I never learnt how to ski when I was younger and bones bounced, mortality was only an intellectual concept and crying from sheer frustration was still socially acceptable. Skiing in your late-30s can be a daunting experience – the prospect of breaking a limb loses its sparkle the older you get and impaling a small child on two samurai swords’ worth of carbon fibre and plastic has never been on the to-do list.
Sandwich all of the above in between stop-offs at six different mountain refuges, each with a different gourmet chef producing Michelin starred food however and I’m in, mutilations, humiliation, GBH and all.
With the launch of the 2012 – 2013 ski season in Alta Badia in the Dolomites comes not only the struggle of one more beginner on the nursery slopes, but a brand new concept in eating on the hop: Slope Food and the Gourmet Ski Safari. Skiers ski (or skidoo) from refuge to refuge, indulging in tapas-style food produced by six top chefs, each matched to a local wine.
With a total of 17 Michelin-starred restaurants in the South Tyrol, three of which have two stars, the region punches way above its weight in terms of geographical size both for food and wine. As a mountain region, it is bursting at the borders with cured meats, cheeses and excellent wines such as Lagrein, Gewurtztraminer and my favourite, Santa Maddalena. Speck, like prosciutto but a cheaper cut from the shoulder, is a specialty as are the less well-known traditional Ladin dishes such as turtres– fried spinach and ricotta pasties.
After three hours of lessons, our first stop at Club Moritzino, a mere stumble from the ‘bubble’ lifts at Piz La Ila, was a welcome pit-stop. We were tipped off by a local that Moritzino held the best parties on the slopes. We were here not to dance the night away however, but to indulge in two dishes created by two different chefs.
Lorenzo Cogo from the restaurant El Coq in Vicenza, is at 26, one of the youngest Italian chefs with a Michelin star. His creation was a vegetarian salad with flowers, fruits and herbs from the South Tyrol. On paper, dull. In reality, it was exquisite: the salad was inside a plastic dome that had to be shaken to release a pink beetroot dressing encased in a white chocolate ball. He bravely admitted that he was “sick of pork” (especially the local speck) and wanted to do something different. The apples, chestnuts, hazelnuts, leaves cabbage and croutons were paired with a glass of fresh Alto Adige Sauvignon.
Also at Moritzino was Matteo Vigotti from one of the most famous eating establishments in Milan: the renowned deli and restaurant Peck. His slope food was an arc of crispy local black bread filled with a Parmesan pudding, South Tyrolean apples in a ‘mostarda di mele’ and the ubiquitous speck. In effect, gourmet scrambled eggs and bacon with toast and a hint of sweetness from the apples, finished off with a glass of aromatic Gewurztraminer.
An exhilarating skidoo ride away was the refuge I Tabla where the only British chef, John Burton-Race had prepared a Cornish speciality, joined by Arturo Spicocchi from the Michelin-starred La Stua de Michil in Corvara.
Arturo’s pigs cheeks browned in South Tyrolean honey, on a potato and horseradish foam with crispy speck was gutsy and filling, the foam delicious, the cheeks a little tough. Paired with the dish was an exquisite St Maddalena, the best red of the trip so far for me. It was light, making it an ideal afternoon tipple but had a fruity depth and complexity.
John Burton-Race, Michelin star chef and TV personality had bravely given the humble Cornish pasty an Italian makeover with South Tyrolean beef, speck and apple. The pastry was a little dry and the cut of beef probably too good to be in a pasty but the idea did fit the brief the best; the pasty is the ultimate in portable dining. We followed not with the traditional Cornish ale, but another red, this time a Lagrein, velvety and aromatic.
The final two slope food options were the work of two Michelin star chef Norbert Niederkofler of local restaurant St Hubertus and Fabio Cucchelli of the Michelin-starred La Siriola. Norbert presented three mini cones featuring in turn a filling of: tartare of char fish; cheese foam and white onion braised in white wine vinegar, all served with speck, horseradish and cucumber and more Gewurtzraminer.
Nothing builds up an appetite more than what feels like imminent death on the chair lift, sustained humiliation on the nursery slope and the final elation of completing your first ‘run’. The emotional rollercoaster of learning to ski coupled with the reward of such top quality food and wine turned a ‘sports’ holiday into an unforgettable gourmet experience.
For more information on Slope Food, the SkiSafari and other culinary/ski holidays and deals go to www.altabadia.org
All photographs by David Gray.