Up above the clouds, dominated by the gasp-inducing peak of Wilder Kaiser, Angerer Alm (angereralm.at), the first stop on our adventure in the Austrian Tyrol, is – a word I rarely use – unique. Owner Annemarie Foidl fell in love with this enchanting 200-year-old wooden Alpine ‘hut’ aged just 19, and has been dedicated to it ever since. But even visitors have to be dedicated: for one thing, it’s only reachable by ‘gondola’ cable car (there is a road, but it’s private and snowed under in winter). For another, if you turn up expecting international luxury, you’re likely to be somewhat taken aback – it hasn’t evolved that much over the years. There’s no point expecting room service or spas. In fact, there’s no point even expecting an en suite.
But who cares when the place casts a powerful spell? Never mind the view, which takes the breath away from even the most jaded of travellers – there’s a thunderstorm over the Kitzbüheler Horn while we’re there and I can’t even begin to describe the drama. There’s Annemarie herself, who, in addition to running the place in her beautiful dirndl outfits, is also president of the Austrian Sommeliers Association. Her atmospheric tasting cellar is home to more than 6,000 vinous treasures, from a Madeira dating from 1795 to an Austrian pink fizz, S’Uhudler, that tastes bizarrely like wild strawberries.
Delicious local produce
Dinner, served in the wood-panelled dining room, all traditional wood-burning stove and cute little carved chairs, delivers more amazement. Annemarie’s daughter, Katharina, and partner, Gerald Weiss, are in the kitchen; this family affair belies the sophistication of what turns up during our no-choice dinner. From almost translucent slices of local venison, with rowan berry and herbed cream (all foraged from nearby forests) to the berkäse, modestly named ‘mountain cheese’ with the fine personality of a Beaufort or Comté, it’s wave after wave of pleasure.
I adore cheese dumplings, bathed in brown butter and scattered with colourful, edible blooms, and the local mountain pork from Brixentaler, a majestic animal, its cheek and fillet served with crisped polenta in a wine-rich sauce. Matched wines are as spectacular as the views.
After a breakfast of homemade bread, smoky ham and preserves, made from mountain berries, we head off down the mountain to the pretty little ski town of Kirchberg in Tirol and the Hotel Rosengarten (rosengarten-taxacher.com), a study in restrained chic after our Alpine wonderland. Owner and hugely garlanded chef Simon Taxacher took over part of his parents’ hotel and transformed it from a traditional inn to this calm beauty with its two restaurants, luxurious rooms and views over the emerald hills.
It’s the perfect base for exploring our surroundings, each tiny village with its own gasthaus or wirt (tavern or pub). The Tyrolean food is magnificently single-minded: hearty, rib-sticking and – frequently, as in the case of speckknödel (bacon dumplings) – an alluring celebration of stodge. Yes, there’s a time and a place for stodge, and thousands of feet above sea level is one of them.
It’s visiting the 250-year-old farmhouse Gasthof Ruetzenhof (ruetzenhof.at) where we first realise that people here are happy to wear pretty much full national dress without a shade of irony. I find myself pining for a pair of lederhosen while eating chewy black bread thick with butter topped with smoky speck followed by our first schnitzel of the trip: glorious. The food may be simple, but most of the produce comes from their own farm – you can taste the integrity.
After a long walk round precipitous, staggeringly beautiful mountain trails at what seems like the top of the world, our new chum, Patrizia – who doubles as a ski instructor, guide and also works in the Rosengarten’s spa – takes us to Gasthof Melkalm Kitzbühel (gasthof-melkalm.at), in almost weep-makingly beautiful surroundings. Is it the astonishing location that adds extra savour to our dense speckknödel on their bed of sauerkraut and my vast rösti heaped with wild mushrooms? Or my first experience of strange, herbal fizzy drink Almdudler? I don’t know, but I love them all.
Reimagining Tyrolean classics
Very, very different is Restaurant Simon Taxacher (restaurant.rosengartentaxacher.com). In this luxuriously paredback room we have a thrill ride equal to any temple of haute cuisine anywhere. From the champagne trolley with its fresh oysters, to the flurry of tiny ‘texture’ dishes that bookend the meal, Taxacher’s skill and invention are dizzying. He uses Tyrolean traditions and produce as the launching point for bravura creativity. The constituents of dumpling reinvented as something ethereal and witty: a light-as-air cracker topped with shards of speck. Each dish will deliver a surprise or three – tiny, impossibly delicate pasta parcels of navettes with ‘asparagus lettuce’, lardo & apricot; pale ale with sultry local eel & apple; a perfect disc of wobbly bone marrow topped with caviar accompanying folds of wagyu beef scattered with a powder of its own frozen fat; a sprig of succulent water herb or fragrance of pine or rare Japanese berry.
