Where knödel and parmesan meet

By Anna Buch

South Tyrol is the intersection point between Alpine and Mediterranean, between Germanic and Latin culture. The tourism sector uses this as the major South Tyrolean characteristic and is pretty successful with that. The merger of these two cultures, however, is nowhere more visible – and tastable – than in the South Tyrolean cuisine.

The sweet smell of raspberries hovers in the air. Martin Obermarzoner stands at the stoves and stirs a dark pink sauce which steams quietly. Raspberry vinegar. In a minute he will turn the liquid into a topping for a fish dish: red mullet on a bed of roasted peppers and courgette, crowned with raspberry foam.

His slim fingers grab a little oxygen pump, usually used for aquariums. He switches it on and puts the end of a tube into the pink sauce. After some minutes, pink foam rises from the pot. Fluffy and light like candy floss in an amusement park. Martin Obermarzoner raises the right corner of his mouth. While smiling, he crowns a fish tower with the pink raspberry foam.

Brisk wind for South Tyrolean cuisine: Martin Obermarzoner and his raspberry foam // Pic: Anna Buch

It is hardly surprising that his older colleagues were slightly suspicious when Martin Obermarzoner, at the age of 20, opened his restaurant Jasmin in Klausen, half an hour’s drive away from Bozen. Obermarzoner´s style is unconventional, experimental – and that surely helped to get the first Michelin star at the age of 24, as the youngest cook in Italy ever. Now at the age of 29, he even gained a second star, belonging to the three highest rated cooks in whole South Tyrol.

Knödel and schlutzkrapfen go international

Obermarzoner wants to open barriers in the minds of people. “There is more than the classical way of salty and sweet, warm and cold”, he explains. “People should come here to eat something unusual.” So he takes traditional food ideas and spices them up with new elements, for instance his version of the South Tyrolean ravioli schlutzkrapfen: He uses celery slices instead of the classical pasta dough. “Or you can take buckwheat knödel, South Tyrolean dumplings, and you combine them with interesting spices, for instance from Asia.” Obermarzoner´s sesame ravioli are served with red prawns on a pumpkin cream and green apple. South Tyrolean fruits meet the big wide world.

Undoubtedly, Martin Obermarzoner´s creations are some of the most experimental examples in the South Tyrolean restaurant sector. But his way of designing dishes – taking South Tyrolean, Mediterranean and other elements and mixing them up to turn them into something new – is somehow quintessential for this region which in the past was known for its rather heavy alpine food. “South Tyrolean food is honest, simple but also pretty poor”, explains Obermarzoner, “and, apart from that, Italian cuisine is known and loved everywhere. I personally even go a step further, but many cooks combine the traditional food with Italian components because it is a simple way to refine it and make it more popular. And above all, if any region in the world is predestined for this merger, it is South Tyrol because of its unique history and location.”

Martin Obermarzoner: The experimentalist

Restaurant Jasmin

Griesbruck 4, Klausen

Insider Tip on the motorway between Brixen and Bozen.

The 29-year-old Martin Obermarzoner, youngest Michelin cook in Italy, cooks unconventional dishes and says he wants to “open barriers in the minds of people” with his food.

Watch how he prepares red mullet on a bed of roasted peppers with raspberry foam:

 

South Tyrol, the other side of Italy”

Since the Italian border shifted to the north more than 90 years ago, the south of the former Austrian region Tyrol has belonged to Italy and became an example of a bilingual and bi cultural region. Street signs are in German and Italian. Most people speak both languages fluently. On restaurant tables, the grissini, Italian bread sticks, stand next to schüttelbrot , a flat crispy South Tyrolean bread. The traditional dumplings knödel are served with Parmesan cheese, and for cooking, olive oil is often used instead of butter or lard.

For the South Tyrolean Marketing Corporation (SMG), the intersection of Alpine and Mediterranean culture is the most important characteristic while promoting the region. “It has turned out to be very attractive for the clients”, explains Greti Ladurner, head of the market management department. “We are in an alpine area but the sun shines 300 days a year. You can feel the Mediterranean atmosphere in the streets. People sit outside and have a glass of wine already now, at the beginning of April”, says Ladurner.

While North Tyrol in Austria concentrates mainly on promoting the sports sector with all its shades, South Tyrol´s crucial interest fields are sports and the gourmet sector. “In contrast to other regions, local food and wines are very important in South Tyrol”, explains Ladurner, “so we use food aspects for our marketing concepts with varying severity for different markets.” And this turned out to be very successful.

Germans and Italians rule South Tyrolean hotels

In 2009, more than 28 million overnight stays were registered in South Tyrol – more than ever before. And the biggest group among them travels over the Brenner: Impressive 46 per cent of all tourists come from Germany.

