Exploring the Olive Orchards of the Colli Berici

olive-orchard-bike-tours-italyOur travels today wound through the picturesque Colli Berici, or Berici Hills, south of Vicenza, Italy. Off the well worn tourist track, we encounter only locals out hiking the trails or cycling along these quiet country roads. In addition to vineyards, we are surrounded by many olive orchards. Producers are many, and we of course taste some olive oil as we stop for a snack at a favorite wine bar.

The flavor of olive oil is due to the presence of a large number of chemical compounds. Over one hundred compounds, including alcohols, esters, ketones, aldehydes, and phenols are found in olive oil, and contribute to each a distinctive aroma and flavors. The flavors can range from mild and fresh to grassy, floral, to spicy, with enough peppery piquancy to make one cough.

Many factors play a role in the presence and amount of this compounds. The care exhibited in growing, harvesting, and extracting the oil. If the olives are stored for a long time after harvest, or milled at too high a temperature (this does increase the yield), the flavor degrades. Olives that have been harvested to early also suffer, the highest concentration of the volatile components in olive oil only develop fully in mature olives.
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The storing conditions and the age of the oil is also important. With age, the flavor and aroma of the oil decrease. Olive oil should be stored out of direct sunlight, in a sealed and dark container, and used within 30 days of opening.

Finally, the variety, weather, and location of the orchards all play a role as well. Producers of olive oil have the same deep knowledge and appreciation of terrior as a wine maker. They know the optimum place in their orchard for each varietal, how the flavors in each varietal develop on their lands, and suffer through bad years when the weather doesn’t cooperate.

olive oil tasting custom hiking tours italyToday we sampled a Colli Berici olive oil side by side with a Sicilian oil – north versus south. The Colli Berici oil was fresh, lighter, with hints of grass. The Sicilian more piquant and peppery. I’d prefer the former to garnish a grilled white fish, the latter on a crostini. So many to enjoy in different ways!

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The Prosciutto of Montagnana

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Walls of Montagnana

Prosciutto is one of Italy’s most renowned food products, but in the US we only see two of the many wonderful prosciutti produced in Italy. Only prosciutto in Parma and the San Daniele prosciutto from Friuli are produced in a manner that adheres to US import guidelines. But there are many others produced in Italy that you can only enjoy in Italy.

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Cycling to Montagnana, Italy

Today we visited one town in the Veneto particularly known for it’s proscuitto, Montagnana. Located between the Euganie and Berici hills, south of Padua and Vicenza, Montagnana is a small walled city, one of the best preserved examples of medieval walls in Europe. We visited on a cycling tour, but the Euganie Hills are a wonderful place for hiking tours too. A lovely evening walk around the city to view the walls at sunset is a must.

montagnana ham private hiking tours italy
Prosciutto tasting, with local melon

Prosciutto from this area in the Veneto has its own D.O.P designation, Proscuitto Berico-Euganeo. The DOP regulations for the Berico-Euganeo prosciutto describe it as a “pink-colored ham that tends towards red in the lean parts and pure white in the fat parts which has a delicate and fragrant aroma.”  Every year the town of Montagnana celebrates its prized product with a week long festa, or festival, when restaurants offer special dishes, producers offer tours, and local chefs teach classes featuring the ham.

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Serprino wine from Colli Euganie

On our visit here, we enjoyed a tasting of the prosciutto. It is a bit sweeter than Parma prosciuttos, and pairs wonderfully with the local melons which have just come into season. A white wine from Colli Euganie, the Serprino, a refreshing still white wine made from the same grape used for prosecco, is a perfect pairing.

