There are many things to love about skiing. There is the exhilaration of gliding down a snowy mountain at speed; or the sheer magic of being the first person at the top of a lift in the early morning, and then skiing down the crisp corduroy of freshly pisted snow as the golden rays of the sun glint off the tiny water crystals in the snow. There are the breathtaking views from the top of peaks that are inaccessible to all but skiiers, mountain climbers and rescue helicopter pilots; and the simple joys breathing deeply in the crisp mountain air. And then there is the eating. Oh yes, the eating. Having spent 6 hours in sub-zero temperatures, doing non-stop exercise (yes, lifting that mug of hot chocolate mid-morning counts as arm exercise!), you feel perfectly justified in ordering the biggest, most carby-comfort-food dish on the menu, and ski hut menus heavy with potato, cheese or polenta-based dishes seldom disappoint in this department. But if you are looking for something a little more sophisticated than a tartiflette as big as your head for lunch, then you need to try the ultimate foodie skiing experience: the annual Gourmet Ski Safari in the Dolomite mountains of South Tyrol.
South Tyrol (also known by its italian name of Alto Adige) is a province in northern Italy, situated on the border between Italy and Austria, approximately halfway between Verona and Innsbruck. Rather like Alsace, it is a place that straddles two cultures which is reflected in the fact that three languages are spoken here: German, Italian and the local dialect of Ladin (originally a vulgar Latin language left over from the Romanized Alps). But its principal drawcard is the spectacular surrounding Dolomite mountain range, declared a UNESCO world heritage site in 2009. The mountains take their name from the material of which they are composed, a type of carbonate rock which is responsible for the characteristic colour and dramatic shapes of these mountains, and the area is well known for its excellent skiing. The area is also known for its fusion of Austrian and Italian cultures, particularly their cuisines, and it has recently emerged as something of a culinary hotspot. In the 2015 Michelin guide, a total of 19 restaurants in South Tyrol were awarded a total of 22 stars. Given the region’s low population density, it is said that South Tyrol has more Michelin stars per inhabitant that anywhere else in Italy. So, really, it was only a matter of time before somebody figured out the perfect way to combine the area’s two strongest points: skiing and fine dining.
Alta Badia is a ski resort in the heart of South Tyrol, encompassing the six main villages of Corvara, Colfosco, San Cassiano, Badia, La Villa and La Val. Alta Badia provides access to 500km of pisted runs of varying levels of difficulty and is linked to the gigantic Dolomiti Superski area (1200km of pistes). For somebody who is used to skiing in the Alps, Alta Badia provides a breathtakingly foreign landscape of craggy peaks rising from the earth like the the spine of a giant fossilised Stegosaurus. Cliffs are not so much slopes as bare vertical rock faces that are appealingly transformed into gold by the early morning and late afternoon sunlight. Mid-December in Alta Badia marks the start of a season-long series of foodie events. But the premier event is surely the annual Gourmet Ski Safari where Michelin-starred chefs are invited to create an appetiser each, inspired by local South Tyrol ingredients and traditions. Patrons can then ski between a number of participating mountain huts and try the food of a different Michelin-starred chef and a glass of local wine at each hut. Yes, you read correctly – skiing combined with Michelin starred food. Does life actually get any better? Not for me it doesn’t! There is also the added bonus that all the chefs are there in person, serving their creations and chatting to visitors throughout the day.
Last ski season, pre-broken leg, I experienced South Tyrolean hospitality for the first time and took part in the Gourmet Ski Safari. There were six participating huts and chefs and a fair amount of ground to cover, so we made an early start from our hotel in La Villa. Of course, we couldn’t go from breakfast straight to lunch, so we started the day by skiing over towards Corvara and playing on the nice selection of red and blue runs available there. First stop of the day was Ütia Co Alt above Corvara where chef Matteo Metullio of La Siriola, a 1 Michelin-starred restaurant in San Cassiano, was cooking. The view is pretty spectacular, perched on a deck at the top of the telecabine, overlooking the valley below on a gorgeous clear day, so the food had a lot to live up to – and it did not disappoint. Matteo served up a smoked purée of South Tyrolean potatoes with mountain pine-marinated brook trout, trout eggs and a crunchy rye crisp. Everything about this dish worked for me – ths smoky, comforting potato purée contrasting nicely with the salty pop of the trout eggs and the crispy bread. It was paired with a generous glass of Alto Adige Pinot Bianco (Weissburgunder), a wonderfully full-bodied and aromatic white wine.
