Fish and Chef Festival – Showcasing the Best of Lake Garda:
An invitation to experience a gastronomic tour of Lake Garda in Italy wasn’t something that I had to think twice about. In this post I’m going to focus on food and wine and in a second one will feature some must-see tourist sites, olive oil and wine producers, and great hotels.The focus of the trip was the 7th annual Fish and Chef festival now a major gastro attraction for visitors to the lake. Since 2010 more than 50 Michelin starred chefs have taken part in creating special dinners as well as cooking demonstrations with the dual purpose of promoting gastronomy at a reasonable price and introducing freshwater fish to chefs. Lake fish can have the reputation of being muddy tasting, so I was fascinated to see what was on offer. Lake Garda has its own benign microclimate, despite being in the northern Veneto region of Italy, and is renown for its olives and lemons, Monte Veronese cheese, Garronese beef, chestnuts, wine and truffles so there was clearly the potential for some wonderful feasting.
My first gastro-destination was a Fish and Chef dinner at the Aqualux Hotel in Bardolino . Our featured chef for the evening was Chef Andrea Berton, a Michelin starred chef from his own Ristorante Berton in Milan, and the meal was not only wonderful but a great introduction the fish of the lake.Some of my favourite dishes included lake trout with beetroot, toasted rice and yoghurt. The fish is not the salmon trout we are familiar with in the UK and has gleaming white flesh and a sweet, delicate and very clean taste.Beautifully made conchiglie pasta (pasta shells which are great for holding sauces) came with an intense lake fish soup and fresh tasting sardines. We were drinking a local Albino Piona Bardolino, made from the same Bardolino grapes as the better known Amarone, but this red wine had spent less time in barrel giving it a lightness that allowed it to match with the fish.Salmorino is another lake fish and it came steamed with a delicious apple sauce and braised celery.The local Garronese beef was tender and full of flavor with its sweetness brought out by the caramelised hazelnuts and carrot and passion fruit purée.The evening ended with locally rolled cigars from Toscano Cigars
and a smooth smoked grappa from Distillati EVO.The next day after a head-clearing funicular trip up the stunning Monte Baldo and a tour of scenic lakeside town of Malcesine it was time for lunch. Our destination was Vecchia Malcesine whose Michelin starred chef, the very charming Leandro Luppi, was the driving force behind Fish and Chef.We toasted the lake with a refreshing glass of Gorgo Perlato Custoza sparkling white, made by the Prosecco method but with different grapes – Fernanda and Gargagna rather than the traditional Glera variety. This was great lunch made up of elements of Leandro’s three menus; from the land, sea and orchard. Here are some highlights.Spaghetto pomodoro was a witty, minimal deconstruction of the classic with a swirl of cold al dente pasta covered by a disk of tomato water, a blob of garlic cream and a micro basil leaf.A red onion came cooked in sugar, salt and vinegar and then stuffed with Robiola cheese and the local Monte Baldo truffle. Skirted by a sauce of wine and honey this was a fantastic dish that made me very happy.Risotto carbonara was quite extraordinarily cooked in a Parmesan and egg broth rather than the traditional stock, and then sprinkled with slivers of the marinated Lavarello fish. The sauce had an amazing eggy purity that I hadn’t experienced in this context before.A perfectly cooked fillet of John Dory was roofed with corrugated black spaghetti and adorned with blobs of lake fish eggs and smoked aubergine stuffed tomatoes. Leandro has great technical ability but it is used in the service of bringing a contemporary and delicious spin to the local food culture.Our dinner was hosted at our home from home for our trip in the town of Garda, the elegantly comfortable lakeside Hotel Regina Adelaide . I’ll talk more about this lovely hotel in my next post save to say that it is very much a family operation with 2 restaurants, a classic dining room and the gourmet Regio Patio restaurant both with chef Andrea Constantini in charge.We started off with a glass of rosé Franciacorta, my favourite Italian sparkling wine made by the Méthode Champenoise in Brescia, a region of Lombardy, on the western side of the lake. There was fantastic fresh bread from the hotel’s bakery including Sardinian flatbread Carta di Musica and a delicious Focaccia.Roasted asparagus was served with an anchovy butter and was well matched by a mineral Ancilla Lugana Ella 2015 made from the Trebbiano grape.Deliciously light gnocchi came stuffed with cod tripe and Parmesan cheese sauce with the lightly oaked Pinot Grigio “Sot Lis Rivis” 2013 Ronco del Gelso from Friulia acting as a perfect counterpoint.Delicately cooked whitefish with stewed chard was given a bit of a poke by a tuna roe sauce.Lettuce was unusually served with white chocolate, Ca’ Rainene olive oil and honey grappa with tonic giving a beguiling Italian mix of bitter, vegetal and sweet flavours. This was a very refined meal by a chef who clearly understands the food heritage of the region but is confident enough to give it his own personal expression.
The next day began with a fascinating visit to the Bonomelli family’s Ca’ Rainene to see how their exclusive ‘best in the world’ olive oil is produced (see my next post).But then we hopped into a stylish motorlaunch and zipped across the lake (well actually we broke down in the middle of the lake-but hey, the sun was shining!) to the Brescia/Lombardy eastern side to be welcomed at the stylish Grand Hotel Fasano with a glass of Rose brut Ronca and a little pot of Parmesan mousse with a rosemary crumble and black truffle. How perfect!After a tour of this most glamorous of spaces we sat down for lunch. Spaghetti came from Syracusa in Sicily made from an ancient grain that gave it a granular texture and a distinctive flavour, mussels and peppers mixed in like cheeky schoolchildren teasing the adults. We drank a white Prestige Lugana Ca’ Maiol produced south of Lake Garda from the Trebbiano grape. It’s fresh, light, lemony minerality lifting the pasta dish.Sea bass was covered by a carpaccio of green and white asparagus flavoured by the saline pungency of that maritime miscreant the sea urchin.Oh yes….and the barman knows how to mix a mean Sazerac!Our final meal was a much more rustic affair at the Locanda Vecchia Custoza. It was the perfect opportunity to sample the local produce, dishes and wines in an informal setting and we were lucky enough to be the guests of the local Custoza wine makers who were eager for us to taste their wines. We opened proceedings with Panzimonio, the classic antipasti of raw veg with a dipping bowl of dressing.Asparagus risotto was made with local shoots-it was a classic take on the dish, unctuous and nutty.Luccio (pike) in salsa is an ancient dish from nearby Mantua with the fish cooked in oil, then flaked and mixed with capers and served with polenta. It matched well with the dry, floral Albino Piona Custoza 2015 that I was drinking.Thin tortellini were stuffed with beef, pork, parsley and Parmesan. Again another traditional dish perfectly suited to the terroir.
My visit was a perfect introduction to the gastronomy of Lake Garda, the flavours of the lake fish were a revelation to me and it was wonderful to see how individual chefs and families sustain the interlocking network of hospitality and food and wine production to create something magical in this most beautiful of settings.
Thinking of visiting Italy? Why not pin this post for later