The name Südtirol creates a particular basis for discussion within moments. Detached from the Austrian Tyrol in 1918 and awarded to Italy, this autonomous province is not only geographically the knot, but also the melting point of two diverse cultures. During a trip to the Dolomites, one gets a feeling for a unique lifestyle based on the idea of allowing natural circumstances to remain as untouched as as possible while bringing out the best of it.
Norbert Niederkofler’s restaurant St.Hubertus inside the hotel Rosa Alpina is a logical consequence of prevailing South Tyrolean regional culture. After many years travelling to and experiencing other countries and cultures, the mountains of South Tyrol beckoned this passionate chef to return twenty years ago. He has established himself within this vessel of mediterranean vitality and transformed a simple pizzeria into a very special place. Year after year, Norbert has optimised the concept ‘Cook the Mountains,’ which is based on new interpretations of classic mountain cuisine. Thanks to a friendly collaboration with native farmers, he is able to use 90 percent of ingredients from his surrounding environment. With this, he continuously spoils locals and tourists alike with his gastronomic creations at the highest level.
This interview is part of a series of portraits that are produced in collaboration with Südtirol.
Where are you from?
I was born in Ahrntal, in the tributary valley of Pusztatal. After my ‘Abitur’ I spent 15 years in Germany, USA, Switzerland, Austria, and Italy. I came back to my hometown by coincidence 20 years ago and founded St. Hubertus.
What is special about St. Hubertus?
It started as a typical pizzeria. Alongside the family Pizzinini we began to develop the restaurant year after year. The kitchen was like anywhere around the world. A few years ago however, I began to focus on regional products. Since last year, all of our products in the kitchen have been sourced from the mountains.
What does it mean to cook locally?
In the beginning it was a big challenge. I had to think out of the box and communicate with farmers. That requires some time. Together we figured out what works and then started to cultivate. The farmers need to be helped, which is why I began to buy everything whole.
When I buy meat, I not only buy pork loin or chicken breast, but the whole animal. The cooks have to use whatever products we have at that moment. These days this needs somewhat of an adjustment but it goes back to the original roots of cooking. Essentially it requires patience and persuasion until one has reached the desired goal.
How would you refer to this cuisine?
The name of our concept ‘Cook the Mountains’ says it all. We offer an authentic mountain cuisine and try to communicate the philosophy of life and native country lords through our food.
After many years of refinement and experimentation I finally got to that point with my team where it became simply fun. We actually never thought that it was possible for a native cuisine to be so diverse and offer such culinary possibilities.
How long have you been working with Harald Aspinger?
I get all my vegetables directly from him. I have known him for a very long time and have worked with him intensively for the last three years. He lives the quality and has crazy working hours. It is so much fun to work with him and his family. One can taste and see how much of their heart goes into this work.
What have you made for us today?
The appetizer consists of a salad from freshly grown salads, herbs, flowers, and celery. Since we don’t have that many tomatoes right now, we use this delicate foam which we also have added to the salad. The dressing consists of grape oil, which in comparison to olive oil, doesn’t change the taste of the ingredients. We produce our own vinegars, whether it is from apple or red wine. Generally, I like it when the dressing lightly undertones the components, rather than crushing them.
The main course is a barley risotto. This dish is the perfect intertwinement of Italian and Austrian cuisine, and thus a typical South Tyrolean meal. Together with the cold butter of sheep’s milk and cow’s milk – this combination is called ‘Mantecatura’ by the Italians – and right before the risotto is ready, we added sorrel leaves. With that, the essential oils survive and are at their very climax of flavor. Placed over it is a verbena jelly, which is important for the neutralization of the cow’s milk. At the end, one chews the stem of the sorrel in order to clean the palate for dessert. Lastly, we prepared ‘En Rosadira’ – the alpenglow of the Dolomites. With this dessert we tried to create exactly that color spectacle on the plate. It is a composition of wild berries, sorbet, strawberry spinach berries, and sparkling Rosé.
Tell us a little bit about your cheese factory.
We have been working together with Hansi Baumgartner from DeGust for a very long time. About 15 years ago he began to refine cheese with farmers. It is a lot of fun. Principally nothing new is invented. Inserting ‘Graukäse’ – English for grey cheese – into ashes is a very old preservation method. Just like marinating vegetables and inserting them into hay. This procedure was conducted in order to have sufficient products over the winter. I think it is very interesting that now such old methods are returning again. But this requires a 100% quality product. If one tries to ‘mask’ a poor product, it works in that moment but not for long. This is why it is also important to stay in contact with the producers from the very beginning and strive for the very best product.
How important is travelling to you?
Travelling is extremely important to me. I have travelled around the world half of my life. At the age of 22 I worked for the first time in America, during which I lived at an Indian reserve for a month. I recently returned from Peru, where I came to the very interesting realization once again how alike mountain cultures are around the world. An Australian television team was recently here. I told them about the production procedure of ‘Graukäse.’ The journalist smiled and told me that he just had recently seen the same thing in Bhutan, only with yak’s milk instead. The more you travel, the more you realize how important it is to stay open to new things.
How important is home?
South Tyrol is a double-edged sword. The place where I come from is small and narrow – something one recognizes within its citizens. One always wants to know what lies behind those mountains and that is what provoked me to commence travelling. Above all, South Tyrol offers an amazing quality of life, however, I am also happy to experience new things and bring them back to my home.
How would you describe South Tyrol to someone that has never been there before?
South Tyrol is located geographically very well. Towards the north we are closed due to the Alpine divide, and towards the south we are completely open. Our ancestry is derived from the Austrian-Hungarian culture as we were considered to be a part of Austria up until 1918. This means that we have this very ordered way of thinking that is connected with an Italian lifestyle. South Tyrolean way of life consists of this unique intertwinement of mediterranean, airy flair. I can only recommend it.
Thank you Norbert for this inspiring interview. Visit the website of St. Hubertus to find out more about the concept and philosophy behind the restaurant.
Photography: Frederik Frede
Interview & Text: Zsuzsanna Toth
Translation: Lara Konrad