Let’s Talk About Speck, Baby

There were two things on offer pretty much every day during my hiking trip in the Dolomites:  Strudel and Speck.  Considering I don’t generally have a sweet tooth, there were days I passed on the Strudel (oh, the horror!), but I never missed an opportunity to indulge in Speck.

Simply Speck
Simply Speck

Speck is a smoked and cured ham from the province of Alto Adige (also called South Tyrol) in northern Italy, bordering Austria. The meat comes from the hind leg of a pig (as does Prosciutto) and is rubbed with spices, such as juniper, rosemary, salt, pepper, and bay leaf, and dry cured for three weeks before being smoked and aged.

After a little research, I found out that the smoking process is very gentle for Speck, and is done at carefully controlled temperatures so that the meat remains sweet while taking on the mild smoky flavor. Smoking takes place over several months for a few hours at a time. This is some high maintenance ham!

Speck ages for six months in ventilated rooms that let the Alpine air in, helping to mellow and balance the flavors.  If you’ve breathed in that Alpine air yourself, you can just imagine it soothing the meat and making it taste better. Speck has an “IGP” (Indication of Geographic Protection) for Alto Adige, which means that how it’s made is carefully regulated.

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Alpine Air for the win!

Just like the Dolomites, Speck combines the traditions of Northern Europe, where hams are more heavily smoked, with the Mediterranean, where hams are subtler in flavor. It’s truly the best of both worlds.  (To eliminate any cultural confusion, in German Speck generally refers to pork fat, or lard, and is not the same as Italian IGP Speck.)

Speck is insanely delicious, and can be found at restaurants and rifugios* all over the Dolomites. I had it simply sliced thin with rustic mountain bread and served with cheeses and vegetables, on pizza, cooked in pasta and risotto, and in the heavenly bread dumplings called Canederli. It adds much more flavor than Prosciutto, but doesn’t overwhelm as much as bacon.  Believe it or not, you can find it on Amazon, and I am sure you can purchase it at specialty stores in your area. I myself am dreaming of adding it to a mushroom frittata next weekend. Buon Appetito!

*Side Note:  Rifugi are mountain huts, mostly owned by the Italian hiking organization (Club Alpine Italiano) and family run, where you can stop in for an espresso or a beer, sit down for a hearty meal, or reserve a bed for the night. Most are only accessible via foot. These are not your average base lodge cafeterias. The food here is varied, and you’re sure to get a soulful, satisfying meal and friendly Alpine hospitality.

One Enchanting Day in Verona

I spend a fair amount of time on the road for my job, but for the past ten days I have been traveling for vacation.  The main event of my trip was a group hiking excursion in the Dolomites, in the most northern part of Italy, bordering Austria. Before and after, I spent a day each in Verona and Venice on my own.  Far too much happened to document the trip in one blog post, so let’s first talk about Verona.

I had seen pictures of Verona, a town in the Veneto region of north-east Italy, from many of my wine colleagues who travel to the wine expo, Vinitaly, every year in April. I was enamored with the alley ways, piazzas, and seemingly endless array of wine bars and restaurants in this small medieval town.  When I figured out that Verona was about half way between Milan, where I was entering Italy, and Bolzano, where I was to start my hiking trip, I decided to spend a day and night discovering what it was all about.

I arrived to Milan on my overnight flight from New York and immediately made the two hour journey to Verona.  My hotel was just outside the historic center of Verona (Centro Storico), just a short walk to the Arena and Piazza Bra, the main Piazza (or square) in Verona. Enchanting and busy — but not overrun — Piazza Bra beckons you to sit in the park, or at an outdoor cafe, and just daydream while gazing at the Arena, a still-functioning Roman amphitheater featuring operas and other performances.  This area is especially enchanting at night, under the lights of the Arena.

From Piazza Bra, I strolled down Via Mazzini, the busy pedestrian shopping street, to Piazza delle Erbe. Strolling is serious business in Verona, so I quickly had to leave my New York pace behind, and saunter past everything from Gucci to Sephora at a snail’s pace on my way to the second most popular square in Verona. Here you will find colorful architecture, flower boxes, outdoor stalls selling everything from fruit cups to hats and scarves, outdoor cafes, and the Torre dei Lamberti. You can climb the Torre (tower) for beautiful views of Verona, or just wander around the square. I was in awe of all the photo opportunities this tiny square offered, and finally had to take a seat by the fountain and simply take it all in.

