High in the Alta Badia, in the South Tyrolean Dolomites, there is a wild herb called aglio orsino that grows abundantly. Its name means “bear’s garlic” in Italian; it’s known in England as ramsons or wood garlic, and its innocuous appearance – semi-glossy green leaves a finger’s length, like very broad blades of grass – belies a whopping garlic punch. In late summer, there are also entire meadows stippled with clusters of a bright-purple flower whose leaves, when plucked, reveal bulbs at their bases – as tiny and translucent as the half-moon on a baby’s fingernail – that explode with eye-watering raw-onion flavour when chewed.
In fact, it transpires that on the mountainsides in the Alto Adige – as this region straddling the border of the Veneto and Trentino is also known – quite a bit of what you see is edible. It’s just one of many revelations of high-summer days spent here, amid the peaks and valleys of a part of Italy more often exalted for its wintertime attractions. From late November to March, the Dolomites – particularly the valleys surrounding the Sella Ronda, which comprises a fairly staggering 1,200km of piste and some 450 lifts – see slope devotees arriving from as far afield as Japan, Chile and Australia. Many are drawn to world-class ski terrain that’s matched by a stellar quality of accommodation and a tempting breadth of cuisine, running the gamut from multi-Michelin-lauded destination restaurants (about 20, with between them more than 25 stars) to unadorned mountain huts known as rifugi, where steaks whose dimensions would give a Flintstone pause are broiled over open flames and consumed with vast quantities of Lagrein, the bodacious local red. Because the stony, soaring Dolomites sit flush with the southern flank of the Austrian Alps (and were, in fact, part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire until exactly 100 years ago), there are dirndls, onion domes crowning churches and gaily painted gables in abundance. The pasticceria is also the bäckerei – and then there’s Ladin, a third language spoken pretty much only here, to add to the confounding mix of accents and typography.
But in summer, thanks to Mediterranean air-current exposures, valley-floor temperatures can regularly reach the high 20s during the day – on balance, a bit warmer than days in the Alps to the north (the Dolomites also tend to get a bit less rain). The Sella Ronda’s myriad ski runs are given over to mountain bikes; the rifugi sprout outdoor seating areas, dense with hikers admiring cinematic views scoured clean of pollution while they drink icy steins of local beer. The days start early and fresh, with trails of dense cottony fog floating near the tree lines like heaven’s jetsam in the first light, and often end with the setting sun painting shades of orange and pink across the towering massifs: Monte Civetta, Sass Rigais, Furchetta, the glacial Marmolada, the four peaks of Alta Badia. And all the while, temperatures remain mild enough for shirtsleeves.
So it’s no surprise that more and more people are leveraging the landscape, and its many contrasts, to maximum summer-joy effect. In the meadows at the base of the Lagazuoi face, you might come across a handful of yoga practitioners, mats rolled out on thick grass, moving through their surya namaskars to a soundtrack of sighing pines and the ting of cowbells. The Sella, long host to elite competitive cycling events, is now also the site of more everyman endeavours: in June the third iteration of Dolomites Bike Day saw experienced cyclists and laymen tackle some 50km of road, taking in three mountain passes across two discrete regions, with lots of libation pit-stops along the way. Wild swimmers flock to the lakes; skyrunners – fleet-footed habitués of the world’s paths and trails that are found above 2,000m and incline more than 30 degrees – are by now part of the scenery.
A clutch of new hotels, opened with the summer season, has recently trained the spotlight on the area; the clever ones entered the game with lots of seasonal programming. Among them is a new lodge from Adler, a wellness leader here and in Tuscany, whose intimate properties now total five. Adler Lodge Ritten opened in June on Renon mountain, easily accessed from Bolzano, the capital of South Tyrol, and supremely positioned to allow its guests to partake of the summer landscape; its one- or two-bedroom chalets are arranged around natural ponds on a lush plateau, and sites for outdoor fitness classes, spa treatments and meditation abound. Another, in Trentino, is the Lefay Resort & Spa Dolomiti, a sister to that brand’s Lake Garda spa resort. With the open ski bowls and snowboard parks of Trentino’s Madonna di Campiglio a stone’s throw away, the 88 suites and 5,000sq m spa are – unusually for the area – open almost all year round.
But here, as in many other points European, it’s often the established family hosts who have explored and experimented and honed, and thus have the drill down pat. So to Rosa Alpina, built in 1850 in the Val Badia village of San Cassiano (population: about 850) and since 1940 the property of the Pizzinini family, who opened it as a hotel the same year. Its first clients went without telephones and arrived on horse-drawn sleds. Today it’s a sleek, multi-venue affair, with 55 rooms and suites, a sprawling spa, a three-bedroom private chalet, a library and billiard room, a private cinema seating 12, and – last but far from least – a fine-dining restaurant called St Hubertus, whose chef Norbert Niederkofler was awarded his third Michelin star last year.
Rosa Alpina’s owner Hugo Pizzinini has probably done more than any other private citizen here to put the area of Alta Badia, which includes the now sought-after villages of San Cassiano and Corvara, on the luxury-tourism map. He’s also the hotelier who has arguably done the most to creatively push the perimeters of Alta Badia as a destination, often through inventive programming. A couple of months ago, for the second year, Pizzinini hosted cult American fitness outfit The Ranch Malibu at Rosa Alpina for five consecutive seven-day retreats. Think eight hours of varied mountain workouts daily, with ad-hoc “cryo” baths in icy mountain streams, and locally harvested plant-based menus – the ultimate exploitation of Dolomites summertime goodness. A sometime cyclist who recently took up mountain trail running, Pizzinini tells me he has plenty of summer repeat guests, but that he’s still keen to spread the word about the particular appeal of his own, Unesco Heritage-mandated corner of Italy during the mild months. There are lessons to be taken away, he believes, about the environment and the culture, in all their bounty and fragility.
