I am in a car heading north from Venice. It is a road I have travelled many times before, it leads to my childhood refuge, to the treasure-vault of precious memories and a region that defines my Italian-ness: the Dolomites.
With the iconic peaks in sight, my driver takes a detour. I startle for a second. What is going on? The car enters smaller winding roads, typical of alpine regions, it is not easy to see where you are going. My driver looks at me with the playful leer of the mischievous child. He puts my mind at ease but the excitement grows. I’m in for a surprise…
The helicopter soars and reveals the quiet dance of these wild peaks. Sheer limestone walls, treasured by climbers, cherished by the gentlest, pink hues of the Sun, mountains that reach skyward with solemn prayer, with the heartfelt immovability of giants. The helicopter rushes past my childhood hides: the Marmolada, Italy’s last glacier, Passo Giau, and the green fields of Alta Badia.
If as a child I was restless to go out to explore, to expose myself to the elements, age has made me a more refined creature. I check into Hotel Rosalpina, the jewel of San Cassiano. I rush to the sauna and as I breathe in the smooth and light aroma of the wood, my body and mind yield into the pleasure and the release. I have been long waiting for this! The aromatics on the hot stones open memory’s furthest reaches, the cold mountain water brings balance to the smouldering heat, and the herbal tea is, without hyperbole, perfect. The large window reveals the charming peaks, the glorious Dolomites. I am home, I am in nature, with a few added comforts.
THE EXCELLENCE OF FOOD AND WINE
In 1977, The Voyager probes were launched into outer space. Each carried a golden-plated disc, in the slim chance that it might be found by intelligent extraterrestrial life. The golden disc contained music, greetings in many different languages, and many sounds of Earth. The disc attempts to condense our humanity in an audio-visual format. I say to Susan, my host, that if taste and smell could be recorded in such a format as a golden disc, we would have to launch to space the work of some of the chefs and wine lovers of the Dolomites, pinnacles of humanity together with Mozart and language.
I put on my jacket, my astronaut suit of sorts, and rush to La Siriola, led by Matteo Metullio, the youngest chef in Europe to attain two Michelin stars. Dinner at La Siriola is an integral experience that begins with the passionate hospitality of the Wiesers and their acclaimed Cheese Room, a carefully crafted game of cheese, with thoughtful wine pairings. It sets the mood for the rest of the evening.
The main menus are inspired by arboreal species such as Fir, Pine and Larch. Each one highlights a different aspect of Chef Matteo’s mastery of the culinary language: the Ladin heartiness of South Tyrol, or the freshness of the Adriatic flavours Chef Matteo mastered in his hometown of Trieste. Add to the mix a brilliant trajectory in the most demanding gastronomic settings around the world and it is easy to understand why La Siriola is firmly rooted in the Universal and the Sublime.
I find Pre-Dessert at La Siriola’s chocolate room befuddling. Each type of chocolate ― they serve over 60 varieties ― has been carefully researched and paired. The chef comes out with a serving of ice-cream covered in chocolate fondant while Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon plays on the background. The music has been chosen by the chef himself to create a truly psychedelic experience. This is just the tip of the Iceberg, as far as my amazement with this room goes. What astounds me is that you can walk around the room and taste whatever you want, like going back to childhood and be given the keys to Willy Wonka’s factory. There are no societal norms in this room, you don’t have to ask, you just have to go with your guts to find your way around Chocolate Land.
San Cassiano is a small village, secluded in the valleys of South Tyrol. Curiously, this tiny nook of the Dolomites houses five Michelin stars. Two belong to La Siriola, the remaining three belong to St. Hubertus, the prestigious restaurant led by legendary chef Norbert Niederkofler.
Chef Norbert never raises his voice. He blends creativity and technicality to develop a cuisine that is exciting, heart-racing, mind-blowing. However, during services, he is the timekeeper, the composed conductor that paces the orchestra. His staff cook and plate, he dictates the rhythm. Every time his mouth opens, the whole kitchen swells with a harmonious “Yes, Chef!”
