Up until a century ago the Dolomites were among the most isolated places on earth, reachable only on foot over Alpine passes that remained snowbound throughout the winter. Conditions were tremendously difficult, and as a result few outsiders were particularly interested in the area, despite it's being quite close to the Val D'Adige, the main migration and invasion route between Italy and Germany.
Living where nobody else wants to does have its advantages, and the Ladins, who were already living in the valleys before the arrival of the Romans in 15 BC, were relatively undisturbed by the revolutions and upheavals that periodically swept Europe. Indeed, they lived in almost total isolation until the construction of the first roads, in about 1910. Just how beneficial the end of their isolation was in the short run is open to debate, because the area was then the boundary between Italy and Austria and they promptly found themselves embroiled in the First World War, with the armies tunneling into the mountains to build trenches and gun emplacements. The fighting was extremely harsh and many families had people on both sides. Following the war Italy annexed the ethnically German northern half of the Val D'Adige (the city of Bozen and South Tyrol) to obtain a defensible border, the Passo del Brennero, and the Dolomites slid back into the doldrums. People did begin to visit, however, and word of the stark beauty of the area got around.
The skiers arrived in a rush in the 60s, followed by heavy government funding for development, and by now there are thousands of kilometers of interconnected trails on the slopes, together with hundreds of hotels on the valley floors. It's all extremely well planned, and the Ladins have done an amazing job of preserving their mountains (the hotels are harder to mask, but are built following local architectural traditions). The endemic poverty of the region is a thing of the past and the future looks good.
An unexpected casualty of this prosperity is the local cuisine, which was largely based on belt-tightening frugality. Just how frugal becomes immediately apparent in La Ola e la Segosta (the cauldron and the chain with which to suspend it over the fire), a collection of traditional Ladin recipes recently published by Maria Teresa Capaldi and Sergio Rossi.
"January 16, Saint Anthony's Feast day, marked the beginning of Carnival, the only time the population of the upper reaches of the Val di Fassa would allow themselves some fun," they write. "Thus began a period of dances, parties and somewhat heartier meals; people made a special effort to serve Orc da Cèrn a couple of times a week."
- 1 heaping cup pearled barley, soaked
- A handful of dried beans, soaked several hours
- 1/2 an onion
- 1 leek
- 2 leaves Savoy cabbage
- 1 carrot
- 2-3 celery ribs
- 2 mountain potatoes (use small potatoes here)
- 1/2 pound (500 g) smoked pork (use cured ham if need be)
- 2 quarts (2 l) cold water
- Minced parsley
Begin by slicing the vegetables as finely as possible and placing them in a pot with the water and a pinch of salt. Add the smoked meat, or in its absence some pork rind (cotenna; this is cured but not heavily seasoned -- substitute with ham if need be), and the soaked beans.
Bring the mixture to a boil and when the beans are half cooked add the barley.
Let simmer for a couple of hours, stirring frequently lest it stick. When the meat has almost fallen apart and the soup is quite dense, stir in a walnut-sized chunk of butter, garnish with parsley, and serve.
This is to serve six and was reserved for a special occasion. Day-in-and-day-out, people made do. One thing they did enjoy is canederli, bread balls to be served either dry or in broth. The dish is common throughout the region and is known as knödel in the German-speaking valleys; there are a tremendous number of variations on the theme.
- Canederli Recipes, On Site:
- Canederli allo Speck
A simple, refreshing soup that's perfect at the end of a long day.
- Canederli al Fegato in Brodo
A somewhat more rustic, but very tasty version.
- Canederli di Magro
A meatless version of Canederli; these are tasty in soup, and also go very well with stews or roasts.
- Canederli agli Spinaci
Similar to Ravioli, but with a Dolomitic twist. Perfect with a stew.
- Canederli ai Funghi.
A delicate side dish that smells of the forest.
- Canederli allo Speck
- Dolomitic Information, Off site:
- The Ladins
A fascinating site dedicated to the people who have lived in the Dolomites for thousands of years.
- Dolomiti Superski
The organization handles skiing throughout the area, and has seen to it that almost all the valleys are interconnected and you can ski for hundreds of miles. A tremendous amount of information and quite useful if you're going to the area, though slow to load.
- The Ladins
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Text & photos © Kyle Phillips.