Many have a sharp intake of breath and a sweet low exhale of “Oooohhh, Cortina!” when you mention travel plans here. Holidays here were a symbol of wealth in the middle of the twentieth century, and this continued in the following decades thanks to the Winter Olympics, epic movie scenes (James Bond, The Pink Panther and Cliffhanger) and a retention of close ties to the arts and glamorous celebrities and families. Indeed, a stroll down Cortina d’Ampezzo’s ‘Corso Italia’ will send you back to the opulence of the 1960s with brands like Chantecler, Gucci and Moncler holding stand-alone stores, and then the decadent local boutiques like Franz Kraler, which are laden with furs and Ferragamos, just like the locals who walk the street alongside you.
This luxury is partnered with a distinctly sporty vibe, but veers towards the elite again. We’re talking Paul and Shark, winter polo and heli-skiing, rather than Columbia, tobogganing and snowballing. In summer, everybody hikes and bikes, but not too extremes – this is not Switzerland after all.
Cortina’s passeggiata reveals as many dogs as people, usually at either size extreme – Bernese mountain dogs and Czechoslovakian wolf dogs boom warnings to skittish terriers and dachshunds in Dolce & Gabbana cloaks. No need to wait until sundown for some street viewing however – the main ski lifts are at either end of the village, and so at any time during daylight, you’re likely to see some glamorous ski-bunnies stopped for a refuel at an al-fresco bar, mid-stomp up the corso.
Despite all this, Cortina is neither expensive nor pompous, at least compared to other ski resorts in the European Alps. It’s possible to get a double room in a 3-star hotel at the peak of season for €135 per night, and a bowl of pasta chased with a glass of red for €15. (Although you could stay in a suite at Cristallo and dine at Al Camin for five times that.)
When it comes to food culture, Cortina d’Ampezzo is in Veneto, but being in the Belluno province, just outside the borders of the Südtirol (which itself abuts Austria), there’s a definite melding of cuisines. The town is not so heavily influenced as many of the villages over this side of the Tyrolese border, where you’re more likely to be understood if you speak German, but you’re still just as likely to be dining on schnitzel or knödels as you are to be eating ravioli or prosciutto.
This rustic bread is made with a blend of rye and wheat, then flavoured with herbs – these will usually include cumin and fennel, but may seasonally vary depending on what herbs are available. You’ll find it both as a soft fresh loaf, or preserved as crostini.
The Italian version of the Austrian knödel (also known as chenedi) are bread dumplings, usually served in broth. About the size of a golf-ball, they are spongy when at their best, and are usually bestrewn with speck, then flavoured with onion and parsley. The broth should be a clear and well-seasoned stock, also often flavoured with smoky pork. Sometimes canederli are served as a side – they may come along with your goulash, or something else with lashings of gravy to mop up.
Although there are many forms of stuffed pasta in the region, this is unique to Cortina d’Ampezzo, and these flat circular ravioli can be found on nearly every menu in town. The filling is a delicate beetroot paste, and the sauce is simply browned butter with poppy seeds. As the beet is usually mixed with cheese, the flavour and texture differs – soft and sweet when it is ricotta, firm and sharp when it is Parmesan. In Spring, you might be lucky enough to find these filled with seasonal mountain herbs instead of beetroots.
Pan fried potatoes with speck and onions. Do I need to need to say more?
Named after the residue (schizza) that squirms out of cheese moulds during production, schiz is now recognised as a cheese in its own right. Although it is a semi-hard cheese, you’ll nearly always eat it gooey and melted, either on top of pasta or polenta. Superb when panfried with mushrooms.
Frittelle di mele
I’ve gone with these Italian apple beignets (also called apfelradln) rather than the all-too-common-for-this-region apple strudel, because the quality always seems astounding (whereas the strudels vary – sometimes you’re unlucky enough to get one a couple of days old). These slices of apple in doughnutty yeast batter are served super-hot, covered in a snowy dusting of icing sugar, and usually presented with a generous spoon of lingonberry jam.
