Peaks of Gastronomy

Consider me chastised. Over a glass of bubbly last night - good ol' Kettners - a friend told me that I'd been doing too many "Simple Pleasures" and not enough writing. And he was right. The original plan was a written piece AND a "Simple Pleasures" picture every week and there's been too little of the former of late.

At the risk of sounding big-headed, there's a certain amount of pressure now since more publications have identified these ramblings as worth paying attention to. The Telegraph plug was lovely and last week the highly entertaining Rhodri Marsden picked this as one of the blogs to watch for The Independent. And Olive Magazine has apparently picked up on it too, which is nice. There is a bit of an ongoing internal debate, that whole blogger v journo thing which I won't go into here because, frankly, it's deadly boring to anyone not in the industry and, unlike certain journalists, I think there's plenty of foodie fun to go around (and, actually, the rise of the bloggers has probably done more to keep me on my professional toes than anything else). There's maybe also a strange sense of creeping guilt but that's just me navel-gazing and certainly isn't fun to read - and fun, above all, is one of the main reasons I started this blog in the first place.

Enough of the over-analysis then and back to Italy for a final round-up of the breathtaking food on offer. The main purpose of the trip was billed as "The Peaks of Gastronomy". The Sudtirol area, as mentioned before, is bursting with Michelin-starred culinary talent. It's also rather mountainous and good for skiing. That means there are lovely lodges and restaurants dotted all over the hills and mountains and someone had the rather brilliant idea of taking some of these celebrated chefs up to these rest areas and having them teach the staff there one of their signature dishes. That means that you can graze your way between them, with a starter there and a main course over yonder and, presumably, a pudding somewhere in the distance.

We'd certainly planned to do that but a sudden downpour - of the sort you only get in mountains - instead saw us run in from the terrace for a graze through just the one menu at a hut called Col Alt. If all the food across the mountain is half as good as we had then, well, it's just yet another reason for anyone with the slightest interest in food to visit.

While on the terrace, we revived ourselves from the steep walk up with a "Veniziana" a prosecco-based drink reminiscent - quite appropriately - of Lucozade. It might not be quite as popular on hospital bedsides but, for weary food writers, it had a similar effect, although I perked up more with the platters of extraordinarily pretty amuses.

The inevitable speck made an appearance but you all know my love of pig by now, so that's not a complaint. That was swiftly followed by beautiful cubes of octopus and a polenta, cheese and truffle "snack" that might just be my favourite thing of the entire trip. The cheese was pungent and unctuous but married beautifully with the ballsy earthiness of the truffle, while the polenta provided texture and a slight sweetness to bring it all together.

Cue first drops of rain and a charge inside for their "Peaks" dish - a shepherd's cheese souffle with grilled courgettes and a crispy milk roll wafer with pumpkin seeds created by Claudio Melis - and a selection of the hut's regular dishes. The souffle was very good indeed but I have to say I preferred the robust nature of the hut's usual menu, particularly the spatzle, the venison burger (served on a single slice of dense, seeded bread and slathered with rich gravy) and a local "delicacy" of dumplings (with a big, messy, almost offensive cheese) served with "canederli" (cabbage salad). All were terrific and few were finished: this is hale and hearty food for walkers and skiers, and we were very aware that we had more dining to do later. It didn't stop us chipping our collective way through some puddings though: a nice enough creme brulee, a very good indeed chocolate pot and an absolutely stunning strawberry and prosecco chilled "soup" with berries that I've already attempted to pass off as my own.

After a rather scary descent, the afternoon was spent swimming and exercising (no, really) in preparation for dinner at St Hubertus, a meal that was, the more I think about it, one of the highlights of my year so far. I'll get to that shortly.


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