Why you should care
Because you should be aware: Some massive bread is ahead.
Eating marathons are so popular in Italy, they’re almost an art form: pasta, salami, even chili peppers. As a popular proverb goes: “Our eyes are wider than our stomachs.”
But what about stuffing yourself with as many as 100 different varieties of … bread? Sounds both delicious and carb-coma-inducing, right? If the thought of gorging on all kinds of fluffy, chewy, flavor-infused varieties of bready goodness has your mouth watering, you might want to get to Val d’Ultimo. It’s a picturesque Alpine valley in the northern region of Alto Adige dotted with a handful of hamlets, famous not just for skiing, but bread artistry — and eating.
Last winter I spent a whole weekend there, exercising my jaws. It’s a rather lengthy trip from Rome, making it quicker to drive in from Austria. As you near the region, especially at dawn, when bakers open their boutiques, you’ll begin to get a whiff of baking organic rye seeds — a scent that pervades the valley — and the warmth of the old family hearths baking the most humble of foods.
… salty and stuffed with pepper; sweet with raisins, almonds and pine nuts; fluffy and soft as sponge cake; or crusty and chewy.
The bakers have created the breads, mostly pocket-size, loyal to an ancient tradition that dates back to the Middle Ages. And the variety on offer is palate-busting: salty and stuffed with pepper; sweet with raisins, almonds and pine nuts; fluffy and soft as sponge cake; or crusty and chewy. Beware: It’s best to bite with caution. Some varieties are packed with hard seeds or dry fruit. I chipped a tooth (already in decay) on one treacherous slice. Other “secret ingredients” include poppy seeds, wild fennel, cumin spice, vinegar mixed with honey and rose petals, and the so-called Dragon’s Tooth herb that grows on pink Alpine rocks. And the breads come in all shapes: braids, balls, triangles, twisted sticks and rectangular loaves.
One hundred varieties of bread for one tiny place might seem a bit OTT. But not if you’re born and raised amid these snowcapped peaks, where bread has always been the main source of nourishment for farmers spending long days out on pastures herding sheep and tending crops. And if you’re eating a lot of bread, you’re probably going to want some variety, plus added nuts and seeds give a protein boost. But it’s not just about farmers. Thanks to the valley’s proximity to Austria, meals tend to reflect a typical northern European “bread-centered” diet. Translation: Bread is eaten as an appetizer with fresh butter, during the first and second course. This differs from other parts of Italy, where it’s simply an option — like in Rome, where its main purpose is to mop up the spaghetti sauce from your plate.
Making bread in Val d’Ultimo is like making pizza in Naples and tagliatelle pasta in Rome. However, Val d’Ultimo bread artists still bake their specialties old-school: inside alpine huts called masi. For 10 euros ($11), you can take a bread-making class. Peter Volzer (note the German name; it’s the region’s main language) holds private lessons inside his cottage each Sunday morning in the village of Bressanone on how to make the must-try variety, Ur-Paarl, shaped like a flat number 8. It’s soft inside with a crunchy crust, he explains, and “it’s good even after many weeks.” The best way to eat it is with goat yogurt and homemade raspberry jam, or dipped inside hay soup, an iconic local dish.
But that will most certainly fill your belly quicker. Best just to stick to the bread — there are too many to try. And you can always burn off the carbs later on the slopes.