2000s Archive

Italy’s German Accent

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We tried a Pinzgau cheese, covered in high-mountain hay, that had been aged in barrels full of more hay. It tasted like summer. We sampled one called “the brick,” which was covered in smoked tea, tea having tannins that help conserve and mature—and, in this case, bring out a surprising sharpness in a young cheese. We learned about wine-soaked, or “drunken,” cheeses—a common trick for masking the taste of an inferior product, though Hansi makes a deliciously subtle one with the local grape, Lagrein. We tried more than a dozen different cheeses. My favorite was a sweet Gorgonzola mixed with fresh cream—cheese crossed with gelato. The more we tried, the more eager we were to try more—and the more Hansi gave us to try, moving back and forth from his cheese case and cheese board, opening bottles of Pinot Bianco, until he eventually sat down and joined us, bringing along some dessert wine. Our lunch consisted entirely of cheese.

Following tradition is the best way to make good food. Despite his improvisations, Hansi makes cheese the way cheese used to be made, and the small scale of his operation allows him to be an exception to current trends toward the mechanical and the oversanitized. (Brined cheeses that are now power-washed and blow-dried were once rubbed with oil and dried in the sun; others used to age on wooden shelves—most still do—but the EU currently wants all such surfaces to be made of aluminum or plastic.)

Speck, which is still produced on a relatively small scale because it’s consumed almost entirely in Trentino-Alto Adige, is an example of something that, though industrialized, is made in much the same way it has always been made. Alto Adige’s cuisine is simple Italian combined with surprising elements of the elevated and technical cuisine of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. So you might think of speck, the echt expression of the region, as prosciutto with an imperial influence. Whereas prosciutto is salted and cured in a uniform fashion, speck is rubbed with herbs, spices, and berries and, depending on the Alpine microclimate, smoked for different lengths of time and with different hardwoods. While prosciutto is well defined and consistent, speck is variable and you could even say eccentric.

Before meeting Franz Recla, who produces the magnificent speck (low salt content, very light smoke) sold at DiPalo’s, Lou wanted to try what he described as “farmhouse speck,” made by a family for their own consumption. To this end, we drove a series of tight mountain switchbacks, pulled onto a nearly invisible dirt road, took it through some fields, skirted the edge of a cliff, traversed another field, and arrived at a whitewashed stone farmhouse. The house has a name—Johannser Hof—and during the fall, after the harvest, visitors can arrange to come and have a meal here. For the rest of the year, the Brunner family raises livestock and makes speck. Georg Brunner, a lean, white-haired man in his sixties, showed us a chamber where speck has been smoked for the past 800 years—the ceiling and walls were lacquered black from centuries of single-minded purpose. Then we visited the cool cellar where postsmoke aging occurs. Farmer Brunner cut down a piece and carried it up to the family dining room, where Michaela, his daughter-in-law, in dirndl, brought us a ceramic pitcher of homemade red wine.

Lou sliced. Grandchildren appeared and took bites straight from his fork. We felt very much at home. Then Brunner took us outside to meet “next year’s speck.” In the farmyard his son came and said hello. As we admired two pigs, we heard frantic noises from the adjacent cattle barn. A cow was calving! I turned to Michaela, who had changed out of her dirndl and into blue coveralls, and said, city boy excitement in my voice, “Is it having a baby?”

“No,” she said. “It’s having a veal.”

Shortly thereafter a brown and white calf, one of Hansi’s Pinzgaus, I imagined, was born right at our feet, yanked into the world by two generations of Brunners (father, son, daughter-in-law) pulling on a rope.

Lou says he goes to Italy for two reasons, personal (“Coming here is not only about getting new items, new food, but about people, bonding. It makes me a better person”) and commercial (“Italian business isn’t done in an office, it’s done at a table”). After my visit to the Recla speck factory it occurred to me that, because of the personal relationships Lou has with his suppliers, by shopping at DiPalo’s you can take home food that has arrived there at the end of an unbroken chain of respect, care, knowledge, friendship.

The first thing you see on entering the tasting room at the Recla factory is a photo of Lou, prominently displayed, an arm around the company’s export manager, at DiPalo’s, the two men proudly brandishing the first speck to be sold in the United States after an absence of many years.

Franz Recla, the company’s owner, walked into the room, embraced Lou, and said, “Oh my dear Lou! How is your mother?” As at the farmhouse, family is at the center of the business. Franz is a third-generation speck maker, and when we toured the plant we met the fourth, his 12-year-old son, checking out the packaging line. We were walked through every stage of the process. Amaz-ingly, Recla’s is a meat-processing plant that actually makes you hungry.

At the end, as we watched finished packages of speck being inspected by his son, Franz Recla pointed to Lou and said: “I once visited a cheese and cured-meats store in Milan, early in the morning, and saw an old counterman who did things very much in the correct way. He was slicing prosciutto, and when I asked him why he did it the way he was doing it he explained that the lower leg was for the students, the upper leg for the working people, and the best part, the culatello, was for the refined ladies of Milan. He took me through the whole process of how to slice each part.

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