Life

No Fords in Cortina but its food and skiing sure got Geoff Hill's motor running

As if its fantastic scenery and exhilarating if colour-blind skiing weren't enough, the gastronomy on offer in Cortina d'Ampezzo in the Italian Dolomites takes things to new heights, writes Geoff Hill

Bridge on a via ferrata
Geoff Hill

“RIGHT,” said Fabio the ski guide, “we’ll start off with a nice gentle blue run to warm up.”

We skied to the edge of the nice gentle blue – and looked down at an icy black like the north face of the Eiger, but steeper.

“Fabio, are you sure you’re from around these parts?” I said.

“Er, yes, originally, but I’ve been a financial analyst in Dublin for the last two years. I’ve just come back to keep my instructor’s rating current,” he said.

Oh, well. Like most things that look scary, it was less scary than it looked, and having plunged in at the deep end, we were soon whizzing down assorted reds, all of them wide and with perfect snow.

Cortina has 140kms of pistes which are perfect for intermediates, but the skiing wasn’t the highlight of the trip. That was the food.

After flying into Venice, and the disappointment of not seeing a single gondola – although, to be fair, it was the airport – then the further disappointment of not seeing a single Cortina of the type my parents once had when we got to Cortina, we sat down for lunch outside a rustic mountain farmhouse called Pezie de Paru.

The scene around was not always so peaceful: in the First World War, it was the scene of vicious fighting in the dying days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, but that seemed like another world as we tucked into butter-soft venison and beetroot ravioli, washed down by a smooth red called Vertigo then followed by a local speciality, grappa made with milk, honey and vanilla.

Naturally, it was immediately christened Milk of Amnesia; and it worked: in spite of being so full after lunch that I swore I’d never eat again, I found myself that evening tucking into the most delicious pizzas in the known universe.

After a feast involving significant quantities of parma ham, mozzarella, tuna and olives, followed by apple and amaretto crumble with vanilla ice cream, I emerged, loosened my belt a notch, sighed happily and walked back to the hotel through gloriously scenic Cortina as the setting sun brushed the jagged mountains rose-pink.

The next day, having foiled Fabio’s cunning attempt to kill me, it was ironic that I ended up in hospital.

The Restaurant Ospitale, that is, named after the former pilgrims’ hospital on the site, and if the pilgrims were fed as well as I was, I may well turn religious.

Just as satisfying as the food was the interior: for while the outside of the buildings here are as Tyrolean as anywhere in Austria, the interiors have been graced with Italian style, all wood floors, glowing rugs, white walls and flickering firelight. Exquisite.

And just when I thought the food couldn’t get any better, the next day proved me wrong, with lunch then dinner in two restaurants run by the Gaspari family.

Lunch was in the ancient family farmhouse in the middle of nowhere, and it consisted of delicious gnocci filled with cheese, followed by ribs and spinach, then the best bread and butter pudding ever.

After a snowmobile tour to work up an appetite, dinner was in SanBrite, a lovely old building in which head chef Riccardo Gaspari and his team conjured up a seven-course tasting menu which was as stunning in presentation as it was in delicate yet deeply satisfying taste, with pretty much everything on the plate coming from the family farm, diary and organic garden.

Riccardo looks like Jesus and cooks like his dad, and a Michelin star is strongly rumoured to be imminent.

The highlights? Everything, but particularly marinated trout with pea purée, speck tartare, venison ragu, spaghetti with mountain pine and crispy puccia and pork ribs glazed in maple syrup.

So get to Cortina now and start eating. You may not see a single Ford, but you’ll have a gastronomic fiesta.

Just don’t listen to anyone from Dublin who tells you you’re starting off with a nice gentle blue run. It was the only time in my life I didn’t thank a financial adviser for getting me into the black.

FACT FILE

:: Getting there: Aer Lingus (aerlingus.com) flies five times a week from Dublin to Venice, daily in summer. Fares start at €54.99 one way.

- Transfer from Venice airport to Cortina d’Ampezzo is around €250 each way with Alessio Talamini (+39 368 222552, serdes25@gmail.com), which is handy if you’re sharing with a few others. The public bus is less convenient, but much cheaper. See http://www.cortinaexpress.it/?lang=en

:: Winter: Cortina sprung to fame as a ski destination when it hosted the first televised Winter Olympics in 1956, and the event will return in 2021, 65 years later.

- It has 140kms of slopes and is part of the Dolomiti super ski region, with over 1200kms of runs (.dolimitisuperski.com).

- A six-day lift pass is between €246 and €273, depending on season. A free bus operates between all the ski areas of Cortina. Hiring a ski guide for a day with the Snowdreamers ski school (snowdreamers.com) is €200 for up to three people.

- Best times to go for smaller crowds and good snow are December before Christmas, January after New Year and March up to the end of April – later than any other Italian resort.

:: Summer: There are lots of walking, hiking and climbing routes, including First and Second World War historic trails. There are also excellent routes for cycling, e-biking and mountain biking, with rentals available from Jgor Ski & More (jgorskiandmore.com/en).

- For groups, a local guide for around €200 per day can also assist in booking rifugios, or mountain huts.

:: Where to stay: I was in the Hotel Panda (cortinahotelpanda.it), a cosy three-star family hotel in the centre of Cortina run by sisters Erika and Monika Pian and their father Toni, with the bonus of Leo, the world’s friendliest dog. Prices start from €120 for a double or twin room, including breakfast.

:: Where to eat: Highly recommended are Pezie de Paru (peziedeparu.it), Capanna Tondi (cortinadolomiti.eu/EN/rifugio-capanna-tondi) near the top station of the Vitelli chairlift, Hotel Cristallino (hotelcristallino.com/?lang=en) for pizza, Ospitale (ristoranteospitale.com), El Brite de Larieto (elbritedelarieto.it), and SanBrite (sanbrite.it). The seven-course tasting menu in SanBrite is €90, or €130 with matching wines.

:: Shopping: Corso Italia in Cortina is lined with designer shops and has a cooperative selling local produce.

:: For information: Cortina Vacations (cortinavacations.com) is a one-stop shop for hotels, ski and bike hire outlets, ski and mountain guides, snowmobile rental companies, transfer services, mountain huts and restaurants.

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