The Dolomites were among the most isolated places on earth until a century ago, reachable only on foot over Alpine passes that remained snowbound throughout the winter. Conditions were tremendously difficult, and as a result few outsiders were particularly interested in the area, despite it’s being quite close to the Val D’Adige, the main migration and invasion route between Italy and Germany.
The fact that the local population originally lived in conditions of extreme poverty meant that the typical dishes of Trentino became very uniform and substantial in character. In some secluded valleys, this archaic flavor has been preserved in certain recipes, which are still in use in farm kitchens open to the public.
In the Noce valleys for example, the main condiment was butter. Pork was the most respected meat bred in the “tres” of the farmstead: the “lucaniche” and the “l’osocò”, especially if smoked, conserved at length the secret flavor which the family butcher had given them. Lamb’s meat and tripe were very popular. Tripe was cleaned, the fat removed, and then boiled for several hours. It was eaten with a soup made from home grown vegetables and flavored with oil and onion.
The meal was served almost always with polenta which was a meal in itself in the “monchi” recipe: spoonfuls of “polenta” were put on a plate, similar to large “gnocchi”, sprinkled with grated cheese and flavored with melted butter and sage. Another tasty dish was “polenta rostida”, slices or pieces of polenta reheated in pig’s fat, with cheese and chopped potato.
Bread was made from rye flour and was baked in the village oven by the women four times a year and was then stored in a dry place on wooden racks. Important dishes were “menestra dei frigoloti”: “minestra da orzi” with pig or mutton bones added, gnocchi “de comède” (mountain spinach), potato and garlic soup: milk was the main ingredient.
For breakfast it was common to eat fried potatoes with “ciciole”, the leftovers of pork fat dripping, or with lard; for lunch or dinner, after a bowl of “menestra da orzi” (barley soup), “torta de patate cruve” (potato cake) was served (finely chopped potato was put into a copper plated pot, with a pinch of salt and a spoonful of white flour and pig’s fat was added; it was then placed in a very hot oven for about three quarters of an hour, until the dough started to turn golden).
At the farmstead, in the winter evenings, grannies used to prepare for their grandchildren an imported German dish called “smorm” (omelettes made with flour and eggs, cut up into small pieces and sprinkled with sugar). When the cow had calved, the calf’s first milk was used to make a cake called “de colostro”, when a pig was slaughtered, a special cake was made in preparation for the harsh seasons: the “torta de sangue” (blood cake).
The “torta de levà” was eaten on Sundays: fermented yeast was added at two different intervals to white flour, some eggs, a knob of butter; after mixing together it would be left to stand and then placed in the oven until cooked.
In Valle del Fersina, situated in the east of Trentino, where a language of German origin is still spoken today, “mocheno”, “kropfen” and “stròboi” are very common. These cakes have a particular flavor and are eaten during holidays and local village feasts.
The basic ingredients are eggs, milk, sugar, beer, flour, grappa and yeast but the secret lies in being able to pour the dough through a funnel into a frying pan of hot oil. The “mochen” women are capable of creating a sort of circular net of mixture which when cooked is sprinkled with icing sugar.
In Valle di Fiemme “canocèi”, typical ravioli of the Alpine area have a fundamental ingredient, potato filling, which acts as an absorbent. They were the main dish during holidays, and even though they didn’t constitute a very substantial meal they took time to prepare and the women farm workers had more time available during their days off.
The filling is made with potato, cheese (usually “Puzzone di Moena” or “Nostrano di Cavalese”, nutmeg and chives. This is rolled into dough cut into rounds and folded in half moon shapes. After cooking in boiling salted water, parmesan cheese, melted butter and sage, and a sprinkling of poppy seed, can be added.
The “minestra de orzét” (recipe below) is still eaten today in Valsugana, made with vegetables and barley. Tarts with blackberries, bilberries or raspberries, picked from the woods in the area, make some of the best desserts.
Strangolapreti – “Strangle the Priest”
A bit of folklore: “strangle the priest”…
Now, strangolapreti literally translates into priest chokers. But no, these are not some sort of Satanist dish. Italian cuisine has plenty of recipes called strozzapreti, strangolapreti, strangulaprieviti and so on.
They all hint at the fact that priests had (have) a reputation for being gourmands. Legend wants that some of them liked these dishes so much they ended choking themselves upon them. Plus, given the role the Church has always played in Italy, it was always expected for parishioners to be kind enough to present their priest with food presents. This probably did not always happen out of free will but more out of social pressure and dishes with such names were born.
So don’t be surprised if you’ve seen or made a similarly named recipe: there’s many different ones, all traditional. These ones are small dumplings made of spinach, eggs, bread and flour. I’m sure there’s many ways to serve them but they are usually eaten with sage butter and plenty of parmesan.