Eating Northern Italy Style

Welcome to another installment by my daughter, Rylie, about her recent trip to Italy with her Creative Writing classmates from college. If you missed Rylie’s first post about getting there from New York or her details and beautiful photography of Brunnenburg castle and Dorf Tirol, feel free to hop over to those articles. But be sure to return here for Rylie’s impressions of food in Northern Italy. As you can tell by the length of this article, she is definitely a fan of this subject. Enjoy!

Gardens at Disney Fort Wilderness

Gardens at Disney Fort Wilderness

First of all, thanks for your patience and understanding when my blog post didn’t appear last week. Our family was on vacation in Orlando, and we were so busy having fun my mom and I completely lost track of time!
Rather than going in chronological order of our excursion today, I’m going to write about an important part of Italian culture – food. I was a little nervous before my trip in regards to eating. I have many food intolerances, most of which would affected by Italian cuisine as far as I was aware. But the entire trip was a new experience, so I embraced the uncertainty and figured that even if I couldn’t eat everything, it wasn’t like I was going to starve.

And starve I most certainly did not. Lunch and dinner at Brunnenburg always began with a large self-serve arugula and mixed green salad, often with tomatoes, cucumbers, or dandelions sprinkled on top. Balsamic vinegar was the dressing of choice, with freshly baked wheat or white bread to dip in what vinegar was left over. The main courses took getting used to – my plate is generally divided into half meat, half grains, so the fist-sized chicken or steak portion next to a heaping pile of veggies and beans was a surprise.

But each meal during our stay at Brunnenburg Castle, painstakingly and lovingly cooked by Brigeeta, tasted divine, and I often found myself leaning back in my chair after strawberry shortcake or tiramisu desserts with my stomach pressed uncomfortably against my jeans.
At Brunnenburg, I didn’t have to worry about my poor German or Italian, as Mary’s family speaks English quite well.

Pasta at Hotel Restaurant

Pasta at Hotel Restaurant

On the other hand, the language barrier was an often embarrassing obstacle in the restaurants of Dorf Tirol. I escaped the task of translating a menu the first night since our professors were able to show us where the “American” choices were on the pizzeria menu; I ordered a margherita pizza, the hives I was sure to get from the tomatoes well worth the relative ease of filling my appetite with a familiar meal.

Wine and Grappa

Wine and Grappa

I wasn’t as lucky the second night. Eleven of us ended up at one of the Hotel Restaurants in town with only an Italian-to-English translation guidebook for assistance. The book turned out to be useless, as the menu was almost entirely written in German. We spent an hour and a half downing wine (or, in some cases, sipping cautiously at grappa, distilled wine that smells exactly like Absolut vodka) and asking our waiter, Ivan, about every item on the menu. Thoroughly impressed by Ivan’s patience and helpfulness – he translated the entire menu for us, twice – my friend and I ended up returning there two more evenings. Ivan not only remembered us, but our specific food preferences as well.

The biggest difficulty at Hotel Restaurant, once I understood the menu, was convincing Ivan and other the waiters that what I was ordering was what I actually wanted. Substituting “wine acid” (vinegar) for tomato sauce is apparently unheard of in Italy. But once that obstacle was overcome, the turkey (chicken was oddly absent from most menus) and pasta dishes I chose were decadent. The turkey was grilled to a golden brown and tasted exactly like chicken, making this chicken lover very happy, and the pasta was al dente. Perfection.

As for desserts, Schokoladenkuchen (chocolate cake) and Apfelstrudel mit Eis (apple strudel with ice cream) were by far the best desserts, and the Italian gelato was, of course, delicious. Sadly, I didn’t get around to trying the large gelato fruit sundaes, but it’s on my list of sweets to select when I one day return to Italy.
Before leaving Dorf Tirol, I had to try the one food the town is known for –Spargel. Spargel is a German white asparagus that, with my limited knowledge of vegetables for comparison, tasted most like an overly thick, fibrous string of half cooked spaghetti. The Spargel itself had little flavor other than butter, but it was featured in numerous dishes – at one restuarant, two full pages were dedicated to the vegetable!

Crab and Octopus In Venetian Market

Crab and Octopus In Venetian Market

I had just gotten the hang of reading German menus when it was time to pack up and leave our dorms at Brunnenburg behind, taking the three-hour bus ride south to spend a few days in Venice. Spargel, and vegetables in general, were sparse in Venice, where seafood was the dominating selection. Ever since having an allergic reaction to shrimp, I’ve avoided most seafood, but my class happily embraced the more familiar cuisine. Frittura di pesce (fried mixed fish, usually shrimp and scallops) seemed to be the most popular among my classmates, though black-inked cuttlefish was also tried, and I even tried a bite of rubbery salted octopus.

Venetian Pizza

Venetian Pizza

Dorf Tirol, a town more German than Italian, understandably didn’t make phenomenal pizza, so I was looking forward to sampling a real Venetian slice. Perhaps we didn’t find the right eatery locales or I’m just ridiculously spoiled by our Long Island pizza, but I wasn’t too impressed with the thin crusts and unblackened cheese. Still, eating pizza in Italy was something I can cross off the bucket list. Happily, the rich hot chocolate I discovered in a back-alley pizzeria more than made up for my disappointment with the pizza.

