When my editor said to me “Hey, Colin, have I got an assignment for you” I thought something was up. When he said “All you have to do is eat food prepared by Michelin-starred chefs and then enjoy the legendary Austrian hospitality” I knew there was. The ‘catch’ here was that in order to get to the food, I had to embark on something of a hike. I needn’t have worried, as the food, scenery and hospitality more than compensated any physical effort on my part.
The Tyrolean town of Ischgl in Austria is the setting every year for the event dubbed ‘The Culinary St James’ Way’. In winter, the town is packed with skiers heading for the famous Silvretta slopes and pistes but summer reveals a beautiful town set in a picture-postcard valley.
The St James’s Way was conceived in 2009 by the famous Austrian chef Eckart Witzigmann. No stranger to the kitchen, he holds three Michelin stars and is one of only four chefs ever to have been awarded Chef of the Century by the Gault Millau Guide. Still under his patronage, the idea of St James’s way draws inspiration from the other world-famous journey, El Camino de Santiago, the Christian pilgrimage to the shrine of St James in Santiago de Compostela. The idea of the original pilgrimage was of course to show your devotion and to receive nourishment for the soul as a reward for your efforts. The Austrian version is far less strenuous than a 1,000 km hike and I suspect a good deal more tasty.
I won’t deny that there’s a lot of walking to be done before you get to sample the delights that await you at each ‘hütte’. You will need the correct walking gear, which in this case is a good pair of walking shoes. Feel free to wear shorts and a T-shirt (but carry a fleece as there’s still some snow on top of the mountains), carry sticks and a rucksack, or go the whole hog and step out like the hiking version of The Terminator, as some seemed wont to do. Just don’t forget the good footwear and you’ll be fine. The sight of local children bounding across the rocks like tiny ibex should in no way put you off. Oh, and in case the word hütte conjured an image of a quaint stick-and-stone built shack, be assured that these places are hotel-sized affairs, often with rooms to rent and open from 06.30 for breakfast. Yes, really. I enquired as to how the building materials for these huge structures arrived at such a remote location. My guide’s answer was simple: they were carried there, by hand. Austrians have won their reputation for toughness and tenacity.
As the eateries are situated at around the 2,300 – 2,500 metre mark, a stiff climb is often in order. However, the higher you go, the more there is to see, from the majestic Highland and Alpine cattle, bells clanking in the thin air, to the beautiful and delicate flora – a good proportion of which features in the food you’ll be eating. The views as you climb away from the village and higher into the Alps are simply outstanding. One of my fellow travellers put it best when he said: “It makes you wonder about your place in things, looking at this.” I couldn’t have agreed more.
There are four featured chefs, all cooking a signature dish at one of four different hütten. Each dish is designed with the hiker in mind, so instead of the Alpine standard Spaghetti Bolognese or Spätzle, you’ll get something tasty yet light, fuelling the next stage of your journey. Here’s what to expect after your long walk.
Dieter Müller: Michelin-starred chef at Restaurant Dieter Müller aboard the MS Europa (a mere 26 seats) prepares a pan-fried filet of char with horseradish, mash, salad herbs and a red beet confit. The combination of light fish, punchy horseradish and earthy beets is a classic combination and works remarkably well.
Alfio Ghezzi: More Michelin stars, as the Executive Chef of Locanda Margon in Trento serves up probably my personal favourite of the four, a tagliatelle with veal stew, a creamy Parmesan sauce laced with a Torento DOC wine, Ferrari Maximum Brut and the big open secret ingredient, coffee powder. Don’t knock this until you try – it’s deep, rich and opulent.
Russell Brown: Guess what? Yes, another Michelin star. Brown’s Sienna restaurant, which he runs with his wife in Dorset is the epitome of fine dining – intimate, fresh and exciting. This ex-chocolatier’s offering is England on a plate: beef cheeks braised in beer and onions with textures of onion four ways. Any idea that the four types of onion are there purely for show are allayed at first bite. A joy.
Giovani Oosters: Last but by no means least is our very own Giovani Oosters. Giovani owns the cheekily named Vous lé Vous restaurant in Hasselt, just east of Brussels. No Michelin star as yet but it surely won’t be a long time coming. Passionate and creative, he delights by sticking to his policy of using local ingredients. His spelt ‘risotto’ incorporates Paznaun alpine cheese, air-dried bacon, local honey and mustard and a beetroot carpaccio cooked in Wilderen cherry beer.
“With a very short window of opportunity to try these delights before the greenery is replaced by snow, the season is now sadly over. Book early for next year, as over the years, this has become very much the foodie festival to watch. Take my advice and head for the hills.”