After a couple of busy weeks back in Sydney, our road trip across the north of Italy through the Dolomites feels like a distant dream. We started our adventure on Easter Sunday, picking up a hire car and SIM card (for googlemaps) in Milan, and navigated through the crazy traffic and ring roads of Milan up to Lake Como. We had not planned a thing, nor booked any accommodation for the week, and I was a little anxious due to the Easter long weekend and the impending end of the snow season that we would struggle to find places that were available or open.
As prime navigator and director of operations, I randomly chose a reasonably-sized village on the north-east side of the lake to try our luck for the evening. Unfortunately, due to all the tunnels through the mountains (which don’t show up on googlemaps) we missed the turn-off and ended up in a tiny village with one street and a B&B where the owners weren’t answering the phone (or door). We set off again and shortly afterwards drove by a faded but loud sign welcoming us to turn up a very steep and narrow side road: “Hotel Belvedere – wir sprechen Deutsch, we speak English“. Tick, our cheap and cheerful lodgings for the evening, complete with a view over the mountains and lake, a chatty hotel owner who was half Italian-half Dutch, and (despite my earlier turning my nose up at the menu offerings) some delicious and very cheap pasta. Our lack of planning became quite evident during dinner that night, when our friendly host informed us that the Passo del Stelvio (a section through the Alps with 48 hair pin turns and Barth’s sole reason for wanting to road trip in the Dolomites) was currently closed, due to the snow and a ski slope currently traversing the road. Oops. Note to self: spend some more time researching before venturing off next time.
Armed with the German road pass status website and our new route on googlemaps, we set off the next morning in the direction of Sondrio, intending to stay the evening in Bolzano. The busy highway gradually gave way to steep ascents up narrow roads through the mountains, hairpin turns, winding through village after village, terraced vineyards, lakes, snowcapped mountains and then finally into ski fields. Absolutely stunning. We followed the local road signs which seemed to take us in the wrong direction most of the time, but didn’t we mind at all, as the scenic route was worth the detour.
After arriving in Bolzano, which felt too “big city” for our current purposes, we decided to keep going in search of a smaller village. We randomly chose the nearby Nova Ponente Deutschnofen (mainly because it seemed to have some hotels). It was a beautiful, idyllic village, and we were lucky enough to stay at Panoramahotel Obkircher (with a wonderful, panoramic view of the mountains which circled the village), for its last night of the winter season before it closed down until summertime. If you are ever in the area, I would recommend staying at this hotel – the view is fantastic, the accommodation price is very reasonable, the food (breakfast and dinner inclusive) is great and the family which own the hotel are so lovely and helpful. The area has a ski slope during the winter months, where you can do all the usual snow and winter sports, and during the summertime, it is filled with hikers. We managed to fit in a half day panorama hike in the area the next day, on our host’s (Armin’s) recommendation – and we may have got lost, again, ending up several kms slipping up icy roads, grabbing onto railings on the wrong mountain… perhaps we should get a map next time. At least we walked off all the pasta and bread that we had been eating.
Earlier in the day, we noticed that the road signs were appearing in both German and Italian, the villages and roads were becoming more orderly, and with the typical roofs of Austrian chalets dotting the skyline. We thought, at first, it was because we were near the Swiss and Austrian borders, but Armin informed us that we were in South Tyrol, which was formerly part of Austria before WWI. The area is now officially part of Italy, but German is the first language spoken and there are many Austrian influences in the food and behaviour of the people. It was here that we first encountered the Schüttelbrot (or “shaken bread”).
I had thought, at first, that the bread was stale as it is crispy and extremely hard to break. Armin explained that the bread was typical for the South Tyrol region (and we did encounter it at almost every other food-serving venue for the next couple of days) because it had originally been a poor area, and the inhabitants needed to bake a bread that would keep for months. The bread is made by mixing the flours and water and then, because it is too sticky to knead due to the rye, shaking it out in flour until it forms a pizza-like circle. It has a strong fennel and anise flavour, which goes really well with cheese and creamy things. I became completely addicted to it, and it was one of the first things I made once home.
Here I’ve team it up with a cannellini bean dip, which is barely adapted from Amy Chaplin’s cookbook, and which tastes so creamy and delicious its hard to believe there are no dairy products involved. Its topped with avocado, lemon and thinly sliced pieces of fresh fennel, but you can serve it any way that you would with crackers – its especially good with soft, creamy cheeses such as brie, ricotta etc. The dough recipe below makes about 6 rounds of the bread, and don’t worry, it keeps for months.
- 1 teaspoon dried yeast
- 375 g rye flour
- 500 mL lukewarm water
- 125 g all purpose or bread flour
- 1 teaspoon sea salt, ground
- 1 teaspoon aniseeds, ground
- 1 teaspoon fenugreek seeds, ground
- 1 teaspoon fennel seeds, ground
Cannellini bean aioli
- 400g can of cannellini beans, drained and rinsed
- 2 cloves garlic
- 1/4 teaspoon sea salt
- 1/4 teaspoon fennel seeds
- 6 artichoke hearts from a jar, drained
- 2 teaspoons ume plum vinegar
- 2 teaspoons lemon juice
- 1 teaspoon apple cider vinegar
- 6 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
- Avocado, thinly sliced
- Fennel and its fronds, thinly sliced
- Lemon juice, for drizzling
- Salt, pepper
- In a large bowl, dissolve the yeast into 125ml of the water. Add 125g of rye flour, mix well and set aside, covered for 30 minutes.
- Add the remaining flours, water, salt and spices to the bowl and mix well. Set aside, covered, for at least 2 hours until the dough has doubled in size.
- Preheat the oven to 200°C and put the pizza stone in the oven (if available; if not, use a baking tray). Flour the bench and your hands, divide the dough into six equal portions, sprinkle with flour and let them rest for 5 minutes. (The dough will be very sticky, soft and messy.)
- Taking one portion at a time, gently pull it into a circular disk (ie. thin pizza shape). If you have a pizza tray or round board available, put the dough on the board and shake it until the dough spreads out (like this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bwswfcAIK_A). Let the dough rest for 10 minutes.
- Bake the dough on the pizza stone (and baking paper) for 20-25 minutes. The bread is ready when its very hard – it should be crisp and difficult to cut with a knife. Store in an airtight container for several months. If it becomes hard and chewy, then bake it in the oven at 150°C for 10-15 minutes to crisp it up.
Slightly adapted from this recipe.
Cannellini bean aioli
- Add all ingredients to a high speed blender or food processor and blend for 3-4 minutes until smooth and creamy. As Amy Chaplin points out in her book, blending the mixture for several minutes is key to achieving the billowy texture and allowing the air to whip into it.
- Break off a piece of the shaken bread. Smother it with the aioli, a couple of pieces of fennel, avocado and drizzle with lemon juice. Season with salt, pepper and finish it with a couple of fronds of the fennel.