“You may not remember the name, but you will certainly remember the experience.” So said Karl Meir as we stood outside his large wooden farm house, gazing across the green ribbon of Val di Vizze/Pfitschertal in South Tyrol (aka Alta Adige), sheltered by steely grey mountains and ancient trees.
He’d just shown off four huge pigs, not in clover but lying flat out in their stall after a very hearty breakfast of freshly-cut grass threaded through with colourful flowers. “We’ve over 60 varieties of wild flowers here. We look after the land and the land looks after us.” Karl is a very passionate man. He doesn’t just believe in ecological farming, he lives, breathes and sermonises about it a very infectious manner.
Pretzhof has been in the Mair family for over 300 years and is now almost fully sustainable, with its own hydro-electric power and the majority of the restaurant’s food coming from their land. Karl gave me a quick tour before lunch. In keeping with the listed status of the farm buildings, the underground cheese and meat stores have been designed with the care and consideration. His superb wine cellar reflects not only the fact that South Tyrol is one of the top wine-producing regions of Italy, but also Karl’s extensive and knowledgeable love of the grape.
Lunch in the tastefully decorated wood-panelled restaurant was a mouth-watering medley of traditional dishes, all local produce, well-cooked by Karl’s wife Ulli and beautifully presented. Not only did we have their own speck (smoked, cured ham) and a wide variety of mountain cheeses, but venison and chamois meats (Karl is also a hunter), melt-in-the-mouth crepes, seasonal mushrooms, richly flavoured shoulder of pork with shards of translucent cabbage and tiny roast potatoes, all served with a glass of ‘Comitissa’ sparkling wine and St Magdaler red wine. I had to decline a dessert but did manage a little cup of coffee to round of a sublime gastronomic experience. And yes, of course, I will always remember the name Pretzhof !
I was on a long weekend in South Tyrol to discover the gastronomic delights and cultural attractions of this intriguing region of Italy. The previous evening, fellow travel bloggers and I had been driven by our local guide, Deborah, up a narrow winding road to another little farmhouse, high above Bolzano. This was our introduction to the traditional cuisine of South Tyrol, in the charming (and untouristy) surroundings of a Tyrolean Stube (parlour) at Patscheider restaurant. We decided to have a platter of cheeses and meats, including speck, of course, so we could taste a bit of everything. Flavoursome stuffed artichoke hearts made an unusual accompaniment.
A basket of different breads included Schuettelbrot, a crisp rye flatbread flavoured with caraway seeds. We had to try the South Tyrolean dumplings, Spinatknädel, made with spinach, cheese and breadcrumbs. These were delicately flavoured in a light sauce and absolutely nothing like the stodgy dumplings I remember from school dinners.
The 3rd traditional treat took place in Zmailer Hof (hof = farm), a place you would never stumble upon by accident, but is well worth getting lost for, through Alpine pine woods above pretty Merano. Travelling around South Tyrol you very soon realise what pride everyone takes in their appearance – and I mean the buildings, the streets, the land, as well as personal dress. Virtually everywhere is pristine, beautifully looked-after with rainbow of flowers cascading from window boxes and around doorways. Our hostess Martha Thaler welcomed us into her kitchen with its curved, smoke-darkened roof. Ruth, from South Tyrol Tourism, translated as Martha spoke German. Although this autonomous region is in northern Italy, it was Austrian territory in the past and many people still speak German rather than Italian.
Laid out in front of us were all the ingredients to make one of the most well-known desserts in the world – apple strudel. Apples are one of the main crops grown here, along with grapes, and fruit-laden trees were a big feature of this September break. During the next 30 minutes, Martha assembled it all and popped the creation into her wood-burning stove. Ruth and I went outside to enjoy the spectacular views across the valley and the fresh, warm Alpine air. 45 minutes later I was able to taste the most sublime, fluffy, light apple strudel in idyllic setting. And, because I know you’d love to try it too, here is a short video of how to make Martha’s perfect apple strudel.
During our long weekend in South Tyrol, there were other opportunities to try the superb local food and wine, including a memorable wine-tasting at the uber-cool Hotel Miramonti. Christine Mayr, President of the Sommelier Association of South Tyrol, shared her enthusiasm for the excellent Alto Adige wines; this region grows about twenty different grape varieties. I was particularly taken with the Gewürztraminer Nussbaumer from Kellerei Tramin, with a delicate rose-flavour vaguely reminiscent of Turkish Delight, excellent with Asian foods and, of course, the regional dishes served throughout this part of north Italy.
On our last evening we drove from Bolzano up the mountains through at least 18 tunnels for dinner at Bad-Schöergau Hotel, in the Sarner Valley. In a replica of a stube we were served an innovative procession of tasty treats prepared by Michelin chef Egon Heiss. He’s a culinary magician, taking many of the Tyrolean food we had been eating over the past few days, giving them an innovative twist. The evening was a feast for all the senses, as the delicious smell of exquisitely cooked and presented food permeated the room. Meat, fish, vegetables and cheese featured in a number of unusual guises, the quirkiest being ‘speck perfume’ to be sprayed over pine risotto. A dainty platter showcased Egon’s mastery in a variety of delicate desserts all made from local milk, which took him over 3 years to perfect.
Back home I tried making the apple strudel. It didn’t look nearly as nice as Martha’s, but it tasted almost good. However, the view from my kitchen is not a patch on the majestic mountain vistas that added so much this memorable gastronomic weekend.