I blame Norbert. Norbert Niederkolfer that is, chef extraordinaire.
I should, I suppose, be talking about the excellent skiing we’ve enjoyed around San Cassiano. So just in case I forget to mention it again, the skiing has been a delight and a joy – long runs and the chance to head off on extended excursions on skis. I love the variety of the slopes around here. And this is the Dolomites, so the scenery, it goes without saying, has been sublime.
Therefore, please don’t get me wrong if I give the impression that the slopes have played second fiddle to anything – I feel guilty even suggesting that. But I can’t help it because the food has rather stolen the limelight on this trip to the Sud Tirol region of Italy. Norbert has seen to that.
It all started shortly after we arrived at the beguiling and luxurious Rosa Alpina hotel in San Cassiano, where Norbert does exquisite things in his Michelin-starred Restaurant St Hubertus. He is a great man who enjoys his skiing nearly as much as he enjoys creating fantastic dishes in his kitchen.
And he invited us first not into his restaurant, but into his kitchen. What first caught my eye among all the gleaming modern appliances and kitchen aids was a stunning piece of gadgetry from the 1930s – a Berkel prosciutto slicer. They are the Rolls Royce of ham slicers and I want one for my kitchen. Mussolini loved them but didn’t care for the fact that they generally came in red. He had them painted black for sale in pre-war Italy and had the fascist victory emblem embossed on them for good measure. I’d like mine in red and preferably without the fascist emblem.
Norbert’s very patient and hospitable kitchen brigade, despite being very busy preparing gourmet dishes for demanding patrons in the restaurant, served us canapés of sweet and sour ancient vegetables with cream of fermented milk, crispy snails with Jerusalem artichoke and sour cream, beetroot gnocchi and cream of daikon (a type of radish) and finely sliced speck (on the Berkel), that had been aged by a local producer for 14 months. Not a vol-au-vent among these canapés.
Then it was into the elegant restaurant for an extravaganza, including trout (done a variety of ways with the ensemble called Once Upon a Time There Was a Trout), a risotto with Graukäse (a cows’ milk, acid-curd Tyrolean cheese that owes its name to the grey mould that usually grows on its rind and a staple of peasant gastronomy for centuries), olive-studded puecia bread, beef from the hotel’s own pastures and tarte tatin with home-made ice cream. By the time various amuse bouches and between-course surprises were added, we estimated there had been 16 courses (not including the substantial canapés, which took the grand total to well over 20).
Naturally it was just what we needed to build up our strength for a quick dash around the Sella Ronda in thick snow the following day. We were travelling with the British ski operator Ski Solutions, and managing director Craig Burton had us out on the slopes bright and early, despite the previous night’s fabulous wine pairings with every course right through to luscious pudding wine. And just as we were getting peckish again, there appeared out of the blizzard one of the best mountain restaurants in the Dolomites and probably the world – the blue-shuttered Emilio Comici Hut above Val Gardena.
Opened in 1955 by Gianni Marzola and named after a legendary Italian climber, the Comici specialises in fish, delivered to the hut at 7,333ft fresh daily from the Marzola family’s own fisheries in the pure waters of the lagoons at Grado, near Venice.
Even in heavy snow on the Sella Ronda the clouds had parted occasionally to give us glimpses of the magnificent soaring rock edifices of the Dolomites – and what more perfect ending to such a ski day could there be than seafood towers of lobster, prawns, squid, octopus, tuna and scallops au gratin. That was just the starter of course. To come was spaghetti with mussels and the fish of the day.
We still of course had a bit of skiing to do to get us back to the beautiful Rosa Alpina – where Norbert was already working on new wonders in the kitchen.