Most people say that the best lunch in the mountains is whatever comes out of the back your rucksack. It’s the combination of the view and your own ravenous appetite that makes it delicious.
But here in the Austrian Tirol we’re not quite so sure. The reason? The mountains here are blessed with high, remote, and beautifully-kept huts and restaurants – and many of them serve delicious food. It’s not just that the cooking is good: often the ingredients come directly from the mountain pastures – the alms – around the huts. This is Alpine gastronomy at its most natural.
Here are six of the best of them. Each is reached by a good, leg-stretching walk, so you’re sure to be hungry when you arrive.
The Coburger Hütte, Tiroler Zugspitz Arena
“One of my favourite walks is to the Coburger Hütte,” says Sandra Strolz, who works in the Tiroler Zugspitz Arena. “It’s a beautiful place, with crystal-clear mountain lakes on two sides – the Seebensee and Drachensee – and magnificent views of the Zugspitze.” These are never more beautiful than when you’re sitting by the waters of the Seebensee, watching the massif turn a rose-tinted orange in the setting sun.
There are several ways to reach it. Strolz recommends the Hoher Gang on the way up and the Immensteig on the way down, passing the Seebensee twice, and soaking up views of the Wetterstein, Sonnenspitze and Tajakopf en route. It’s a lovely, yet challenging hike: transitioning from larch forest to rocky terrain, where Alpine experience and a head for heights are essential. The lunch at the Coburger Hütte is well-earned. Strolz recommends the Brettljause – the Tirolean version of a ploughman’s lunch, served on a wooden board and groaning with cured meat, pickles and cheese. “I love the local chesse and Bergwurzen (gently smoked, air-dried sausage), and of course a slice of bread with butter. So simple. So good.”
For the return journey, there’s the option of taking the Immensteig – another path that combines rocky terrains and forest – or continuing on an easier route to the Ehrwalder Alm. Here you can finish the hike with a snack or a drink at the Tirolerhaus, and ride the cable car back down to the valley.
The Achentalalm, Wildschönau
The Kragenjoch is a relatively easy peak to tackle. From the centre of the pretty village of Oberau in the Wildschönau, a 90-minute hike, up through 600m vertical metres, will bring you to its summit at 1397m, marked by a giant cross. In late spring and early summer the pastures are thick with flowers and humming with insects – and at the top you get spectacular views over Auffach, the Wildschönau, and the Inn valley.
But there’s another reason to hike this route, especially on a Wednesday. That’s when Achentalalm hut makes its Schmalznudeln. “They have that irresistible, slightly fatty flavour of doughnuts,” says Christine Silberberger, was born and raised in the Wildschönau, “but we like to eat them with a hearty bean soup, or maybe cranberry jam or an apple sauce. You can’t get Schmalznudeln in many parts of the Wildschönau,” she says, “and when they’re fresh you want to eat them forever.” Often, the hut’s entire batch of freshly-baked Schmalznudeln have been devoured by 12.30pm: so make sure you go early. (By varying your downhill route you can also stop off at Sigi Kistl’s schnapps distillery at the Zwecklhof.)
Gampe Thaya, Ötztal
“I really like hiking to the Gampe Thaya hut,” says Judith Schöpf – who grew up in the Ötztal resort of Solden. “There are so many ways to get there. You can walk there with your 80-year grandmother as well as pushing a baby in a buggy, and whichever trail you use you’ll get an awe-inspiring view. The sense of Mother Nature’s power and beauty is inescapable.”
Simple short-cuts involve riding to the top of the Giggijoch mountain lift or taking the bus to Hochsölden. But for a proper appetite-building hike, you need to start down in the valley at Sölden’s church. You then climb to the hamlet of Plödern, continue through thick forest, and into verdant hay meadows (where you’ll probably meet the Tirolean Grey cows whose milk is used to make Gampe Kaas cheese). Total ascent is 642 vertical metres.
The reward for the hard work is some of the best cooking in the Ötztal. “Gampe Thaya is owned by the Prantl family,” says Schöpf, “and they only use local products, many of which they make themselves. They really do put their heart and soul into their food.” Her favourite dish there is Röstkartoffel mit Speck und Spiegelei – crispy fried potatoes, fried eggs and cold-smoked, juniper-flavoured ham.
The lift system that delivers you from the heart of Innsbruck to the top of the Nordkette is a thing of beauty. And that’s not just because the funicular railway at the bottom was designed by the late, great Zaha Hadid.
Even more striking is the way it whisks you from city streets to such a wild, high-mountain environment in less than an hour. In summer, that means you can follow breakfast in a chic urban coffee shop with lunch on the sun deck at the Pfeishütte: set at an altitude of 1950m, and surrounded by ocean of shattered rock and jagged peaks. From the top of the Hafelkar cable-car station, the walk is a five-hour round trip.
“Only proper hikers head up there,” says Innsbrucker Peter Unsinn. “So the clientele is mainly locals, with a scattering of visitors. Some stay the night. Others return to Innsbruck. But everyone eats there – and the food is fantastic. What’s more, even though the hut is thrillingly remote, it’s one of the best-serviced in the Innsbruck region. Hosts Vroni and Michl are wonderful – so too their young daughter, Flora, who ‘joined the team’ in 2017.”
Außermelang Alm, Wattental
You don’t hike to the Außermelang Alm for a gourmet meal. But foodies love it all the same – for the strong, tangy Wattentaler cheese that’s made in its mountain dairy.
The father-and-son team of Ludwig and Thomas Klinger have run the dairy here since the year 2000, and process 100,000 litres of milk each summer – produced by the herds of six farmers that graze nearby. They produce 1,200kg of butter too, and you can taste both in the small and rustic café run by Ludwig’s wife Margit in July and August.
Just as important as the food is the setting. The Wattental may lie in an area of buzzing mountain resorts and thriving businesses. Wattens, at the head of the valley, is the home of Swarovski crystal glass company. The Zillertal, one valley further east, is one of the Tirol’s liveliest ski hubs. But here the atmosphere is out-of-the-way and undeveloped. You can thank the Austrian army for that. It has two bases at the southern end of the Wattental, and a 50km2 training area, and rest of the world keeps its distance. Time your arrival to coincide with breaks in their military exercises (the weekends are usually quiet) and you’ll think you’ve hiked back into the 19th century.
Producing proper, gastronomic meals in the high Alps isn’t easy, even in summer. It’s not just getting fresh ingredients up to your hut that’s a challenge. It’s the fact that everyone’s sense of taste is blunted at altitude. But that hasn’t stopped the Wedelhütte in the Zillertal becoming one of the best restaurants in the Tirol. It’s recently been awarded three forks in the Falstaff Restaurant Guide.
Opened in December 2009, the Wedelhütte is principally aimed at skiers. But in summer 2018 it began serving bikers, hikers and climbers too, with four restaurants to choose from, including the fragrant Zirbenstube, panelled with stone pine, and the 30-seater Gourmet Lounge. Here, the dry-aged steak, cooked on a Josper charcoal grill is always popular. Bear in mind however that access is limited between July and September: the hut is only open from Thursday to Sunday. What’s more dinner is the main meal of the day here – so for the full effect you’ll need to stay the night. Given the quality of the rooms, that’s not exactly a hardship.
The hike is a straightforward one: up through 500 vertical metres from the Krössbrunnalm to an altitude to 2317m. Once you’re there, the peaks of the Wimbachkopf and Machkopf are nearby. The panoramic view from the latter is superb.