I am fond of winter but I love to see it go. By the time it leaves it has become an unwelcome guest. It is a relief to see the buds open at Springtime and the trees begin to flourish, as they are this week. Walks home from the supermarket are peppered with mini assaults of blossom fragrance. The footpaths are dusted with their petals. The days are longer, the sky brighter, there is the promise of summer to come. Food becomes more interesting as we are almost out of the Hungry Gap (that period when little grows).
Mountains come into their own in Spring and Summer. No more so than those favoured for their winter culture like the Alps. Last summer I visited Vorarlberg in the Austrian Alps. Our drive from Zürich ascended in the dark, in the morning I was greeted with crisp air, the sights of lush meadows and tall peaks, and bubbling brooks.
The town of Lech is a pretty one. Famed for royal visitors (Princess Diana would ski here), it is also one of the worlds premier ski destinations. But Lech is also a joy in summer. The crowds are gone, and in the place of the snow all is lush. The days are hot and long, but there is crisp clear air accompanying.
Hiking to the Monzabonsee mountain lake in Lech
We ascended to the Rüfikopf using the gondola. Sweeping views of the Alps awaited us and a gorgeous walk to the Monzabonsee mountain lake, mirror-like below, cradled in the mountain. Along the way were doors, in installed doorways. Part of the art installation DOOR, 9 artists from 5 different countries have each designed a door which have been placed on the Grüner Ring hiking route at an altitude of over 2000 metres above sea level. After we returned to the valley to meet herbal expert Veronika Walch and go on a herbal walk as well as visit her workshop.
An Alpine Herb Walk
The valley is lush at this time of year and there are many meadows. Beneath our feet all sorts of wild herbs, flowers and greens that we didn’t know. and many that are familiar. Many wild strawberries, blueberries and raspberries which we stopped to nibble on (and how flavourful they are growing where they do). A long winding road, we passed a farmer only and a couple of locals. At one point we reached a bench to stop at with the most delightful little schnapps honesty box with a bottle of schnapps and glasses for passers-by beyond a small wooden door.
Veronika pointed out the myriad herbs – and spices! Cumin was growing wild all around, which of course I popped into my mouth once I discovered what it was. When fresh it has fennel notes also and is gorgeous. I knew that cumin grew in cooler climes, I have bought seeds for my garden, but to see it wild, with the seeds perched atop long spindles reaching for the sky, was a joy. Veronika pointed out many to us with enthusiasm and knowledge. Red clover, useful as a tea or tincture for menopause. A familiar word, also a herb, edelweiss is used for natural sun protection and grows very high in the mountains.
Greens you can eat are abundant. King Henry, a wild spinach also know as Lech Spinach is used as such (and is more nutritious than the spinach we know), but the stem can also be cooked like asparagus and the seed when cooked in warm butter is nutty and very flavoursome. Yellow gentian is the most bitter plant in the world, great for the liver and for elderly people and commonly schnapps. You need a licence to pick it now in order to protect the plants.
A Natural Source of Aspirin and a Flower for the Soul
Some plants were familiar, occasionally because we have them also, and other times for what they do. Dock leaf we all know in Ireland certainly, and it is used for cooling. In my Irish childhood we used it to sooth nettles stings with the large leaves along with some malt vinegar. Farmers used to wrap butter in it in Lech to take it down the mountain. Sour clover is familiar in another way, but more for what you get in the pharmacy. It can be used in salad and is good for headaches which isn’t surprising when you consider that it is an oxalis with natural saliciylic acid (aspirin) inside.
Veronika comes into her own when she becomes poetic. It is clear that she has a strong attachment to the land here. She described with delight the flower Glockenblumen. A very poetic purple flower which Veronika described as a flower for the soul. It is very fine but stands tall looking at the sun every morning, withstanding the rain and wind, it always manages to hold its own, holding its face tall to the sky. Heart plant is another plant for the soul and has one leaf shaped like a heart.
After we retired to Veronika’s workshop to drink her natural coca-cola made with her locally foraged herb Artemisia abrotanum and sugar syrup. We also tried her homemade schnapps as she showed us her trays of herbs. It is a beautiful space and she runs classes here which look very interesting. What struck me most throughout our walk was all of the knowledge that has been retained in these small mountain communities. They are busy in Winter, packed, but in summer they return to themselves and are blissfully calm.
Eating in Lech
But what of the food? Don’t worry, there was lots. It was time for lunch at local restaurant Zit Lo. I had some lake fish from nearby, grilled with garlic and so tender. One the side salad doused in one of my favourite Austrian things, dark green unctuous pumpkin seed oil. Sitting outside in the sun, it is hot but there is that gorgeous mountain breeze to keep us cool.
In the evening we headed to Hotel Aurelio for dinner. A plush luxury hotel based in a beautiful chalet, we were all set but got rained on by one of those intense stormy showers as we arrived. Nice! The space was so warm and welcoming so we soon forgot the rain, and the food was excellent. I especially loved the roast duck, dumplings and the excellent tartare, all matched with excellent Austrian wines by their knowledgable and informative sommelier.
Cafe Gotthard from Backstube Lech is a must stop for excellent housemade ice cream, pastries and bread from their bakery (they supply most of the hotels too). If you are a cook (and most of you surely are?) load up on the breadcrumbs (2 types!) for dumplings and schnitzel here too.
The next day we headed further on to Bregenzerwald. More on that in the second part of this series: An Alpine Distillery, A Moor Walk and Making Cheese in Bregenzerwald, Austria.
With thanks to Visit Vorarlberg who sponsored my trip. All editorial is my own.