As the autumn days here in Berlin get a bit colder and the last of the leaves are falling, I look at the calendar and see that one of my favorite holidays from back home in the US is coming up: Thanksgiving.
I have celebrated it in interesting ways since I started traveling. My first year it was a spread of fish, noodles, and a pot of potatoes – the closest we could get to the real thing – in Mui Ne, Vietnam with two new Australian friends. In the Maldives last year, it was an interesting mix of Tang orange drink and seafood pizza. Let’s just say I’d rather not repeat that meal.
Just about a month ago in South Tyrol, Italy, however, which I visited just as they were finishing up the harvest season, it was a local thanksgiving tradition known as Törggelen.
This particular region in Alpine Italy is, historically, a meeting point between Italians and Germans, starting in the Middle Ages.
Over time it has changed hands, and is now a region of Italy that maintains its own locally-run and funded public transport and public services. Locals joke that it’s good for tourists because it’s a beautiful part of Italy to visit, but things work like in Germany. Though I’ve only lived in Berlin for a short time, I know what that means: like clockwork.
All through the region I heard people speaking both German and Italian to each other.
“How do you know which to speak with someone?” I asked my local friend Deborah. “You just feel it,” she replied.
This side of the Alps gets at least twice as many sunny days as in Austria, yet from the snowmelt has no shortage of clean, “soft” water, has mind-blowingly gorgeous countryside, world-class skiing, rock climbing on world-famous mountains, and truly a culture all its own.
Foodwise, this is also true. South Tyrol is known for growing delicious apples (I can vouch), developing a deliciously salty and flavorful smoked and cured meat called speck, and producing delicious wine and beer as well, among many other things.
I really liked learning about the wine in this region, mostly because it tasted so good and seemed a rare treat that is not widely available around the world.
South Tyrol is the smallest region in Italy for wine production, representing only 1% of the market. Since all of the flat areas in this mountainous region are devoted to apple growing, most farmers here have small mountainside farms. Therefore, it’s hard for many of them to have large, private wineries.
For this reason, many wineries here work on a co-op model. The farmers each contribute their harvest for the season to a local winery, and all profits after the production and sale of the wine are redistributed back to the farmers. While it’s typical in Italy for about 30% of wineries to work using this method, here in South Tyrol, it’s more like 70%.
This winery, Cantina Valle Isarco, offers private wine tours and tastings. I even had the chance to explore with the new general manager, who then served up some of the best wine I have ever tasted.
After each glass I found myself asking, “so is this available in Berlin?”
The Thanksgiving Feast
I use the term, “Thanksgiving” loosely, as Törggelen occurs over the course of an entire month and is celebrated with harvest festivals and long meals of several courses shared with friends, family, and co-workers. During the course of the autumn season, Deborah tells me that she typically attends Törggelen at least 2-3 times.
The meal is served in a farmhouse which raises the pigs and grapes on the property. The subsequent harvest, slaughter, and production of all of the foods and beverages enjoyed over the course of the Törggelen all come from the very farm the meal is enjoyed at. Talk about farm-to-table goodness!
The feast kicks off with speck, which if you have familiarity with proscuitto (cured and salted pork leg), has its similarities though speck is smoked and unique to South Tyrol.
It is also highly addictive, and one must exercise great restraint to not fill up on speck before the rest of the meal rolls out.
Also featured is a thin, hard cracker with anise seeds inside, another food unique to South Tyrol and often consumed in conjunction with speck.
What typically follows this appetizer is vegetable soup, again featuring veggies that have been picked on the farm:
The next course features light, fried pieces of bread that reminded me of a lighter, savory version of a Southern beignet, served with sauerkraut.
This is where the meal started to get difficult, because I had run out of room and, as Deborah warned might happen, had filled up on speck.
I’m not a quitter, though, and managed to resist filling up on too much bread before the main event arrived, which was freshly-made pork sausage.
With a plate of sausage in front of me and hearing the German language spoken around me, it really felt to me like I was back in Germany, yet remembering the speck and drinking the wine, it was clear I was still in Italy.
Partway through the meal, the owner of the home and chief farmer extraordinaire gave us and other diners, who asked, a tour of the various rooms where the wine was made and the slaughter, smoking, and aging took place. It really blew me away how much work was involved and how incredibly local and fresh my meal had been.
All around us, tables full of people laughed, played cards, and drank the young wine – somewhere in the aging process between grape juice and wine, but still very much fermented.
The meal finished with pastry and the crown jewel: roasted chestnuts. As is typical with me, I did not photograph dessert because I tend to eat it before thinking. Who feels me on that one?
Though a longer meal than I’m typically used to, I really enjoyed this Thanksgiving feast and was happy to have discovered this truly unique, special corner of Italy.
Have you ever celebrated Thanksgiving in another country? What were the biggest differences?
Do it yourself:
- Getting there: Reach Bolzano by train. From there, it is best to rent a car or book some kind of transport if you want to enjoy Törggelen. It is also possible to take the bus or a tour. The only problem I foresee with the bus is missing the last one home, or being unable to reach the exact location of the farmhouse. For this reason you may prefer private transport.
- Eat: This particular Törggelen took place at Oberpartegger Hof. Typical cost is a very reasonable €30-40 including drinks. Contact them to book for next October (though you may want someone who speaks German or Italian to help with the booking, such as your hotel concierge or the tourism board).
- Fair warning, if you do take part in Törggelen, expect it to take 4-5 hours. Bring some playing cards, a designated driver, and a big appetite. If you tend to get uncomfortable sitting for long periods of time, bring along a cushion to sit on or see if the hosts might have some extra, as the seating is wooden bench-style
- I also highly recommend eating venison and kastanien herz (“heart of the chestnut” – a chocolate covered dessert with cream and chestnut) when visiting South Tyrol during this time – both are amazing
- Stay: In Bolzano I stayed at Hotel Greif which had the most amazing breakfast buffet ever, amen (inclusive of cheesecake and wine)
*Disclaimer: This post was brought to you in collaboration with the Tourism Board in South Tyrol. However, I never recommend or speak highly of something I don’t truly love. Your trust comes first.