Italy, unsurprisingly, was bursting with good food. The area, the South Tyrol (or Sudtirol if you want sound local), is an odd mix of German and Italian influences. Happily, the former has generally bowed to the latter when it comes to eating and the region boasts an incredible 18 Michelin stars across 15 restaurants.
I covered one of the stars in the silent meal post and I'll get to two more in the next post with the divine cooking of the brilliantly named Norbert Niederkofler and his St Hubertus restaurant. What a great name. Seriously, what a GREAT name. With that name he could be a chef in The Simpsons and I mean that in the nicest possible way. While I'm happy to be known as Neil Davey, it's not exactly a name that conjures culinary magic, is it? It's not a name to wrap your tongue around. But Norbert Niederkofler? That's a joy. He's also a bloody nice bloke but we'll get on to him in due course.
The thing is I was expecting to love La Stua (and,while the experience was bemusing, the food was terrific) and did. I was expecting to adore St Hubertus and did. What I wasn't expecting, however, was the jaw-dropping, belt-stretching quality of the other meals experienced.
Our first night, we'd jokingly referred to the venue as the "rubbish one": as well as housing St Hubertus, the lovely Rosa Alpina hotel also houses a straightforward brasserie / pizzeria. We'd already warmed to Sudtirol hospitality thanks to the local sparkling wine, the plate of speck (the first of many) and the plate of dark, sweet local salami that greeted us. With lungs full of mountain air, a gorgeous view over green forest and hillside, and the grimy sheen of travel removed thanks to an in-room hamam (no, really), a simple meal would really hit the spot.
And, on the surface, simple is what we got. I had soup and a pizza, for example. But what soup! What pizza! It shouldn't have been a surprise, as St Hubertus started as a pizza restaurant plus, of course, we were in Italy. But this was a different spin on the classic dish, thanks to an almost foaccacia-style base that comes from a ten-year old "mother dough". Apparently the yeasts are cultivated and massaged three times a day. This might have been a joke for the tourists but something has happened to make the base this fluffy, crisp and thoroughly delicious.
By all means argue about the joys of the thin base. I'll join you. The base of my courgette-heavy "Pizza Hugs" - pronounced "Hoogs" rather than as in the cuddle - was a wedge of dough that would normally see my shoulders slump but, having already tried their bread with the earlier speck, I couldn't wait for more. This was fluff with texture and bite, a sweet nuttiness, an ability to stand alone or support flavours as diverse as steak tartare and duck. Best of all, as befits a country famous for its tomatoes, the sauce that formed the bottom layer was incredible. Forget those watery excuses we get sold in supermarkets: a real tomato is a thing of perfection and this sauce featured several of them reduced to their intense essence.
But it still wasn't as intense as the real thing - I could live, very happily, for the rest of my days on their bruschetta - or the soup. Look at the colour of it! It tasted even more potent than it looked, albeit in a good way.
It was a simple meal, but it didn't stumble anywhere. I'm not going to bleat on about my cooking / eating philosophy yet again - oh, alright then, one last time, take good quality ingredients and don't bugger about with them - but this was the sort of meal that just reinforces that belief. Before the three days was out, it would be reinforced several more times, even when we were several hundred metres up a mountain...