Although linked in name, the region of Trentino-Alto Adige is really home to two very different cultures. Alto Adige, the northern half, borders Switzerland and Austria and, up until 1919, was a part of the Austrian Empire. Still known as Sudtirol (Southern Austria), Alto shares with its northern neighbors both the German language and their food traditions. This is a cuisine rich with sauerkraut, horseradish, and bread dumplings called Canederli. Because of its location in the Alps and the vast forests covering most of its area, the people of Alto Adige have maintained much of their Germanic culture and cuisine, despite considerable efforts in recent history to eliminate both. In 1922, the Fascists demanded exclusive use of Italian in public offices and closed German speaking schools. Then, in 1938, Hitler and Mussolini relocated thousands of German speaking Italians to the Third Reich or to other regions of Italy. Many of these people never saw their homeland again. Nevertheless, German remains the primary language of Alto Adige and its cuisine is still solidly Teutonic.
Trentino, by contrast, is far more “Italian” in style and cuisine, sharing much in common with Venice, its neighbor to the southwest. Although still quite mountainous, the climate is milder due to the “lake effect” of Lake Garda which allows for the cultivation of orchards, vineyards and even olives. Polenta is still preferred over pasta and is often served simply, with butter and cheese, or as the base for stews and rich gravies. The many varieties of apples from this region find their way into fantastic strudels in which raisins are often soaked in grappa (an Italian brandy made from grape seeds) for a uniquely Italian twist.
People have lived in Trentino-Alto Adige for a very long time. During the Stone Age, the Valley of Trentino was inhabited by groups that settled along the Adige River, just after the first glaciers started to melt. Around 500 BCE the Raetians, descendents of the Etruscans, came to the area, bringing agriculture and animal breeding to the largely hunting cultures there. It was conquered by Rome in the first century BCE and later by a succession of invaders, including the Ostrogoths, Bavarians, Byzantines, Lombards and Franks. In 1027, Emperor Conrad II of the Holy Roman Empire, granted Trentino an autonomous status that lasted until the end of the Napoleonic Era, some 800 years! Because of its long identification with the Austrian Empire, more than 600,000 people from this area joined with Emperor Franz Joseph during the First World War to fight with Austria against Italy. Many of them died and many more were captured and sent to Southern Italy as colonists. But despite all these attempts to conquer, relocate and assimilate the people of Trentino-Alto Adige, they have managed to preserve their language, their traditions and a unique food culture that stretches our understanding of what is meant by Italian Cuisine.
Try your own hand at a few of these local specialties:
The canederli of Trentino-Alto Adige are first cousins to the knodel of Germany and Austria. Born from the need to use up every scrap of food, they are part of the “cucina povera” (cuisine of the poor) that now graces many upscale establishments. Enjoy them at your own!
3 cups of stale bread cubes from a loaf of good Italian or French bread
1 ½ cups of milk
2 eggs, beaten
½ cup unbleached flour + more as needed
½ cup chopped fresh parsley
6 oz of freshly grated Fontina, Parmesan or Grana Padano cheese
2 oz speck or bacon, chopped
2 Tablespoons unsalted butter
2 Tablespoons olive oil
1 onion, minced
few gratings of nutmeg
1 teaspoon salt
freshly grated black pepper
6 quarts of simmering broth or salted water
In a large bowl, soak the stale bread cubes in the milk for 15 minutes.
While the bread soaks, heat a heavy bottomed frying pan and saute the minced bacon or speck in the oil until the fat has rendered.
Remove the bacon bits and add the butter to the pan.
Add the onion to the pan and saute it gently until it is golden. Do not let it burn.
With your hands, squeeze the milk from the bread, setting the extra milk aside.
Put the squeezed bread back into the bowl and, using a fork, break the mass up to loosen it.
Add the beaten eggs, sauteed onion and bacon, parsley, cheese, nutmeg, salt and pepper.
Stir in enough of the flour to make a soft mass that will just hold together when shaped into a ball.
