Michelin-starred food? Walk this way…
Chef Simon Hulstone impressed us even before a single morsel of his Michelin-starred food passed our lips. We were on our way to Ischgl, a town high in Austria’s Tyrolean Alps, and while the rest of our group’s journey had only started a few hours ago, Hulstone’s had begun after finishing dinner service at his renowned Torquay restaurant, The Elephant, the evening before.
An overnight train trip to London followed then he was accompanying us – a motley crew of journalists and bloggers – to the official opening of the culinary St Jacob’s Way Trail. And when he arrived, the chef who has represented the UK twice at the Bocuse d’Or – the world’s most prestigious and demanding culinary competition – was going to cook for us.
When the snows melt in the popular ski resort of Ischgl, its location in the Paznaun Valley makes it a mecca for hikers, mountain-bikers, and thanks to a smattering of highly fêted restaurants, lovers of fine dining. In fact, the Gault&Millau Austria Restaurant Guide has awarded no fewer than 116 chef’s toques (the country’s version of Michelin stars) to the Tirol region in 2017.
We experienced our first taste of this as guests at a gala dinner at the five-star Paznaunerstube dining room at Trofana Royal Hotel. Master chef Martin Sieberer has enjoyed a reputation as one of Austria’s best for decades and this restaurant boasts three toques.
Highlights of the six-course feast included a course presented in a black box, featuring a Paznaun and Samnaun ‘potato’. Ingeniously, this turned out to be a caramelised chocolate shell filled with local cream cheese that has been whipped almost into air. It was absolutely heavenly.
Sieberer helps select five of Europe’s highly regarded chefs (including our Simon) to create delicious dishes for the lodges along the St Jacob’s Trail way, a section of the world-famous Camino de Santiago trail.
This summer marks the ninth anniversary of the popular event and any of the estimated 70,000 walkers and cyclists who pass through are in for a real treat – a chance to eat dishes created by award-winning chefs, for a very reasonable 15 euros. The lodges each ‘adopt’ a dish for their summer menu, serving them up until the end of September.
We were going to get the chance to taste them all, but first had to work up an appetite, meandering our way up through the valley, ascending to a point around 2200m high. If offered a good chance to chat with Simon. His own story began when he started working in his own father’s kitchen ‘as a way to actually see him’. Now he has his own three children Tansy, Cicely and Betony (all named after unusual herbs), he says Sundays are sacrosanct family time.
The Elephant won a Michelin star in 2005 and his advice for chefs with stars in their eyes is to keep the dishes simple. And while he’s keen on championing local produce, he says being too obsessed with sourcing regional ingredients can detract from the finished dish. ‘We’ve got lots of farms around us and while we use some of them, it’s not all going to be amazing just because it’s grown locally,’ he says. ‘It’s worth going to Scotland if you know you’re going to get amazing scallops, for example.
The gentle two-and-a-half hour hike offered food for the soul, too. The shadows of fluffy marshmallow clouds drifted lazily across verdant green mountains in the high summer sun; the discordant sounds of cowbells made a fitting bucolic soundtrack.
We were starving when we reached the Heidelberger Lodge, where all five of the chefs awaited to serve us their dishes. I might be a bit biased, but Simon’s wonderfully tender pig’s cheek, served with a celeriac, ham and truffle risotto still makes my mouth water just thinking about it.
Austrian chef Konstantin Filippou’s roasted jerusalem artichoke with cheese foam and bacon sprinkles impressed too. By some culinary alchemy, he turned the humble vegetable into a truly delicious, moreish dish.
Next on the menu for Simon is a pop-up residency at the John Lewis Gardening Society. He says The Elephant will ‘showcase the best flavours of the season’ and serve dishes like soy and ginger cured Fjord trout, cucumber, natural yoghurt and Cornish dulse powder on the roof of the department store until the end of September. See you there?