The Perfect Setting for Food and More – Lake Garda:
I had been invited to Lake Garda, the largest lake in Italy with an international group of journalists to cover the wonderful Fish and Chef Festival . So I went with an expectation of fine dining, with a focus on pescatarian gastronomy.But there is much more to Lake Garda than Michelin starred chefs cooking up a storm with wonderful tasting fresh water fish such as salmerino and white trout.Situated in northern Italy and sitting between Venice and Milan, Lake Garda’s incredible alpine geography means that you can be relaxing by the water sipping a glass of delicious local Franciacorta sparkling wine whilst admiring the snow-capped mountains.
The tourist season runs from April to October with visitors holidaying by the lake for about 50 years. One of the first hotels to open was the elegant Hotel Regina Adelaide where I stayed.It was opened in a converted villa by a family of hoteliers from Verona who brought 15th c. frescos from their hotel in that city where Romeo courted Juliet which had been bombed in the war. The Regina Adelaide has 2 restaurants; the gourmet Regio Patio restaurant (see my review) as well as a more classic offer. There is lovely spa and very comfortable rooms. It’s a proper family run business and with mamma running the show in the hotel’s bakery, you know you’re going to be properly taken care of.With a large outdoor and an indoor pool it’s ideal for families or couples. The hotel also kindly lent me a bicycle, giving me the chance to have a fabulous ride by the lake just as the sun was setting.A more contemporary hotel in nearby Bardolino is the eco-friendly Aqualux. It opened in June 2012 and has a structure that is 90% wooden. The hotel has 8 pools and prides itself on being gay friendly.If you are visiting the lake it’s really worth taking the funicular to the 2200 metre high summit of Monte Baldo from the historic town of Malcesine. The alpine views and air are stunning. After coming back down to earth you will have worked up an appetite so the order of the day is a wonderful lunch at Chef Leandro Luppi’s Michelin starred Vecchia Malcesine restaurant.Malcesine is a lovely old town full of artisanal producers and antique shops as well as being an ideal for windsurfing and sailing because of the favourable winds.The Palazzo dei Capitani is well worth a visit. It is now the Town Hall but in the 14th century was used for the benefit of the ship captains who controlled trade and transportation on the lake.Malcesine’s other historic site is the Castello Scaligero. The castle belonged to the Scagileri Family and if you are a student of the machinations of Italian history you might note that all around the castle you can see the ladder sign and V shaped crenellations showing support for the Ghibelini family who supported the Emperor not the Pope. The castle’s other claim to fame is that Goethe, who had come to visit to do some paintings of the castle, was imprisoned as a spy. Once they realised he was a writer and artist they let him go and now there is an exhibition celebrating his short incarnation.These days, if like Goethe you are an aspiring artist, you would be better off staying at the Bellevue San Lorenzo Hotel which has a stunning collection of contemporary art including a Sculpture Park as well as running art courses for budding Michelangelos.Because of its benign micro-climate Lake Garda has become famous for producing high-quality olive oil despite its northerly position. Food lovers should take the time to visit Ca’ Rainene, a boutique olive oil farm. Owner Paolo Bonomelli wants to create the best extra virgin olive oil in the world and is passionate about controlling everything in the chain of production to create excellence. He only has 5000 olive trees, keeping yields low to ensure quality. Each tree has a number and a record of nutrients supplied so the process is really micro-managed. His product is expensive to make and buy but regularly wins prizes For being the top medium green olive oil in the world.I went to a tasting session; a bit like a wine tasting as it involved sniffing and slurping, where we tried 3 products. The Classico is a blend of local Garda olives with some other varieties and has light almond notes. It’s perfect with fish, salad or pasta. The DOP is just made from the traditional lake olives and while still almondy is more vegetal and intense. Drizzar is a monovarietal made from 100% Drizzar olives. It was deliciously balanced in flavour and my favourite. The top of the range is the Trefort which we didn’t get to taste probably because it costs €40 for 250ml!You can charter a boat for tours of the lake from the small Port of Torre del Benaco. It takes about 30 mins to cross to the west side of the lake, known as the Gardone Riviera which is situated in Brescia in the region of Lombardy. We travelled in some style but then our boat broke down…After a brief sunbathe, help arrived and we were whisked off to the Grand Hotel Fasano, an ex-hunting lodge from 1888 which was the epitome of stylish luxury. The same family has been associated with the hotel since 1933 and it combines the traditional with the very contemporary to stunning effect. We had a great lunch there and if you’re looking for a glamorous location on the lake it would take some beating.Our final trip combined history with wine and food in a deliciously macabre mix. We visited Custoza, a place of hills and vines growing out of its dark rich limestone soil. It occupies an important place in Italian history as the site of two major battles in the first and third Italian wars of independence. There is a monument to the fallen and we were taken down into the basement to visit the ossuary where 1500 skulls and bones of the soldiers lie in rest. Not for the faint hearted!Custoza’s position at 45 degrees north is reckoned to be the best for viniculture being on the same line as Bordeaux. The lake gives warmth through the winter and the wines share a slight salinity that comes from the soil. Wine is a serious business in this area and the Veneto province is the largest producer of DOC wine with vines covering 1000 hectares and producing 12 million bottles a year. 80% is for domestic consumption with many being drunk by Lake Garda’s 12 million annual visitors. You can look for Custoza wines at top Italian restaurants around the world such as Locanda Locatelli in London and even at M&S.
It is even rumoured that the Custoza Superiore Cavalchina Amedeo is the favourite tipple of ex UK premier Gordon Brown…and I thought it was Irn Bru…We went for a wonderful wine tasting and meal with the local producers at the Locanda Vecchio Custoza. The wines typically have a good structure with a balance between minerality and acidity and spicy and tropical notes. They are worth looking out for and if you go for a meal at the Locanda do ask for the delicious Luccio in salsa-pike cooked in oil with capers and grilled polenta.I was expecting Lake Garda to be beautiful but it is much more than that. I didn’t count on the strength of the local gastronomic culture and produce. And in a world of bland corporate uniformity and insincere attempts at ‘quality’ the thing that really moved me was the commitment of families and individuals to create the best food, wine, oil and hotels that they possibly can. That is a rare commodity that should be cherished. Now I am looking forward to spending a week in Lake Garda – you need at least that if you are going to do the region justice!
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