Posted by: oysterculture | May 16, 2009

Brunico: weinerschnitzel or pesto?

main street in Brunico

main street in Brunico

When we landed in Brunico, I was confused.  Not necessarily a unique state for me, but you must understand, Brunico is in Italy – the map clearly says so.  Yet, I felt we had taken a wrong turn at a mountain pass and and arrived at a village in Austria.  I knew we had crossed no international borders, as I had not flashed my passport, since leaving Milan earlier that day.  But German was the language spoken on the streets, and the menus posted outside the restaurants were not only written in German, but also had German dishes sprinkled with a few Italian favorites.  Finally, the town’s name was just as often spelled as Bruneck – oye!

church on outskirts of Brunico

church on outskirts of Brunico

According to Wiki, the 2001 census for this area of Italy claims 83% of the population speak German, 15% Italian and ~ 2% Ladin as their first language.  (Ladin resulted from Latin melding with the local language, oh about 15BC when the Dolomites were conquered by the Romans)  This explains so much.  Brunico, I discovered, was in a region that was a bit of a hot potato, bouncing frequently between what is now Austria and Italy, and as recent as World War I part of Austria. 

On this lovely May trip, our purpose was not to stalk the Tour de France, but seek the Giro (Italy’s great bike race).  Near Bruncio, the drama of the most challenging stage of that year’s race up to Kronplatz/Plan de Corones (part of the Southern Tyrol) was about to unfold.  This stage was to be the crowning example of human endurance – practically no expense or attention to detail was spared.  The Italian government had build a temporary road up the last 6 kilometers, where only a dirt path had existed before.  My husband could barely contain his excitement at the thought of watching such a hell on wheels event.  That last bit of grade was so steep, the riders would probably have to dismount and walk their bikes to the top.

The Giro is a three week stage race similar to the Tour de France, but the bikers jerseys are different; where the Tour leader sports a yellow jersey, the Giro has a pink jersey to match the colors of the sponsoring sporting paper.

view out of hotel window with Giro truck below

view out of hotel window with Giro truck

We stayed in this area for 4 days and the time flew by.  The surrounding country side is speckled with wineries, quaint villages and of course an abundance of mountainous scenery.  What is not to like?  Plenty of hiking, and in the winter, skiing is mandatory.    Five star restaurants?  Maybe not, but if you are interested in good regional food, you cannot go wrong.

The roads around here are easy to drive and beautifully maintained, but while they look fairly straight on Google maps, they are full of winding S-curves as this town is nestled deep in the mountains.  As the crow flies, this town is not far from Innsbruck, Austria; by road little over an hour away. The drives through the nearby towns were wonderful and the surrounding fields held grazing cattle complete with those wonderful copper cowbells draped from their necks.  The pastoral scenes were straight from the Sound of Music.

History 

river scene (photo from vortalcitynetwork.com)

(photo from vortalcitynetwork.com)

Brunico was founded around 1256, and at that time the town consisted of two rows of houses.  In the 14th and 15th centuries a brisk trade developed between Augsburg and Venice, and some of this trade required long term storage in Brunico, which was rewarded for its efforts with prosperity and fame.  Around this time the Pustertal painting school was founded by the painter Hans von Bruneck, and included great masters Michael Pacher and Friedrich Pacher who also studied at this school.

After World War I, South Tyrol and Brunico became part of Italy.   During World War I, the Dolomite Mountains were the stage of some horrific battles – the Italian and Austrian armies fought many battles in these mountains.  For twenty months the soldiers endured indescribable hardship.  Consider spending two winters lodged in the mountains, man against man.  (Four hours on top of Corones was enough to convince me I had better things to do.)   Both armies dug tunnels and trenches to bypass and surprise the enemy.  Mines were exploded beneath enemy positions after months of exhausting work excavating the rock. 

After the war, the Dolomites eventually returned to their original beautiful state, but not without some battle scars; deep cuts made by bombs and mines.  Tunnels can still be found in the mountains – we discovered a few in our exploration.