If I had to welcome alien visitors from the confines of the Universe, and introduce them to the pinnacle of food and wine, this would be it. Chef Norbert explains the method behind his art:
“My cuisine has three principles: mountains, seasonality and no waste.”
“This means, fermentation,” he explains. “Buying the whole animal not just the fillet. This is distinctively a Japanese influence but with products from the mountain.”
The light is dimmed, it’s late at night and we pour the last drops from our remaining bottle. Chef Norbert raises his glass and concludes:
“We cook the mountain.”
One conversation later in my trip answered a question I had been debating: how can so much excellence be concentrated in this little corner of Italy? We were in the cellar at Ciasa Salares when my old friend Clemens Wieser handed me a 2017 Lezèr Foradori.
“This is a punk wine,” he said. “It is free from the orthodoxy of sommeliers.”
Clemens explains that pesticides are commonplace in the vineyards, sulfites are added indiscriminately to stabilise the wines, maniacally cleansed using chemicals, tweaking in the barriques to hide the mistakes made earlier in the process.
“For biodynamic wines like this one,” he continues, “the work is in the vineyard, not the cellar. The winemaker has to put the terroir ahead of his ego.”
Clemens captures the essence of the Dolomites. Traditions that have endured, hardy people that have prospered despite adversity ― or perhaps because of it. A love for excellence in things that take time, things revealed by the harsh snowstorms, the wind and the rain, like the limestone of the Dolomite faces that only when it has been beaten into shape is it ready to glow, to catch the enrosadira.
It is September and the tourists are gone. I enjoy perfect weather, not a cloud to be seen in the sky. The colours of autumn have not overtaken the green that still lingers in the fields. The livestock is still high up in the mountain pastures. It is a delight to be outdoors when the afternoon reveals the mysterious agony of the dying day: the mountains dress in pink, it is the alpenglow, the enrosadira.
I love trekking in the empty trails of Alta Badi, some of the finest I have ever seen. The delicate silence of solitary walks invites a contemplative state, inspired by nature. Eventually, I give up trying to explain it or conceptualise it and I enter the realm of pure experience. I am happy letting my emotions run indiscriminately. A sense of fulfilment invades my whole being: all that I need is with me, I long for nothing, I want for nothing. I am careful not to romanticise it, I simply let it be.
Nietzsche would be proud.
He carried out a forceful assault against the conventional moralising attitude towards nature, especially mountains. Nature, he thought, contains no message whatsoever. In The Birth of Tragedy, he argued that all meaning we find in nature is “the offspring of a longing” and later “the offspring of fear”. We feel profoundly at the sight of landscapes and scenery, mountains and meadows, out of a primaeval habit, born of fear. Meaning emerges and we can then take immense pleasure in nature. But make no mistake, nature has no opinion concerning us.
I sit on a rock and read Nan Shepherd’s The Living Mountain. Faithful to Nietzsche, I try not to extract meaning but a learning. What Shepherd expresses is as beautiful as these mountains, their impenetrability, their enduring lure and mystery.
The more one learns of this intricate interplay of soil, altitude, weather, and the living tissues of plant and insect (an intricacy that has its astonishing moments, as when sundew and butterwort eat the insects), the more the mystery deepens. Knowledge does not dispel mystery. Scientists tell me that the alpine flora of the Scottish mountains is Arctic in origin — that these small scattered plants have outlived the Glacial period and are the only vegetable life in our country that is older than the Ice Age. But that doesn’t explain them. It only adds time to the equation and gives it a new dimension… My imagination boggles at this. I can imagine the antiquity of rock, but the antiquity of a living flower — that is harder. It means that these toughs of the mountaintop, with their angelic inflorescence and the devil in their roots, have had the cunning and the effrontery to cheat, not only a winter, but an Ice Age. The scientists have the humility to acknowledge that they don’t know how it has been done.
This is because nature is utterly irreducible to a system. It is forever expansive. Analyse it all you want, break it into little pieces, and it will soon return to unity and imperturbability. Nature demands wholeness, total surrender.