From there, we had a couple of cruisey blue runs before hitting the next participating hut, Ütia I Tabla. The view down the mountain here was not as spectacular Utia Col Alt – but you could get a great view up the pistes from the row of sunny deckchairs set out by the terrace! The chef here was Arturo Spicocchi, a one Michelin-star chef from La Stua de Michil in Corvara. Chef Spiocchi was serving up something appropriately hearty for a day on the snow: thick bean soup with sauerkraut, a crunchy rye bread dumpling and local cheese (Stelvio P.D.O.), paired with a glass of Alto Adige Valle Isarco Pinot Grigio (Südtirol Eisacktaler Pinot Grigio). This dish was just what we needed – a warm hug in a bowl with added texture from the dumbling and the sauerkraut. And of course, I enjoyed finishing my glass of wine while relaxing in a deckchair…
Our next stop was the one I had been looking froward to the most – Ütia de Bioch where chef Norbert Niederkofler of 2 Michelin-starred St Hubertus restaurant in San Cassiano was cooking. I had briefly met Norbert at a South Tyrol event in London earlier in the year and had been thoroughly impressed with his cooking and his affability, so I had great expectations. The deck at Ütia de Bioch was packed with happy diners, and at the centre of it all was chef Norbert, greeting friends and customers and being just as aproachable as I remembered. On the menu were cornetti – three tiny cones filled respectively with Alto Adige speck foam and crunchy rye bread crumbs; smoked trout foam with South Tyrolean apple and horseradish; and Tiroler Graukäse, chives and sweet & sour red onions. The cones were served tucked into chunks of rock, and paired with a complex and perfumed Alto Adige Gewurztraminer. Each cone provided a little flavour and texture bomb, with my favourite being the cheese and onion cone. Best of all was the fact that chef Norbert paid a visit to our table for a chat – not only a talented chef but also an immensely likeable and surprisingly ego-free one.
By now we were racing the clock to get to the remaining huts and so we skiied over to Ütia Ciampai where one Michelin-starred chef Cristina Bowerman of Hosteria Glass in Rome presented us with a dish of slow-cooked pork cheek, Puccia (crunchy rye bread), sauerkraut, South Tyrolean apple and pine nuts. This was paired with the only red wine of the day – and Alto Adige Schiava / Südtirol Vernatsch. I was not familiar with the Schiava grape, but it makes a fairly light-bodied red with luscious strawberry fruit and an underlying smoky note. It was a great match with the pork cheek and even worked pretty well with the sauerkraut. We loved sitting on the terrace in the perfect late-afternoon weather finishing our wine and watching the skiiers whizz past.
There were still two huts remaining – but as we had lingered quite a while at each of the previous huts, and squeezed in as much skiing as we possibly could, we had run out of time, so all there was left to do was ski back down to La Villa and watch the sunset turning the Dolomite mountains to gold… and dream of the Gourmet Ski Safari 2014.
This year, the Gourmet Ski Safari in Alta Badia takes place on Sunday 14 December. Participating chefs in 2014 are Norbert Niederkofler at Ütia Col Alto; Matteo Metullio at Ütia Piz Arlara; Nicola Laera at Ütia Bamby; Claudio Sadler at Ütia I Tabla; and Giancarlo Morelli at Ütia Bioch. A Gourmet Ski Safari card entitling you to to taste food and wine at each of the five participating huts costs €45,00 and is valid 11h00 to 15.30 pm on 14 December 2014 (lift pass not included). Tickets can be bough on the day from participating mountain huts.
After the Gourmet Ski Safari on 14 December, the event will continue in a similar vein under the name of Slope Food – each dish created by the Michelin-starred chefs will continue to be available on the hut’s menu for the rest of the season. Visitors can enjoy an appetizer created by a Michelin-starred chef and a glass of local wine for €12; or they can also buy a Slope food card which entitles the holder to visit three huts for the discounted price of €30. Slope Food tickets can be bought on the day from participating huts.
Lift passes for Alta Badia ski area cost €77-97 for a 2-day pass, depending on season; or €84-115 for a pass that covers the whole Dolomiti Superski area. For more information, please see the South Tyrol and Alta Badia websites.
The closest airport is Bolzano followed by Innsbruck, Venice and Verona all within a 250km radius. Easyjet operated regular flights from LGW to Verona. British Airwaysflies twice a day from London Gatwick to Verona from £106 return including taxes, fees and charges. EasyJet flies from London Gatwick to Verona with prices starting from £37.99 one-way and to Innsbruck in Austria from £55.99 one-way (incl. taxes).
We stayed in La Villa at the very convenient Hotel Antines, which was very nearly ski-in, ski-out, had a great restaurant on the premises serving generous buffet and a la carte meals, and free WiFi. Prices during winter start from €136 per person, per night for a standard room on a half-board basis
DISCLOSURE: I visited South Tyrol as a guest of the South Tyrol tourist authority but received no further remuneration and was not required to write a positive review. I retained full editorial control and all opinions expressed are my own.