The Hills are Full of the Smell of Food
Hike, dine and explore the Culinary St Jacob’s Way in the Austrian Alps. Celebrating 10 years this summer, British chef Michael Wignall is among the chefs adopting a “hutte” on the route
Article by Mark Nicholls
The Austrian Alps take on a refreshing new dimension in the summer. Where once there were ski runs, there are now pasture for cattle – and yes, they do wear bells around their necks which clang across the mountains. The lush green hillsides bloom with spring and summer flowers, yet amid this changing landscape – now frequented by hikers and mountain bikers rather than skiers – one constant remains: the welcoming familiarity of Austrian mountain huttes and a fine alpine culinary tradition.
Underlining this in the Ischgl Silvretta region, close to the Swiss border, is the Kulinarischer Jakobsweg (Culinary St Jacob’s Way): celebrating its 10th anniversary this summer.
It is a concept which celebrates all that is best in alpine cooking but by adding an international twist by inviting Michelin-starred chefs from across Europe to design and deliver specific dishes for their “adopted” hutte.
Among them is Michael Wignall, a British chef renowned for his technical approach to cooking, who had designed a recipe for the Almstuberl hutte in the mountains of Paznaun-Ischgl in the Austrian Tirol. He was among contemporaries from Germany, Switzerland and Belgium, who had designed dishes for the menus at other huts on the slopes above the region’s resorts. Whilst also embarking on a new culinary venture with a restaurant project in North Yorkshire, the opportunity to take part in the Culinary Jakobsweg saw a welcome return to the mountains for Michael who enjoys snowboarding and mountain biking when the chance presents.
Hiking is popular in the mountains around Ischgl during the summer with a network of routes for walkers of all levels, as well as mountain bikers. There are more than 1,000km of hiking trails and regular huttes and inns to stop off for lunch or refreshments. As we hiked up to the Almstüberl mountain lodge above the village of Kappl at almost 2,000m where his dish “headlined” the menu, Michael outlined the motivation for his dish based on venison and pork sausage. “I am familiar with alpine cuisine but my cooking is generally quite technical,” he explained. “This dish has carbohydrates that fill you up and are tasty and good. At higher altitude you need something to fill you up and not only get you up the mountain, but not to the extent that you cannot walk comfortably afterwards. “It is something you can enjoy and get you down the mountain as well. For me, it was good doing something completely different.”
Michael’s dish is braised venison sausage with pickled root vegetables. There is a peppercorn and chocolate sauce with carrots, potato, leek, and mushroom on a bed of grated turnip.
It dovetailed the “meat from the mountains” with famous Austrian chocolate, but it also had to be relatively simply as kitchen staff at the Almstuberl had to be able to replicate it accurately and to order for summer diners. “Venison is the healthiest meat you can have and is really good for you,” he added. “The dish also reflects the location, and for me it is nice to cook something easy and filling. The sauce is bitter but the cholate sweetens it.”
A Michelin-starred chef, Michael was a professional BMX rider when younger but was influenced to go to catering college by his mother was a patissier, whilst retaining his passion for extreme sports such as wakeboarding and mountain biking. “I also found that I also was not too bad at cooking,” he smiles.
Michael, who has a list of award-winning restaurants to his credit, including Gidleigh Park in Chagford, Devon, and is poised to launch a new venture in Yorkshire later this year, was one of five guest chefs from Michelin-star restaurants across Europe to headline the area’s Culinary Jakobsweg programme. Each adopted a mountain restaurant and create a hearty dish using locally sourced ingredients, which then becomes that lodge’s seasonal special on the menu. The other four chefs are Harald Wohlfahrt and Heinz Winkler from Germany, Sven Wassmer from Switzerland and Belgian Arabelle Meirlaen with adopted lodges in the mountains above Ischgl, Galtür and See.
The launch event of the Kulinarischer Jakobsveg was at Friedrichshafener-hutte 2,138m above sea level at Ischgl and brought all five chefs together to cook and serve their dishes in a setting on the mountains. With Michael assisted by Andrea Sprenger, it was an exhilarating 7km hike up to sample all five dishes.
While in winter, Ischgl is one of Austria’s top ski resorts with 238kms of groomed piste, during the summer holiday activities cover hiking, mountain biking, bouldering, motorcycling, trail running, fishing, mini-golf and ziplining. Yet over and above the gourmet food on the mountains, Ischgl is a resort with a long culinary reputation and excellent restaurants including that at the five-star Trofana Royal Hotel where Martin Sieberer has established a renowned kitchen to the young stars of Austrian cooking such as Benjamin Parth, at Yscla, where the food is modern and innovative.
A meal – of eight courses interspersed with “gifts” from the kitchen – is one of the dining delights of the Alps in the way it draws on modern and traditional flavours in the Stüva restaurant which is in the historic setting of the Yscla hotel.
Mark Nicholls stayed at the 4* Hotel Tirol in the centre of Ischgl, where rooms in the summer are from Euro 86 pppn / http://www.tirol-ischgl.at/en/summer
Holidaymakers in the Paznaun villages of Ischgl, Galtür, Kappl and See receive the free Silvretta Card which allows free use of cablecars, chairlifts and buses, swimming pools and water parks, museums and exhibitions.
Nearest airport is Innsbruck (EasyJet; BA) with regular flights also into Zurich and Munich.
For more information visit: www.paznaun-ischgl.com