Another surprise in Italy was the shortage of ketchup. I hadn’t really noticed its absence while at Brunnenburg, but my first two meals in Venice were chicken cutlet and brie cheese sandwiches. I asked the waiter for the condiment and he scrounged up two ketchup packets for me.

Gelato was a sweet staple in Venice. Everywhere we went, there was another tiny shop boasting dozens of flavors, from ananas (pineapple) to lampone (raspberry) to nocciola cioccolato (chocolate hazelnut – Italians are pretty enamored with their Nutella). As per my usual hesitant style, I stuck to basics like stracciatella (vanilla with chocolate shavings) and menta (mint chocolate), though I also enjoyed arancia rossa (blood orange). The servers rarely spoke English, and I often found myself answering accidentally in German, but every flavor gelato had a picture of the fruit or food it was based on underneath the label.

Biergarten
Alcohol, as I mentioned above, was also a main element at every Italian meal. I’m a fan of white wine, so the complimentary aperitif of Prosecco in Dorf Tirol’s restaurants was an unexpected delight, Already legal drinking age in the states, I didn’t feel compelled to spend my Euros on liquor and wine like many of my classmates taking advantage of the lower drinking age, but I did enjoy several Forst beers in Dorf Tirol and in the Venetian pubs we visited a few evenings after dinner.

Forst Beer and MineralVasser

Forst Beer and MineralVasser

Now it’s your turn. What’s the craziest or best-tasting food you’ve ever tried?

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Brunnenburg Castle and Dorf Tirol Italy

You’re in for a treat today. My daughter, Rylie, is sharing more photos and details about her recent ten-day trip to northern Italy. If you missed her first post, check it out here. I am in awe of all the beautiful landscapes and buildings, and hope you enjoy them, too!

Brunnenburg Castle

Brunnenburg Castle

Originally built in 1250 A.D., Brunnenburg was renovated by Boris and Mary de Rachewiltz. Mary, the daughter of Ezra Pound (who finished writing the Cantos while staying at Brunnenburg in 1968). She now lives there with her family.

We spent the first day at the castle exploring the extensive grounds, which consist of a vineyard, several animal pens, and an agricultural museum in addition to the castle, farmhouse-turned-kitchen, and dorm-style guesthouse where students from across the globe can spend up to a year working on the grounds and studying Pound’s work.

Brunnenberg 1

PHOTO CREDIT: Allison Lloyd

Walking around the castle grounds was beautifully eerie. There are no artificial lights outside and the sun peeks in around the tower walls. On rainy days, the pathway between the towers is cast in darkness. Ivy winds up and through the stonework. The wooden bridges and beams, though restored, are weathered and blackened.

PHOTO CREDIT: Allison Lloyd

PHOTO CREDIT: Allison Lloyd

The following morning we enjoyed an early breakfast to offset some of our jet lag. I normally don’t eat until lunch, but Brigeeta, Mary’s daughter-in-law and the resident chef, had baked fresh bread, and the juice selection was too fun to miss out on. I mean, who wouldn’t want to drink blood orange (Grapefruit??) and pineapple juices, along with other indiscernible flavors? After the quick meal, we had our first creative writing class before our walk.

Brunnenburg 3
Our walk was more like a hike since it took us twenty minutes just to reach town. Then, we took a gondola ride up the Italian Alps. Gondolas in Dorf Tirol are a type of ski lift (Who knew?), not the boats we would later see in Venice. I am not a fan of heights unless I’m firmly strapped in, so the ride was a bit nerve-wracking. The view, however, completely made up for it!
Once off the gondolas, we decided to hike even further up the mountain, with one of Mary’s grandsons as our unofficial guide. We walked the trail overlooking the valley as he taught us about its formation.

Brunnenberg 2The valley has two entry points, carved out by glaciers during the Ice Age. The varying ground levels, some with solitary farms or little towns such as Dorf Tirol, indicate where the glaciers stopped for a period of time. The point at which the glaciers collided is where the town of Meran lies–in the belly of the valley. The valley continued as far as I could see, flanked by snow-capped peaks of the Austrian and Italian Alps.
By the end of our hike, I knew my hiking sandals weren’t sufficient for this rocky terrain. So off I went to buy hiking boots in town, nervously bouncing between their two sports’ stores, trying to compare prices.

Overlooking valley of South Tyrol

Overlooking valley of South Tyrol

Unfortunately, employees in both stores only spoke German, so my limited Italian was useless, and they didn’t understand the words “cost,” “price,” or “money” in English. Eventually I just asked “Euros?” and pointed to different brand shoes. Eventually, I was able to purchase a pair I assumed was waterproof based on the employee’s hand motions. According to Mary’s grandson, the weather in Dorf Tirol was unusually wet and chilly for late May, so I was sure I would find out soon enough if I was correct.

Have you ever visited a castle? Do you have any funny stories about trying to communicate with someone when you didn’t speak the same language?

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