What I had hoped would be a detailed reflection on our trip to Alto Adige will have to be an abbreviated version – between cheese tastings & exams, eating & drinking, this week has flown by and in 24 hours I’ll be back at Spannocchia, eating the best prosciutto ever and subsequently developing my own lardo. Boh. Anyway, this is what I’ve got:
We recently returned from our first overnight stage in Alto Adige – or Süd Tirol - a peculiar Austrian-esque pocket in northerneastern Italy. As it’s only been Italian territory for less than 100 years – it was part of the Austro-Hungarian empire until the end of the first world war – it’s one of the most distinct regions in Italy. Indeed, this is one place where my slightly above average height and cropped blonde hair doesn’t single me out as a straniera. Here the cuisine is Alpine, not Mediterranean: knüdel and spaetzle, not pasta, ghoulash rather than minestrone, smoky speck over the salty prosciutto, and why get gelato when you can eat apple strudel? Ready for a mind-fuck? The bread has flavour. Seriously, this is possibly the only region in Italy (Puglia, I’m not giving up on you yet) that has dense and flavourful bread made with a variety of flours and spices – beloved rye! blissful fennel seed! fresh fig and walnut! There are constant reminders of the centuries of Austrian rule and German influence; I’m going to go ahead and say the bread was one of the most delectable.
The cuisine of the region is perfectly suited to how one might imagine the climate of small Alpine towns to be: nothing warms you up in harsh winters more than hearty stews and heavy dumplings. I can attest that a bowl of canederli in brodo paired with Lagrein reinvigorates the body after a long day of biting cold. But that was November; it’s now July. Interestingly enough, Bolzano – our home base – sits in the middle of valley. While the surrounding hillsides of gewurtztraminer, sylvaner, schiava, and lagrein provide a stunning backdrop, they also create an incredibly humid microclimate, making Bolzano one of the hottest cities in Italy. Go figure. Needless to say, we didn’t entirely appreciate the Alpine cuisine: after sleeping in a puddle of your own sweat (damn you, poorly-ventilated hostel!) and trekking outside all day to various producers, ghoulash seems a punishment, not a privilege. But don’t even think about passing it up, or asking for vegetables. When in Alto-Adige, one must eat as sudtirolese do (or at least the sudtirolese of centuries past; their stylish contemporary counterparts nibble on the various Sicilian and Sardinian inspired fish dishes last time I checked.)
So I come to the title of this post, the human foie gras experiment. A fellow student, Vincent, aptly described our trip in this way. Of German-Hungarian stock, much of what we ate was his comfort food – and it was still too much for him. That says it all. I also felt that we had regressed to infants, as we only seemed to eat and sleep: multiple-course lunches were followed by bus rides to the next location. Stuff your face, pass out during the ride, only to repeat several hours later. Granted I wasn’t eating suckling pig crackling and weizenbier as a child, but you get the idea.
We were exposed to a spectrum of products, lifestyles, and philosophies during the course of our trip, from the acidic graukase to cured lamb meat produced from a breed which was nearly wiped out during the 1930s (Hitler’s attempt to create a pure race extended beyond humans.) From the bio-dynamic to the industrial, we saw, ate, and drank it all – and I have the knüdel-shaped love-handles to prove it.
Of course, throughout the week we blamed our binges on the fact that this was an educational trip; you eat more when your grade depends on it. Yet, left to our own devices for a free lunch before our bus ride back to Bra, several classmates and I created an epic, impromptu picnic that sticks out as one of my favourite meals in Alto Adige. After taking a ten minute funicular ride over vineyards and mountains (and me nearly pissing myself out of fear) we hiked to “natural pyramids.” Unwrapping the various goodies purchased at the market, we created a spread of at least eight different types of bread, cheese, speck, fruit, nuts, pastries, and one lone, token tomato. You have trained us well, UniSG. A beautiful summer afternoon in the mountains with good food and better company: this is really what it’s all about.
So cue Alice Cooper – we had our last class of the summer today! Tomorrow begins my month long vacation, starting in Tuscany, then continuing in the Mezzogiorno in one of my favourite Italian cities, Lecce. After a brief respite back in Bra I’ll be heading to France to harvest some grapes, hopefully rounding out the trip in Provence. I’ll have limited internet access, Mom, but I’ll be sure to keep a record of all my eating/drinking/other activities.
Ci vediamo a settembre!