So my days here combined guided naturalist’s hikes, outdoor yoga and meditation, overnights in the hotel’s exclusive mountain huts, and – the pinnacle of haute Alpine tutelage, for which I was a sort of guinea pig – foraging for a tailormade rifugio barbecue with no less an expert than Niederkofler himself. In 1994, after stints in fine kitchens in London and Zürich and several formative years working for New York legend David Bouley, Niederkofler returned to the province in which he was born and went on to open St Hubertus, originally as a pizzeria, at Rosa Alpina. Over the next decade he evolved the menu to something altogether more refined, referencing the food of Italy and Austria in dishes replete with all the signifiers of haute cuisine, from foie gras to edible gold leaf to scallops. Paradoxically, as acclaim for his directional cooking grew, Niederkofler found himself increasingly distracted by mountain cranberries, wild beetroot and rhubarb, freshwater char, and all the other über-local materia prima on which his parents and grandparents had been raised, and had raised him. As he tells it, he woke up one day and realised he needed to revert to what the land right outside the restaurant had to offer, and future international kudos be damned.
Thus began Cook the Mountain, a combination research project/cultural initiative/fine-dining experience unique to St Hubertus. The two multi-course menus, which utilise only seasonal ingredients, sourced exclusively from within the Alpine region, were first offered in 2011, and today are the sole focus and offering. (Consider that his self-imposed doctrine was so strict that even olive oil was banished – olives not being native to these mountains – and supplanted by grapeseed oil, and yet he has still managed to earn a third Michelin star.) Niederkofler and his executive sous chef Michele Lazzarini have logged years roving the forests and meadows and massif-sides surrounding Rosa Alpina, in the company of farmers, shepherds, botanists and one woman Niederkofler describes as a “good witch”, amassing an encyclopedic knowledge of plants and animals, and how their properties and flavours can be expressed and combined.
Which brings us back to aglio orsino and the edible mountainside. I’d spent the previous day in the company of San Cassiano’s top naturalist/climbing guide Diego Zanesco, who had expounded cheerfully on the curative properties of various flowering herbs as he loped effortlessly up the incline to the Lagazuoi Lake saddle, me plodding along in his wake (total ascent in 50 minutes: almost 1,000m). He assumed a more sombre mien as he relayed stories of unusual changing weather patterns (including a massive storm last October that took down millions of trees). On this day, after a brief early-morning hike to 8am yoga and meditation next to a glacial stream, the afternoon’s agenda would be to accompany Niederkofler and Lazzarini to some of their favourite foraging spots, then travel to one of Rosa Alpina’s two rifugi to prepare and eat supper together. Then they’d leave me on the mountain – well provisioned with wine, candles (the rifugi are off the grid) and down bedding – to spend the night solo. Under a 28-degree sun-drenched sky, we hopped in Rosa Alpina’s Suzuki SUV and puttered up a dirt road on the western face of the valley, San Cassiano diminishing rapidly behind us. Twice before reaching the summit, we swerved abruptly to the shoulder and stopped, Lazzarini bounding out into the knee-high grass and crouching to pick something: wild spinach, buon enrico (Good King Henry – the bulbous tips are delicious sautéed with chilli, apparently), plush yellow-brown chamomile, purple mountain thyme. He passed me a lightly crushed leaf of the aglio orsino – acrid and fresh in equal measure – then pointed at a copse of mugo pines, whose needles, reduced and blended into an emulsion, would form part of a dish I’d eat later.
Atop the summit was a 360-degree CinemaScope view, rock faces and vivid green meadowland forming a shallow, jagged bowl at whose centre we roamed. We weaved through fields and underneath the ski gondola, filling Tupperware containers with flowers of all sorts. Niederkofler, mock bowing, presented me with a posy of the purple wild onions, which I nibbled as we drove to the rifugio in the slanting late-afternoon sun.
Awaiting us was an assistant chef from St Hubertus, stoking the barbecue and pouring out a fine local spumante. The hulking faces of the Alta Badia’s four peaks were glowing peach in the dimming light. Lazzarini and Niederkofler went to work: in short order I had sampled a salad of 16 herbs and flowers, dressed with a cool, fresh elderflower reduction; orzotto – a risotto-style orzo dish – with local sheep’s cheese and handfuls of chopped aglio orsino; rich caramelised sweetbreads atop the custardy mugo-pine emulsion; and three slender slices of a massive T-bone, with a reduction made from the chamomile we’d picked two hours earlier (chamomile and meat – another revelation). We talked more mountain bounty: how aglio orsino is virtually identical to another plant found in these parts that’s so poisonous it can kill you; how Niederkofler and Lazzarini work with not one but two scientists to catalogue the 2,000-odd mushrooms endemic to the Alto Adige; how the network of 40 or so farmers and vendors who supply Cook the Mountain – none of them even remotely commercially minded – took almost a decade to find and cultivate.
By 9.15pm, the sun is below the summit, and the massifs are the colour of livid bruises; fingers of mist are reaching between the pines towards the valley below. After a final toast, all three chefs load their respective trucks and trundle off, leaving me, and utter silence, in their wake. I watch the mountains’ sharp silhouettes fade along with the sky’s colours – still in my shirtsleeves, enjoying the last reverberations of a Dolomite summer.