Travel review: Gourmet paradise in the Alps
Travel writer Jan Henderson has a taste of the Michelin-starred high life in the Austrian mountain resort of Ischgl.
So what’s your recipe for a great summer holiday in the mountains? If the ingredients include fantastic scenery, plenty of hiking trails for all abilities, maybe some mountain biking, great food both up the mountain and back in resort, and a bit of luxury to cosset your weary bones when you return to your hotel at the end of the day – then I think I have the perfect dish for you!
It all revolves round the fashionable Austrian resort of Ischgl - in winter one of the Alps’ top ski resorts, and in summer a fantastic base for a variety of activities to attract the active, the energetic… and the gourmet. Many Alpine ski resorts offer mountain hiking and biking as a summer alternative to the main winter menu of skiing and snowboarding, but Ischgl has a habit of taking a slightly different slant on things – and this involves food, very good food too!
For the past 11 years Ischgl has invited a small group of Michelin-starred chefs from around Europe to create a dish that will then be available in selected mountain restaurants over the summer months for the delectation of hungry hikers and bikers. I recently joined a group of journalists from around Europe for the launch of this summer’s Kulinarischer Jakobsweg (Culinary St Jacob’s Way) in a mountain hutte high in the mountains. We watched five Michelin-starred chefs preparing wonderful dishes and then got to taste them all – it’s a hard job, but someone has to do it…
Representing the UK was James Knappett, who has a brace of Michelin stars for his unusual Bubbledogs and Kitchen Table restaurants in London’s Charlotte Street. Bubbledogs, as the name sort of suggests, is an unusual combination of fine Champagne and gourmet hotdogs which is proving wildly popular with eaters and critics alike, while Kitchen Table is a small, 20-cover fine dining experience situated just behind the main Bubbledogs area, with a fresh menu on offer each and every day. Its popularity is underlined by the fact that there’s a three month waiting list for a seat at the Kitchen Table – good news for James, a bit frustrating for those of us who don’t want to have to wait to taste what’s on offer.
As you’d expect with five of Europe’s top chefs, all their mountain creations were spectacular, although James’ melt-in-the-mouth venison on a bed of celeriac mash just edged it for me… not that I was biased towards our own chef of course! All the dishes were then scaled up to hungry hiker portion size the following day for inclusion – at a modest 15 Euros a head – on the menu in five mountain hutte restaurants above Ischgl for the duration of the summer hiking season.
If that’s not a reason for deciding to choose Ischgl as your base for a summer hiking holiday, I don’t know what is!
If you want to continue the gourmet experience when you return from the mountains, why not visit the magnificent 5* Trofana Royal Hotel in the centre of town, where one of Austria’s top chefs, Martin Sieberer, who coordinates the Jakobsweg chefs and their dishes every year, can offer a gastronomic delight for your evening dinner.
Alternatively, just down the road at the Stuva gourmet restaurant, Austria’s Gault & Millau Chef of the Year 2019 Benjamin Parth – still only 30 – can prepare a simply stunning display of culinary artistry that will take your breath away… it really is that good.
And if you are after something a little simpler, it’s only a short walk down the road to the town’s Burger King outlet…
If you are going to indulge in Ischgl’s gourmet delights both up and down the mountains, you need to work up an appetite – and this is where the hiking and biking come in. The Austrian Alps are a paradise for walkers and hikers, with hundreds of kilometres of trails to suit lightweights like me and also hardcore trekkers who want to stay overnight in some of the mountain huttes to intensify the experience and prolong the time actually spent striding out on the many high-level trails and paths.
For those of us mere mortals, cycling is probably the optimal way to experience the best of what the mountains have to offer in the summer months – and the rapid growth of the ebiking sector of the cycling community means that the hills and climbs that form an inevitable part of this activity in the mountains suddenly become much less of a problem.
There are many keen mountain bikers who use purely their own efforts to scale the mountain tracks and passes – and massive respect to them, too – but if you are less fit and able, older or maybe recovering from illness or injury, the ebike option opens up a whole new experience. Basically an ebike has a battery powered motor attached to the frame that can be activated to give you a significant boost when you need it for going up hills – and it really is a revelation, making light work of gradients where you would normally expect to have to get off and push. You still have to do some pedalling, and on a decent trip will get a good workout, but it opens up huge opportunities for those of us who otherwise would be unable to enjoy this exhilarating way of experiencing the mountains.
We managed a round trip of more than 30km to reach the Heidelberger Lodge – the 2,264m high venue for our Michelin chefs’ mountain dish launch – much of it on roads or tracks up steep hills, without a great deal of difficulty, and enjoyed an experience I would otherwise have missed out on, as, for me, doing the trip on a conventional bike would literally have been a non-starter. It’s still easier and quicker going downhill, though…
My main motivation for going to the mountains is in the winter when the temperature is below freezing, the snow has fallen, the pistes are open and there’s skiing to be done… but I have to say, the Alps in summer, with warm sunny days hiking or ebiking amidst awesome scenery, punctuated by some marvellous food and good company, presents a whole new pleasure.
You’ve got the rest of the summer to try it – so why not head to Ischgl and make the most of the mountains!
Facts and figures:
Jan Henderson stayed at the 4* superior Hotel Fliana in Ischgl, which has many offers in the summer, from 390 Euros pp for 2 nights with breakfast, snacks and five course evening meal – see the website for more info
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 during the summer
The main summer events are the Silvrettarun 3000 for runners (19 July); Top Of The Mountain Biker Summit for motorcyclists (26-28 July); Ironbike for mountain bikers (31 July to 3 August. See website for more info
Ischgl has 1,500 residents and almost 11,700 guest beds; Kappl has 2,600 residents and 5,300 guest beds; Galtür is the smallest village with just under 800 residents and 4,000 guest beds; See has almost 1,200 residents and 1,800 guest beds
Nearest airport is Innsbruck (easyJet; BA), with a 75 minute road transfer
Summer holiday activities cover hiking, mountain biking, e-biking, bouldering, motorcycling, trail running, fishing, mini-golf and ziplining
In winter, Ischgl is one of Austria’s top ski resorts, with 238kms of groomed piste and a five-month long snowsure guarantee for skiers and snowboarders thanks to its altitude and elevation, supported by 1,100 snow cannons
The winter season is bookended by big name open air concerts, with the roll call including Robbie Williams, Elton John, Mariah Carey, Lionel Richie, Kylie Minogue and Deep Purple – the star for the 2019-20 opening season concert on 30 November 2019 is German band Seeed
More information at www.paznaun-ischgl.com