Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Eating in Trentino: traditional food and drink

Where there is avid hiking, there comes a hunger to match, so I saved the best part for last. We spend a fair amount of weekend time in the regions of upper Lombardia/Trentino, but I've never written about the food in great detail. The cuisine in Trentino-Alto Adige takes some influence from neighboring Austria, individually unique foods that aren't generally thought of as italian, especially when you note that kraut and wurstel is on the menu. There are a few well-known meat dishes that stick out in my mind but the real bragging rights goes to a fruit that caused Eve a bit of embarrassment (quick! grab me a fig leaf!!) and a lifetime of disgrace. See the sign below where it says strada della mela? That's Roadway of the Apple and they mean it. This is Italy's apple kingdom. Red Delicious, Golden Delicious, Renette, Pink Lady and much more. Like them apples? MotH doesn't (fresh ones anyway), but he has nothing against apple strudel, so when in Trentino, we don't just buy a couple of slices, we buy a whole one. In puff pastry, pie pastry or phyllo, apple strudel is queen of desserts.

For obstinate carnivores and those who love thin slices of raw beef, this dish of carne salada should make you grin like a wolf. Macerated in salt, pepper, herbs and spices, I've had it served like this with lemon and olive oil or quickly seared with some boiled vegetables. Typically it's also paired with a side of beans (fasoi) which have been shelled and cooked.

A cheese splurge this past weekend left no holes in our pockets. Again, purchased at a caseificio where dairy products are sold for what it seems, a song, I was curious about the casolèt (kah-zoh-LEH-teh) in that sign above so we bought 4 types: arugula, hot pepper, walnut, and raw milk. They're the shortstack wedges in the image. Casolèt is a fresh, young, cow's milk cheese that agrees with a mild palate. These were all good (especially the arugula one) even if we appreciate strong tasting/smelling varieties more. The tall, upright wedge is puzzone - "big stink one" - an aged semi-hard type that holds its own in the flavor department (neither too mild nor too strong) but stinks nothing like a ripe Limburger. The flattish, meatball-like mortandela in the center is a pork-based product, and like the puzzone, is typically served with polenta. To accompany the victuals, a bottle of the region's popular red Teroldego wine. Another cured meat not pictured here is speck. Carved thinly like prosciutto, the best stuff is denoted Alto Adige IGP and its smoky flavor is great in a sandwich with brie cheese and arugula. Caseificio Sociale Presanella

Like elsewhere in Italy, pasta and bread are important staples and there is no better proof than the large bread dumplings called canederli (kah-NEH-dehr-lee). Served in many different and creative versions, they are surely one of Trentino's signature dishes. Potato gnocchi and polenta with cheese also has a place on the menu; both being welcome sustenance during cold alpine winters.

For pastries and desserts, it's a sweet tooth's paradise. After Mr. B's initiation last month, we explored the base town of Peio and found Grandma's pastry shop (Pasticceria della Nonna) which attracts business all day long. Baked goods, together with the fine meals served at mountain huts, is a good enough reason to keep trekking in Trentino.

Part of the menu at Grannie's pastry shop. The whole atmosphere of this charming, quaint cafe must appear as an oasis during the busy summer and winter seasons when tourists arrive by the busloads. I've put the english translation in white print but it's not too hard to read the italian. At one point I was expecting to see someone resembling Granny of Tweety & Sylvester...

Things you might see on a mountain hut (rifugio) menu.

In their shells the french call them escargot but in Italy we call them lumache. Snail meat in a rich, creamy herb sauce with thick polenta. What do they taste like? Mere words come slowly to mind...of the earth, woodsy, wild like mushrooms. All I know is that they are scrumptious!

Hungary left its mark in this spicy dish of gulasch over canederli and polenta. The meat didn't taste like beef but had a more gamy flavor, deer perhaps. Incredibly generous portions. A person could crawl/climb another thousand-foot elevation on this kind of food, all the while singing...Hi ho, hi ho, it's off to work we go!