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The Delicious Dolomites

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The Delicious Dolomites

Alice Paisley, A&K Villas Product Coordinator for the ski portfolio, took her tastebuds on a tour of the Italian Dolomites. Fresh flavours and a warm welcome ensured we almost lost her forever, read her travel exploits here..

The trials and tribulations of travel – one minute you’re stuck bumper to bumper, bag to bag in a queue for customs with nothing but the clinical walls and beeping carousels clouding your peripheral vision. The next you’re sat upon a sumptuous sofa in front of a roaring fire, glass of wine in one hand and a delicate appetiser, resembling more a work of art rather than something you’d actually eat, in the other. The stresses and strains of the morning rapidly dispersing the further down the glass you go.

Rosa Alpina Hotel     San Lorenzo Mountain Lodge     Chalet Iergl

Admittedly not everyone’s journey starts off in quite the same manner that mine did; after all, not everyone misses the only direct flight out of Gatwick to Salzburg that day and has to re-route via Frankfurt for a 5 hour stopover. They do say “you have to have missed at least 3 flights to call yourself a professional” – well phew; at least I had achieved something that morning!

Finally, though, I had arrived at the penultimate destination on my 8 day tour; the charming village of San Cassiano in Alta Badia, Northern Italy. The journey here had taken me from Austria to Switzerland, via Liechtenstein. And then on from Switzerland to Italy, via the enchanting Swiss National Park. For a self-confessed ‘petrol-head’ (though a far less greasy version), this work trip had inadvertently become the European equivalent of the Mongol Rally I completed in 2009. Though this time with a far more reliable vehicle, an indispensable Sat Nav and infinitely more luxurious ‘digs’. In place of tents, fully reclined car seats and floors of yurts, I have five star hotels and decadent chalets. In place of dirt tracks, desert thoroughfare and an overwhelming dusty-beige, dirty outset, I have mountain passes, dazzling turquoise flowing rivers and vibrant alpine pastures dotted with long haired cattle adorned with the tinkling bells around their necks. Here in San Cassiano it was the turn of the family run Rosa Alpina Hotel at the foot of the Dolomites to carry on the quite simply spoiling treatment I had ashamedly come to expect.

The Italians in the South Tyrol are the perfect combination. Their past has been a constant struggle for autonomy but it has produced today a match made in heaven. The German and Austrian influence imposed upon them by Mussolini’s alliances with Hitler during World War II is immediately noticeable. The Austrian charm and hospitality I had encountered in the first few days of my trip was yet again present in every smile that greeted me here in San Cassiano. The Germanic eye for detail and clockwork service was apparent from the moment Sat Nav and I pulled up outside the hotel and were greeted by a ‘Welcome Mees Paisley ‘. And there came the Italian cheekiness when greeted by the concierge with a wink and a nod, “So you finally made it then”…Sat Nav and I had had a brief falling out on route. This had ensured that this concierge and I were already on first name terms and that he now had a far better knowledge of ‘provincial’ English. Desperately trying to hide my blushes, I simply smiled and cursed the fact that I felt so ashamedly ‘British’ – late.

With 300 days of sunshine on average per year and the awe inspiring Dolomites greeting you every morning is it any wonder the locals are the way they are? Through the recent struggles of the 1960s these three nations, four in fact if you include those that still speak the ancient mother tongue, Ladin, have been granted the award of self-governance. This meticulous preservation of their cultural distinctions and heritage has promoted this area to being one of the wealthiest regions in Italy. To assume, however, that this wealth is centred on money would be incorrect. The true prosperity of this region lies with the people and their approach to life. Oh and their food! The food here is nothing short of culinary gold.

It’s a fact universally acknowledged that Italy is synonymous with romance, food and art. In South Tyrol it’s all too easy to overindulge in all three. The romance lies in the simplicity of being here. But the art belongs to the food. In Florence, Rome, Verona the art is all too evident in the Renaissance buildings, the structures that have survived the millenniums; upon the walls and the ceilings that the masters have procured as their easels on which to leave their legacy. Here in South Tyrol the art is found upon a plate, in a shot glass or within a shallow bowl. These are the easels that the artistry of this area is displayed. The Michelangelo of San Cassiano is Norbert Niederkofler, the head chef at one of the Rosa Alpina’s three restaurants, St Hubertus. I was fortunate enough to be invited for an aperitivo with Norbert. I felt humbled and admittedly a little star-struck. It’s not every day one is invited to step inside the kitchen, the artist’s studio, of a two Michelin Star chef. It was the eve of their summer season and the intimate, wooden restaurant was awash with guests awaiting their slice of culinary genius. But in the cool, calm and ordered kitchen you would be forgiven in thinking it was off season. The calm before the storm!? Or yet another indicator of the Germanic influence of this area?

I couldn’t help feel I was imposing. Interrupting the Germanic clockwork. Typically British in not wanting to cause a fuss. But Norbert and Hugo, the owner of the hotel, had other ideas. In an attempt to appear as though this was, of course, an everyday occurrence for me and that I was, obviously, in the position to confidently form a comparison based on my extensive experience with many a Michelin starred chef, I enquired about how on earth he had managed to make the beautifully sculptured hazelnut puree with re-created hazelnut crisp and mint puree taste so fresh? Suddenly Norbert disappeared. Oh Lord, I’ve offended him. I’d dared to imply that Michelangelo’s David was made out of papier mache. I’d exposed myself as a novice. To my relief, I had…obviously asked the right question. For Norbert returned. And he did so with a spring in his step, carrying a polystyrene trunk. Opening the lid of this trunk he thrust a sprig of something resembling a stinging nettle and commanded I ‘eat’. I duly did. It was as sweet as nectar. “Picked from the mountains this morning” he told me. Every morning they forage in the fields of the Dolomites, bringing back the fruits of their findings into this polystyrene trunk. “It has a higher content of sugar than a cup of sugar itself, yet diabetics can still eat it” I learnt as Norbert sifted further through the flora and fauna, producing twig upon twig of something or other - all deliciously fresh. A molescule of tuna tartare sandwiched between wafers of cheddar crisp. Followed by a smoking resin and blackberry consume. The works of arts kept on coming. Beetroot and carrot cream with a vinegar crisp and…a baguette made out of potato? Well I suppose if back in the 16th century Leonardo Da Vinci can defy the laws of physics and construct a dome made out of concrete, then why shouldn’t a piece of bread be made out of potato in this day and age!? “Do you have plans for dinner? Would you like to have dinner in the restaurant?” Hugo asked. It was a question that obviously needed no answer!