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Reviewing the history of Montagnana
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Tiefenbrunner – Wonderful Wines from Alto Adige

Our season starts soon in Italy, and we are looking forward to spending a couple of cycling tours exploring the wine regions in Alto Adige. Three bicycle routes run along the Alto Adige Wine Road, or Strada di Vini, through the province’s largest winegrowing zone, and amongst some of the loveliest vineyards in all of Italy. One day we’ll follow the path that runs from Bolzano, through Caldaro, and Cortaccia down to Trento, without any serious ascents as we pass medieval manors and castles through the vineyards and right by numerous wineries. One winery we will pass is Tiefenbrunner.  Their wines are available here in the US.

tiefenbrunner vineyards walking tours italyThe Tiefenbrunner winery is in the hamlet Entiklar, in the town of Cortaccia. Wine production has always played a significant role in the economic development of Entiklar, with grapes cultivated here as far back as Roman times. Located today in the Castel Turmhof estate, the winery was founded in 1848, but wine production on the estate dates back over 300 years. Today, the winery is still owned and operated by the Tiefenbrunner family, with Christof now overseeing the operations began by his parents, Hilde and Herbert. The passion this family has for its farmlands, its history, and their estate is wonderfully expressed in the wines they produce.

tiefenbrunner castel walking tours italyThe vineyards of Tiefenbrunner are spread on the picturesque mountain slopes around Turmhof Castle, with other vines located in the the flatter valley. The south facing slopes and loamy, chalk soil is the optimum environment for producing high-quality wines. The unique climate of this area, characterized by moderate rainfall and cool evening winds, and over 300 days of sunshine a year, results in a large temperature variation between day anid night, ideal for the ripening of the grapes. The Tiefenbrunner family appreciates the unique qualities of their terroir, carefully selecting varietals for each plot and overseeing their care, with a focus on enhancing the distinctive varietal nature of each wine.

tiefenbrunner cellar walking tours italyThe estate produces a nice range of wines, predominately whites such as Pinot Bianco, Pinot Grigio, Sauvignon Blanc, Gewürztraminer, and Müller-Thurgau, but also a few reds that do well in this northern region, Lagrein and Pinot Nero

A few tasting notes on the Tiefenbrunner wines I’ve enjoyed:

tiefenbrunner pinot bianco walking tours italy





Tiefenbrunner Pinot Bianco

100% Pinot Bianco, known here in Alto Adige also as Weissburgunder. A refined Pinot Bianco, bright yellow in color, refreshing in style. Floral aromas, with scents of apples and citrus. Rich, yet fresh, with a nice counterbalancing minerality and acidity. It pairs well with an antipasti, seafood dishs, and vegetable risottos.






tiefenbrunner feldmarschall walking tours italy







Feldmarschall Müller-Thurgau

100% Müller-Thurgau. The vineyards for this wine sit on the high plateau of Fennberg, and ripen in a very rare microclimate. At an elevation of 3,300 feet above sea level, these are among the highest vineyards in Europe. The wine is named after Franz Philipp Freiherr von Fenner zu Fennberg, founder of the Austrian Kaiserjäger (soldiers of the Austrian emperor), who once used this as a summer residence.

Straw yellow in color, with fragrances of stone fruits and citrus and spicy florals. A well-rounded and elegant palate with hints of peaches and white flowers balanced nicely with a fresh acidity and generous minerality. This is wonderful on its own as an aperitif, or with seafood dishs and light salads and pastas.

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Pappardelle con Carciofi e Gamberi

pappardelle carciofini gamberi private walking tours veniceI’m preparing for our upcoming season of our Italiaoutdoors Food and Wine Italy tours, and we begin with a short walking tour of of Venice.  My guiding partner Vernon leads us through the history of this fascinating city and the outlying islands, introducing us to many literary luminaries that made this island their home. My focus is, of course, the foods and wines. We are staying in a lovely villa located right on a canal, and we’ll visit the Rialto market to shop for the ingredients for our cooking events each evening.

rialto market walking tours veniceOne local delicacy that we will be able to enjoy during our visit are the young artichokes from Sant’Erasmo, an island that lies just offshore of Venice. Sant’Erasmo has only 850 or so inhabitants, 60 of whom are farmers, and supplies the Rialto market with many fresh vegetables, including eggplant, zucchini and tomatoes. But the island is most recognized for artichokes, particularly the carciofi violetti, or violet artichokes.