Here then may be lived a life of the senses so pure, so untouched by any mode of apprehension but their own, that the body may be said to think. Each sense heightened to its most exquisite awareness, is in itself total experience. This is the innocence we have lost, living in one sense at a time to live all the way through.
Thus, the inherent religiosity of the mountain is revealed:
Knowing another is endless. And I have discovered that man’s experience of them enlarges rock, flower and bird. The thing to be known grows with the knowing. I believe that I now understand in some small measure why the Buddhist goes on pilgrimage to a mountain. The journey is itself part of the technique by which the god is sought. It is a journey into Being; for as I penetrate more deeply into the mountain’s life, I penetrate also into my own. For an hour I am beyond desire. It is not ecstasy, that leap out of the self that makes man like a god. I am not out of myself, but in myself. I am. To know Being, this is the final grace accorded from the mountain.
The winding trails of the Dolomites skirt and dance around the peaks, the main feature of this landscape. I venture to the heights using a via ferrata, and “iron path”. It is a cable bolted to the face of the mountain that runs along a route. Climbers can secure themselves to the cable and be protected from falls. The origins of the via ferrata date back to the 19th century. However, this technique is often associated with WW1, when several were built in the Dolomites to aid troop movements.
I find myself attached to a vertical wall, exposed on three sides to the void. It is challenging to the mind more than the body. Because of the via ferrata, routes that would be reserved for professional climbers become accessible. This is controversial among some: the market pushes to give accessibility to the mountains which could lead to a philosophy to go higher by any means. This is what happened in the Himalayan peaks that eventually became a circus of shallow achievement. But Reinhold Messner, who incidentally hails from this very region of Italy, understood that true alpinism is an inward movement rather than a flashy display of daredevil techniques or heavy-duty equipment. In this sense, the via ferrata is almost minimalist.
The core of alpinism is to do something beyond what you thought you could do. I am clinging to the wall, looking for a foothold, listening to the advice my mountain guide, Marcello, is giving me. Feelings of self-doubt, fear and obfuscation fade away as a rush of endorphins focus my mind. I soak in the view: it is reserved for gods and demons and yet I get to see it! My foot finally finds the spot.
A NIGHT IN THE WOODS
I am spending the night in the middle of the woods. It is a full-moon night. I got a small fire going that is crackling merrily. Besides the murmur of the stream, it is the only sound. It is silent under the shadow of the mountains. It’s almost 1 in the night when Clemens joins me with some excellent wine, a nero di troia by Valentina Passalacqua, from Southern Italy.
Clemens and I play music battles: each proposes a song, connected to the previous one. We soon find ourselves in the terrain of the classics: Sophia Loren and Tonis Maroudas singing Boy on a Dolphin, NIlla Pizz’s Grazie dei Fior, Peppino Gagliardi’s Ce vuelo questa musica stasera… Clemens responds with Leonard Cohe’s I am your man. He wins the round as I become silent and I am transported to the story that Pico Iyer told about Cohen:
Sitting still, he said with unexpected passion, was “the real deep entertainment” he had found in his sixty-one years on the planet. “Real profound and voluptuous and delicious entertainment. The real feast that is available within this activity.”
Was he kidding? Cohen is famous for his mischief and ironies.
He wasn’t, I realized as he went on. “What else would I be doing?” he asked. “Would I be starting a new marriage with a young woman and raising another family? Finding new drugs, buying more expensive wine? I don’t know. This seems to me the most luxurious and sumptuous response to the emptiness of my own existence.”
Being still, therein was the beauty of sitting at night in front of a bonfire, in the woods under the mountains.
As Iyers put it:
Going nowhere … isn’t about turning your back on the world; it’s about stepping away now and then so that you can see the world more clearly and love it more deeply... It’s only by taking myself away from clutter and distraction that I can begin to hear something out of earshot and recall that listening is much more invigorating than giving voice to all the thoughts and prejudices that anyway keep me company twenty-four hours a day. And it’s only by going nowhere — by sitting still or letting my mind relax — that I find that the thoughts that come to me unbidden are far fresher and more imaginative than the ones I consciously seek out.