Northern Regions September 2006

Terlan VineyardComing in from Austria, the train took us straight to Bolzano, one of the largest cities in the Alto Adige region of Italy. We approached the city along the infamous Strada di Dolomiti that winds its way for miles through the Dolomites. In the valleys apples are grown but we were looking for steep, south-facing mountainsides which are covered with grapevines.

Distant view of vineyardsJust outside of Bolzano, we paid a visit to Cantina Terlano in the tiny town of Terlan. Cantina Terlano is actually a co-op of small, local grape-growing farmers who specialize in the local Pinot Bianco, Pinot Grigio, Müller-Thurgau and Lagrein. Terlano is particularly interesting in that they were one of the first co-ops in the area to begin to pay their farmers higher prices for higher quality grapes. This was a notable shift because traditionally cooperatives pay their farmers based on the weight of the grapes which means that the riper (not necessarily higher quality) grapes yielded more money. Most of the farms selling to the co-op are tiny. We visited one you could only get to by suspension bridge, where the entire farm was less than 2 hectares in size. Here you can see the farmer on his tractor, the grapevines, apple trees and the valley below.

Rainoldi Sfursat from Valtellina and dried grapes

Rainoldi Sfursat from Valtellina and dried grapes

Lombardy/Valtellina
A few hours to the west we entered the ruggedly beautiful Valtellina area of the region of Lombardia. While the mountains here are just as rocky and steep, the grape of choice is not a cool-climate white but a northern breed of Nebbiolo (of Barolo and Barbaresco fame). Aldo Rainoldi’s family has been making wine here since 1925. Picking grapes here is treacherous business, hand picking is a necessity and workers are equipped with kneepads. The local wines fall into 4 subregions: Inferno, Grumello, Sassella and Valgella. Rainoldi makes all of these but his top wine is their Sfursat, made from dried nebbiolo grapes in the style of Amarone.

Happily, Rainoldi’s simple Rosso di Valtellina table wine is delightful for everyday drinking and we can save the great Sfursat for special occasions. Nothing pairs so well with Valtellina Nebbiolo as the local air-cured beef specialty Bresaola and intense Alpine cheeses.

Genova/Romanenga
Genova is a beautiful and fascinating city full of wonderful food. Everywhere you go, freshly baked foccacia and farinata (another flat bread, this time made with chick pea flour and olive oil) beckon you from small bakeries and stands. Fresh Mediterranean seafood is everywhere and it’s difficult to choose between frutti di mare and the most simple plate of pasta with pesto. I’ve eaten and made pesto many times before, but when in Genova I finally realized what true pesto is like. Dark, dark green and very intense with the most luscious basil. This was also my first encounter with a traditional regional pasta shape Trofie, which has quickly become one of my favorites. The little trofie twist holds the pesto in just the right way!

Pietro Romanengo storefront

Pietro Romanengo storefront

No trip to Genova would be complete without a stop at Pietro Romanenga Fu Stefano. This gem of a confectionery hidden in the dark maze-like alleyways of Genova’s old city is full to the brim of the most amazing candies I’ve ever seen. The store itself is beautifully appointed with frescoes and elaborate fixtures and mirrors, but we were in awe of the glass cases full of dragées, fondants, and fruit pastes. The mirrored walls lined with bottles of rose and violet syrups and jars of glistening fruit and flower preserves in every color imaginable. The gorgeous chocolate bars with their intricately decorated wrappers we bought as gifts to take home, but we couldn’t resist sampling the candied whole fruits for ourselves. The next half-hour was a happy, sticky mess of perfectly candied fresh figs, clementines, white pears, and loquats.