Don’t go skiing in the Dolomites region of Alta Badia if you hate holiday dilemmas. Hit the slopes around noon and you’ll practically have the pistes to yourself. It feels like you’ve hit the ski jackpot – right up until the moment you discover exactly where everyone else is: they’ve kicked off their skis and are settled inside huts, garrulous as starlings, slugging Aperol spritzes and ordering dishes of
And if deciding between empty runs and a stellar lunch at 2,000m sounds tough, wait till you hear the worst part. Plates start at €11 (£9.80) – the same price as a limp panini in Courchevel. Honestly, bless the Italians.
Since 2009, Alta Badia’s A Taste for Skiing initiative has seen 86 celebrated chefs, most Michelin-starred, offer a signature dish in select mountain huts. To mark its 10th anniversary, 10 of the best have returned this year – from local three-star chef Norbert Niederkofler, who founded the event, to familiar names such as Giorgio Locatelli and rising stars including Matteo Metullio, Italy’s youngest two-star chef, at just 29.
Why serve fine food when you’ve come to ski, the French might ask. To which Italians might answer: why not? This is quality cuisine as inter-ski, not après-ski.
If Britons have been slow to catch on to this gourmet slalom, it’s because we represent just 3 per cent of Alta Badia’s visitors. Bizarre, when you think about it. We like to ski, access is easy via Innsbruck and Treviso airports, and hotels in the village resorts (pretty San Cassiano is my favourite) are of the small, family variety. Plus, of course, you can eat splendidly.
There are six Michelin stars within six square miles here (among South Tyrol’s 25), but if that isn’t enough, Alta Badia has excellent agriturismo farm restaurants. I can recommend the hobbity Maso Runch. Grandad Nagler welcomes you inside, Mamma Nagler prepares a set meal: barley soup with pancetta, fried dumplings of spinach and cottage cheese, pork ribs with sauerkraut. Ask if the ingredients are fresh and they’ll look at you as if you’re mad. Of course they’re fresh.
Seven of this year’s Taste ski huts lie above San Cassiano and Corvara. The question is, can I access them? Even on Alta Badia’s cruisy, groomed runs – mostly blues and reds with a few lunatic blacks, such as the Ski World Cup piste Gran Risa – I’m rubbish on skis. It takes me 30 minutes to creak down one slope.
It’s not entirely my fault. I lose five minutes gawping at one rippling wall of mountains. Still, it’s no compliment when my instructor skis us to a chalet restaurant called I Tablà and orders Bombardinos – a mix of Advocat and hot brandy. She reckons the booze will loosen me up. It tastes like alcoholic custard.
I Tablà is lovely, however. Outside, there is a meringue whip of glittery peaks. Within, it’s a cocoon of pine and gingham. The Taste for Skiing option on the menu is cacio e pepe orzotto – a Roman classic of cheese and black pepper elevated, using risotto-style orzo pasta, by one-star chef Cristina Bowerman.
Norbert Niederkofler, Chef
“As the sun sets, the Dolomites seem to glow red. It’s always magical, especially with an aperitif and a local snack such as tutres: fried dough filled with ricotta, spinach, potatoes and sauerkraut.”
Not that I get to try it. My lunch is a swooping piste away in Moritzino.
Initially, it looks set to be a disappointment: a wine bar with too many cool kids, too much throbbing rock music, and tagliatelle with truffles costing €32 (£28.50).
But through the bar, another door opens onto a terrace restaurant. Here there’s soft jazz, windows crammed with peaks and Locatelli’s Taste dish: beef cheek cooked in local red wine with chocolate, polenta and red cabbage. It’s rich, decadent, wintery. It’s also €26 (£23). I’ve no idea why people are in the wine bar.
Six runs start outside Moritzino. I have two hours till dusk. It would have been more but, well, another glass of red, a fig grappa served in a chocolate cup… You know how it is.
The next day I’m back at I Tablà for “Sommelier on the Slopes”, a chance to ski between huts, drinking the region’s top hits. Ninety nine per cent of South Tyrol wine receives a DOC appellation (Tuscany manages only 60 per cent), because local producers rank quality above quantity. And Italians love the stuff, so almost none is exported.
Raising a glass
Is alcohol at 10.30am a good idea? Dressed in bow tie and ski boots, sommelier Hubert Kastlunger argues that it’s never too early for wine in the mountains. “Anyway, you ski better after two glasses,” he says, reassuringly.
We start with whites: a sauvignon (“grassy, a bit fruity”, says Hubert) and a chardonnay as buttery as a fresh croissant by winemaker La Foa. It’s a fine way to start the day, Hubert burbling happily about microclimates and terroirs, us slurping and nibbling Parmesan and local speck ham.
Though I’m not convinced my skiing is better afterwards, the runs to hut number two are thrilling. Maybe it’s the wine, perhaps the flawless day, but the slopes are beautiful: the sky seems bluer, the light crisper.
I arrive at the next hut, Bioch, elated. Next up: reds. A light vernatsch leads to a lagrein – a local favourite, rich with salted caramel and red berries. For the finale, there’s a pinot noir by J Hofstätter.
Its 20 hectares in South Tyrol are perfect terroir, Hubert says; cooler than Tuscany and Piedmont yet warmed by southern winds. Glass in hand, he detects notes of leather, earth… and wet wool. Wet wool? It’s complex, Hubert sighs. “Pinot is not simple to make. It’s not simple to drink. You have to think about it.”
They’re serving Niederkofler’s 2019 Taste for Skiing dish – braised lamb shoulder with puréed celeriac (€28.50/£25.40) – but I go for his previous Taste plates (they retain the most popular ones year on year): white tortellini stuffed with speck cream (€16/£14.30) then a crispy brisket (€19/£16.95).
And that’s the thing about A Taste for Skiing: because popular past dishes remain on menus, cuisine across Alta Badia’s slopes improves annually, which encourages new chefs to participate.
In truth, it didn’t benefit my skiing: too much time in restaurants, not enough on skis. But what an incentive to improve.