Traveling in the Trentino -Alto Adige region of Northern Italy, also known as the SudTirol, begins with an Italian opera and ends with a Swiss yodel. The alpine valleys, snow-capped mountains, chalets and ski resorts will make you re-think Italy and re-invent your palate when it comes to Italian food. A trip through the region will likely find you feeling like Dorothy in the Italian Land of Oz saying “I don’t think we’re in Italy anymore”.
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 WWI. Although you are in Italy, because of geographic boundaries and historical alliances, Italy’s South Tyrol is a melting pot of flavors, food customs and languages.
As you cross the border you begin to see not only a change in the scenery but a change in the language. The official languages of the area are German and Italian however there is a third spoken language called Ladin. Ladin is a Romanized version of the Germanic dialects that were once spoken here and today the language clings to existence with fewer than 100,000 speakers left. It is not uncommon to see menus written in German and Italian, or local sights identified in all three languages. Road signs have to be bi-lingual (tri-lingual where Ladin is spoken) and normally the first name identifies the majority population in the area.
In the Ladin language, Ben uni means benvenuti and streda means strada and if you are looking for a plate of gnocchi try the tirolese dumplings or canederli aka Tiroler Knodel along with the stinco, wurtzel and some awesome German beer.
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)