Roll the mixture into 2 inch balls (easier with wet hands) and then roll them in some more flour to coat.
Drop them one by one into gently simmering broth if you are serving them in soup, or salted water if you are serving them “dry” (that is, with butter and cheese or alongside a meat dish with gravy). Please do yourself a favor and use homemade broth for soup. It is so easy to prepare and so much better than anything in a box or can.
Always do a test run with one little dumpling to check for salt and to make sure there is enough flour to hold them together.
Cook the canederli at a very gentle simmer, without stirring, until they float to the top of the pot and then for one minute more. Take one out and open it up to make sure they are cooked through.
Serve them in the broth for a soup or lift them carefully from the water using a spider, and saute in some more butter to serve as a first course or as a side dish. In either case, sprinkle them with more grated cheese and a bit of parsley.
This takes a long time to explain, but they are actually very easy to make. Do give them a try!
I won’t lie. Strudel takes a bit of time and patience to make but the results are worth every minute!
½ cup raisins, soaked for several hours in
¼ cup grappa or rum
½ cup sugar
½ teaspoon cinnamon
1 ½ sticks unsalted butter, melted (this will be used for several different things)
2 cups fresh, fine bread crumbs
3 pounds cooking apples, peeled and chopped
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 teaspoon grated lemon rind (yellow part only). A microplane is great for this
¾ cup toasted walnuts, very finely chopped
At least an hour before you begin to assemble the strudel, make the dough: In a large bowl or on a work surface, make a well in the flour and mix in the rest of the ingredients, adding enough water to form a soft dough.
Cover this dough with a warm bowl and allow it to rest for at least one hour. This helps the gluten to develop so that your dough will stretch later.
Knead the dough for 10 or 15 minutes until very silky and smooth.
Again, cover the dough with a warm bowl and allow it to rest for one hour. While it rests, prepare the table, pans and filling.
Cover a table or free standing work surface that is at least 3 X 4 feet, with a clean cotton tablecloth or sheet. Pin the edges around the legs to hold it in place and flour it lightly.
Cut a piece of parchment paper to fit a large baking sheet
In a large skillet, melt the butter. Pour about half of it into a bowl for later.
Toast the breadcrumbs in the remaining butter until they are golden. Be careful not to burn them.
Toast the walnuts in a 300 degree oven until just starting to turn color. Cool and chop them finely.
Peel, core and dice the apples for the filling.
Mix them in a bowl with the lemon juice, sugar, raisins, cinnamon and grated rind.
Now the fun begins!
Place your dough on the center of the floured cloth and pat it into a rectangle about 1 inch thick.
Using a rolling pin, gently roll it out until it is about the thickness of a dime.
Paint the surface of the dough with melted butter.
Now, flour the backs of your hands and slide them under the dough and begin to gently stretch it from the center out.
Continue to gradually stretch and pull the dough toward the edges of the table, coaxing it into a paper thin sheet of dough. Try not to tear it but don’t get excited about a few holes. It will still be fine.
This process is so much easier to demonstrate than it is to explain. Here is a video of a masterful strudel stretcher. And here is a picture tutorial of the same process.
When the dough is thin enough to read this recipe through it, cut or tear off the thick edges of the dough.
Sprinkle the dough with melted butter, using a pastry brush to shake it onto the dough rather than painting it, so that the dough doesn’t tear.
Sprinkle the toasted bread crumbs and walnuts over the surface of the dough, with an extra layer of crumbs along one narrow end of the dough.
Mound the apple mixture on top of the extra layer of crumbs.
Now, pick up the cloth just under the apples and use the cloth to roll the apples and the dough into a cylinder.
Still using the cloth to support the strudel, roll it onto the parchment paper and then use the paper to slide it onto a baking sheet. You can curve it into a horseshoe shape if it is too big to fit on the pan.
Bake at 350 F for about 30-40 minutes, until a deep, golden brown.
Strudel is best eaten the same day, while the layers of dough are still crisp.