A German-speaking bit of Italy, the South Tyrol is a region with a dual identity. But there’s one thing locals know for sure, and that’s how to make the most of autumn
On his family’s farm high in the Dolomites, white clouds suspended between the mountaintops like spiders’ webs, Stefan Winkler is roasting chestnuts. Wielding a cast-iron pan over a flaming brazier, he flips the nuts to ensure they’re cooked evenly, watching their skins blacken and char in the flames, cracking to reveal buttery yellow beneath.
‘It’s important that we get them just right,’ says Stefan. ‘Chestnuts are an essential part of Törggelen.’ Such harvest feasts have been a tradition in the mountains of South Tyrol (Südtirol) since at least the 16th century, when travelling merchants would visit the region’s farms and vineyards to taste the year’s produce. Keen to show off their goods, farmers would host banquets in their honour – no doubt hoping the well-oiled merchants might buy a few extra crates of grapes or barrels of wine in the process.
Visitors to the region are still offered a warm welcome at farms like the Winklers’, which offers meals to paying guests during the autumn months. Their simple white farmhouse is festooned with decorations: the doorstep is piled with pumpkins and wicker baskets brimming with apples, and wreaths of corn dangle from the shutters.
Inside, the festivities are well under way. A motley mix of diners – families, tourists, locals, motorbikers, cyclists and hikers – cram around long wooden tables in the pine-clad dining room, warmed by an earthenware stove. On one table, a family dip into bowls of barley soup with chunks of schüttelbrot: the flat bread traditionally carried by Tyrolean shepherds. In another corner, a band of bearded Bavarian hikers tucks into roast pork, sausages and thick slices of speck (cured ham), laced with homemade horseradish sauce and sauerkraut. This is a classic Törggelen dish, known as a schlachtplatte or slaughter plate. It’s an unappetising name, but accurate; half the farmyard seems to be piled on it.
Soon, flagons of beer and jugs of wine arrive, poured by smiling waitresses dressed in the figure-hugging bodices known as dirndls: traditional Germanic peasant costumes with plunging necklines. Diners hand round glasses and exchange tales of their day’s adventures. One recounts their afternoon picnic beneath the Dolomites’ peaks; another recalls the tang of home-brewed apple juice sampled at a local farm. Sipping his beer and wielding a sausage, a man in a leather jacket describes a near-miss on his bike with a dairy cow, joking that it almost ended up on tonight’s schlachtplatte.