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.

Hiking & Wine in the Dolomites

alto adige

I can hardly believe my trip to the Dolomites is coming up in June. I’ve always dreamed of visiting the Dolomite mountains, which are in northern Italy, in the region called Trentino-Alto Adige, near the border of Austria and Switzerland. The area is known for skiing in the winter months, and hiking in the spring and summer. I have my plane tickets, global entry card, and hiking boots, as well as my Backroads hiking trip reservations, care of my trusty travel agent at Go Your Own Way Travel. The few things left to do include brushing up on the Italian (and German) language and studying up on the wines of the region. Also, getting in a few hikes before the trip might be a wise idea.

Trentino-Alto AdigeTrentino Alto Adige breaks out in to the mostly German speaking Alto Adige in the north and the Italian leaning Trentino in the south. I’ll be meeting my fellow hikers in Bolzano, which is in the north and is the capital of Alto Adige, also known as South Tyrol or Südtirol.  For perspective, Bolzano is about a three-and-a-half-hour trip from both Milan and Venice.

As I read about the difficult grape growing conditions in Alto Adige, due to the steep slopes and mountainous terrain in the region, I can only imagine I’ll be earning that glass of wine at the end of each day of hiking. As in many other European wine regions, the vineyards are planted on the slopes along a river, here the Adige River, and the best wines come from grapes planted at around 1,500 feet. At this altitude, the grapes are high up enough to get the benefits of the varying day to night temperatures but are not so high as to be overly exposed to frost.

Alto Adige is in a unique position, where the Alps to the north protect vineyards from cold winds, and the open valleys to the south enable the warm air in from the Mediterranean. There is plenty of sunshine (300 days per year!) but also ample spells of rain to benefit the grapes.

There will be a great variety of wines to try because Alto Adige grows not only more well-known international grapes, such as Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio, Riesling, Pinot Blanc (Weissburgunder in German) and Gewurztraminer, but also lesser known grapes prominent in Germany and Austria, including Kerner, Muller Thurgau and Sylvaner.  These grapes all make white wines, which is what Alto-Adige’s cool climate excels at. There will be reds to sample too, including Pinot Noir, and the local stars, Lagrein and Schiava.

I have tried wines from Alto Adige in the past, with delightful results.  For instance, I had never even remotely enjoyed a Pinot Blanc (or Pinot Bianco) until I drank one from Alto Adige. I always found Pinot Blanc to be flat and bland and, in comparison, Pinot Bianco from Alto Adige is bright and flavorful. Pinot Grigio from Alto Adige seems to have more character to me as well. Lately I have been trying to seek out Kerner, in anticipation of my trip, which is a hybrid of Schiava and Riesling, and beautifully aromatic.

In terms of the reds, I had never heard of Schiava until about five years ago, but once I discovered its bright red fruit and slight tartness, I was hooked. Lagrein I always found to be like Merlot, but I have not had one in ages.

I look forward to doing more exploring of the wines before my trip, and of course during my hiking and wine experience. I’ll report back; and I’m sure you’ll hear all about the food from this hungry hiker as well!