I was on a pilgrimage to Tyrol in the Austrian Alps, albeit one to satisfy the stomach more than the soul. A culinary journey of rediscovery, if you will. But the first meal I had was far from heavenly – a dry Schnitzelsemmel. Worse still, it was at a motorway service station.
Retrospectively, the breaded pork escalope slung in a roll with some soggy lettuce was the perfect contrast for what was to come.
I was back in the country I was lucky enough to call home for many years to walk the Culinary Way of St James, or Kulinarische Jakobsweg to give it its Austrian moniker, in the hills of Paznaun-Ischgl.
The region in the very far west of Tyrol is perhaps best known for its skiing, although Brits tend to be more familiar with the nearby resort of St Anton am Arlberg.
Visiting any ski resort during the summer months can at first appear rather odd, with many of the hotels, lifts and apres ski bars left fallow out of winter.
But, once you’ve got used to it, the stillness and greenery of the surrounding mountains, not to mention the alpine air, becomes something to embrace. The landscape has got “wellness” written all over it. With its string of villages including See, Kappl, Ischgl and Galtür, the Paznaun valley is the perfect setting for the culinary hiking route that is the Kulinarischer Jakobsweg.
Established in 2008, the route along ancient pilgrim paths was created as a way to improve the quality of food at the local Alpine Association huts and showcase local Tyrolean produce.
From July to September each year, hikers and gastronomes alike can sample dishes created by five top chefs from around Europe at participating mountain lodges in the Silvretta mountains, for just €15 a pop. Each chef creates one dish for a selected lodge, so to sample all five dishes, you need to hike to all five huts.
This year’s UK chef is James Knappett, the man behind London’s champagne and gourmet hotdog bar Bubbledogs and the two Michelin-starred fine dining restaurant Kitchen Table. Noma, The Ledbury and Per Se also feature on his impressive resumé.
His dish is joined by others from fellow highly-acclaimed chefs comprising France’s Jean-George Klein, local chef Paul Ivic, Germany’s Tristan Brandt, and Onno Kokmeijer from the Netherlands.
I arrived in Ischgl, the valley’s largest and most famous resort, to find out my room at the 4* Hotel Fliana was perfectly situated for skiing, with views of a rather-bare ski run and two dormant lifts.
What would normally be buzzing in winter, was instead peaceful; until the peace was broken by the squeals of two people flying past on a zipline. I didn’t have time to try it myself but it highlighted that there is more to do here during the summer than was immediately apparent.
Another pleasant surprise was discovering the pool on the top floor. The water was slightly cooler than I’d hoped but its neighbouring hot tub resolved that issue nicely. And with a barman on hand to deliver wine on demand, it was the perfect spot to unwind and enjoy the views down the valley.
I started my weekend away with a hike up to the remote Heidelberger Hütte. Armed with a large bottle of water, some sunscreen – the alpine sun can be deceptive – and sturdy hiking boots, I set off.
The scenery was very much picture-perfect Austria, with a tinkling mountain stream, curious cows and their ubiquitous cowbells, grazing horses and incredible views.
Eventually the Heidelberger Hütte appeared in the distance, with the odd patch of snow still scattered behind it and little else. Indeed, it was so at the end of the road that at one point I crossed into Switzerland and didn’t even realise as I’d missed the sign declaring that was now “Schweiz”.
The lodge is this year hosting famed German chef Brandt’s dish of veal cheeks with sweet potato puree and ginger. Its fusion flavours are certainly tasty, not to mention a just reward for getting there, although perhaps a little too distant from that traditional local cuisine that the route champions.
Nonetheless, an incredibly flavoursome meal and a beer later and it was down the hill, over the border into “Österreich”, and straight back into the hot tub, now slightly sunburnt.
The absolute highlight was spotting several wild marmots, or “Murmeltiere” as the Austrians call them, which are large hamster-like creatures who emerge from their burrows in the late afternoon sun.
The following day, I travelled to the nearby village of Kappl to go to the Almstüberl, where Knappett’s dish of deer loins with sauce, celery puree, prunes poached in tea and brandy and a grating of cacao graces the menu.
The Almstüberl is a typical mountain hut serving regional staples such as Tiroler Gröstl, a delicious albeit rather heavy dish of fried bacon, onions and potatoes.
It is the exact opposite to the delicate nature of Knappett’s dish, which is arguably the most traditional-style dish of the 2019 Kulinarische Jakobsweg.
Knappett’s offering is hearty and comforting, with strong-tasting flavours that simultaneously manage to be light enough to suit a summer palate.
He apparently thought there would be a bit more snow around when he created it.
As I descended from the Almstüberl, first by foot and then by cable car, I was reminded why I was so lucky to have grown up near mountains.
There is something about being in the Alps that is positively uplifting for the soul, perhaps it’s the sense of space.
I didn’t have time but elsewhere in the valley hikers can try Klein’s Alsatian Tarte Flambée, Ivic’s vegetarian dish of barley and cheese mash with braised leek and vinaigrette, or Kokmeijer’s plate of wagyu short-rib with shallots, salted lemon and trappeur spice. The menus are certainly varied and, while I’m not sure how much the culinary trail puts Tyrolean produce on the map beyond the Alps, they certainly offer a delightful alternative to traditional mountain food.
However, what the Kulinarische Jakobsweg definitely does offer is a chance to get some fresh air, eat lots of top-quality food and do something a bit different with your summer.
Will I come back to sample the rest of the dishes? Quite probably. Just not the Schnitzelsemmel.
Hotel: Stayed at the 4* superior Hotel Fliana in Ischgl, which has summer offers from €390pp for two nights with breakfast and five course evening meal. Visit fliana.com
Getting around: Guests in the Paznaun villages of Ischgl, Galtür, Kappl and See get a free Silvretta Card, which allows use of cable cars, chairlifts and buses, swimming pools and water parks, museums and exhibitions.
Kulinarische Jakobsweg: Detailed information about the menus, lodges and hiking routes can be found at ischgl.com
Paznaun-Ischgl: To find out more about Paznaun-Ischgl, including summer activities including ebiking, mountain biking, ziplining and trail running, go to paznaun-ischgl.com
Getting there: The nearest airport is Innsbruck (easyJet/BA) with a 75-minute transfer.