Dear Readers, it’s just as well that I only go to Austria once a year, and that when I’m there I’m exercising vigorously. The food of the Tyrol is highly calorific (as befits people who spend a lot of their time outside, in all weathers). It tends towards root vegetables, pork products and copious quantities of dairy food (from all those lovely Alpine cows). It is just the thing at the end of a slog uphill in freezing rain, but it doesn’t always translate to a more sedentary London existence. However, I am going to attempt my own version of Tiroler gröstl tonight, as I have spare potatoes, spare cabbage, spare onions and a number of eggs to use. As I am vegetarian I shall spare the bacon, though I should point out that, for once, this isn’t typical – normally in Obergurgl it’s made with leftover beef , maybe from the tafelspitz shown below. Austrian cooks are nothing if not resourceful.
A lot of Tyrolean cooking features things that my parents would have recognised. They have their own version of boiled beef called tafelspitz, for example, served with boiled potatoes and carrots and creamed spinach plus horseradish (essential). I’m sure my grandmother would have loved it. Like a lot of cooking from the region, it uses cheap cuts of meat, cooked slowly. The beef in a tafelspitz is normally soft enough to cut with a spoon.
As Obergurgl is on the border with the Italian Tyrol, you won’t be surprised to learn that the Tyroleans have developed their own form of ‘pasta’ – spätzle. Normally served with meat ragout, or in a sauce stuffed full of cheese and cream, it sometimes feels like it might be the final straw for my grumbling gallbladder (though it has never actually caused any problems). spätzle is made with a dough similar to that of Italian pasta, though heavier in eggs – the traditional formula was to add one egg more than the number of people who would be dining. Traditionally, the dough is scraped into long, thin strips and added straight to boiling salted water, though you can use a proper spätzle maker to form the shapes (spätzle means ‘little sparrow’ in German, as the dough can also be made into little cushions that more closely resemble the bird). Once made, it can be turned into a savoury dish, as described above, or mixed with apples or cherries to form a dessert (though I’ve never seen this in Obergurgl, where they like their spätzle as a main course).
Dumplings are also a staple food. Known as knödel, – they can be popped into soup, accompany a main course or be served as a dessert. In the Tyrol, you can find speckknödel (dumplings with bacon), spinatknödel (with spinach) or leberknödel(with liver) along with plain old knödel. Often these turn up in one of the clear soups that the Austrians are so fond of, but a big slab of fried knödel may turn up next to your goulash (Hungarian being another big influence on Tyrolean cooking what with it being part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire for all those years) or to a hearty pork stew.
How I love the sweet dumplings of the Tyrol, though! They come in all shapes and sizes, and again I’m sure my parents would have recognised and loved germknödel, a massive steamed dumpling with poppyseeds and ‘vanilla sauce’ aka custard. Mum was a life-long advocate of the steamed pudding as a way to cure all ills, and I’m sure she was right. Although this looks as if a normal human being wouldn’t be able to eat all of it, I can assure you that it’s much lighter than it looks. Plus, you can always have a nap afterwards.
And I fell in love with the tasty little apricot dumplings that turn up occasionally – these are usually crispy on the outside, slightly tart on the inside, and come with custard. Known as Marillenknödel, these are so exquisite that a trip to Austria doesn’t feel complete without a plateful. Marillenknödel (Photo Six)
And finally, on the dessert front, there is kaiserschmarrn, named in part for Franz Joseph I and in part for the German word for ‘mess’. What a strange dish this is! A baked pancake with rum-soaked raisins in it is torn to pieces and then served with apple sauce or jam. In my book on Alpine recipes, it stipulates that kaiserschmarrn made with 3 eggs would serve ‘one advanced eater or two beginners’. It is certainly a hearty dish, though if you can manage a germknodel on your own I’m sure you’d be able to manage this.
And finally, what to wash it all down with? The traditional after-dinner drink of the region is schnaps, which comes in dozens of varieties – the Tyrol tourist board is now offering a schnaps route that takes you to the many local distilleries, though driving home along those mountain roads might be something of a challenge. A very local Tyrolean version is zirbenschnaps, made from pinecones picked in the spring which have been soaked in grappa for a couple of months. This came as something of a surprise to me, as I had always assumed that it was made from the fragrant pine needles, but no. After all that fat and sugar, you might as well commit yourself completely with one of these. I can guarantee that you’ll fall unconscious as soon as your head hits the pillow.
Photo One by Benreis / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)
Photo Two by Karl Gruber / Wikimedia Commons
Photo Three by Takeaway / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)
Photo Four by Kobako / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)
Photo Five by FakirNL / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)
Photo Six by fotogoocom / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)
Photo Seven by Takeaway / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)
Photo Seven from https://www.starkenberger.shop/produkt/zirbenschnaps-01l/