Uncommon Flavors of Europe: Finding a Key to the Cipher

By Emma Krasov, photography by Emma Krasov

Traveling from Ticino, an Italian-speaking region of Switzerland, to Bolzano (Bozen) – a German-speaking region of Italy, I had an expressed purpose to study the most traditional European foodstuffs that make their way to the increasingly gourmet-savvy United States.

I was on a mission to gain and share with my readers some precious knowledge about the conditions necessary for achieving those “Uncommon Flavors of Europe” (a name of a three-year European Union campaign started in April 2017 to promote European products in the US) but I had only a general understanding of what to expect from a study trip dedicated to sounding like a cipher, Asiago PDO and Speck Alto Adige PGI – two of the three campaign partners that also include Pecorino Romano PDO.

We were to explore the Italian province of Alto Adige (Südtirol); visit the incomparably picturesque Alpe di Siusi (Seiser Alm) – the largest on the continent high-altitude Alpine meadow – home to pristine dairy farms and pastures; embark on comprehensive tours and tastings at the unique production facilities, and even participate in a local annual food festival set against the toothy peaks of the gorgeous Dolomites.

The history of the region, ancient and complex, is preserved in the contemporary realities as well as in the culinary achievements carefully conveyed from generation to generation.

Formerly subordinate to Austro-Hungarian Empire that seized to exist after World War I, this beautiful land became a part of Italy, and after dark years of WWII, political turmoil and societal troubles of the infamous 20th century, gradually achieved its current peaceful status quo with both Italian and German official languages, a significant autonomy, and a wide-open path to cooperation within the European Union and internationally.

3. Cow in the Dolomites

A cozy boutique hotel Magdalenerhof, where our group of American food experts was staying in Bolzano; gourmet restaurants Zur Kaiserkron, Vögele, Holzner 1908, and a Michelin-starred Kuppelrain all bore German names, and in all of them the first thing to arrive on the table was a plate of pink aromatic speck. (Only Ristorante Val Formica in Asiago had an Italian name, and an array of primi and secondi, just like an Italian restaurant should).

At a popular chalet-style Gostner Schwaige, well-attended even at the elevation of 1930 meters, where we arrived in horse-drawn carriages, the proprietor, Franz Mulser, dressed in Tyrolean attire, greeted us with a big smile. He handed each of us a small jar of fresh milk and we engaged in a competition of shaking it into butter. When the winner was announced, Mr. Mulser offered a prize – participation in milking his eight cows that starts at 5 in the morning!

The hospitable farmer-restaurateur treated us to an elaborate lunch of his farm products, including edible flowers and fennel pollen used for beautiful presentations, and local wines, especially delectable in the fresh mountainous air on a sunny afternoon.

2. Asiago cheese storage

A dairy farm and production facility of Asiago cheese that we visited at Asiago plateau reachable after a cautious, almost vertical drive upon a narrow one-lane road, was called Caseificio Pennar, and dated from 1927.

Here, we were greeted by Luca Cracco, a representative of Consorzio Tutela Formaggio Asiago – an organization that provides education and supervision for the traditional production of Asiago PDO (Protected Destination of Origin).

Clad in white lab coats, bonnets, and disposable booties, we observed the carefully guarded production methods that result in the original Asiago cheese, made only in the protected regions of Veneto and Trentino, and marked on its rind with a word Asiago and symbols of the Consorzio. Now we knew to look for those marks when buying our Asiago – the pure high quality cheese, made of ingredients sourced within their natural environment, and created following the strictest standards of sustainable agriculture and vigilant product safety.

4. Speck at Recla

Another unforgettable study visit was to Recla production facility in Zona Produttiva in Silandro, where we again donned head-to-toe sanitary uniforms to walk through the factory where the real Speck Alto Adige PGI (Protected Geographical Indication) or Südtiroler Speck was being made.

In their meticulous production of aromatic, totally addictive cured meat, the Recla family follows a combination of centuries-old traditions of the Mediterranean air-curing and the Alpine smoke-curing to reach the incredible results in concept and quality. Lean firm pork thighs coming only from controlled farms that adhere to the highest standards of animal husbandry, are being deboned and rubbed by hand with a mixture of spices that can include pepper, garlic, bay leaf, juniper, rosemary, coriander, cumin, and sea salt. Consorzio Tutela Speck Alto Adige sets limits only on the use of salt, so the meat wouldn’t be oversaturated with it, but the combination of herbs and spices can vary, and of course every speck-producing family of local artisans has its own treasured secret blend.

The spiced hams are getting plenty of Alpine air to start the drying process. Then they are cured with cold smoke, and undergo a slow ageing process for approximately 22 weeks before being thoroughly inspected for quality. This speck is an authentic product, marked with the name of its origin, Südtirol.

During our visit, Recla’s Hannes Jörg, and Consorzio’s Martin Knoll educated our group on the many intricate details of the very special and elaborate process – no wonder Recla became the first company in Italy that was granted USDA permission to sell Speck Alto Adige PGI in the United States!

5. Dances at Speck Festival

Equipped with much better understanding of the unique products that are “Deliciously Italian” we attended not one, but two amazing local food events – Speck Meets Wine pairing at Cantina Valle Isarco winery, where we were introduced to the abundance of wonderful local wines, and Speck Festival at Santa Maddalena, the birthplace of famous mountaineer Reinhold Messner, where we joined the locals in tasting regional delicacies, making our own bread dumplings, native to the north-eastern part of Italy, consuming lots of speck with beer, and applauding to folk music and dancing.

“Enjoy, it’s from Europe” initiative, adopted by the EU to promote food and wine abroad now made perfect sense.

By looking for marks PDO and PGI we can be sure to buy products that represent excellence in European food production and are the result of a unique combination of human and environmental factors characteristic of certain geographical areas. The European Union dictates precise regulations for their safeguarding to provide producers with instruments to identify and promote their products with specific characteristics and protect them from illegal practices.

6. Speck Festival

Only those products that demonstrate a consolidated and codified production tradition, an inseparable tie with the area of origin, an appropriate socio-entrepreneurial fabric and which succeed in achieving high qualitative levels, certified by external bodies of control, may aspire to obtaining and retaining the sought-after European Community designations and inscription in European register of PDO and PGI products.

Unfortunately, the US market has its share of domestic versions of Asiago and Speck that have nothing to do with the culture, history, production standards, terroir and flavor of the real thing that we experienced on our study tour.

To my readers: please ask for PDO/PGI or look for the rind markings “Asiago” and “Speck Alto Adige” or at the very least look for Made in Italy verbiage, not just a tricolore flag when shopping for this particular cheese, and this unique cured meat. Otherwise, you might be buying a completely different product.

Asiago and Speck made in the US is often easier to find than Asiago PDO and Speck Alto Adige PGI from Italy, however an EU funded program Uncommon Flavors of Europe is working to change that by promoting Italian Asiago, along with Speck Alto Adige and Pecorino Romano in the United States.

More information at: uncommoneurope.eu