The road trip, part 2: We were armed with a long list of impressive sights and tips for driving routes as we headed off from Nova Ponente Deutschnofen on another sunny and cold Italian springtime morning. Our destination for the day was Cortina d’Ampezzo, but we really wanted to make the most of the drive and weren’t in a hurry to get there. Some of the most spectacular mountain passes of the trip were on the cards for the day through the Dolomites, a recently declared UNESCO World Heritage site.
We had two route options: head north onto the SS12 and then turn and head east along the SS242, or head straight onto the SS241, then the SS48 before joining route SS242. We chose the first option, although when we saw how beautiful the road along the SS48 was, we also doubled back and did part of that route too through the Passo Sella. The advantage of a high view point from the top of the pass! If you were pressed for time, I don’t think you could make a bad choice either way.
The roads were again narrow and windy with tight corners and steep ascents, but the views began to get truly beautiful as we approached the ski town of Ortisei-St Ulrich. The mountains on either side were enormous, imposing hulks of limestone which towered above the toy-like villages. In the sun, with the snow, they glistened like diamonds. As we ascended the mountains and headed up to the pass, yellow snow depth poles dotted the roadside, curving in between the pine trees. The classic Dolomites backdrop. Aaah…
Again, I regretted not bringing a warmer jacket and proper walking boots – so much for spring. Between the snow and the icy temperatures, it was difficult to do longer walks without the proper gear. I felt we were missing out on some of the best adventures, but there was not much we could do about it. Instead, we spent most of the day driving around the mountain passes and vaguely headed in the direction of Cortina D’Ampezzo.
As it started to get late, we headed in and then past the town to a Rifugio which I had spotted on the map. It seemed we were back in Italian-speaking land; at the hotel I was met by a roly-poly nonna and had to practice my terrible Italian in order to get a room for the night. It turns out we had found quite a gem of a hotel, which was charming, beautifully furnished with a view over the mountains, and an amazing restaurant on site. Another strike for the unplanned trip!
The following day we set off early and drove in a largish circle around the area, through the national park in search of the Tre Cimi (Drei Zinnen/Three Peaks), the most distinctive Dolomites peaks. We passed by the frozen Lake Misurina and followed the well-marked road signs to the peaks. Unfortunately the pass (Monte Paterno Paternkofel) we planned to drive through was closed but we (and I mean Barth) went through the open gate at the parking booth anyway. After driving a couple of minutes along a frozen slippery road (and arguing whether we should be there in the first place…) we came to a road block, and got chased out by an incomprehensibly fast Italian-speaking man who (I think) was trying to give us a fine. Not to be defeated, we drove the long way round and managed to see the peaks by approaching from Dobbiaco.
After enjoying the views for the day, we reluctantly left the quiet and peaceful Dolomites region and headed back on the main highways with the rest of the busy traffic to Venice. We needed to be in Rome by the end of the week for our flight back to Sydney, but stopped in Pienza, Tuscany for two nights, mostly to sample the food of the region and do a bit of hiking where it was warmer. The green rolling hills with vineyards, pink and orange sunsets and quaint little ancient villages were beautiful, but we missed the mountains!
In a little restaurant tucked into a side street in one of the old towns after a day of hiking, I had a something similar to this bean soup for dinner. It was the “special of the day”, but I couldn’t catch exactly what kind of beans were in the soup (I think possibly cannellini). I’ve recreated it here with butter (lima) beans because that is what we have in the pantry, but you could also use cannellini, navy or Great Northern beans. Dried beans always taste better, but feel free to use the tin variety if you are short on time. I love the contrast of the creamy white beans with the nutty chickpeas, with the lemon and chilli brightening up the soup (they didn’t feature in my Tuscan meal but the colours remind me of the ski lifts in the mountains). The soup serves 2-4 adults as a meal, with bread.
- 1.5 cups dried butter (lima) beans, soaked overnight (or 3 x 400g tin, drained and rinsed)
- 1 large brown onion, thinly sliced
- 4 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
- 2-3 sage leaves
- 2 cups of good quality vegetable stock
- 1/2 cup dried chickpeas, soaked overnight (or 1 x 400g tin, drained and rinsed)
- Half a bunch of cavolo nero (curly/lacinto kale), destalked and sliced into thin ribbons
- 1 lemon, cut into quarters, for serving
- Sourdough bread, for serving
- Salt and pepper, to taste
- 2 garlic cloves, crushed
- If you are using dried beans, first cook the beans: rinse and drain them, and add them with about 5 cups of cold water to a large saucepan. Simmer over low-medium heat for about an hour until cooked through and soft (the cooking time will vary, depending on how long the beans were soaked so check regularly). Once cooked, retain a cup of the cooking water, and then drain and rinse the beans and discard the remaining water. If you are using dried chickpeas, cook these at the same time in a different saucepan using the same method and with about 2-3 cups of water – they should only take 30 minutes to cook.
- In a large, heavy bottomed saucepan, add a couple of splashes of olive oil, the onion and garlic and saute on medium heat for 5-7 minutes until the onions are soft and translucent.
- Add the butter beans and sage and stir through with the onions, and then add the vegetable stock and cup of retained butter bean cooking water (if you used tinned beans, then just add another cup of vegetable stock or water). Turn the heat down to low and simmer for 10-15 minutes until the soup becomes thick. Taste, and add some salt and pepper (depending on how salty your vegetable stock is).
- While the soup is cooking, prepare the chilli paste by pounding all the ingredients together in a mortar and pestle or food processor. (You will have extra chilli paste, which will keep for a few days).
- Transfer the soup to a blender or food processor and process on high for a couple of minutes until the soup is smooth and creamy – you may need to do this in batches. Return to the saucepan, simmer on low heat and add the chickpeas and cavolo nero. Let it cook for a further 5 minutes or so and then remove from heat.
- To serve, ladle soup into bowls and serve with chilli paste, lemon wedges and bread.