Full of Germans & Italians: 83 per cent market share in South Tyrol // Source: Astat/SMG

Italy is, after Spain, their most popular holiday spot abroad. If not just for the sun, Germans love Italy for its food. Therefore, South Tyrol´s image as a Genussregion, a region for sensualists and gourmets, is crucial. The second largest group comes from Italy, 37 per cent. Also for them, good wine and good food is essential for the choice of a holiday destination. Italians and Germans spend about 100 Euros a day in the summer and 140 Euros in the winter. “These tourists are interested in cultural backgrounds, in wellness, style, gourmet issues”, explains Greti Ladurner.

How important gastronomy and cuisine for South Tyrolean tourism is, can also be seen in the elaborately arranged South Tyrolean museum of tourism, the Touriseum in Meran. Almost 700 menus from local restaurants are exhibited to illustrate how cuisine and its presentation in menus has changed in the last decades. Since the beginning of April, also a special temporary exhibition, linked to gastronomy, can be seen there: an exhibition about waiters.

According to Paul Rösch, the director of the Touriseum, mainly travelers are actually responsible for the fusion of Alpine and Mediterranean cuisine in the region. “Diplomats, artists, pilgrims, traders, and aristocrats have already travelled over the Brenner pass for a long, long time”, he explains. The food habits of the temporary visitors and the fact that in traffic hubs like Bozen people had easy access to spices and other products from abroad influenced the local cuisine.

Italian tourists in South Tyrol: the quiet revolution

Works where others spend their holidays: Paul Rösch, curator of the Touriseum in Meran // Pic: Anna Buch

Nevertheless, the remarkable turning point took place in the first half of the 20th century. After the annexation of South Tyrol by Italy, the South Tyrolean cuisine moved closer to Italy culinarily. The Italians travelled to the new edge of their country and the gastronomy adapted to them. True to the motto: The customer is king, also if he comes from Italy. “Music and food are two points cultures can easily meet at”, explains Paul Rösch. “They have a bridging function in societies, and that is also the case here in South Tyrol.”

To this time, Tyrolean food was considered to be food for the poor. “But in the 1970s”, explains Rösch, “there was a revival of regional cuisine in South Tyrol. However, it was clear that the pure traditional food was too heavy to be popular, so restaurants made it lighter by using olive oil or other Mediterranean components.” The new Southern Tyrolean cuisine was born. Since the Italian cuisine had become very popular also in Northern Europe, also Germans enjoyed this fusion food.

Making South Tyrol popular: Books, cooking events & Michelin

To promote South Tyrol and its cuisine nowadays, the SMG cooperates with publishing houses to produce journalistic supplements about South Tyrol and South Tyrolean cook books. That South Tyrol became such a gourmet region happened also because of its recognition by internationally known guides like Michelin or Gault Millau and the wine and restaurant guide of the Italian magazine L´Espresso. “We have the highest density of toques in Italy, so haute cuisine is very strong in South Tyrol”, says Greti Ladurner of the SMG. This year, Gault Millau Austria and L`Espresso even published their ninth editions of South Tyrolean gourmet guides.

Risotto with South Tyrolean grey cheese: Herbert Hintner jazzes up the local cuisine with a southern touch // Pic: Anna Buch

One of the restaurants which has always been highly ranked in these guides is Herbert Hintner´s Zur Rose, in the picturesque town Eppan at the South Tyrolean Wine Route. He has had his Michelin star for 16 years now and holds two of three toques in the Guide de L´Espresso and Gault Millau. Fresh quality products, creativity, and a harmonious and distinctive style of preparation – these are the key points for a high ranking in these guides.

Where the Alps meet Italy

For Herbert Hintner, the fusion of traditional South Tyrolean elements with Mediterranean components has always been crucial for his creations. He even published a cook book with the title My South Tyrolean cuisine. Alpine-Mediterranean delights.The local food is, first of all, alpine and pretty sparse”, says Herbert Hintner, “so it is clear that we like to look towards the south. That adds more warmth and taste to our dishes, and it is way healthier. In the north, dishes tend to be too sweet and rather sterile.”

Herbert Hintner likes to play with the contrast of old-fashioned preparations and southern flavours. “To serve steak tartare, for instance, I could decide to mince the meat just roughly because back in time mincing machines could not hash the meat finely. Then I could serve it in a Mediterranean way with salsa verde, lemon, capers, and olives.” According to him, people return to the cuisine of the good old days as a reaction on the unclear globalised world. “And what is more obvious than grasping the opportunity to refine it then with olive oil, herbs and other Italian elements, since Italy is just around the corner?”

It does not surprise him that the South Tyrolean population is rather willing to accept Italian influences in food than in other fields of life. “Agreements are always reached easier at the table than in politics”, Herbert Hintner says and smiles.

Herbert Hintner: The regional-oriented creative

Restaurant Zur Rose

Josef-Innerhofer-Straße 2, Eppan

Cozy restaurant in the pittoresque centre of Eppan.