Sant’Erasmo is the northernmost area producing artichokes in Italy. Farmers in southern regions like Lazio and Sicily harvest artichokes twice a year, but the intrepid Venetians produce artichokes year round after the initial harvest, protecting the plants from winter weather with mounds of earth. In a single season, a plant can produce up to 25 artichokes.

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The first buds to appear in the spring are the most prized of all. This first bud, called the castraure (from castrare, to castrate or cut), is carefully removed with a special knife, to allow the buds beneath it to grow into larger carciofi violettii.

It is a springtime ritual in Venice to prepare the castraure, and many local restaurants feature them on their menu. Their delicate nature means they are best enjoyed raw, sliced or cut into eighths and enjoyed with olive oil and shaved grana cheese.

Here in the US, I cannot find artichokes that even resemble the wonderful castraure, but I’ve adapted a recipe from the now-defunct La Cucina Italiana magazine from an article on this delicacy. I’ve used globe artichokes that must be cooked to replace the young carciofini. A wonderful dinner, but I’m looking forward to creating this in Venice with the real thing!

Enjoy with a nice glass of Soave wines walking tours italy wine.

artichokes globe private walking tours venicePappardelle con Carciofi e Gamberi

Serves 4 as a first course

4 trimmed, raw artichoke hearts, soaking in 1 1/2 cups acidulated water
3/4 cup white wine
2 cloves garlic, smashed
Sprig of mint
1 pound pappardelle pasta
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil, plus more for drizzling
12 – 16 large shrimp, preferable head-on
2 large handfuls fresh baby arugula
kosher salt and freshly ground pepper

Place the 4 raw artichoke hearts and the acidulated water into a large saute pan. Add the white wine, garlic cloves, and mint. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat and simmer until the hearts are tender enough to be pierced with a skewer, about 20-25 minutes. If your hearts are quite different in size, they may not all be done at the same time. As they finish cooking, remove the hearts and set aside. When all have been removed, use a slotted spoon to extract the garlic cloves and herbs from the cooking liquid. Increase the heat, and reduce the liquid to a glaze, 1 to 2 tablespoons.

Thinly slice the artichoke hearts.

Bring a large pot of water for the pasta to boil over high heat.

Place the tablespoon of olive oil in a large saute pan and heat over medium high heat. Add the shrimp and cook until just cooked through – the time will depend upon the size of the shrimp, but be careful not to overcook.

Add the reserved artichoke cooking liquid, the arugula, and the sliced artichokes. Cook until the arugula has wilted and the sauce is warm. Season with salt and pepper and drizzle in some more olive oil, and keep just warm while the pasta cooks.

When the pasta water is boiling, add salt, return to a boil, and then add the pasta. Cook until al dente. Remove and drain, reserving 1 cup of pasta cooking water. Add the drained pasta to the sauce in the saute pan, stirring to combine. If the sauce seems a bit thick, you can use a little of the reserved pasta cooking water to loosen it up a bit, but this may not be necessary.

Serve in four bowls, distributing the shrimp on top of each.

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Insalata di Cavolo Nero, Mele, Noce e Speck

kale apple salad bowl private bike toursIn the mood for a hearty winter salad, the flavor combinations here came to me one night as I drifted off to sleep after spending a day researching the foods of Trentino-Alto Adige for our upcoming custom cycling tours through this region. This is not a traditional regional Italian dish, but inspired some of my favorite ingredients from our explorations in Tuscany and Alto Adige.

kale apple ingredients bike tours italyLacinato kale, called cavolo nero (“black kale”) is a variety of kale with a long tradition in Tuscan cuisine. It is also known as Tuscan kale or Tuscan cabbage, and is one of the traditional ingredients of the Tuscan soup ribollita.

apple-orchard-private-bike-toursApple orchards wind their way across Italy’s northeast area, from Valsugana, continuing along the Adige Valley and then straight to the epicenter of apple cultivation, the Val di Non and Val di Sole. More than four million apples of all varieties and sizes are produced each year in these valleys. Apples appear in the local cuisine of Trentino and Friuli-Venezia Giulia in a variety of ways, most commonly in the local desserts and cakes, such as the very common apple strudel. You will also see it in savory dishes, often paired with pork. I’ve even enjoyed an apple risotto.

