The Alpine Christmas Table

2012 was a great year for extending my travel horizons. It was the year I discovered that Wales can be wonderful without being wet. It was the year I finally made it to beautiful Durham. It was the year I fell for the medieval charms of Maastricht and broke my previous record for putting up with Brussels (4 hours) – and even that dirty old city had some pleasant surprises. Several trips to gothic Edinburgh only left me wanting more while the grand imperial charms of Vienna elicited three blog entries from me and would have provided the highlight in any other year. Except that my encounter with South Tyrol scaled new heights literally and metaphorically.

This way to the Alps...
This way to the Alps…

I had planned to write 4 or 5 pieces on this action packed visit to my partner Carmen’s homeland but I just don’t seem to have much time nowadays and there’s so much to tell. I left a piece of my heart in South Tyrol (which is a worry because I’m off to San Francisco this year and I’m going to end up heartless at this rate) and that’s not just due to the mind blowing scenery…

View from the back garden!
View from Carmen’s back garden!

…the region is a foodie’s heaven, bringing together hearty Austrian style mountain food with exquisite fresh Italian cuisine. There is no reactionary food movement taking off here because people never stopped buying fresh local produce. Eating remains a family affair for the most part where meals are prepared from raw ingredients and there’s not a ready meal in sight. Which is why my Christmas present was such a joy to unwrap!

Südtirol hamper of joy
Südtirol hamper of joy

One seasonally damp and dark Derby evening was usurped by fresh Alpine snow tipped mountains and green pastures echoing to the sound of cowbells across the valley as I opened a hamper from the entirely wonderful H&H Südtirol online food shop! Stocked with the finest ingredients we set about preparing a Tyrolean festive feast. That’s to say she came up with a dozen recipes from the top of her head, and I followed instructions while appreciating some of the pure beers from the Forst brewery. It’s a partnership after all.

In the continental tradition we celebrated Christmas on December 24th with smoked trout, Russian salad and the opening of presents but with my parents visiting on the 25th we pulled together something a little different from Turkey and Christmas pud. Here’s what we cooked, to a streaming radio soundtrack provided by AlpenMelodie

Starter: Poached Salmon Roulade

We created a “pastry” mix by layering a mixture of eggs, spinach, a little semolina (1) and, baking until set (2), smoothing on a paste of poached salmon and ricotta (3) and rolling it up (4).

(1) Pastry Mix (1) Pastry Mix (2) Baked base (2) Baked base
(3) Apply paste (3) Apply paste (4) Roll it up (4) Roll it up

Slice, garnish and serve. This starter was – stunning.

A great starter
A great starter

Main Course: Sauerbraten with Serviettenknödel

With a traditional Xmas walk scheduled for the morning we wanted a main course that could be prepared partially in advance. I started it 10 days in advance by marinating 2kg of topside beef in red wine with herbs (Sauerbraten = “sour roast”). This was in fact upstaged by a decidedly Viennese Serviettenknödel which is a dumpling steamed within a napkin.


The primary constituent is diced dry bread but eggs, milk, crispy lardons, parsley and chives make this a proper moreish winter accompaniment to the beef. It all came together nicely.

More than just beef & dumplings
More than just beef & dumplings

Dessert: Apfelstrudel

Obviously in my household the savoury courses are merely a pre-amble to the main event – dessert. We have a shared love of puddings – Carmen’s family have a tradition of Alibi Starters (eg: soup) followed by “Sweet Mains” (such as gorgeous fluffy rice pudding). For the special day we made Apfelstrudel by mixing sliced apples with pine nuts, ground hazelnuts, cloves, cinnamon and a splash of rum, wrapping it all in filo pastry and then baking.

It looks more enticing when cooked - honest!
It looks more enticing when cooked – honest!

I had made a rather lovely Advocaat ice cream in advance, and it went well with the strudel. In fact so well that we scoffed it without taking any photos. But all in all our Tyrolean themed Christmas meal was a success and it made a refreshing change from the traditional English meal.

Dinner is served
Dinner is served

The only major departure from the Tyrolean theme was Christmas Crackers. Can you believe that the rest of Europe doesn’t do this?! Odd people…

Of course, Christmas isn’t just about eating. It’s also a time for giving. We extended our festive theme by making a selection of Austro/Tyrolean food goodies as family gifts. Hmmm, that’s more food isn’t it…

In previous years I made Cantuccini, Florentines and Lebkuchen for my family. This year we made a superior Lebkuchen inspired by the remarkable culinary skills of Carmen’s grandmother. These may look run of the mill but there’s some magic going on.

...magic ingredients...
…magic ingredients…

We made them a couple of weeks in advance and stored them in airtight containers with apple quarters. The magic in this process is that the lebkuchen absorb the apple essence and stay moist. Then we brushed on icing made using lemon juice rather than water. This is transformational – try it and you will never use water again.

Next we made traditional Vanillekipferl (Almond Crescents). These are simple enough for the most part. We made a sweet dough consisting of more almonds than flour…

Puffin crushed nuts
Puffin crushed nuts

…but there are a couple of surprisingly tricky techniques to master. First you need to persuade your puffin to crush the almonds to the right size (not too large but not a powder) and then you need to roll out the dough into 10cm lengths and twist them into horseshoes without any breakage. Once baked you apply a dusting of icing sugar.

Done...Done… ...and dusted…and dusted

Spitzbuben (translation: Cheeky Boys) are a firm festive family favourite according to Carmen and they are eagerly consumed beyond the Tyrol region in Bavaria, Switzerland and (curiously) Derby. They may loosely resemble Jammy Dodgers but biscuit architecture aside there is no comparison. JDs are cheap mass-produced nonsense while Cheeky Boys are hand made with quality ingredients and no small degree of love.

A sweet biscuit dough is rolled flat and then cut into an equal number of solid circular bases and decorative perforated covers using a special tool.

Not cheeky yetNot cheeky yet Getting a bit cheekyGetting a bit cheeky
Once baked a thin layer of high quality warm jam (ie: with a high fruit content) is applied to the base and the cover is placed on top. Ooh, cheeky!Ooh, cheeky!
We are the cheeky boys!We are the cheeky boys! The Cheeky Boys and Almond Crescents will happily keep for weeks. Except of course, they won’t.

I could quite happily live off these wonderful treats. Yes, I’m sure. That would be fine right? Actually it wouldn’t. Controversial new research suggests that a daily consumption of biscuits alone does not provide all of the nutrients required in a balanced diet. The good news is that the final treat that we made would suitably address this nutritional imbalance.

C'est une pan au chocolateC’est une pan au chocolate An almond in every biteAn almond in every bite

Rhumkugeln sounds better than Chocolate Truffles but they are the same thing. The occasional use of a bain marie in my house is always a welcome sign that something indulgent is in the making. In this instance a mix of melted dark and light chocolate is augmented with toasted hazelnuts and icing sugar. Once cooled we used teaspoons to create little balls of chocolaty goodness and rolled half in icing sugar and half in cocoa powder.

The hills are alive with the sound of grunting
The hills are alive with the sound of grunting

For that final touch of regional authenticity we asked an alpine pig to individually wrap them in foil, crêpe paper and mini bun-cases. If you are doing this at home just remember to ensure that your pig doesn’t eat too many truffles.