We will be the first to admit it – when we jumped on the plane to Salzburg we didn’t know anything about Austrian food. That is, beyond schnitzels and slices of rich Sacher Torte. We thought the whole dining experience would be limited to meat and potatoes but, while a lot of the country’s traditional dishes revolve around these two stables, we couldn’t believe how delicious this brand of pub grub could be.
Wherever we wandered – from the pastel-coloured promenades of Innsbruck to Arlberg’s soaring peaks and mountain villages, and the tranquil lake district area around Bad Gastein – we found the same fantastic food as we found in Salzburg. So what makes these savoury sensations so great? Strong flavours – like the ruby-red lingonberry jam that cuts through the thinly pounded pork cutlers that are then breaded and fried in butter – and seasonal ingredients – such as deliciously rich late summer Eierschwammerl (chanterelle mushrooms). But most importantly – everything is kept simple. No flourishes and no foams. Just – and I hate to sound all Masterchef – great cooking that clearly came from the heart.
Arlberg1800: fine dining meets informal
At our digs in the Alps – arlberg1800 (read a full review of this mountain resort here) – there were a number of spaces to eat, and during the busy summer season, half board guests get to eat off various set and a la carte menus at the Hospiz Alm Restaurant (a short walk from the main building), the Skiclub Arlberg Stube, the Tiroler Wirtshaus (a traditional Tyrolean style pub) or in the Kaminhalle (home to the one of the largest chimneys in Europe – we are thinking hot chocolate in winter and red wine nightcaps come summer).
We have already been raving about finding simple food made to taste sensational in Austria, and our eating experiences at arlberg1800 were no different. The first night we ate a set three-course menu at Kaminhalle, where we enjoyed great service and smart surrounds as the backdrop to local classics.
It was however the next day at lunch, sitting on the sun terrace under which hides a sleek contemporary art gallery and concert hall, that we got a real surprise. Fresh fresh fresh ingredients in a range of meat-led dishes off the a la carte menu – my steak pasta (yep, why go veggie when you can pop insanely tender, charred cubes of beef on top of a cheesy, handmade pasta plate) ended up being one of the most memorable dishes of the trip.
Nearby culinary gems
Head to Zug for the latest restaurant from hotelier Joschi Walch called Rote Wand Schualhus
. Ok, we say new, the building dates back to 1780 and has housed a dairy and a school before its latest incarnation as a fine dining restaurant, cookery school, bar, lounge and terrace. The intimate chef’s table is a real highlight (12 to 15 dishes made with seasonal, locally sourced produce with a ringside view of the action in the kitchen), but you don’t have to srop lots of euro for a delicious dining experience here.
From breakfast – farm-fresh yoghurt farm served with compote and granola – through to the local speciality Riebelschmarrn that comes with apple sauce, right through to goulash with bread dumplings, the all-day menu is best washed down with wine from the Rote Wand’s cellar or schnapps from distilleries across the Vorarlberg region. And to take the taste home with you, you’ll find plenty of jars of home-made jam.
Also worth a visit is Hus Nr 8 – a very traditional restaurant that’s loved by locals and located in nearby Lech. It’s the fondue and raclette that have won this 300-year-old place so many loyal customers, but the Kässspätzle and Blutwurstgröstl (similar to black pudding) are also worth trying.
Hitting the open road
Approaching the Arlberg region from the east (from Innsbruck or Salzburg) means you can tour the Tiroler Schnapsroute, but make sure you excuse yourself from driving duty – the area that surrounds Stanz is home to more than 50 schnapps distilleries. But before you even reach this sleepy Alpine village, it’s worth stopping off at the 200-year-old Starkenberger Biermythos.
This historic brewery is housed in a medieval castle at the top of a steep hill and, if a tour and a tasting on the terrace hasn’t satisfied your cravings, you and your travelling companion can book two spots in a tub filled with beer. That’s right, it’s the ultimate bubble bath.
West of Arlberg – from Schoppernau (about 40km from St Christoph am Arlberg) – it’s possible to drive the Bregenzerwald Kasestrasse (that translates as the Bergenz Cheese Road, so you know you are in for a treat – www.kaesestrasse.at
). This is dairy country – think hairy brown cows and the sound of bells chiming as these placid beasts roam the luscious green pastures. It’s possible to embark on a 49km round trip that takes in the village of Egg on the way to Lingenau – you will soon know you are on the right track when you spot a sign right before one of the craziest stretches of road we encountered the whole trip – a hairpin bend supported by concrete pillars – utterly dwarfed by the 360-degree mountain vista.
There are huge cellars at the modern Kasekeller Lingenau, where you can take part in a cheese tasting – they also offer the option of matched wines – and a great factory tour at Kase-Molke Metzler, where you are welcomed at the end by a cow- and goat-milk cheese buffet – you can even try milking a member of the herd if you feel like really getting involved. And, if you are hungry from more, stop at Gasthof Hirschen in Schwarzenberg for a plate of Kasspatzle – hand-rolled noodles with cheese that is topped with crispy onion. Think Austria’s version of Italy’s much revered pici pasta with cheese and black pepper.