Brunico was spared damage in World War I, but in World War II the town was bombed, so the architecture is a mixture of old and new especially in the more business sections of town.   

Food and Wine

This area is sprinkled with wineries, but I cannot speak to them.  We tried to visit a few, during the week, stopping by just prior to lunch time, only to learn that they were open that day but were now closed to the public – it was not yet noon.  In fact they seemed surprised to see us, despite the fact that they had a tasting room.  (Note to self, “you are not in Napa”.)  My advice is to check with the hotel before you head out if your is to check on a vineyard. It was not a wasted trip as we just pulled off the road and enjoyed a flavorful picnic of local sausage, cheese and wine, while visions of returning to the US with bottles straight from the wineries receded to a distant memory.

In the spring they have an asparagus festival featuring those yummy stalks with Spargelwein – asparagus wine, made not from asparagus but Sauvignon blanc.  The best wine, and the winner proudly displays the award for wining the competitions for best wine.  The asparagus is topped with Bozner sauce – not a hollandaise  – which looks to be made with hard-boiled eggs, mayonnaise, mustard, herbs and spices.  

Here are some of  the regional dishes of the Southern Tyrol, some identified by the Italian Trade Commission.  The Austrian influence can be seen in the ingredients and preparation:

 

 

 

 

 

speck (photo from fomaggiokitchen.com

speck (photo from fomaggiokitchen.com)

 

Biroldi con crauti: blood sausages stuffed with chestnuts, walnuts and pine nuts, flavored with nutmeg, cloves and cinnamon, served with sauerkraut.

Blau forelle: trout poached in white wine with vinegar, lemon, bay leaf and clove, and served with melted butter.  

Carne salata: beef marinated for a month or more in brine with juniper berries, pepper and herbs, eaten either raw or cooked in butter and served with beans or polenta

Orzetto or Gerstensuppe: barley soup with onion, garlic, vegetables and herbs simmered with Speck.

Leberknödelsuppe: dumplings of bread crumbs mixed with flour, milk and eggs and flavored with chopped liver and herbs, and served in broth.

Sauresuppe: Tyrolean tripe soup with onion, herbs and nutmeg soured by white wine vinegar.

Speck: a juniper flavored ham – it showed up in about everything, and I am not complaining. It is delicious, as evidenced by the fact that is been around since the 1300s. 

Wines of the Alto Adige

winery in Alto Adige (photo from johnmariani.com)

winery in Alto Adige (photo from johnmariani.com)

While experts agree that the Alpine climate favors white wines, the demand for reds has tipped the scales as they account for ~ 2/3 of the region’s production. The dominant variety of Alto Adige is Schiava or Vernatsch, a source of light, bright reds that head due north to Germanic countries. 

The ruby wines from Schiava extend through the South Tyrol along the Adige river fall under the Valdadige or Etschtaler appellation.  Alto Adige’s native grape, Lagrein, thrives on the plains along the Adige where the wine achieves full round taste and some bonus qualities with a bit of aging.  Given reds appeal, considerable real estate is devoted to Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.  The region also produces some of Italy’s finest rosés, the most impressive being Lagrein Kretzer. The sweet Moscato Rosa is a rare and prized dessert wine.

But the white wines are starting to demand more attention and growers are planting the whites favored by the altitude: Sylvaner, Veltliner, Gewürztraminer, Müller Thurgau and white Moscato.     

Alto Adige has also stepped up sparkling wine production which cannot be a bad thing. 

Activities

Skiing in the winter is a given.

Driving and exploring the wineries in the summer is a sure thing, provided you find wineries with hours that fit your schedules.

We were impressed with the trails  that covered the area.  We discovered was a converted railroad trail that was pristine.  It even had a tunnel that cut through the mountain and it was well maintained and lit.  Hiking and mountain biking are very popular.

Several national parks are within driving distance and offer amazing vistas.

