I have just returned from the South Tyrol where we are helping to heal the scars of construction and seat a new house back into a precipitous mountainside. This north-eastern province of Italy feels more Austrian than Italian and the two-hour drive from Verona plunges you deep into a valley as the Dolomites rise up around you. The spa town of Merano sits at the end of the valley and the slopes that come down to meet the town are farmed proudly and intensively by the locals.
Though there was already snow on the peaks, every ledge and terrace up to the treeline was striped with fruit trees. Figs to the lower slopes and then apples, pears, apricots and cherries in immaculate cordons criss-crossing the contours. Beautifully constructed chestnut pergolas sailed over the terraces to make the fleets of vines easily pickable and, in the gulleys that became too steep, the yellowing of the chestnut trees marked their presence at the base of the oak woods above them.
Our client helped to make our stay that much more memorable with a meal at a typical Tyrolean eatery on the last night. A winding, single-track road into the orchards threw us off course more than once, but we eventually found the farmhouse, sitting square and noble with the view of the town below. We were welcomed warmly by the family who have occupied this farm for more than seven hundred years and invited into a beautifully simple wood-panelled room. Shared farmhouse tables with chequered tablecloths and lace-covered pendant lights concentrated the experience and a tiled floor-to-ceiling stove sat in the corner of the room to enhance the autumnal feeling.
Our host came to the table, offering speck and drawing up a chair beside us to cut and portion it carefully, as he explained the nature of the meal to come. The speck was his own and he told us how it was smoked daily over the course of three months with the prunings from his vines and apple trees. A perfectly portioned apple, rosy as in a fable, sat on the chopping board as a complement, together with schüttelbrot, a South Tyrolean crispbread flavoured with caraway seed. A jug of this year’s new wine, the first of several, helped to lubricate the feast that was to follow.
Next came the knödel. Two portions, one red and made of beetroot, the other yellow which, on tasting, we discovered were made with swede, both drenched in a sauce of melted butter and grated parmesan. A meaty plate of home made blood sausage and belly pork on a bed of sauerkraut came next, with more knödel, this time flecked with chopped speck. Finally, a round of hot, charcoal-roasted chestnuts made it to the table. A large cube of butter and schnapps infused with grape skin served to counteract their mealiness and, as we peeled them together, our fingers blackened, I couldn’t help but feel that this same autumn meal must have been eaten in this room for generations.
1 small onion, finely chopped, about 50g
1 clove garlic, finely chopped
1 tablespoon butter
70g coarse breadcrumbs
30g hard goat cheese or pecorino, finely grated
1 small egg
30-50g plain flour
Small bunch flat leaf parsley, about 1 tablespoon finely chopped
Small bunch dill fronds, about 1 tablespoon finely chopped
Salt and pepper
8 tablespoons buttermilk
1 tablespoon soured cream
1 tablespoon freshly grated or creamed horseradish
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon lemon juice
Finely grated hard goat cheese, finely chopped parsley and dill fronds to serve.
It is worth saying that to get the best result you must use breadcrumbs made from the best bread you can get, preferably sourdough, and that the breadcrumbs should not be quite coarse. It is also said that the staler the breadcrumbs, the better the knödel. If you can’t get hold of buttermilk use just soured cream or crème fraiche.
Heat the oven to 180°C. Wrap the beetroot tightly in foil and bake for 30 minutes to an hour depending on size, until they are soft. Unwrap and leave to cool. Rub the skins off under cold running water. Grate coarsely and put into a mixing bowl.
Melt the butter in a small lidded saucepan over a moderate heat. Put in the onion and garlic, stir to coat, then put the lid on the pan and reduce the heat to low. Sweat the onion for about five minutes until it is soft and translucent, but not coloured, stirring from time to time. Remove from the heat, allow to cool, and add to the beetroot.
Add all of the remaining dumpling ingredients, apart from the flour, to the beetroot and onion. Stir until all is well combined. Season with salt and pepper. Add the flour, starting with 30g. The dough should remain soft, but start to come together in the bowl. If the mixture seems too wet add flour a little at a time until the right consistency is reached. Do not be tempted to add more flour or the dumplings will be gluey. Leave the mixture to sit for 15 to 20 minutes while you bring a deep pan of water to the boil and make the sauce, by putting all of the sauce ingredients into a bowl and whisking together until emulsified.
When the water comes to the boil, turn down to a gentle simmer. Using a knife or spoon divide the dumpling mixture into quarters. Wet your hands with cold water and then take a quarter of the mixture and quickly shape it into a ball. Repeat with the remaining dumpling mixture, then gently lower the dumplings into the hot water, being careful not to burn your fingers.
The dumplings will sink. Using a slotted or perforated spoon stir them very gently from time to time to stop them sticking to the bottom of the pan. Cook for 8 to 10 minutes until they float, when they are ready. Carefully remove the dumplings from the pan with a slotted spoon and allow as much water as possible to drain away.
Spoon the sauce onto two plates and place two of the dumplings on each plate. Scatter the herbs and cheese over and serve immediately while still hot.