Bread looks like conventional sourdough, but is made from fermented potato scented with foraged mountain oregano. Three hours pass in a blur of discovery, but despite the obvious technique and exploration of culinary boundaries, dishes never lose sight of the need to be delicious – even a gilded chocolate petit four spiked with crispy chicken skin. The whole thing is supremely elegant, innovative and accomplished.
Michelin stopped its stars for Austria outside the main cities in 2009. Simon Taxacher formerly had two, every scintilla of which was richly deserved. He’s unbowed by the loss, his four ‘toques’ from Gault Millau proudly displayed in the kitchen. The Rosengarten may be sophisticated, but it’s still very much a family affair: his parents and sister all work in the hotel, and Taxacher’s partner, the charming Sandra Kobald, is the ultimate hostess.
Apple strudel and beer cheese
Outside the blindingly snow-white winter season, everything round here is vivid green, every cuckoo-clock house foaming with flowers, every slope of mountain populated with contented-looking cows tinkling their bells. It’s little wonder the dairy produce is so exquisite: each farm makes its own version of berkäse, and a trip to dramatically located Kasplatzl (kasplatzl.at), a working farm open to anyone, is a blast, not least for our introduction to its vaulted cheese room, honking deliciously from its many cheeses in varying stages of ageing.
On certain days, they cook vast vats of käsespätzle (like a gooey mac & cheese made with tiny dumplings) and barbecued sausages. I fall in love with their ambrosial blueberry mustard. The dairy produce makes for wonderful ice cream too – deliciously counterintuitive in a part of the world known for its snow.
Back in town, we fall into a huge apple strudel blowsy with thick cream, and a vast sundae with a gravy boat of hot bilberries at local favourite Konditorei Lorenzoni (cafe-lorenzoni.at). I have a curious habit of going to ski destinations without the slightest intention of putting on skis. The surroundings are so breathtaking, the produce so fresh and delicious, the food so intensely comforting, why should skiers get all the fun?
Kitzbühel is the chic-est skiing destination round these parts, and I love sitting on the terrace of the classic Huber Bräu (huberbraeu.at) in the candycoloured main street with its shops of designer trachten (national costume), eating roast potatoes rich with black pudding, and ‘beer cheese’, watching the jet-setting world go by.
We make a pilgrimage to butcher and deli Metzgerei Huber (huber-metzger.at), with its gleaming counters groaning with a universe of sausages and cured meats (our suitcases are predictably fragrant as a result).
We have enormous fun jumping in the cable car to the legendary Hochkitzbühel bei Tomschy (beitomschy.at) with its awe-inspiring panoramic terrace, where we have the area’s beloved kaiserschmarrn: a thick, chopped-up pancake dredged with icing sugar and served with stewed plums. I guess the rest of the guests will be skiing off all the calories, but not us: we shamefacedly slope back to the cable car that’s virtually attached to the restaurant.
Our final meal is back at the Rosengarten, for its bistro Rosengarten Light. It may be less formal and starry, but the food is every bit as exquisite – even kalbsrahmbeuschel mit grießknödel, which turns out to be veal lungs and heart with a semolina dumpling in rich, riesling-spiked cream sauce. It’s an extraordinary feat to make a delicate grammelschmalz – rendered pork fat studded with crisp shards of crackling – but they manage it, and it’s gorgeous. Their schnitzel is featherdown-light and the wines with each course as sprightly as a ski-jumper.
Despite the dumplings, despite virtually bathing in luscious Austrian wines, despite a determination to eat all the berkäse, the clean, sweet air and life-enhancing views of the area have an unexpected effect on me. Without even hitting any of the region’s many spas, this part of the Austrian Tyrol has made me feel thoroughly spring-cleaned. Who needs skis to thrill to this ravishing part of the world? All you need is an appetite.
How to do it: Marina stayed at Angerer Alm in St Johann in Tirol (angereralm.at) and Hotel Rosengarten in Kirchberg (rosengarten-taxacher.com/en).
What are your favourite wintry Austrian hotspots? Let us know in the comments below...
All recommendations have been reviewed and approved as of the 01 December 2016 and will be checked and updated anually. If you think there is any incorrect or out of date information in this guide please e-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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