 

graph from Cycling News

graph from Cycling News

This graph depicts the stage we intended to see – we were perched at the top of the last peak.  Note the dashed line at the top of the last peak – that indicates the new road they built for this stage.

Giro d’Italia

 

this does not look good!

this does not look good!

I know you are dying to know what happened in that leg of the Giro.  Well, my husband and I got up early because based on our experience at the Tour de France we knew the advantages of a good viewing spot.  We caught the lift taking us to the top of the mountain. Did I mention that the Giro happens every May?  We got to the top of the mountain and this scene was waiting for us.  I was not ready for this one.  Nevertheless, we hiked down a ways to secure a cold damp spot so that we secured our location – few other spectators were around, and my husband was convinced it was because no one else had our foresight.  I think no one else was as insane. Throughout our stay people stopped and took our picture.  I searched the web for “crazy Americans, Giro, Italy” and thankfully no incriminating pictures were found.  

We were rooted there for over four hours.  I tried to convince myself that drinking wine from the bottle would make me feel warmer, as would the plastic bags we wore on our feet and as vests really added an extra layer of warmth. After a while, I gave up the futility of that internal argument and resigned myself to the fact that I was just darn cold, and the only thing that would improve the situation was climbing on that lift to take me back to the hotel and a hot shower, and meal.

Finally, one passerby alerted us to the fact that the riders had essentially gone on strike – not once – but twice!  First they wanted to take out one of the intermediate mountain stages and then they refused to go up that last section I mentioned.  So while we were stomping our feed to keep warm and drinking unconscionably cold red wine, the race directors were scrambling to move the finish line seven kilometers down the

fashion victims have been cropped

fashion victims have been cropped

mountain.  We shakily rose to our feet and made our way down the hill to a rather anti-climatic finish.  My husband was stunned that the riders mutinied – I heard repeated mutterings of “this would never happen at the Tour!”  Although I kept it to myself, I was relieved – maybe giddy is a better description –  to be heading down the mountain to relative warmth.   

After the finish we made our way back to the lift and back to the hotel.  How many ways can you say bliss?  The hot shower was amazing and that Austrian meal of  Leberknödelsuppe warmed me from the inside.  

the end is near

the end is near

 a church in the distance (near Brunico)

a church in the distance (near Brunico)

The next day we came down for breakfast and confirmed our suspicion that a few teams from the Giro also stayed at our hotel.  We were shocked that everyone looked so dejected; the sighs and moans were piteous.  Men slumped in their chairs or draped on the breakfast tables with their heads in their hands.  While I felt great wearing shorts and a t-shirt – the multiple layers including the repurposed plastic bags now a distant memory.  We thought someone might have died and my Italian is extremely limited and what we gleaned from the papers provided no clues.  Only later did we find out that a doping scandal had  been revealed and the coach of one time had made a dash across the boarder, and another team was ejected from the Giro.  We were in the midst of a juicy scandal and this soap opera was playing out in front of us and could not understand a word.  Oh – the injustice!  

If your are looking for excitement and nightlife, this is not the place, but if you want to relax and unwind and explore some unexpected culture in beautiful surroundings, than Brunico and the Southern Tyrol area are up to the challenge.  This section of Italy is wonderful to explore and makes you rethink your preconceived notions of this amazing diverse country.

Side note:  The original version of wiener schnitzel is thought to have originated in Milan, but it took the fine folks of Vienna to make it the popular dish we know today.

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Responses

  1. Sounds like a beautiful place to visit. This is actually the first I’ve heard of this city. I think I’d like this place. I’m more of a quiet traveler.

    I love the picture of the little church in the distance.

  2. How interesting about this very German-influenced area of Italy. I had never heard of it before. Thanks for opening my eyes to a new and wonderful place in the world.

  3. I must say that to have a good sight, we would do the same as you waiting on the top of the mountain in that cold climate and drinking wine or cognac to get warmer. Then we, as a Turkish couple, would accompany your craziness 🙂 I wish we could have such a tour one day.

