The Blessings & Curses of Italian Families in Mountains

Your correspondent always enjoys a few weeks hiking in the Dolomite mountains with the family. However, Covid and work put it on hold for a couple of years, but now, in August 2023, we were able to return to one of our favorite spots – a spot that shall remain secret because it is too nice to share!

The best thing about the small villages here is that they are small communities nested between towering mountains with pastures and forests on both sides of the valleys.

Cars, buses, motorbikes, and bikes file along the few narrow roads transporting mainly German, Austrian, and Italian tourists. Thy are not crowded because just a tiny minority of Europe’s population understand the breathtaking beauty of the mountains. Getting here is arduous and hiking is an endurance test for the initiated – but when you reach the top parts the views are a thrilling experience. Going down is also tough on the knees…

This year we noticed a few big changes, as well as a few things that never seem to change.

On the sad side, it appears that around 10% of the forests have been killed off by storms and the dreaded bark beetle. Millions of these tiny beetles nibble away at the bark and kill off the trees and then move to the next ones… Hot dry summers, followed by heavy rain have weakened the trees and these 100- to 200-year-old “stressed” trees die in a couple of months. Climate change is slowly being understood but one cannot help thinking that expanding winter ski slopes also have a major negative impact on these forests.

The second bad thing is the heat – we experienced our first week with hiking temperatures in the mid-30s centigrade. The sun was fierce and not to be played with lightly. We have never felt so much heat from morning to evening – and this was confirmed by the locals.

But the good news was that the small family-owned restaurants and hotels are open, and their service is wonderful.

All the direct family is employed from grandpa and grandma, to grandchildren, and everybody in between, and that includes aunts, uncles, nieces and nephews.

Prices and the quality of food are great. It is almost all locally produced. They understand that people are hungry and thirsty after the day’s hiking in the fresh air alongside meadows, forests, and huge solid farmhouses with their balconies are brimming with flowers. The villages are spotless with most houses looking as if freshly painted.

And the welcoming smiles are real and not contrived. We even get a Christmas card and a reminder letter at the end of each year for the last 20 years!

Their way of doing things is far from the outsourced, low wage, uninspiring work practices of the Finnish hospitality sector, with a few exceptions that are available in Helsinki and a few other places in Finland – just check out the list on the front page of FinnishNews! They are really good places to enjoy excellent Finnish food… Berlusconi just did not get it when he said that Italian food is the best in the world – very superior to Finnish stuff!

It is not only in the hospitality sector that their mountain people excel in, they also know how to making daily shopping fun and wholesome! Unlike Finland and a few other countries, the northern regions have almost banned big supermarkets. Here it is mainly local small shops selling fresh local produce – from excellent dairy produce, excellent freshly baked bread, to high quality fruit and vegetables, wine, and of course speck, sausages, and hams… Fish is not so varied, but they have small fish farms with trout and char.

The shops are well kept and full of local alternatives that spoil you ­for choice. This year, they have a plentiful supply of fresh ripe peaches, apples, plum, strawberries, blueberries, raspberries, and fat red tomatoes!

It is great to have wild mushrooms with olive oil and spaghetti with freshly grated cheese… or a green salad with wildflowers and young herbs picked from the mountain side with a large cold mozzarella cheese plum in the center and cut into two halves…

The whole area of the Dolomites is an exercise in local villages and regions aspiring to maintain an independence against the big bullying corporates that want to serve up what suits their pockets rather than what we the consumer really desire. Your correspondent is smart enough to know that all this talk about efficient logistics and cost saving supermarkets is just a fog to muddle your minds. These Finnish giants make huge profits, drive down the prices received by primary producers, who, in turn, are forced to lower wages and product quality. We end up with products that are relatively expensive and of a lower quality. We are forced to walk along long isles some 100 meters long, promising “delicious” pre-packed food in identical featureless markets that use tons of plastic to keep food “fresh”!

It is little wonder that we can enjoy our two to three week holiday here where these daily chores become great simple pleasures.

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