Omo and Eulanda represented Team Coco at the opening event of the Culinary St. Jacob’s Way programme in Ischgl, Austria. Celebrating its tenth anniversary in July 2018, the summer programme provides travellers with an excellent opportunity to combine two immersive experiences, gastronomy and hiking, in one of the world’s most idyllic destinations.
Hiking and gastronomy in Tyrol, Austria
Ski season regulars will be familiar with Ischgl, an alpine town nestled in the Paznaun valley in Austria’s Tyrol region. With 238 kilometres of perfectly groomed pistes and an iconic après-ski atmosphere, it isn’t uncommon to find legendary entertainers such as Sir Elton John, Kylie Minogue and Alicia Keys headlining a winter concert or two.
Apart from Ischgl, other notable towns and villages in the Paznaun valley include Kappl, See, and Galtür, each one contributing something unique to the overall experience of visitors to this region of the Alps.
What are the Alps like in the summer? Mother Nature sheds her white blanket and places the mountains centre stage. With miles of green alpine goodness to explore, the off-pisters and A-listers are replaced by outdoor sports aficionados including mountain bikers, trail runners and climbers.
The Culinary St. Jacob’s Way (Kulinarischer Jakobsweg in German) programme transforms ancient pilgrim paths into gourmet routes leading to alpine lodges serving dishes curated by an expert team. This is a fitting activity choice for those less inclined to adrenalin-infused summer pastimes.
The programme, under the patronage of legendary Austrian chef Eckart Witzigmann, features some of Europe’s most respected chefs, with more Gault & Millau points and Michelin stars between them than there are petals in an edelweiss flower.
Each chef is tasked with creating a recipe featuring local produce and which captures the character of the region. The dishes go on to feature as a season specials on the menus of selected mountain lodges throughout the summer.
Five chefs headlined the 2018 edition which kicked off with a food festival on 8 July. They were Michael Wignall (UK), Sven Wassmer (Switzerland), Heinz Winkler and Harald Wohlfahrt (Germany) and Arabelle Meirlaen (Belgium) – the only female chef in the lineup.
Tackling the Culinary St. Jacob’s Way with Chef Michael Wignall
For award-winning British chef Michael Wignall, sports and the outdoors are a natural escape from the rigours of running a fine-dining restaurant. Before studying to become a chef, Michael was a professional BMX biker and still enjoys taking his mountain bike out for a spin in his spare time.
Our team joined him and his family as they prepared to tackle the climb up to Friedrichshafener Hütte (2,138 meters), an Alpine lodge overlooking resorts in Galtür and Ischgl and venue of the opening event.
With their toddler safely strapped in behind him, and following a quick check on supplies, Michael and Johanna set off, together with the other chefs and a group of journalists, on the two-hour long hike.
The weather in the Alps, even in the summer, is prone to change. Sunny skies can quickly give way to bursts of rain (and on occasion, even snow). However, the heavens proved to be kind on this occasion. Soon we had cleared dense alpine forests and were rewarded with magnificent views as far as the eye could see in every direction.
The larger hiking party was led by event patron and local celebrity Martin Sieberer (head chef at the 5* Trofana Royale Hotel) and began with most of us in a cluster. However, the trail quickly became steep and it wasn’t long before the initial chatter diminished and the more experienced and fitter folks peeled away from the rest of the pack.
The slower pace provided the perfect opportunity to chat with Michael and explore his personal journey.
A Preston (Lancashire) native with a career spanning many years, Michael ran Gidleigh Park in Chagford, Devon as executive chef before recently leaving to take on a solo challenge with his wife Johanna (2019 will see them running the Angel Inn at Hetton in North Yorkshire).
He describes his food as his language and seeks to elevate substance over style. Using locally sourced ingredients is something of a passion for him and was one reason why the Culinary St. Jacob’s Way challenge was particularly appealing.
Michael shared his excitement about cooking more simplistic food in a back-to-the-basics departure from his usual fine-dining setting. He was keen to prepare a meal that would appeal to hikers, providing replenishment (a key characteristic of traditional Austrian cuisine) but with a celebration of flavour.
Expecting to catch up later, we left Michael and his family to enjoy the rest of the hike.
A summer celebration of food, flavour and nature
Hiking in the Alps is one of those pleasures in life that you don’t realise your mind, body and soul needs until you’re actually out there surrounded by the peaks. What’s not to love about majestic mountain ranges, shimmering lakes, fresh air, pristine woodlands, and the chance to free oneself of the usual distractions?
Eventually, we arrived at Friedrichshafener Hütte to the welcome sound of folk music and platters of selected meats, bread, cheese and schnapps.
While the rest of us partied, the chefs were hard at work at their makeshift kitchens. Soon, the fresh mountain air was filled with a heady combination of aromas. We needed no further invitation to start the taste portion of this most unusual food festival.
With a rustic alpine hut and a clear mountain lake providing the most picturesque backdrop for al fresco dining, we worked our way through the various tables. From the savoury to the sweet, we opened with Sven Wassmer’s Fried fillet of char with a sorrel cream, potatoes and salad and ended with Arabelle Meirlaen’s lentil risotto with corn-fed chicken and spices.
Michael’s recipe, a hearty meatloaf, with haunch venison, pork mince and pickled vegetables, proved to be popular, with dishes flying off the table almost as soon as they were served. His recipe went on to feature on the menu at Almstüberl, an alpine hut in the mountains above the village of Kappl.
Our time in Ischgl ended much too soon and on our the last night we had one more chance to experience the rich gastronomy of the region. A stunning presentation of 13 dishes by the dynamic Benjamin Parth, rising star and head chef at the Stüva restaurant (4* Hotel Yscla) was a celebration of texture, flavour and art and an insight into his ambition.
Hiking is the perfect excuse to indulge in a good meal. Thanks to its breathtaking location, the Culinary St. Jacob’s Way programme presents one of the world’s most unique opportunities to do both, delivering a truly immersive outdoor and culinary experience.
Tackling the Culinary St. Jacob’s Way means travelling with your taste buds fully primed for adventure. Just remember when you arrive, to let those taste buds come alive and roam free.
Summer season in the Paznaun-Ischgl region runs from the mid-June to mid-September.
Getting there: Fly into Innsbruck Airport and pick up a local transfer (90 minutes drive, approximately 100 km) to one of the towns in the Paznaun region (Ischgl, See, Kappl, Galtür). Alternatively, make a road trip out of it by flying into Zurich, Switzerland and driving across the border (3 hours and approximately 235 km).
Nearest train station: Landeck-Zams.
Where to stay: The summer season in the Austrian Alps runs from mid-June to early September. Summer visitors can enjoy excellent package deals on five-star hotel accommodation in many parts of the region. We stayed at the 4* Hotel Tirol Alpin Spa (rates from 86 Euros pp/pn).
Getting around: Visitors receive the free Silvretta Card which allows free use of cable cars, chairlifts and buses, swimming pools and water parks, museums and exhibitions. Hiking information is available at all hotels.