They were supposed be our three best days in Ascona, since this southern part of Switzerland has a lot to offer – and not just in the summer. But let’s start at the beginning.
Anyone who knows me knows that every now and then, I like to get away from the “big city” of Zurich to visit Ticino. Ticino is Switzerland’s little bit of paradise. Even if our country has lots of beautiful spots, the Italian spirit draws me back again and again. We had a few things planned for these three days, because autumn in Ticino means going on a hunt for porcini and eating game.
Arriving at Castello del Sole
Thanks to the new Gotthard Tunnel, the train will take you to Locarno from Zurich in just 2 hours and 15 minutes, with only one transfer. A driver from Castello del Sole
was already waiting for us at the station. You don’t become aware of the hotel’s large grounds until you’re driving down the two alleys that lead to the entrance. The property encompasses about 150 hectares, much of which is taken up by fruit, vegetables, grapes, and risotto rice fields. But more on that later.
Once arrived at the hotel, our first move was to settle into our junior suite and enjoy a glass of champagne on the balcony as we gazed out over the risotto fields and looked across the park to the private beach on Lago Maggiore. Just a short while later, we managed to explore most the area within and around the hotel grounds.
The Fruit and Vegetable Gardens of Terreni alla Maggia
You could almost say that the hotel is able to fulfill all its needs with everything grown on site. But according to Fabio, the hotel’s own products are unfortunately not enough to take care of all its guests, although the majority of the food does come from the hotel’s own gardens. That includes housemade marmelade for breakfast, tomatoes and other types of vegetables for lunch, and risotto for dinner, of course. In addition to their winemaking process, Fabio showed us a risotto rice field, and he explained that Ascona is the northernmost place in the world for growing risotto rice in fields that don’t need to be completely underwater. Since the growers also try to avoid using pesticides, the field has patches of weeds here and there. “Loto” risotto is a rewarding rice, mainly because it’s an easy one for beginner risotto cooks since it’s harder to overcook it.
The Fall Festival in Ascona/Locarno
After touring the garden, we were hungrier than ever, so we were glad when Stefano from Ascona-Locarno Tourism invited us to take part in the “Autunno gastronomico Lago Maggiore e Valli 2017” festival. At this festival, about 50 restaurants create a variety of dishes using the best of their autumn offerings.
As guests of Castello del Sole, we had free use of a Vespa, which we drove to the Grotto Madonna della Fontana, where plates of saddle of venison awaited us. Afterwards, we also got to know the chef, who proudly showed us the antlers of a stag he had recently shot.
Our stomachs now full, we happily drove back to the hotel, where we prepared for the following day.
On the Hunt for Porcini in Ticino
But our real reason for visiting Ticino was the porcini. With the help of Moreno Vosti, head gardener at Castello del Sole and, luckily, a mushroom inspector as well, we set off for Monte Bre, apparently one of the porcino’s favorite growing spots.
We arrived at 9:30 a.m. and quickly realized that we wouldn’t be the only ones competing to find the best and most beautiful porcini. But just two hours later, we had already filled our basket with porcini and a few other varieties of mushroom.
The best thing about our search was not just that we found plenty of porcini in spite of the bad weather forecast but also that Moreno shared his knowledge of mushrooms with us. We learned a whole lot about other mushrooms, including which are good and which not so much. Although to be honest, the only mushrooms I would still venture to pick without prior inspection are the porcini. I don’t think I’d ever be 100% sure about any of the others.
Back at the hotel, we took a quick shower, and after a light lunch in the garden, it was off to see Mattias Roock, head chef for Castello del Sole.
A Ticinese Porcini Risotto
Whoever goes porcini hunting also has to make a risotto to match. With the help of Mattias Roock, the outstanding head of Castello del Sole’s kitchen for the past several months, we transformed our mushrooms into a second course for the midday meal.
A Ticinese Recipe for Porcini Risotto
- 1 small onion
- 240g risotto
- 200g fresh porcini
- 20g dried porcini, soaked in water
- 1dl white wine
- About 8 dl chicken stock
- 50gr butter
- 100gr grated parmesan
Porcini risotto is actually quick and easy to make. Sauté the onions in a little oil. Then add the rice and briefly continue sautéing. Add half the white wine, followed by the stock. Cook for about 20 minutes, keeping an eye on it. While the risotto is cooking, sauté the mushrooms in a pan with a little oil so that they retain a bit of their crunch. Remove the risotto from the heat, add the rest of the wine, and stir in the butter. Add the remaining ingredients except for 1 or 2 mushrooms. Now add the parmesan, and let sit for 3 to 4 minutes. Lightly season with salt and pepper, and use the remaining mushrooms to garnish the risotto right before serving. Your risotto is done!
Note: Risotto should be al dente, but not hard. It should also not be thick, but slightly liquidy.
Sapori del Nostro Orto: Flavors from Our Garden
Once the cooking is done, it’s time to relax. At the Cortile Barbarossa, we were able to relax a bit and review the day over a glass of wine. After that, we headed to the restaurant, where we enjoyed the “Sapori del nostro orto” menu along with a suitable wine. The menu features food that’s either grown or produced from their own garden or from a nearby local place. For us, it was the crowning finale to our day.
Bye to Castello del Sole
We would have loved to stay on at the Castello and could have spent another few weeks there. The friendliness of the employees, the park, and the food were just some of the points that have made the Castello del Sole an absolute favorite of mine among hotels. We would gladly go back. Before leaving, we visited Rosina and Figaro after breakfast. These two donkeys are probably the only ones in the whole world with the chance to enjoy life at a 5-star hotel. 😉
A Day with the Vespa in the Valle Verzasca
To enjoy Ticino some more, we decided to take Castello del Sole’s Vespas and go on a day trip in spite of the tough weather conditions. In Switzerland, a standard driver’s license allows you to drive a slow Vespa, which is a lot of fun. But when it comes to the Valle Verzasca, which involves a solid 30 minutes of uphill riding, things get a little more difficult. Luckily, we had plenty of time for a comfortable ride through Lavertezzo and all the way to the other side of the valley. At the Grotto Sasello, we warmed ourselves over wild boar lasagne and a glass of the local Merlot before riding back to Ascona once more. This time on idle, since it was all downhill
Tips for a Perfect Ticino Adventure
I’m a big fan of Ticino. Daria is more drawn to the Bernese Highlands, although she’s always up for Italian food.
If you’d like to visit Ticino, be sure to bring along enough time. There’s so much to experience, and that should always include relaxing over a good glass of wine. From a culinary standpoint, it’s best to seek out a nice local restaurant or grotto for your main meals. If all you want is pizza, in my opinion, you’re better off making it yourself or ordering it, just because Ticino offers so much more.
In addition to the “Autunno gastronomico Lago Maggiore e Valli,” be sure to check out the chestnut festival that takes place at around the same in Ascona. For hiking, I recommend Intragna, which is not far from Ascona and whose Grotto du Rii is a great local restaurant right nearby. And my final tip for an amazing start and finish is this: take the train! Whether on your way there or back, if you end up sitting in traffic by the Gotthard, you’ll have wrecked your weekend and returned without ever having the chance to relax.