It only took an eight hour flight, a five hour train ride, a thirty minute minute bus ride and a twenty minute hike to get there. Even though I landed in Milan, by the time I finished traveling I was practically in Austria. But I finally had made it. Welcomed by the traditional Tyrolean music of Alto Adige and the wafts of smoked meat in the air, I knew the destination was well worth the journey. I had arrived at Speck Fest, a two-day festival in the foothills of the Val di Funes in Northern Italy, all in honor of one smoked and cured meat: speck.
Now what is speck you may ask? Like the well known Italian specialty, prosciutto, it is made from the thigh of the pig, cured and aged. Unlike prosciutto, it is cured without the bone and is always smoked. I like to think of it as prosciutto’s sexy cousin. The light smoke and the rich layers of fat are a heavenly combination. No wonder hundreds of locals and tourists turned up to Speck Fest to enjoy it in every capacity. When sliced thin, speck reassembles prosciutto. Pick it up and let in gently fall into your mouth in ribbons, instantly melting. Drape slices of speck over the local Tyrolean bread, a rich brown bread filled with fennel seeds, and have a panino or sandwich. Dice it up and cook with it as you would bacon, in pastas, potatoes or my favorite canederli, a dumpling made out of old bread and cooked in broth and served in a soup or dry and dosed in butter. You might need to go on Lipitor afterwards, but let me tell you, each bite is worth it.
Speck has been part of Northern Italian history for over three hundred years, but only started being imported into the United States thirteen years ago. This act of culinary enlightenment is credited to the small but historic three generation old family run store DiPalo’s in New York City’s Little Italy. It is in their store on Mott and Grand Street where I tried speck for the first time and became a convert. About a year ago, Lou, one of the owners, came out with a book about the essential Italian ingredients and their histories. The food nerd that I am, I bought it and devoured it page by page. It’s a colorful and incredibly informative book. In his section about Alto Adige, Lou mentions participating in Speck Fest. Speck Fest, I reread it again. A whole festival that is dedicated to the celebration of my new smokey love? There was no question. I had to attend.
Eleven months later and after quite a bit of research, the trip was planned. At first I was hesitant to embark on my journey. Located in the rural mountain town of Santa Maddalena, Speck Fest was no simple trip, especially without a car. I did a time-benefit analysis. For roughly three and half hours of speck merriment, it would take me roundtrip twenty-six hours of travel from New York. But alas there were really no options to weigh. As a devout foodie, this journey would be my Hajj. Speck Fest my Mecca. My decision was made.
How often does reality actually fulfill and even surpass our expectations? Leading up to my journey, I regularly romanticized and dreamed of the misty alpine mountain tops, lederhosen sporting locals, abounding platters of speck, warm apple fritters, glorious pints of beer and joyous music and dancing, though never quite imagining my gastrodreams could come true.
As I climbed up the last leg of the journey, passing pristine milky white cows, chickens and small log homes, I saw a massive sign “Speck Fest.” About a hundred or so picnic tables were surrounded by stall after stall, slicing up speck and cooking different speck centered foods. The servers offered up refreshing pints of local beers, crisp glasses of wines and my favorite Tyrolean apple juice, which was so rich and thick it tasted like cider. Musicians in lederhosen blasted local tunes off the main stage as the Speck Master sliced into the inaugural speck of the festival; later the new Speck Queen was named and crowned. As I took a big forkful of my creamy penne with mushrooms and speck, I took in the view. Nestled in the small the valley, I looked out on the most vibrant deep green pastures, ranges upon ranges of glorious lofty and austere mountains and piercing blue skies. My smokey alpine dream had not only come true, but it completely exceeded my expectations. So if you ever find yourself hungry for adventure in the most delicious and beautiful way possible, check out Speck Fest. I know I will be back.