          dolomites        dolomites
The passion for preserving and showcasing the wealth of this region was yet again evident on the plate placed in front of me. Known on the menu as ‘Welcome to the Region’, this brightly coloured masterpiece smelt of the mountains. Not having a clue what most elements were, I eagerly tucked in and decided that the new word for ‘delicious’, should be ‘Dolomites’. “Go on, try that celery root cooked in rock sea salt…it’s so Dolomites!” “Oh and the whitefish tartar with elderflowers and liquid of Verbena – simply Dolomites”. Or the famed apple strudel that Hugo would not allow me not to have. Dolomites. In fact anything Apple related – Dolomites – for this region of South Tyrol is famous for their apples. As I learnt when questioning Hugo about the beautiful welcome gift in my room on arrival – an apple and a slab of unbranded dark chocolate? I thought more Thomas Crown Affair than La Dolce Vita. But South Tyrol is Europe’s single largest producer of organic apples. And they do make for the best apple strudel known to man. Even Hugo, whom I would have thought would be sick to the back teeth of these apples, couldn’t resist ordering one when he joined me at my table. I say ‘ordering’ – it was more a simple raise of the finger to the waiter who appeared instantly with the apple strudel dish…with an extra scoop of ice-cream. “Best gelato in Italy” He assured me. A brave statement I thought. But alas my research has not been extensive enough to be in a position to disagree. However, after what certainly was the best espresso in Italy I took myself to bed, my tummy satisfyingly full and my mind buzzing with the notion of “is there such a thing as a gelato sommelier? And if not, could this be a justifiable career move?”

The dawn of my last day in San Cassiano arrived. I was genuinely distraught to be leaving this place. I wasn’t ready to leave my new family at the Rosa Alpina. The attentive concierge who by now knew my morning routine – I’d barely have to sit down before my 10:30am cappuccino was brought to me. The smiling receptionists who always enquired as to what I had discovered that day every time I skipped back into the hotel, no doubt with an inane grin on my face. And that wonderful barman in the cigar lounge. He reminded me of the type you see in a Hollywood movie; you know the type -when the star of the show is sat upon a bar stall, pondering his next move (think James Bond) with a typecast barman surreptitiously topping up his Martini in the background? Discreet and trustworthy. The type you want to tell your life story to. I really was not ready to leave my friends.

dolomites

But not before Hugo had whisked me up into the mountains to get a real feel for the expanse of the area. Driving up through the vibrant, wide green pastures which today was alive with walkers and cyclists but in the winter months is the playground for skiers and snowboarders, the enormity of the Sella Ronda (or rather a snippet of this famous ski circuit) unfolded. So too did the endless opportunities on offer here – skiers, cyclists, climbers, riders, golfers, walkers, foodies, photographers, drivers…in fact, whatever your calling in life, it’s certain that The Dolomites will provide the answer. I drew the line at singers though. Tempted and inspired as I was to break out into Julie Andrews’ legendary song; I accepted the fact that the hills would not be alive with the sound of my music. Just a lot of petrified Marmottes. Instead I settled for losing myself in thoughts of Heidi and, strangely, Frodo Baggins. For it was allegedly here atop the Dolomites on the cut-through mountain passage from San Cassiano to Cortina, that Tolkien is believed to have found inspiration for Lord of the Rings. I somehow find this hard to believe. I failed to see how this stunning, UNESCO World Heritage site could inspire thoughts of hideously, disfigured orcs and malnourished, thieving goblins? Either Tolkien was having a hallucinogenic reaction to the fresh mountain air or he hadn’t actually been to this area.

As we drove back down to resort, leaving behind the numerous Mountain Cabins still standing through the centuries, many of which have been lovingly restored to impossibly romantic one bedroom retreats, Hugo suddenly did a double take, waved his arm out of the window and hollered a jolly something in Ladin. “Pfff, I have not seen him for months”. Craning my neck around I caught a glimpse of a well-toned, topless, tanned gentleman strolling without purpose along the mountain track, backpack slung over his shoulder, walking poles in hand. Glancing over to Hugo with a puzzled look, I was provided with an answer that to me sums up San Cassiano and the Dolomites as a whole; “He was once a well-respected member of the community but a while back he was caught with marijuana and that’s the first time I’ve seen him since.” Suddenly I felt sorry for this gentleman; an outcast in society. A community that had turned their back on him, a little harsh of you San Cassiano, I thought. But on further contemplation, this just emphasised the refreshing innocence of San Cassiano and their fervent community feel. Intolerant, inward-looking and a little stubborn? Maybe. But only when you compare it to other communities who have lost sight of the roots and in doing so got caught up in the homogenous, high-rise, resort wave that is sweeping through some areas of the world. Here in San Cassiano tradition walks hand in hand with her neighbour and together they have created an overwhelmingly unique environment. An environment sheltered by the towering Dolomites. And one with really great grub!


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