The Vinschger Marille, the Val Venosta apricot, is one of the most popular local fruits of South Tyrolean peasant cuisine. The plants were most likely imported at the end of the 19th century from the Bohemian-Hungarian area of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. They are characterised by the particularly favourable environment in which they are grown, among the wide and barren Val Venosta mountains.
Apricots were planted almost exclusively on the northern slopes between Naturno and Montechiaro in the municipality of Prato allo Stelvio, at an altitude of between 500 and 1 000 metres above sea level. This is due to that fact that on the northern slopes, the colder soil and reduced level of sunshine could delay flowering and limit the negative effects of spring frosts. It is still grown in the upper valley, on the farms above Silandro and Lasa, which are unsuitable for apple trees.
For a century, apricot orchards were the symbol of the valley’s agriculture, covering some 200 hectares, often combined with summer cereal crops to optimise water resources. The cereals were harvested shortly before the apricots were picked, so much so that the local elderly remember how good the apricots that fell on the stubble were, some of which had been slightly opened.
After a period of great success for this fruit, its cultivation slowly declined until it almost disappeared, replaced by apple orchards and compromised by years of frost and hail. In the 1970s, a viral disease, called sharka, dealt such a severe blow to the variety that a large proportion of the apricot trees in the valley had to be uprooted. With the help of the Laimburg Institute, recovery began in the following years, but today only about 80 hectares are covered. This is a small number compared to the apricot’s heyday. This fruit still has a few sales outlets, and some small farmers still cultivate it with pride.
Val Venosta apricots are good when eaten fresh, but they are at their best when they are processed because of their intense aroma. They are used for distillation but above all for the production of jams.
The local variety has a deep yellow colour, tending towards red with a slightly fluffy skin. It has a round or oval shape and reaches a medium to large size; the flesh is orangey, firm, with a slightly acidic taste. It ripens between the end of July and the beginning of August.
The apricot is the main feature of some iconic recipes, including the famous apricot dumplings or Marillenknödeln, sweets served with butter, sugar and cinnamon imported by the Bohemian cooks who were recruited to serve the wealthy Austrian and South Tyrolean families. The term canederlo in this case indicates a large spherical dumpling made from a mixture of potatoes rather than the dry bread, milk and eggs typically used in savoury cooking. This preparation was created to use fruit that is not fully ripened, which gives the recipe a better flavour. Plums are often used instead of apricots, and the stone is replaced by a sugar cube.