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Salzburgerland: a meeting of culinary pathways

Salzburgerland is establishing itself as a food destination through its excellent organic produce, world-class chefs and unique ‘culinary pathways’

Salzburgerland: a meeting of culinary pathways
Lunch on the Culinary Pathway for Meat Lovers

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Hermann Oberreiter, Restaurant Hoagascht’s owner and head chef, doesn’t shout about his cuisine; if anything, he sells himself short. The stickers heralding eight consecutive years of Falstaff Awards are slapped higgledy-piggledy on the front door of this former cow shed, now every inch an alpine lodge.

On a roadside lay-by in the Austrian village of Flachau, the restaurant is on the ‘Culinary Pathway for Meat Lovers’ — part of the Via Culinaria, a network of routes stretching across Salzburgerland that includes 260 foodie experiences. Children whoop as they hurtle down the slide that winds from the elevated beer garden into, rather oddly, the car park. “Welcome to Paradise,” reads a chalk-written sign beneath a cow’s skull on the wall. “You have to give people what they expect,” says Hermann, sitting next to me on his unassuming terrace, giving me a wry smile as I eye a starter that I certainly hadn’t expected.

A pair of handmade spring rolls perch atop two delicate piles, one of grated carrot in a ginger sauce, the other of creamy ribbons of cucumber. Adorning a narrow rectangular plate between sweeping sauce strokes, the dish looks like a calligraphied Asian banner, with tiny dollops of wasabi and concentrated satay as little punctuation points.

“When I started this restaurant 18 years ago, everyone in Flachau said, ‘You’re crazy! Nobody will eat this food. Full stop’,” laughs Hermann. “We opened and were fully booked every night, but not with people from Flachau. It took another five years for the locals to start coming.”

Having cut his teeth in Austria’s Michelin-starred restaurants before moving abroad to work in South Korea for two years, Hermann initially found the return to his small home town a shock to the system. So, he decided to rent a former cow shed and transform the place into his own restaurant. There, he would draw on his culinary background to produce dishes with Korean DNA and a strong Austrian backbone.

Hermann’s restaurant is crowded with 300 guests every night in the winter, with snowboarders, and out-of-towners making special trips to Hoagascht to try his signature main course of bulgogi. This traditional Korean dish consists of sliced marinated beef in a soy, passion fruit, coconut, teriyaki, garlic and ginger sauce; Hermann serves it with stir-fried fresh vegetables.

Although the guests and menu may be far-flung, the ingredients are anything but. Piled up in those Korean stone bowls are vegetables so zesty, verdurous and vivid, you’d think they’d just been plucked from the ground — which is pretty close to the truth.

“There are no sea fish on my menus. We’re not near the coast, so all the salmon, the trout — all the fish we use are just from local rivers. The fish on tonight’s plates were caught at 11am today. Our beef is only from Flachau and the butcher prepares the meat to my personal preference. If it’s local, then it’s high quality and fresh.”

Talking of local, just 10 miles away in the hamlet of Kleinarl, Restaurant Aichhorn serves breaded schnitzel and chips to senior citizens, and spag bol from the children’s menu, against a colourful backdrop of pine and chintzy fabrics.

The vibe is very much the village tea room, so the framed certificates of culinary excellence, which line the stairs down to the family-friendly facilities, can come as something of a surprise. “I see it as a mission to educate children about good food, which is why I have a kids’ menu,” says Franz Aichhorn, head chef of his eponymous Restaurant Aichhorn, part of the ‘Culinary Pathway for Gourmets’.

“Children and young people don’t care about haute cuisine, and Kleinarl only has a population of 800, bolstered by families on holiday, so we don’t see too many gourmets walk through the door. I have to offer traditional, affordable staples, but my menu is most influenced by which ingredients are locally available.”

Franz’s wife, Berta, his business partner and head of waiting staff, presents me with my meal on a plate that would look at home in a 1980s farmhouse kitchen, and I suddenly get it. The dish is simple: a battalion of soy beans, a mob of mushy peas, and three companies of kohlrabi, herbed carrots and coriander kraut lay siege to a tremulous turret of smashed polenta and pine nuts. Each element is lightly cooked and delicately seasoned to showcase the flavour of the fresh produce.

“I want people to learn respect for individual ingredients,” says Franz, who has, as the decor clearly shows, been running this restaurant since 1986. “I’ll only make an apple strudel if I can get the finest apples; I won’t use strawberries if they’re not in season,” Franz tells me. “Please take time to enjoy your meal — try to dedicate all of your senses to it.”

Franz can afford to be so picky. Salzburg state has the highest density of organic farms in Europe, with around 80% of producers in this region growing free-range, natural, pesticide-free foods. Accordingly, the local lodges and restaurants — surrounded by lush, rolling verdure — have something of a biodynamic bias.