Chef Herbert Hintner has become an institution of South Tyrolean cuisine. His speciality is to refine traditional South Tyrolean cuisine and local products with Mediterranean elements.

Watch how he prepares Risotto with South Tyrolean grey cheese and chilli jelly:

Cook yourself! Herbert Hintner´s recipes for…

Mint risotto with pikeperch

Pumpkin cappuccino with gorgonzola cream and amaretto

regional lamb with thyme gremolata and root vegetables

Haute cuisine as provocation

Danilo Gramegna loves good food. And he sees it as his task to give more value to local products and dishes, to sensitize people for what they eat and where it comes from. He is the leader of the South Tyrolean department of Slow Food, a non-profit association, founded in 1989, to counter the rise of fast food and link the pleasure of good food with sustainable production. There are departments in 150 countries with about 100 000 registered members.

Back to the beetroot knödel: Local cuisine is in the ascendant again // Pic: Anna Buch

Slow Food publishes every year its own guide Osterie d`Italia. It labels restaurants with their symbol, the snail, if they meet special criteria, for instance, the strict commitment to regional cuisine. Danilo Gramegna understands, he says, that South Tyrolean cooks jazz up the rather caloric local dishes with Mediterranean elements. “But people do not come here to eat spaghetti, they come here to eat knödel , the typical and original dumplings”, says Gramegna. “The creativity in the Michelin awarded restaurants is meant to astonish – or even provoke –, but these tendencies are not at all mainstream. It is more important to not forget the typical style of cooking.”

Back to where the wine grows

The trend to be more interested in local food again has been noticed also by the gourmet guides. Therefore, the recent South Tyrolean edition of the Gault Millau contains information about buschenschänken and hofschänken, rustic country taverns which offer wine and simple traditional food. Most of the products come from the attached farm. The South Tyrolean Farming Association Roter Hahn has published together with the SMG a guide for these rustic taverns, the bäuerlicher feinschmecker , the peasant gourmet, which warmly recommends 30 of the about 300 taverns in South Tyrol.

Johanna and Josef Fieg conduct the Rauthof, one of these 30 taverns, high above the city of Meran. Their farm is located in the middle of grapevine-covered mountains. Just a stone´s throw away, the medieval castle Katzenstein waits for bikers, hikers, and history fans, and some of them climb up the last meters to enjoy the nice view from the tavern´s terrace while having some wine that just grows next to the table. The only sound derives from a little fountain that burbles in the sun, at the edge of the terrace. “I use recipes that my grandmother has already used ”, says Johanna Fieg. “In the past, women just cooked with what the farm offered, and I try to stick as much as possible to this philosophy, too.” Johanna Fieg and her husband Josef produce five different wines, several fruit juices, sausages, and speck. The cooling chamber is hew in rock.

Polenta & knödel: Johanna Fieg cooks traditional dishes in her bright wooden kitchen // Pic: Anna Buch

Between huge silver wine barrels hangs home-made salami. Vegetables, herbs and flowers grow on a small steep field behind the house. Guests like that they see where their salad comes from and, according to Johanna Fieg, this awareness and the desire for more originality is typical for the people who come to eat at her place.

Fusion food also in rustic country taverns

At the Rauthof, the basic element of most dishes is knödel, a dumpling, in different variations: with bacon, stinging nettle or other herbs, or with beetroot – and filled with gorgonzola cheese. “I also refine stale dishes with Italian elements”, says Johanna Fieg. “I put parmesan cheese on the dumplings or gorgonzola into them, I use olive oil, garlic, and basil, and I try to remove as much fat from the sausages as I can. Well, I want to eat them, too!” She smiles. “Nobody should eat so heavy food anymore.”

Johanna Fieg: The traditionalist

Rauthof

Josef und Johanna Fieg

Katzensteinstr. 41, Meran

Simple tavern with good food and beautiful view, located in the heart of vineyards.

Johanna and Josef Fieg produce their own speck, sausages, fruit juices and 5 different wines. For guests they serve traditional dishes. Perfect for bikers, hikers and people who love to be far away from the the hurly-burly of the cities.

Watch how she prepares beetroot dumplings filled with gorgonzola on leek sauce:

 

Her guests, Johanna Fieg says, appreciate this authentic but on the same time refined farm food. “Nowadays, the Mediterranean elements in the local dishes are natural for us in daily life”, explains Martin Obermarzoner, 29-year-old star cook of the restaurant Jasmin in Klausen. “Older generations might have bad feelings when it comes to Italy. Young generations, however, don´t have problems with being Italian anymore. Since time passes by, people will become more and more relaxed with the fact that cultures merge, and not just in the kitchen.”

Want to read more about South Tyrolean specialties like speck, apples, and wine? Click here!

 

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