The most prominent cured meat in the Alto Adige region is its smoked prosciutto, known as speck. Not to be confused with the German speck, which is known in Italy as “lardo”, an Italian speck is a prosciutto, which prior to the 18th century was referred to as “bachen”, or bacon, in Tyrol. Here, you see once again the merging of influences characteristic to the foods of this region; the smoking method from the Austrian and Germanic cuisine to the north, and the salting and spices from the Adriatic regions to the south.

kale apple salad side private walking toursNorth of the Alps, ham is traditionally preserved through smoking techniques. In the south, in regions like Emilia Romagna, prosciutto is typically air-dried. Tyroleans combine both methods to create their typical Speck Alto Adige: alternately lightly smoked and cured in the fresh mountain air; in keeping with ancient traditions. Historically produced in the local farmhouses, today, modern methods are used to season, smoke and cure the speck.

Like prosciutto, speck is made from the hind leg of a pig, but, unlike prosciutto, speck is deboned before curing. After deboning, it is divided into large sections called “baffe”, which are then salted and cured in a spice mixture, the specifics of which would be carefully guarded by each producer, but typically would include juniper, pine, cinnamon, nutmeg, bay, garlic and coriander. After several weeks of curing, the speck is smoked. Smoking occurs slowly and intermittently, for only 2-3 hours per day, over a period of one week to 3 months. After smoking, the speck is then aged for approximately 22 weeks, the actual time determined by the final leg weight, before it is ready to enjoy.

dried speck private bike toursTo give a nice crunch to the salad, I dry the speck in an oven, and crumble it on the salad. “Italian bacon bits” as one of my cooking students exclaimed. The most difficult part of making this salad is not consuming all of the dried speck before serving.

cren horseradish private bike toursFor a dressing with some snap, I settled upon another ingredient frequently paired with both apples, as well as speck antipasti – horseradish, or “cren” as it is called in Trentino-Alto Adige/Südtirol, Veneto and Friuli-Venezia Giulia. In Friuli-Venezia Giulia and Veneto, horseradish is a traditional Easter dish.

Insalata di Cavolo Nero, Mele, Noce e Speck

Serves 4

2 ounces speck, 4 slices, not to thinly sliced

1 bunch lacinato kale
1 crisp apple
2 stalks celery, peeled and sliced on the diagonal
1/2 cup toasted walnuts, coarsely chopped.
2 ounces speck, 4 slices, not to thinly sliced


1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
3 tablespoons lemon juice
1 tablespoon freshly grated horseradish, or more, to taste
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper

Preheat the oven to 300°F.

Place the slices of speck on a sheet pan, and dry in the oven until leathery, about 10 minutes. Remove. They will become crisp as they cool; if they still remain leathery and soft, return to the oven for a few more minutes.

Remove the ribs from the kale leaves, these are a bit tough for a raw kale salad. Thinly slice the kale leaves and place in a large salad bowls. Chop the apple into thin slices, then cut the slices into small strips and add to the kale. Add the sliced celery and walnuts.

Place the olive oil, lemon juice and horseradish into a small container with a tight fitting lid. Shake well. Season with salt and pepper. Pour over the salad and toss well. You can let the salad sit a bit before serving if you wish.

Just before serving, crumble the speck over the salad. If you wish a nice plated presentation, you can reserve a larger piece of the dried speck for garnish.

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