Forget fondue; with an empty stomach and shiny new salopettes, novice skier Lizzie Pook heads to Italy to sample the finest slope food around
I’m on my backside in the middle of a blue ski run and Peter, my instructor, is simply not helping. “You’re not listening to what I’m saying,” he hisses in frustration. Which, frankly, just tips me over the edge. “I AM NOT MOVING UNTIL YOU TELL ME HOW TO DO IT PROPERLY!” I snap, stubbornly shuffling my bottom in even further as if to make myself at home.
After a 10-minute stand-off, we decide it’s time we took a break, so we duck into a nearby mountain hut for a particularly potent round of Bombardinos (that’s warm rum, eggnog and whipped cream for the uninitiated) to calm our jangling nerves. Funnily enough, we’re friends after that. I’m here to sample the annual Taste for Skiing festival, which runs every December to April in Italy’s Alta Badia resort in the Dolomites (to get here we took the short flight from London to Innsbruck, before driving an hour or so across the border to Italy). And thank god the food and drink are good, because champion skier Lindsey Vonn I certainly am not.
It’s fitting that the festival is held here. As well as beautifully wide, powder-soft slopes (with some exhilarating black runs for those who are into that sort of crazy thing), no other valley in the Alps boasts a higher concentration of Michelin-starred restaurants than the postcard-pretty Alta Badia in northern Italy. And that’s something its chefs are particularly proud of. Hence they throw themselves into this season-long celebration of food – which also includes ‘sommelier-on-the-slopes’ wine-pairing safaris; the Gourmet Skisafari (where guests taste five different dishes in five different huts); and a whole week dedicated solely to ‘Ladin’ (north Italian) food.
I travelled here last season when chefs from some of the world’s most famous ski resorts, including St Moritz, Gstaad, Courchevel and Aspen, descended on the Dolomites to take part in head-to-head cook-offs. But this year, 13 Michelin-starred chefs – including world-renowned Norbert Niederkofler (recently awarded his third Michelin star) from Restaurant St Hubertus in nearby San Cassiano – will be making wonderfully nostalgic dishes from their childhood and serving them up to frosty-nosed skiers from their resident huts.
So, dodgy skiing aside, I spend three days at somewhere near 2,000m above sea level, loitering around unfeasibly picturesque mountain huts and gobbling up the spoils of some of the finest chefs around. Highlights include roast Bleggio rabbit (complete with its livers), served with pumpkin, chestnuts and Sauris ham powder; a plethora of local cheeses and piles of salty speck (local ham); a deliciously soft beef cheek tortellini; and something called Kaiserschmarrn, which turns out to be a sort of sweet pancake dish with floury icing sugar and cranberries. It’s all washed down, of course, with brut from the local vineyard (the highest in Europe) and lashings of grappa for afters.
On my second day, when I’m feeling slightly more confident (maybe it’s all the grappa?), I do actually manage to ski between two of the quaint Alpine restaurants: Jimmy’s (where we knock back hot chocolate and prosecco with even more speck and ham) and Edelweiss, where motherly patron Maria doles out hugs and bottles of gingerino (a bright orange, slightly bitter, fizzy aperitif) with abandon.
Each night I bed down at Hotel Sassongher, a brisk eight minutes from the slopes and one of the friendliest places I have ever stayed. It’s also wonderfully (and I believe unintentionally) kitsch. Victorian prams stand in the hallways, walls are lined with glass cases filled with antique dolls – complete with wiry hair and beady eyes – and there are taxidermy horns everywhere, including the swimming pool.
There’s also, quite brilliantly, a nightly piano man at the bar (the eccentric Carmello), who wears Elton John glasses and a glittery hat. He makes everyone sing Robbie Williams and calls attractive men ‘Richard Gere’. It’s unfussy, unpretentious and fun.
And the food here is impeccable too. At the hotel’s 16th-century Hunter’s Stube restaurant, waiters present dishes under heavy cloches that they whisk away with a flurry. We practically lick the taglierini and sautéed pigeon off our antique pewter plates as mournfully beautiful gramophone music plays in the background; the perfect romantic end to an exhilarating day on the slopes.
The Dolomites are like a big hug. You won’t find a warmer welcome or better service in even the flashiest ski resorts in Lech or Courchevel, and dedicated foodies should make it a mission to fill their stomachs at the Taste for Skiing festival. Come hungry and with an open heart, ready for chocolatebox views and some of the best skiing in Europe. You won’t be disappointed.