One of the biggest tourist attractions in Verona is Juliet’s Balcony, of Shakespeare’s ‘Romeo and Juliet’ fame. The irony is that Shakespeare’s play does not take place in Verona, and there is no balcony in the actual “balcony scene”.  Furthermore, there was never a Juliet, since she is a fictional character.  Still, I went, I took a picture of the balcony and the Juliet statue, and watched the mob of star crossed lovers (i.e. tourists) cover the walls with tiny love notes on sticky pads. I must admit to getting caught up in the forged emotion of it all.

There are certainly other sites to see and things to do in Verona, but I was wonderfully content wandering down alleys lined with bicycles and greenery, flowers and taverna’s, just knowing that eventually I would come full circle and back to one of the piazzas.

I ended my day with dinner in a lovely taverna, Taverna di via Stella, as recommended by one of my colleagues. I started off with an appetizer special of salad with bresaola (an air-dried beef originating in northern Italy), followed by stuffed duck with polenta. Polenta is a specialty here as well, also originating in the northern part of Italy.  I washed it all down with a Valpolicella Classico Superiore from the producer Speri, one of the oldest winemaking families in the Veneto region. I scraped my plate down to the last bit of polenta, accepted a complimentary limoncello from my waiter, and was off to bed to stave off the possibility of jet-lag. Molto Bene! Bellissimo Verona!

High on High Street

IMG_0793The first stop on my latest wine road trip was to the home of the Super Bowl Champion Philadelphia Eagles. Soon after I arrived and checked in to the Kimpton Monaco, I made my way past the vendors hawking championship gear on Market Street, towards High Street on Market.

High Street on Market is part of the High Street Hospitality Group, which also owns a.kitchen+bar and Fork in Philadelphia, and High Street on Hudson in New York. I have eaten at Fork, which was excellent, and High Street on Market is Fork’s more casual cousin.  High Street is open all day, from coffee and pastries to cocktails and pasta. My memory of Fork was that everything was exceptionally flavorful, so I was ready to have my taste buds roused once again.

I ordered a glass of Folk Machine Chenin Blanc, a Loire-inspired white from Mendocino, California, from the all-American wine list while I looked over the menu. Mineral-driven, citrusy dry white wines are my jam, so this was the perfect choice to fire up my appetite. A lot of things on the menu sounded to me as if they wouldn’t go well together, so I solicited the help of my server. Once he convinced me that it was okay to eat chow-chow alongside wild boar ragu, I was ready to order.  I started with the sunchokes, a dish from the section of the menu called “snacks”.  Sunchokes are one of those things that call to me from any restaurant menu. A root vegetable from the sunflower family, they have an umami flavor and a crunchy bite. These came roasted, with a texture that reminded me of eggplant, with slices of crisp, raw sunchoke mingled in.  Delicious.

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Clockwise: Crispy Broccoli, Pasta with Wild Boar Ragu, Sunchokes

My selection from the “plates” part of the menu arrived with my sunchokes. I chose the Crispy Broccoli with Chow-Chow and Scallion. The dish arrived looking like a giant tempura chia tree but the combination of flavors was so addicting that it was difficult to put my fork down. Chow-chow is a sort of fermented relish and it balanced out the lightly fried crunchiness of the broccoli very well. I took a break from my broccoli to order a glass of red wine in anticipation of my pasta course. This time I chose a spicy Cabernet Franc, in keeping with the Loire-inspired theme, from Ravines winery in the Finger Lakes, NY.

My pasta dish was Burnt Grains Campanelle, which is a bell-shaped pasta made from burnt wheat. The nutty-flavored pasta was dressed in wild boar ragu and parmesan. The dish was really rich, perfectly seasoned, and ridiculously flavorful. I overheard the ladies next to me talking about how their pastas had more flavor than most pastas. If I had heard that at any other time, I may have rolled my eyes, but as I dug in to my Campanelle, I knew exactly what they meant.

You may have noticed that I don’t have much of a sweet tooth so I didn’t even deign to look at the dessert menu. Instead I finished my glass of wine and took the long way back to the hotel, to walk off my very filling but heavenly tasting meal.

High Street On Market

308 Market Street Philadelphia, PA 19106
(215)625-0988