When our group of 8 hikers – tired but giddy over the day’s accomplishments - arrived at Fuciade Hütte late one afternoon last June, we expected bare-basic accommodations and simple, hearty fare. Instead, we got the gastro-adventure of 2011.
We had left Sottoguda, a quaint one-block town in Italy's imposing Dolomite mountains, that morning -- five physicians, two nurses, this food writer, and our bergführer (mountain guide) Roman Profanter. The day’s planned route included a trek up and over the dramatic stony mass called the Forca Rossa, but that plan was soon scratched when it started to rain and heavy grey clouds obscured all signs of mountains in that direction. Instead, we took a 20-minute taxi ride to a hiking trail deep in the forest and started to climb a series of hills and peaks heading for our next overnight stop, Rifugio Fuciade. (In this part of Italy, the Alto Adige or Südtirol, both Italian and German are spoken. Hütte and Rifugio both refer to the simple but often spectacular houses with rooms and food along the trails.)
Our hopes for a yummy lunch at the hut proposed by Roman were dashed when we discovered a sign in the window of the darkened hut: Closed for a family funeral. We waited out a cacophonous thunder and lightning storm, huddled under the building’s eaves, and “lunched” on the goodies one couple had brought along: bread from the breakfast buffet, a bit of salami and cheese, and homemade “gorp” with M&Ms.
We spend the rest of the afternoon climbing, in and out of woods, in and out of drizzle. Even in black-and-white, the vistas were spectacular. Finally, after a particularly challenging downhill scramble, we rounded the proverbial corner and came face to face with Fuciade Hütte with its Heidi-esque balconies, geraniums, lace-curtains, playground and tiny wooden chapel.
The Italian-speaking owner and her huge black dog greeted us warmly, took our muddy boots to the boot-dryer and showed us to our rooms on the second floor. (Fuciade Hütte has only 7 or 8 rooms, with rustic furnishings and small but nice bathrooms.) After hot showers and catnaps, we gathered in the bar for aperitifs and card games, then went to our assigned table, exquisitely set with local linens and Italian glassware.
The salad should have been a tip-off that this was not going to be a normal mountain hut repast, usually a salad, meaty dish and homemade cake or strudel. Chef Rossi's elegant salad of fine, leafy greens was dotted with paper-thin shavings of green apple and fresh herbs, and was followed by a robust vegetable soup that we all agreed we would have killed for at lunch time.
Next came homemade lasagna, with gossamer noodles and deer ragu, and, sharing the plate, a well-seasoned barley risotto, with perfectly al dente grains and translucent shavings of parmesan.
As the proverbial happy campers, we toasted our good fortune with delicious local wines, and commented, not complained, mind you, but commented on how few vegetables we had eaten in the past couple days. Boom, out came the “main course” – a bowl of five or six kinds of bright, butter-blessed vegetables, accompanying a Brobdingnagian veal shank called Stinco di Vitello.
The glossy, crusty meat fell off the bone into shiny natural juices as the platter was passed around the table. Every caramelized nubbin of meat brought oohs and aahs from the stunned audience. But there was still more: Steaming slabs of polenta with a wild mushroom ragu, which I tasted enough of to know that it was fabulous and that I would regret the next day that I hadn’t eaten more.
Three or four homemade desserts, including an impressive, egg-white-fluffed buckwheat cake with homemade jam, and a picture-perfect pear tart came next in the parade. Since no one could eat more than a bite, we were all thrilled to see them again the next morning on the breakfast buffet, that also featured a nice cheese plate and sensational breads baked on the premises.
Dazzled by our gastro-adventure of the previous night, and the brilliant blue skies that greeted us that morning, we set out for another day of trekking in the Dolomites.
(Though Fudicade Hutte, built in 1960, appears to be in the boonies, it is accessible by foot (both hiking and skiing) and via a rickety, red contraption (like a snowplow) that ferries diners along the long dirt path to the "state" road. I'm told that the owners, Sergio and Emanuela Rossi and their grown children, serve 300 people for lunch and another 100 for dinner on a busy July day. But in late June, we, and one other single hiker, were the only overnight/dinner guests. The Rossis smoke and age all their own meats, make all pasta, breads and desserts, and maintain an impressive wine cellar.)