Italian, but with a twist… 1

ON THE ROAD EXPERIENCES The Story ISSUE: 02 - MAR.16,2017 Italian, but with a twist… Have you ever dreamed of designing your own country? Mine would have Sydney’s warm, dry climate; the mountains, forests and meadows of Austria; the cuisine and wines of Italy, and Hong Kong’s low taxes. As far as I know, nowhere has all of these qualities, but I think I’ve found somewhere that comes close. The Italian region of South Tyrol, known as Alto Adige in Italian and Südtirol in German, matches most of my criteria – although I would need to do some work on the tax regime. Sandwiched between the southern flanks of the Alps and the Adriatic, South Tyrol is likewise sandwiched between the cultures of Central Europe and the Mediterranean, and – happily –manages to combine the best of both. As with many other aspects of life here, South Tyrol’s produce is at once recognizably Italian, but with a twist. For example, despite producing some of Italy’s finest wines, most of the vari- etals grown here are actually Germanic – one of the most well-known of which, Gewurztraminer, takes its name from the South Tyrolean village of Tramin. Likewise, rather than growing the citrus fruits found further down Italy’s “boot”, South Tyrol is one of Europe’s largest apple growing regions. The apples grown in thousands of small orchards here have been awarded the “Protected Geographical Indication” (PGI) seal by the EU and are recognized as a regional specialty. During a recent trip through the region, I visited several beautiful vineyards (all with both Italian and German names; Col- terenzio/Schreckbichl, San Michele Appi- ano/St. Michel Eppan and so on). When I asked each winemaker how much of their wine was for export, almost all replied with another question: “You mean, includ- ing Italy?” Although most meant this as a joke, I soon came to realize that South Tyroleans see themselves as distinct and separate from the rest of Italy. This touch of schizophrenia goes well beyond the political. In Italian, South Tyrol is called “Alto Adige” (Upper Adige), after the Adige River. Italy’s second longest river, the Adige flows from the Alps to the Mediterranean, watering the vineyards and apple orchards that bask on South Tyrol’s sunny south-facing Alpine slopes. Even the lovely climate here sounds oxy- moronic – “Alpine Mediterranean” – with its warm, dry summers and short, snowy winters. As you would expect, given all the above, South Tyrolean cuisine is a mouth-watering blend of Italian and Austrian influences. Superb pasta dishes can be found on menus along- side Schlutzkrapfen (an Austrian type of filled pasta) stuffed with cheese and mushrooms. Home-grown specialties such as Schüttel- brot (a relative of Swedish knäckebröd), roast chestnuts and fragrant Alpine mushrooms all feature in the region’s excellent restaurants. Interestingly, the sarcodon mushrooms found here have close relatives in Yunnan, where one species is called Black Tiger Paw (黑虎掌菌). South Tyrol’s Alpine side is, to my mind, best experienced in its road network, with at least 23 well-known mountain passes. The most famous among these is the Stelvio Pass which tops out at 2,747m. Climbing it requires navigating through 48 hairpin turns, making it a delight for drivers, nirvana for motor-bikers and a monumental pain in the thighs for cyclists. Most of these passes wind through South Tyrol’s crowning geographic landmark, the sawtooth Dolomites. The mountains’ name derives from that of eighteenth century French geologist Déodat de Dolomieu, the man who discovered just how geologically special this area is. Starting life as a primordial coral reef, violent and varied geo- logical processes have turned them upside down, as it were, and transformed the coral into the ivory-colored peaks that today rise above the clouds and stand in stark contrast to the deep green meadows below. This otherworldly landscape attracts legions of climbers and walkers each year, keen to test their fingers and feet in the mountains. South Tyrol was where Reinhold Mess- ner, one of the world’s greatest mountaineers, first learned to climb as a child. Once ruled by the Austro-Hungarian Em- pire, today’s South Tyrol was formerly part of the larger state of Tyrol, which had its capital in Innsbruck. The fertile south- ern half, home of the dramatic Dolomite Mountains, was annexed by Italy at the end of World War I. South Tyrol’s separa- tion from Austria saw emotions run high on both sides for many years, but today the region has been given a great deal of autonomy within Italy, and ways have been found to balance both cultures. As for myself, I recently rediscovered this long-forgotten story from my family history: one of my forbears married a countess of Sarentino (“die Gräfin von Sarnthein”). The Sarentino is one of South Tyrol’s many high-alpine valleys. The count and the count- ess were, in effect, the overlords of the Sarentino. Had I lived then, I would have had my own country.