Cheese and honey
It’s hard to choose one cheese from a region that has its own cheese route (link here). Malga Bellunese and Montasio (both semi-hard) are probably the most famous, Schiz (mentioned above) and Tosella the most peculiar to the region (fresh cheeses that are usually eated cooked), and Bastardo del Grappa the most uniquely flavoured. All share the aromas and flavours of the mountain herbs and flowers that the cows graze on, and it’s very common to see cheese paired with local mountain wine on a dessert menu – the way both shine with local flavour can be exceptional.
Roe deer, wild blueberries and juniper
These three local products work a treat together, particularly with the lighter, fruit-driven red wines of this region. It’s a classic combination, and I’ve tried it several ways – blueberry tagliatelle with minced venison and juniper ragu, braised roe deer in blueberry and juniper sauce, and grilled venison fillet with blueberry and juniper jus. All delicious.
Chestnuts and new wine
Autumn marks the time for Törggelen, a festival where the newly harvested chestnuts are celebrated with barely-fermented grape must. The festivities can be as simple as a meal in a local tavern, through to convoluted farm walks through the countryside.
The South Tyrol area produces 30% of the Italian apple harvest, so it’s not surprising apples feature strongly in recipes of the surrounding area. Apples are harvested in autumn, but are good all the way through until early winter. Naz-Sciaves has a week-long apple festival in October.
Neighbouring Trento is regarded by many to be the mushroom capital of Italy. Although truffles are not so prolific in this area (as they are in Piedmont and Umbria), there are excellent local wild mushrooms, porcini and the finferli (chanterelles). Season stretches over late summer through autumn. Note that you must have a permit to pick wild mushrooms in the area, as there are many poisonous varieties.
Drink like the locals
This classic German summer drink has found it’s way into the area, and although most would drink it during warmer months, it’s also just what you need to refresh yourself when you enter an overly toasty room, hot and red-cheeked from skiing. Just like an Aperol spritz, the Hugo has Prosecco served over ice with soda, but this time flavoured with elderflower and garnished with mint. Watch out, you’ll drink it like fruit juice.
Most wine lists are fairly simple, with a range of Italian and German names that many will fumble over, but fortunately, most will be around €20 a bottle. Look for Friulano, a relatively neutral white which can be aromatic at its best, grown all over Friuli, and always fairly well priced. There is of course, always Pinot Grigio, which is remarkably good from the Alto Adige region, and if you see any Sanct Valantin Pinot Grigio from St-Michael, don’t miss it (their other wines are also excellent). For reds, Blauburgunder means Pinot Noir, often very good from the Südtirol, but Barbera d’Asti and Valpolicella might fit the bill for a lighter red on a budget. For heavier reds, look to Alto Adige Lagrein and Cabernets, or Teroldego from Piano Rotalian.
Franciacorta, Prosecco Valdobbiadene and other sparkling wines (e.g. Ferrari) from the surrounding region are generally excellent quality and very well priced. Prosecco might be pretty basic at the bars on the slopes, but at €2 a glass, it’s still a good deal. A good bottle of more premium Trento sparkling or Franciacorta will set you back northwards of €40 a bottle in a restaurant, but will definitely rival Champagne at the same price and higher.
Vino caldo or glühwein
The name will vary depending on what side of the Falzarego pass you are on, but it’s always exactly the same – red wine spiked with sugar, aromatic spices and citrus peel, served steaming hot in a coffee mug. The alcohol content dissipates a little with the steam (and some vendors water it down with fruit juice), so it’s a good one to knock back in-between ski runs.
It might look like a drink for children, but this is actually very adult. This hot egg-nog style drink is made with brandy and advocaat, served warm topped with whipped cream. It’s piled with calories and tastes like a boozy dessert. One every five runs only, and best kept to the slopes.
Known as Mountain Juniper Spirit in some areas and Wacholder in Germany, this is a neutral spirit distilled with local juniper. As you would imagine, it tastes very similar to a London dry gin, however here it is usually drunk straight like schnapps, and often served after dinner in a brandy balloon.