trademark of Prosciutto di Parma) or those whose hams are elegantly shaped like a Stradivarian violin (Prosciutto di San Daniele).
Porchetta, a suckling pig rolled up and spit roasted (girarosto) over a wood fire with salt, pepper, garlic and wild fennel has a gastronomic reputation that goes back to the time of the ancient Etruscans. Just about every sagra or street fair in Italy will have a porchetta on the spit with a line of Italians strung out waiting for packets of sliced pork (maiale) to eat on the spot or take home.
Signor Pig is treated very well in Italy. He was always respected as a symbol of plenty. The Cinta Senese or Sienese Belt Pig (named for a white belt around their chest) is pictured in a famous fresco by Ambrogio Lorenzentti (1338) in Siena’s Palazzo Comunale (town hall) titled L’Allegoria del Buon Governo (the good/wise government). In the contra fresco il cattivo governo (the bad government), the pigs are missing and in the quarries of Michelangelo the cured lard of Colonnata (Lardo di Colonnata), with the intoxicating flavor of aromatic spices and herbs is an artisanal delicacy thinly sliced and served over warm Tuscan bread that can be described as nothing less than inscensual.
So when you’re seeing a savoring Italy make sure to arrange an introduction to Signore Pig at the local trattorie. He’s dressed in many ways (sausage, salami, prosciutto, arista di maiale) and although he may be called Stinco in Bolzano he is most congenial and not to be missed.
*You can make any piece of meat in the porchetta style along as you have roasted it in a wood fire oven and stuffed or even marinated or cooked with fennel (preferably wild)
Bolzano is known as the Gateway to the Dolomites, a 3,000 meter mountain range formed 200 million years ago from the primeval ocean. Defined by their unique composition and staggering beauty, the 18 peaks of the Dolomites have been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site for their geomorphology and spectacular spires. Bolzano is also known for exceptional local food, a wide range of outdoor activities (skiing, cycling, snowboarding, hiking, climbing), traditional Tirolean handcrafts (like the famous chubby cheeked Bozen angels from Thun) and ice.
Located in the Northern Italian province of Trentino- Alto Adige (Sudtirol), Bolzano is a cross-cultural mélange that takes most travelers by surprise. Bordering on Austria and Switzerland, the region combines food, customs and language to create a unique taste and travel experience that is often overlooked by conventional tourists. Italian specialties like gnocchi take on the distinctive flavors of the SudTirol where gnocchi becomes canederli in the form of a speck flavored bread dumpling. There is a strong German influence in the region so foods like wurtzel (German sausage), stinco di maiale (braised pork shanks) and German inspired pastries are favored and it’s not uncommon to see apfelstrudel as well as studel di mele on restaurant menus along with plenty of German birra and regional Italian wines like ruby, red Teroldego.
Traveling in this region of Italy is all about extremes. Rare chamois and mountain goat pick their way along rocky crags and edelweiss bloom in Alpine meadows alongside some of the highest vertical rock walls in the world. Adventure travelers look for unprecedented experiences ice climbing, mountain biking and hiking the via ferrata, “iron path”, where steel cables cemented in the rock assist climbers along the mountainside. If your idea of adventure travel is more about extreme sights than extreme sports plan a visit to Hopfen and Company for some stinco and bozen bier.
Then vist the South Tirol Museum of Archeology in Bolzano to see the Iceman, one of the world’s best known and most important mummies.The Iceman was discovered in the Ötztal Alps of Italy’s South Tirol in 1991 by two hikers who found the back of a human figure jutting out of the ice and melt water in a rocky gully. Finding and recovering the Iceman with his clothing and equipment intact provided a natural diorama over 5000 years old. Today a sealed refrigerated chamber exhibits and conserves the mummy of the Iceman. Visitors file through a darkened room to view the Iceman through a small window that measures 40 x 40 cm. A larger opening would result in excessive temperature fluctuations inside the controlled cell that would cause the mummy to be destroyed. Read more about the 5,300 year old mummy’s 20th year as a global sensation.