  4. Bread + Butter – If you’re a quiet traveler this place is for you and its conveniently close to a lot of other neat locations – take Innsbruck for example.

    Foodgal – Me neither – it was a bit of a shocker. I think I spent so much time reading up on the Giro I neglected to fully study the culture. Highly recommend this place – and its a great combo for you (food wine, heated spring spas (didn’t mention that one)) and biking galore for the hubby.

    Zerrin – We’re hoping to take in the last of the Triple Crown in Spain next year – maybe we’ll see you on one of those hill tops? Wouldn’t that be fun?

  5. That’s such an interesting area being a crossroads of cultures. I read a little about it recently in La Cucina Italiana. I love the use of barley in this region.

  6. Sounds like a wonderful place to visit. I enjoyed learning about the wineries here. The gorgeous picture of the church looks like a painting – so beautiful!

  7. How interesting this all is,….You are a great story & facts teller!
    Evertime I come to visit over here, I learn about food, countries, facts, about life!
    I think you write in your own lovely style!
    So, thanks for this wonderful story!

  8. I feel like I am on the trip with you in these posts, and I am cold for you! Wine out of the bottle cracked me up…

    I was in Milan and noticed as I got further south the bread was not as good, and heard that the butter from over the alps makes things taste so much better…I can still smell the croissants and coffee we awoke to each morning…

    As always I love coming over hear and reading your blog!!!

  9. Oh my LouAnn! I’m so excited to tell you that I watched all of that race live on TV, and you were there! This is so sweet, I don’t know why I have such a big “Eureka!” smile on my face now!

  10. aah…every time I visit your blog I’m hit by a serious case of wanderlust!
    I’m curious…how long does it take for you to research all these plentiful and detailed information?

  11. Another great post, LouAnn. Every visit to your blog is like an escape for me. For a few minutes, I am transported to beautiful places where there are no dirty dishes or a pile of laundry in sight. But how dare you causing me to drool shamelessly at 10:00 pm by mentioning another tripe dish? 🙂

    I know I should be commenting on the content of the post, but, golly, I have *no* idea how you manage to put so much information into each post without losing someone with a short attention span like me. That’s quite a – oh, look a butterfly!

  12. Leela – I appreciate all the focus you do provide – I’m with you on the attention span, but these topics really interest me, so I can dedicate a bit of extra time =:^)

    Burpexcuszme – I get wanderlust just doing these posts. Most places in my posts I have first hand knowledge so its just a matter of dwelling deeper. I cannot really say how much time, as I have about 20 posts I am working on, and to Leela’s point, my attention span wander so its a bit here and there.

    Ozge – how cool! I feel like I have a fellow biking buddy now. I have a big “Eureka” smile on my face too!

    Elizabeth – I was at the point civility be damned, desperate times call for desperate measures. The croissants and coffee were definitely nice additions in the morning, not our usual fare to be sure, but it makes it that much more special.

  13. Brunico sounds like a funky place, and your trip to watch the Giro must have been wonderful – your photos are stunning. If I ever get to that part of Italy, I’ll have to arrange my visit when skiing isn’t mandatory and those amazing dishes you listed are readily available! The Giro sounded really crazy, but fun and memorable. Thanks for teaching me something new about this part of the world!

  14. So kind of like a Mediterranean version of Vietnamese fish sauce? I bet it’s wonderful on so many things, just like Viet fish sauce.

  15. Reading your post brought me back to the days when I used to record hours of the Tour de France and the Tour of Italy and watch them over and over again. Now there’s only room for one sport in my home – fantasy baseball. How exciting to be there for the Giro, soap opera scandal and all. I so envy all the travel you do, your destinations are so filled with culture and beautiful surroundings – who needs nightlife?

  16. Phyllis – You gotta give the Tour and Giro a try. It is just so much fun. You’re right, nightlife is highly over rated. =)


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