BEFORE YOUR EYES grassy hills jounce jovially from one idyllic scene to the next. They swell like a sea; cresting into rustic farmsteads dotted with carefree cattle, serene stands of evergreens and thatches of larches afire in autumn’s gold.
If you were one prone to suddenly frolic whimsically it would be here. In this Shire-like land of undulating merry.
But then your eyes stretch further. They reach the horizon…where all hell breaks loose. Erupting from the earth thunders a mountain like no other. Its spearhead peaks stab the heavens like a knife thrusting a pillow.
Your heart trembles. Palms sweat. What unseen force could will these goliaths of crag and stone into being?
You ponder this lofty thought for a moment. And then just as quickly as it arose, it comes crashing down to the only question that really matters at this time: where is the bacon? Well, speck to be exact. After all, you’re here for South Tyrol’s Speckfest. The Alpine grandeur bounding all around is simply the cherry on top.
Welcome to Val di Funes
Sure, we admit your arrival at Speckfest may not unfold exactly as above, but we bet it will be pretty close. The event, held the first weekend of October every year, takes place in Val di Funes (also known as Villnöss) — a valley in the Dolomites possessing one of the most spectacular mountain vistas in the world.
Val di Funes is home to many legends. Two of the most visible are the small churches of St. Johann and St. Magdalena. Their picturesque charm steals your breath as much as the backdrop of the Odle peaks (Geisler in German) storming up behind them.
Another legend worth knowing is Reinhold Messner — a giant in the world of mountaineering. Messner grew up in Val di Funes before going on to conquer the world’s most challenging mountain peaks including Mt. Everest.
With such storied mountain splendor beautifying Val di Funes, it’s no surprise South Tyroleans choose to celebrate the culinary wonders of speck here.
⇒ READ MORE: Visiting Val di Funes: Enchantment in the Dolomites
A Little Bit About Speck
Before we carve into the details of Speckfest and why you should attend, here is a quick 101 on speck if you’re not familiar with this mountain smoked ham of South Tyrol.
Speck’s roots go as far back as at least the 13th century when Tyrolean royal records first made reference to the ham. Centuries ago, ensuring a lasting food supply required our ancestors to salt and smoke meat.
South Tyroleans’ method of preservation arose from combining traditional Northern European smoking methods with the outdoor curing practices of the Mediterranean. Today, making speck continues following these age-old principles of using “a little salt, a little smoke and lots of fresh mountain air”.
Prior to smoking, farmers add their individual touch to the specialty by rubbing a mix of various Alpine herbs on the pork. After roughly three weeks of smoking, the slab of ham is dried and hung to age for four to five months where it inhales deep breaths of fresh mountain air.
The result of this long process and tender care is ham unlike anything you tasted before. Speck is delicately sweet with pleasing hints of smoke and salt. We find the texture and flavor of speck far superior to prosciutto. And contrary to its southern cousin, it is easier to enjoy as it can be cut with a knife.
Speck is savored on its own as a snack with wine and as a tasty addition to many traditional South Tyrolean dishes such as Speckknödelsuppe. We often have speck shipped to our home and enjoy it as an appetizer.
South Tyrol recognizes speck as a treasure worth protecting. To guarantee the authenticity and quality of speck, farmers must follow strict production regulations to earn the designation “Speck Alto Adige PGI”. This certifies the speck you purchase is the real deal.
A Whole Lot About Speckfest
Speckfest is a two-day celebration that serves as a wonderful excuse to feast on speck, drink local beer and wine and carouse with fun-loving folks while experiencing genuine Alpine traditions.
It takes place on a grassy slope in the village of St. Magdalena (Santa Maddalena) just below the hallowed steeple of the Church of St. Magdalena. The majestic Odle peaks remain your constant companion in the background.
The festival begins Saturday by honoring South Tyrol’s rural heritage. You can witness demonstrations of the region’s customs, as well as the time-honored practices of its local farmers.
This celebration of Alpine tradition continues throughout the festival. Many of its hosts, workers and entertainers don colorful dirndls and classic lederhosen. In fact, you will even see several guests adding to the folksy vibe by also sporting traditional Tyrolean garb.
In addition to feasting on various speck specialties such as Bauerngröstl mit Speckstreifen (a fried potato dish with speck) and Bandnudeln mit Wildragout und Speckstreifen (venison stew with pasta and speck), heart-warming bread baked in wood-fired ovens is available as well as delectable desserts like apple strudel and the ever popular Strauben, South Tyrol’s take on a funnel cake.
Of course, you don’t have to eat to have a good time at Speckfest. You can simply take a seat at one of long Oktoberfest-like tables and order a beer from Forst brewing company or a glass of South Tyrolean wine such as Sylvaner, St. Magdalener, Lagrein or Schiava.
We never attend a festival in South Tyrol without partaking in the lovely libations of the region. If you don’t drink alcohol, no worries. The refreshing mountain-born water alone is worth the visit.
No celebration in South Tyrol is complete without music and dancing. A stage on the festival grounds hosts traditional Schuhplattler dances and revs up the crowd with musical acts that sing everything from folk to top 40 hits.
When we attended, the singer of one band decided to make the audience part of his stage. He leapt from table to table never missing a beat…and more importantly never knocking over a mug of beer or a glass of wine.
Market stalls also pepper the festival grounds allowing attendees to not only sample and purchase speck, but also browse other regional specialties including crafts, Alpine herbs and clothing made from local sheep.
We snapped up a few mountain berry jams and a couple of small, detailed woodcarvings that were perfect for our home office. In addition, we found two traditional blue aprons that we hoped would help bring a bit of Tyrolean inspiration to our kitchen.
Crowning the Speck Queen
The Sunday of Speckfest is a special day. The festival crowns a new “Speckkönigin” or Speck Queen. The queen is supplied with a jeweled crown, sash, a bouquet of flowers and we hope a lifetime supply of speck, Schiava and strauben.
After the coronation, the Speck Queen then follows a 20-year tradition of floating around the festival bringing good cheer and posing with festival-goers. While we were there she was so popular, we had to jump in order to get a picture with the queen!
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How to Attend Speckfest
The first step to attending Speckfest is to purchase a dirndl or lederhosen. The second step is to work up a huge appetite. Okay, we’re kidding about the first step. Everyday attire is just fine for attending the festival.
According to the festival organizers, Speckfest occurs every year no matter the weather. Before going make sure to check the forecast. Mountain weather can be unruly especially beginning in the fall.
If you arrive by car, you can follow the signs to park in a large open field next to the festival. However, we recommend driving a bit further up the hill in St. Magdalena. Park in the public parking lot off of Via Geisler or along the side of the road.
By doing this, you can make a quick trek to the onion-bulbed Church of St. Johann — a must-see historic sight in Val di Funes. After visiting the church, it is roughly a 15-minute walk to Speckfest. Simply follow the numerous signs in St. Magdalena.
The walk itself is a treat all on its own. You’ll meander past cows grazing, brooks babbling and sun-steeped balconies drowning in bright red geraniums. As you approach the festival grounds, the trail steepens. But don’t sweat it. All of the South Tyrolean goodness you’ll consume once on level ground makes the extra effort well worth it.
For the specific dates of Speckfest each year, visit the official festival website. The site also includes details on public transportation options, which the organizers highly promote to help execute an environmentally-friendly event from beginning to end.