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Peak Cuisine: 7 Dishes At Heart Of European Mountain Food

Carlo Rocca making a Piedmont Hot Pot Credit: Copyright 2015 Cesare Zucca

Carlo Rocca making a Piedmont Hot Pot Credit: Copyright 2015 Cesare Zucca

The flavors of the mountains were something to celebrate at an international Slow Food event that brought together chefs from throughout Europe.

Bra, a charming village in Italy’s Piedmont region, hosted the 10th edition of Cheese that under the aegis of Slow Food marks the biennial major meeting point for the best products of the international dairy industry. Cheese 2015 featured mountain cuisine by selecting seven European Slow Food chefs (who, thankfully, are not offended if you call them “cook” instead of “chef”).

They took turns at the stove to create seven “jewels” that represent different regions and different stories all related to mountain traditions. I met them and tried their dishes.

From the Piedmont

Piedmont Hot Pot is traditionally served with a glass of broth. Credit: Copyright 2015 Cesare Zucca

Piedmont Hot Pot is traditionally served with a glass of broth. Credit: Copyright 2015 Cesare Zucca

Let’s start with a rich Piedmont Hot Pot with beef, carrots, celery and a slightly garlicky green sauce, traditionally accompanied by a glass of broth. It was like a jump into the past, thanks to Carlo Rocca and his wife, Manuela, who run the 1894 Osteria Paschera in Caraglio, Valle Grana, Italy. Buying from local farmers and choosing only what is in season are their two guiding principles.

Their signature dish? Culumbot, young pigeons cooked in a casserole on a wood-fired stove. Carlo and Manuela also have an aversion to waste; they make their dishes based on reservations, and if there are leftovers, they urge their guests to take them home.

Mountain cheese

Thomas Zwink's spaetzle. Credit: Copyright 2015 Slow Food archives

Thomas Zwink’s spaetzle. Credit: Copyright 2015 Slow Food Archives

Thomas Zwink from the Ammergau Alps, Germany, prepared spaetzle (small, irregularly shaped dumplings made with wheat flour, eggs and water) with a sauce made from two mountain cheeses, Emmentaler and Romadour, and butter. Zwink opened the Dorfwirt two years ago, following extended travels as a freelance gastronome.

Lots of work and lots of play go into his cuisine, along with top-quality ingredients. He is renowned for his beef cheek braised in red wine. He champions humane treatment of the animals raised for food, cultivates the herbs he uses and is on a first-name basis with the producers of the cheeses he offers.

Soup time!

Sylwester Lis makes kwaśnica, a Polish soup. Credit: Copyright 2015 Slow Food archives

Sylwester Lis makes kwaśnica, a Polish soup. Credit: Copyright 2015 Slow Food Archives

The menu moved east to feature kwaśnica, a Polish soup with potatoes, cabbage, porcini mushrooms and pork ribs. It was cooked by Sylwester Lis, chef of Hotel Bukovina, in the Tatra Mountains of Poland.

“It’s a traditional meat and vegetables dish, although once I made a fish version with crayfish necks prepared with cumin butter. They said that I desecrated kwaśnica, but many liked it,” said Lis, who often dares to combine the typical regional cuisine of the area with a modern fusion approach.

Shaped by geography

Ingredients for Meret Bissegger's polenta rossa. Credit: Copyright 2014 Slow Food Archives

Ingredients for Meret Bissegger’s polenta rossa. Credit: Copyright 2014 Slow Food Archives

A classic mountain menu always features some kind of soup and polenta.

A hearty soup with mini-spelt from Upper Provence, accompanied by sausages, was the dish prepared by The Slow Food Coolporteur Gap Convivium of Hautes Alpes, France. This group highlights the biodiversity of the Southern Alps. A dry climate and soil that is resistant to farming have always characterized this region, equidistant from the sea and the Alps, and have shaped its cuisine: simple and poor. Grain, bread, pork (the fatty cuts, because the leaner, more desirable ones were sold) and potatoes were for centuries the main ingredients.

Meret Bissegger prepared a polenta rossa with farina bòna flour, ragout of dried chestnuts, porcini mushrooms, roasted Caprauna radish and spiced cabbage. Bisseger is the soul of Casa Merogusto in Valle di Blenio, Switzerland. She has published two books, in which she combines her fervor for what is good, clean and fair with the use of simple, high-quality ingredients produced on a small scale.

Back to Italy

Tortel by Annarita di Nunno. Credit: Copyright 2015 Locanda delle Tre Chiavi

Tortel (foreground) by Annarita di Nunno. Credit: Copyright 2015 Locanda delle Tre Chiavi

Annarita di Nunno served a potato-stuffed giant tortel with casòlet cheese from the Val di Sole, served with white cabbage salad and speck from Trentino.

Di Nunno, a young painter and art expert from the Salento, in Puglia, decided that she needed an abrupt change and moved to Trentino to begin a new adventure in the restaurant business with her husband, Sergio. Today, Annarita is the cook at the Locanda delle Tre Chiavi in Vallagarina, Italy, where she is celebrated for her vegetable dishes and, most of all, her desserts.

Back in time

Testarolo with pesto, pine nuts and pecorino cheese by Moreno Janda. Credit: Copyright 2014 Moreno Janda

Testarolo with pesto, pine nuts and pecorino cheese by Moreno Janda. Credit: Copyright 2014 Moreno Janda

Moreno Janda grew up with his parents at the inn Bussola da Gino in Catena di Quarrata, Pistoia, Italy. Its main feature is the recovery of old cooking techniques and raw materials not very present on our tables, such as giblets from chicken or fagioli serpenti, rare Tuscan heirloom string bean; serpente means snake and the reason for the name is the shape of it.

Janda’s dish reflects his goal: handmade Pontremoli testarolo, a sort of pancake made with water, flour and salt, first cooked in the testo, a large heavy cast iron skillet with a dome-shaped lid. Then the testarolo is cut and cooked again in hot water for a few minutes and served as a pasta dish.

“Making the testarolo requires a knowledge of materials and techniques, which is becoming rare these days,” Janda says proudly.

Main photo: Carlo Rocca prepares his Piedmont Hot Pot. Credit: Copyright 2015 Cesare Zucca

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Zester Daily contributor Cesare Zucca is a travel, food and lifestyle writer/photographer who was born and raised in Italy and now splits his time among New York, Milan and Europe. Cesare loves to travel off the beaten path and report on his blog, nontouristytourist.com.

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