When in the mountains, head up to the la malga.
The mountain tradition of putting cattle out to pasture starts in spring and spreads up from meadows in the valley to grazing at a higher altitude, these are named le malghe /mull-geh/
In the northern, Italian region of Trentino Alto Adige, milk and cheese is renowned for its distinctive flavour of wild, Alpine grass. Herbs and wild flowers grow in abundance in lush, green fields - an integral part of a foraging culture, as much for the locals as for the livestock.
The term malga refers to the pasturage but moreover, the simple dwellings used by the 'malgaro' - malga shepherd and the 'casaro' - cheese maker. After a summer of herding, milking and cheese production, the livestock are brought down from the high grounds in a joyous village celebration called the desmontegada. Adorned in flowers and bells, cattle, goats and sheep parade through town straight off the mountains while the village folk prepare traditional food for a 'sagra' or town feast, to eat and drink together in merriment. If you ever get the chance, this is a beautiful occasion to experience. Our favourite is always the desmontegada every October in Predazzo, Val di Fiemme.
These days, many of the quaint wood and stone malghe have been renovated as restaurants with accommodation, all the while keeping the simple, rustic charm and a proud love of the land which beams through their hospitality. These are working people who rise at the crack of dawn and are ruled by the seasons - you can count on their produce being as genuine as it gets. More regional and seasonal than this? ...there's nothing.
Visiting the malga
Once the malghe were reachable only on foot, and to this day, marked walking trails will automatically steer you over ancient, trodden paths leading up to the simple dwellings. Since roads have been built and the tradition of herding dwindles, there's also the option to drive up (but not always). From every malga leads a network of walking trails which will keep you busy for days, should you decide to stay a while. With panoramic views, dense forest and clear mountain pools, bring your walking boots if you love to hike.
For malghe in Trentino, the visittrentino website lists over 300 with details on what every place offers.
Another great site is the official dolomites website with a more extensive list of malghe and casere although some do lack information. Be aware that most malghe close over winter and only have a phone number as a contact method, our advice is to always book.
As you sit down at a rustic table, laid with a chequered red and white tablecloth, a basket of bread, a jug of wine - you're cosy inside near a warm, wood-burning stove or seated outside before a breath-taking view; expect mountain produce, made right here. Cheeses are e malga's pride and joy. You'll find interesting varieties containing Alpine herbs and foraged plants, fresco - young, like ricotta, or stagionato - matured. There'll be a selection of Italian cold meats (also made here) like salame or coppa. Pickled vegetables often accompany these delicacies, placed on a rough wooden board called a tagliere - we love to order a tagliere at the start of a meal as a selection of beautiful, local foods. Malga-fresh bread comes with a tagliere and while everyone digs in, you can start thinking about your next course. Options run from a few simple dishes to perhaps a printed menu but most are presented at the table. This can sometimes prove a stressful moment for a non-Italian speaker so always advise you're not Italian and they'll happily translate, or call over someone who can explain. These days, tourism in even the remotest of spots in Italy, is the norm and most Italians love a chance to practice their English and proudly show you their wares.
Typical malga dishes:
These are always region dependant but generally mountain foods are hearty and rich, a couple of firm favourites always stand out:
Gnocchi - sometimes made from ricotta, these are delicious
Pastin - tasty, grilled pork sausage meat
Formaggio Cotto con Polenta - a thick slice of Dobbiaco Cheese, melted and served with polenta
Funghi e Polenta - foraged mushrooms and creamy polenta
Spezzatino - tomato and meat stew
Carne in Umido - typically deer or boar, soft, slow-cooked meat, classically served with polenta
Desserts are made from malga preserves or jams - you'll always find Italy's beloved short-crust crostata, most likely in a few versions.
Look out for home-made digestivi to round off your meal in true mountain style; there's usually a lovely selection of interesting grappe, one of our favourites is cumin.
Before you head back down the mountain trails, after a long, lovely lunch and crisp Alpine air, purchase a piece of cheese to take home. That way, your malga experience will last a little longer... memories of a sublime afternoon passed in the finest of traditional settings.