Discovering the best meal in South Tyrol is a bit like trying to find the best mountain view. Next to impossible. Just when you think you have it, another wonder lands in front of you. The area offers a savory cultural stew of Alpine and Mediterranean cuisine where your next meal could be Italian, Tyrolean, German or all three.
On a recent outing into the heart of the Dolomites, we found the perfect place to devour one of South Tyrol’s most popular traditional dishes. The Malga Schgaguler Schwaige mountain hut is a rugged yet inviting gem that sits off a trail in the largest Alpine prairie in Europe, Seiser Alm (also known as Alpe di Siusi).
Rustic Goodness in the Heart of the Dolomites
As we approached the hut, a llama kept its eyes on us. We soon saw chickens, goats and rabbits darting around nearby. Ahh “true farm-to-table” I thought to myself, but then realized a small petting zoo also sat on the property.
We surrendered our weary legs to a table on the outdoor patio facing a wide open view of the Langkofel Group (Sassolungo in Italian), an awe-inspiring mass of Dolomite peaks that thunder over the prairie. The first time we saw this massif, its immensity jarred loose any notion of permanence one has on Earth. Taking a break to grab a meal under its stony guard seemed more like a command than a choice.
Soon we were greeted by a young man in traditional Tyrolean garb to take our order. He looked built from the mountain. Kate was immediately smitten. She in no time learned his name, Walter. To up my manliness, I steered the conversation away and ordered a tall Forst beer (Forst is a South Tyrolean brewery located near Merano. They produce a nice light-styled lager that quenches one’s thirst after a good hike). Walter chatted with us a bit longer and we discovered that when he is not taming appetites on the mountain he races horses. Of course he does I thought to myself. I was immediately left wishing I had ordered three Forsts.
A Dish So Tough to Say…it Has to Be Easy to Eat
We browsed through a wooden-clad menu showcasing homemade South Tyrolean specialties. My grumbling stomach locked in on Speckknödelsuppe. The name looked tough. It had to be good. Besides, the name rang a bell.
I recalled reading that Speckknödelsuppe translates to bacon dumpling soup. It is a South Tyrolean classic made with speck, a cured, lightly-smoked ham resembling bacon or proscuitto, and knödel, which is a bread dumpling. Making speck follows age-old principles of using a little salt, a little smoke and lots of fresh mountain air.
The tradition of South Tyrolean dumplings goes back to medieval times. A fresco from the 13th century graces a wall in the chapel of South Tyrol’s Hocheppan Castle. It shows a man cooking and eating knödel. Any recipe to survive centuries of war and famine must be divine.