Fish and Chef on Lake Garda, Italy

Whether it’s fine wine, excellent food or deluxe comfort, Lake Garda is the place to go in Italy, and the annual gourmet festival, Fish and Chef is the ideal time to experience it. Rupert Parker gets a preview.

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Lake Garda is one of those places I remember my extended family visiting in the late 1950’s before the advent of cheap charter flights. They raved about it. This is my first time here and I must say its natural beauty doesn’t disappoint and even at the end of June is not overrun with tourists. I start in the small village of Garda and check into the Hotel Regina Adelaide

It’s just a stone’s throw from the lake, now celebrating its 50th anniversary, and still in the hands of the same family. Each of its 59 elegant rooms is unique, all recently refurbished, and there’s a large outdoor pool. What I like is that they pride themselves in doing their own laundry so the linen is soft yet crisp. They also have a patisserie where they sell products made fresh in the hotel’s own kitchens and also served at breakfast.

I join owner Gianpiero Tedeschi in the Regio Patio restaurant and he introduces me to his chef, Andrea Costantini who’s worked in some of the world’s best kitchens before settling here. His cooking ranges across classic French techniques, introducing spicy flavours, always conscious of seasonality and local produce. That’s immediately evident in his antipasto of grilled wild mushrooms with crispy bread, salad of aromatic herbs, blueberries and gorgonzola cheese sauce. I enjoy raw red prawns in a vegetable stock with quails eggs and extra virgin olive oil. The standout, though, is roast pigeon with red fruits, tomatoes, poached garlic, mushrooms and Madeira wine sauce. Dessert is apricot, chocolate and liquorice ice cream and I’m served a matching wine with each course. This is cool sophisticated cooking where all the flavours shine.

Earlier in the day I visit the Cesari Winery between Peschiera del Garda and Pozzolengo just south of the lake. I’m here to try their Valpolicella, a wine which I also remember from my student years, when I drank too much of their cheap and cheerful plonk. Nothing could be more different here where Gerardo Cesari produces unique, elegant, fine, balanced wines, drawing on tradition, but also utilising the latest advances in viniculture. Valpolicella is typically made from three grape varieties, Corvina Veronese, Rondinella, and Molinara.

I taste their Valpolicella Classico Ràjo, then the Corvina Veronese Jèma, then Valpolicella Superiore Ripasso Bosan and finally the 2006 Amarone della Valpolicella Bosan Riserva, made from 75% Corvina, 20% Rondinella and 5% Molinara. What’s special is that the grapes are dried in racks until mid-January when they’ve shrivelled into raisins concentrating the sugars and flavours. Long aging in large oak barrels and barriques, together with a long time in the barrel means this is a great wine. It goes well with red meat, game and will keep for many years, improving all the time.

Next day I’m on the move North to Malcesine and the 4 star Hotel Spa Bellevue San Lorenzo. It’s situated just above the lake and is a Belle-Époque villa situated in its own grounds full of olive, cypress and magnolia trees. There’s plenty of space and a glorious infinity pool where you soak and enjoy the marvellous view across to the other side of the lake.

I need to work up an appetite so take the Malcesine cableway, which rises 1600 m in just ten minutes and reaches an altitude of 1760 m at the top of Monte Baldo. The cable car is unique – on the upper section the cabin slowly rotates offering a 360° view. I’m keen to walk on the ridge but am almost in the mist, and only catch occasional glimpses of the lake below.

After my taxing hike, I’m ready to tackle the menu at the Michelin starred Vecchia Malcesine. It also has a perfect view and I opt for what they call their menu Assagi, where the chef cooks 6 smaller dishes depending on what’s fresh. Their prawn and scampi cocktail is a delightful take on the old favourite using a selection of different types of prawn with a gin and tonic sorbet and daubs of squid ink and prawn sauce.

There’s fish to follow in the form of a fillet of salmon trout with white chocolate sauce, topped with horseradish and smoked caviar. Next is Spaghetti Carbonara Lake Garda which turns out to be squid ink pasta with a rich egg sauce topped with crispy croutons of fried fish. A delightful twist on a classic Italian dish.

Perhaps the most memorable dish is slow cooked beef tongue with a layer of foie gras on top in a consommé of sweet wine. This is a dish that really does take me back to childhood as my mother used to cook a whole tongue and serve it cold. Unfortunately she left out the foie gras, so it can’t compete with this marvellous creation.

I’ve left out three other dishes but you get the picture. Finish off with lemon parfait and olive ice cream with fresh berries and you’ve got a pretty well-night perfect meal. Chef Leandro Luppi full deserves his Michelin star and he’s also the guiding light behind the annual Fish and Chef festival which takes place at the end of April.

Each evening, over seven days, top international and Italian chefs prepare six course tasting menus in the region’s most sumptuous hotels and restaurants. The next one will run from 20-27th April 2016 and, on the basis of the food I’ve eaten, I’d advise you to start booking now.

Visit Garda has information about the region.
Italia has information about the country.
EasyJet flies from Gatwick to Verona.
The Gatwick Express is the most direct way to get to the airport from central London.
The Travel Lodge is a handy place to overnight at Gatwick.