Markus Widauer owns the ski-in ski-out mountain retreat Holzhotel Forsthofalm (forsthofalm.com), an all-timber eco hotel, which — I’m assured — was constructed entirely without the use of nails. Located 3,400ft above the mini municipality of Leogang, its bedrooms are crafted from ‘moon wood’ — wood that’s been harvested during specific lunar phases — said to aid sleep.

Around 85% of the produce in the kitchens of his adjoining restaurant, Kukka, is organic, making it a prime pitstop on the ‘Culinary Pathway for Organic Connoisseurs’. The beef, milk, eggs and cheese are all sourced in Leogang; his extensive wine cellar is crammed with raw white wines, which are unfiltered and cloudy with an orange hue, exhibiting the dry bitterness of a craft cider; while cocktails are mixed with herbs foraged from the surrounding Leogang mountains.

Nadja Blumenkamp is a herbalist who owns Ecohotel Rupertus (rupertus.at), just down the road from Markus in the village proper. As part of the ‘Culinary Pathway for Herb Lovers’, she infuses her restaurant’s menu and her bar’s drinks list with her homegrown and hand-picked wild herbs, even going so far as to work them into the spa treatments, should you fancy a rub-down with St John’s wort.

“I’m a witch!” Nadja is joking, of course, referring to her membership of the Traditional European Healing association, and her status as a qualified TEH practitioner. “In the last 30 years, we’ve lost the knowledge of the mountains. There are over 50 herbs that grow in these hills, and people need to eat the things that grow around them. In our restaurant, we prepare deer with juniper, because it helps you digest the meat. We add onions to the heavy dishes of dumplings and sauerkraut to offset the fat value. Cumin, anise and fennel also aid digestion, while mint and cucumber regulate your body heat.”

It’s all about seasonality, and Nadja is just about to change her menu for the autumn. “We should be eating root vegetables to prepare us for the shorter days,” she says, twiddling a flower she’s picked from her herb garden. “As the nights draw in, roots lighten our minds and combat seasonal affective disorder. When we eat vegetables with roots,” she says, wriggling her fingers towards the ground, “our roots become more powerful.”

Alte Schmiede Restaurant, Leogang

Alte Schmiede Restaurant, Leogang

The Via Culinaria ‘culinary pathways’

For gourmets: Gathering the best chefs in the province on a trail through 30 kitchens, the gourmet pathway takes in hearty traditional flavours as well as modern dining experiences.

For meat eaters: Visitors can expect delicious local dishes such as pongauer meat fritters, braised beef roulade and tennengau mountain lamb.

For fish fans: The incredible water purity in the Salzburgerland Lake District provides ideal habitats for a rich variety of fish species.

For herb lovers: Alpine meadows, pastures and farmhouse gardens provide a cornucopia of fresh herbs for restaurants and cafes.

For organic connoisseurs: Each of the 17 nature-oriented locations along this route has sustainablity at its core.

For cheese freaks: The artistry of cheesemaking is showcased on this route of cheese makers, dairies, delicatessens, restaurants and mountain huts.

For beer and schnapps aficionados: Meet beer brewers and peer over the shoulders of schnapps distillers on this trail of 17 breweries and distilleries.

For sweet tooths: The best of Salzburg’s traditional pastry shops, coffeehouses and confectionary stores.

For hut lovers: From huts to pubs and lodges, this route takes in gourmet dishes and in the mountains.

Fresh herbs are a staple of Salzburgerland cuisine

Fresh herbs are a staple of Salzburgerland cuisine

A taste of Salzburgerland

Alte Schmiede
Owner Joseph Altenberger’s father, Sepp, was the first ski instructor in this whole area, opening Flachau up to tourism. His quaint mountain huts are stuffed with ancient machinery that provide an air of antiquity. Actually, it all opened in 2000 and forms part of the ‘Culinary Pathway for Hut Lovers’. It’s a great spot for dumplings before hiking up and biking down the mountain.

Restaurant Aichhorn
“It’s better to skip a meal than rush it,” says Franz Aichhorn. “When children grow up eating processed food they no longer appreciate the taste of the real thing. I want people to learn to appreciate a cucumber’s taste; the flavour of a fresh carrot.” As such, Restaurant Aichhorn’s menu is relatively simple, but emphasises fresh, local produce.

Restaurant Hoagascht
A farmhouse-cum-steakhouse from the exterior, inside the dining area and bar would be pitch black if it weren’t for the warm glow of candlelight reflecting off wine bottles artfully arranged in a bottle rack on the ceiling. Despite its cosy pub vibe, this is a real gourmet Austrian-Korean fusion restaurant. End your meal with the delicious Toblerone bowl: rich mousse and a saucy berries, dusted with chocolate soil, and spiked with shards of orange and dark chocolate, and a sprig of mint.

Published in the Salzburgerland guide distributed with the December 2018 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)