But you have surely been everywhere by now? Say so many people about my travels. Far from it, I explain, and I still have such enthusiasm to move and explore. Some countries I have been to several times (Italy, Spain, France, Australia, Canada and Borneo are my most visited), and there are many that I have yet to set foot in at all. Many in Europe, many everywhere. Until last week, Austria was one.
Friends love it. For skiing, for wine (and I already know that I love their wine). I love winter, I love to pop into winter for a while, deep sharp blinding white winter, and to bounce back out again. But I am not much of a winter sports person, I am more about walking around and kicking in the snow, enjoying the winter food and hanging out. I love the cold air and how fresh I feel in it. With the cold you can wear the right clothes, if it is too hot all you can do is suffer (especially if you are pale – transparent like me!). A book on a snowy terrace as opposed to whooshing down a piste in boots too tight whilst attached to skis. I love to wander and find out of the way restaurants on top of mountains and hang out for a while.
Winter is just one season. Austria in summer I had heard a little about. Of course I know the Alps. And I am whisked to a time many years ago and to a conversation that I had in a youth hostel somewhere somehow (possibly the West of Ireland where I spent a lot of summers in my early twenties) with a guy who had lived in the Austrian Alps one summer working on a farm, and it sounded wonderful. He told me about wandering through meadows and feeding the animals and collecting the eggs. I decided then that I would go in summer, maybe even live and work there just like him, it just took me until now to actually get there.
Zillertal is in North Tirol, which is in the west of Austria. A place particular to itself, they have their own language dialect and food culture. Steeped in tradition, it is not unusual to see someone in lederhosen or dirndl (both traditional dress and the dirndl those beautiful dresses). A string of small towns are connected by the most cheerful red train, once a day there is a steam train too. Zillertal at first glance is high mountains crested with snow and lush valleys, cows and cow bells, goats, shire horses, cable cars with enthusiastic hikers, a glacier standing tall at 3250m where you can ski all year round. When you peak underneath there is warmth and gorgeous hospitality, and lots of good things to eat.
The food is very much a product of the environment. There are lots of cows and so there is a lot of milk, cheese and beef. Soups are based on beef broth, usually clear and served with dumplings, noodles, even sausages. The cows spend winter in the valleys and summer on the mountains, always eating hay, producing a very special hay fed milk which is used to make graukäse and other local cheeses. Cows are so integral to the culture that there are festivities as the cows return to the valley all dressed up with garlands and flowers (and I really must witness this some time).
What to Eat and Drink in Zillertal
14 eggs, lots of flour, sugar, a little salt & vanilla with alpine milk went into this giant kaiserschmarrn – a torn pancake that translates as the mess of the kaiser. I made this with Chef Erwin at Kreithütte high up in the Austrian Alps in Zillertal in Tirol #TasteOfZillertal pic.twitter.com/YlRQeCewQP
— Niamh Shields (@eatlikeagirl) June 7, 2018
Translating as the mess of the Kaiser, kaiserschmarrn is a enthusiastic torn pancake, made as one big fluffy sweet pancake in a frying pan before being served torn and with plenty of sugar. I made this with Chef Erwin at Kreithütte high up in the Alps. It is near the cable car and you can eat yours overlooking the gorgeous Alps and valleys.
Graukäse is a local cheese which sounds much more appetising before you translate it to English where it becomes Grey Cheese, a unique product in that it is a fresh cheese made form leftover whey (as with ricotta) but then aged for 3 months, producing a full flavoured cheese with a wobbly jellied edge, that it is less than 2% fat. You can try this in most places, and you can see it being made at Erlebnis Sennerei Zillertal.
Spätzle – a German and Austrian noodle – is not particular to Zillertal but you can have it here with their local cheeses and there is no better place to indulge than at dairy Erlebnis Sennerei Zillertal. Get there early and go on a tour of the dairy and farm (English audio guides are available). Go crazy in the shop after (I did), and eat in the restaurant. If you love cheese you will likely have a traumatic time making your choices (cheese soup, cheese spätzle (käsespätzle) just to start).
Translating as thin dough filled with potatoes and cheese, I and our videographer Ricardo were completely unprepared for what would arrive when he asked me to order for him while he was filming outside (and I LOVE ordering for other people). What arrived was sublime and the most fragrant empanada style thing fried until crisp with potato and local cheese inside. A death row dish, definitely, and done expertly at the gorgeous Wirsthaus Zum Griena in Mayrhofen, a 400 year old chalet cooking local traditional dishes and so well. Elevated best versions of home cooking. I loved it there.
I was a little excited to visit a small farm with 150 pigs and Josef at his Felsenkeller at Gasthof Enzianhof. The Felsenkeller is his stone cellar at the side of and in the Alps where he cures and cold smokes speck and sausages. Speck is bacon, and their version of. I am more than familiar with it but it is always a joy to eat at the source and this was some of the best that I have ever tasted. Unlike our loin or back bacon, you can and should eat their loin speck raw. It is gorgeous. Josef’s grandfather started the business 60 years ago with 2 pigs, and despite attractive offers from larger business Josef insists on keeping it small and family run. They have a restaurant and 25 rooms here too, 95% of visitors are return guests. It is a pretty special place.
A traditional farmer’s plate, I tried this also at Gasthof Enzianhof. A lovely selection of farm products like speck, sausaages, sliced meats, cheese and eggs served on a wooden board with bread and fresh farm butter. Eaten overlooking the Alps, it is an essential Zillertal experience.
You know how I love my eggs and a good hash, this is the Tirol version made with local beef, sautéed potatoes, onions and a runny egg. I love my leftovers too and this is a way to use leftover cooked beef. Bacon is sometimes included too. Perfect!
All of the Soups
I am a particular fan of soup, and the ones in Zillertal are very special. Often with dumplings, sometimes with noodles and occasionally with cheese, there are some you absolutely should not miss. Pressknödl Suppe is a beef broth with flat bread and grey cheese dumplings which are so much better than they sound. All dumpling soups are presented with large dumplings and clear broths, try also speck dumpling soup, liver dumpling soup. You probably shouldn’t leave without trying cheese soup either.
Cocktails at Hotel Englhof
Head to Hotel Englhof to sample award winning cocktails made using Alpine ingredients and informed by the region. Try their take on the negroni which is infused with local pine as opposed to aging in it. All of the wood flavour and none of the tannins. It is really good! See the video above for more action shots!
Wild Berries in Summer
One of my most cheerful surprises was to discover on a hike in the Alps that they are carpeted in wild blueberry bushes. Lower down there are lots of divine wild Alpine strawberries too, so perfumed and gorgeous. I was too early for the blueberries but they are absolutely a reason to return in season.
I will be at Taste of London with Zillertal today, come chat and sample their lovely food and those awesome cocktails. All for free once you are already inside. Hope to see you then!
This post was published in partnership with Zillertal Tourism. All editorial and views are always my own.