The Gannet is a reluctant athlete: I require a powerful incentive to exercise, usually in the form of a watering hole to refresh me after my exertions. In the gloriously scenic and mountainous South Tyrol, a Dolomite recently stood between me and my lunch. “It’s an easy family walk,” said my guide, who was, I think, descended from a long line of mountain goats.
An hour and a half later, the Gannet finally dragged his wheezing frame to the oasis of a malga: a Heidi-like wooden hut in this most Germanic part of Italy, 1,996m above sea level. My first beer didn’t touch the sides; nor did the second.
The Geisleralm, in the Val di Funes, offers spectacular views of the Odle mountain range, and it also has an excellent kitchen. Steak tartare for me, liberally sauced and pleasingly piquant, and crisp-fried potatoes with onions and herbs. South Tyrolean cuisine is at its hearty best here: I might have had knödel (dumplings, flavoured with cheese, beetroot or spinach); noodles with venison ragù; and all manner of cakes and strudels. It is food worth scaling a Dolomite for.
Heinrich Schneider is chef and (with sommelier sister Gisela) owner of the two-starred Terra, an altogether more modern chalet: at 1,622m it is Italy’s highest Michelin-starred restaurant. He grew up in these mountains and expertly combs his woods and pastures for herbs and mushrooms.
The results are superb, as a meal in Terra’s sleek, huge-windowed dining room will confirm. Dry ice spills from a plate of pebbles, like mist over the Odle: on top are intensely flavoured little spheres of beetroot and apple; jet-black sponge biscuits made with ash are topped with smoky whitefish and silk-textured black garlic; sprigs of mountain herbs are wrapped in raspberry tuile cones; “gnocchi” (actually spheres of local cow’s milk cheese that melt and flood the palate) rest in a powerful broth made from hedgehog mushrooms.
There is fabulous pasta, too, a reminder that – despite appearances to the contrary – we are in Italy: delicately verdant chervil fagottini are stuffed with deep-flavoured, slow-braised ox cheek, scattered with crunchy grains of amaranth.
Then, a rosy slice of flank steak, liberally dusted with powdered morels and garnished with chickweed and crushed sunflower seeds: a very rewarding chew. And finally, a frozen woodruff foam with green oxalis juice, camomile and verbena: a sweet, intense distillation of Terra’s staggeringly beautiful scenery. Schneider’s mastery of technique is impeccable – that his menu is such a vivid evocation of his surroundings is even more remarkable.
Both Terra and Geisleralm open for the winter season at the end of December, then for the summer season in April or May. At either time of year, the South Tyrol (Alto Adige, in Italian; also the appellation for the region’s excellent wines) is utterly delightful, and its food, whether traditional or modern, scales the heights much more effortlessly than the Gannet.