Saturday, February 28, 2009

Innsbruck, Austria

Innsbruck seemed like the perfect vacation spot for me and Phil. He could go off and ski in the Alps that surround the city, rising up so sharply and looming so large that you have the feeling you can reach out and touch them right from the city center. And I could stay in the quaint Old Town area. And eat. I mean, Wolfgang is from Austria – there’s gotta be something good to eat, right??!

Little did I know that Innsbruck would provide one of the most memorable gastronomic experiences of my time in this part of Europe. Turns out Innsbruck is located in the region that is famous for one of the best smoked pork products in the world. And the local cuisine and traditional restaurants are perfectly suited to homey, cozy wintertime dining.

We didn’t waste any time digging into the local specialties. We dropped our bags at our hotel and jetted to our dinner spot. Before getting to the food, I must mention our hotel, Gasthof Innbrucke (the little pink guy in the middle).
Located on the river a hop skip and jump from the old town center, with comfy beds, an impressive wooden staircase, and funky antique paintings decorating the halls and rooms, it was certainly worth the astoundingly cheap 60 euros (including breakfast buffet) for a double room. Highly recommended!

Okay, back to the food. Dinner our first night was at Weisses Rössl.

The restaurant is located on the second floor. The multiple dining rooms have traditional wooden tables and chairs, and the walls are adorned with folksy artwork and stuffed animal heads – vegetarians beware.

We started with Käsespätzle, tender dumplings mixed with local cheeses, broiled and topped with French-fried onions. Not those ones from a can, folks, but salty, freshly breaded and fried, paper thin circles of onions.

I opted for the Tiroler Gröst'l - sliced beef and potatoes with lots of caraway and diced speck (the smoked pork I was talking about earlier – more on that soon!), roasted and served with a fried egg hat. While the dish was simple, the flavor profile was distinct because of the speck and the amount of caraway used to spice the meat and potatoes. I’m a big fan of caraway, and it really worked in this dish.

The gröst'l was served with a cabbage, speck, and caraway salad that echoed the flavors of the main dish while the grated cabbage provided a light, refreshing texture contrast. (Sorry, bad photo)

Phil’s pork tenderloin with spätzle and green beans tossed with a speck and vinegar dressing was flamed with Cognac. A satisfying belly-buster!

A warming meal on a snowy night – we were off to a good start.

The local beers were also notable. Phil ordered them, and we don’t speak German, so I’m not sure what we were drinking, but we tried a number of varieties and I particularly liked the medium-colored guy in the tall glass.

The next day Phil shipped off to the ski mountains. Innsbruck is the most popular place for Americans to ski in Europe, and the Olympics were held here twice – apparently it was great, lots of mountains and runs and great views, yadda yadda, good snow… I stayed downtown (not a big skier, too top heavy and clumsy and out of shape), and since I couldn’t sit around outside and enjoy the city scenery….

…. I decided to park myself in a restaurant for a prolonged lunch. What a great decision. Happ Weinhaus is located smack in the center of the Old Town…

… right next to the Goldenes Dachl, or Golden Roof, the most famous landmark of the city.

I decided to start my lunch with a consommé with sliced pancakes and chives. I make chicken soup quite often, and I’m going to experiment with using sliced eggy pancakes instead of noodles after trying this.

My main was tafelspitz, Austria's national dish - rösti with boiled beef, root vegetables, and garlicky spinach...

… served with a dill-chive horseradish sauce and grated apples.

Apparently tafelspitz is Austria’s equivalent of the British Sunday roast, or the Argentine Sunday asado. The meat was impossibly tender and the simplicity of the whole thing was very attractive. Nothing fancy here, folks, just good ole hearty meat-and-potatoes fare. My waiter recommended a 2006 Cuvee from Neckenmarkt-Burgenland that I really enjoyed.

After a few (!) afternoon glasses of cuvee, I stumbled up the 150+ steps of the old tower across the street to work off my lunch and see views across of the city and the Alps.
I then went to investigate the crazily yummy speck that was popping up all over the place. Speckerias dot the town and proudly display the local product, filling the wallspace and spilling out onto the street.

Tiroler Speck (Tirol is the region where Innsbruck is located) has protected geographical indication status and is made by curing pork with juniper and other spices and then smoking it to make a tender product packed full of flavor. It’s similar to American bacon – it makes everything taste better – yet very distinct. A little goes a long way and I was happy to see it show its face at dinner at Ottoburg that night.

We were lucky to get a seat at Ottoburg without a reservation. The place is popular with locals and tourists alike, and I could certainly see why. A rambling old building with lots of romantic candlelit nooks and crannies, traditional dishes with modern presentations right in the center of town… how can you go wrong with that formula?

As soon as we were seated, we were brought a compound butter with loads of herbs like dill and chives. And, oh dear, there was speck mixed in!! A schmear of that butter on hearty bread could have been dinner in itself.

But, you know me better than that, I definitely couldn’t stop there. Our first course was spinatschlutzkrapfen mit brauner Butter und Parmesan - spinach-stuffed noodle pockets Tyrolean style sauteed in brown butter and finished with a shower of parmesan cheese and chives. Heavenly.

My pike-perch in a parmesan crust with lemon-cream sauce, creamed spinach, and buttered parsley potatoes was the best dish I’ve had since leaving Australia. The fish was crisp and cheesy on the outside and flaky tender on the inside, complemented perfectly by the cream sauce. YES.

Phil thoroughly enjoyed his seared steak with veggies and jacket potato. You see, beef is prohibitively expensive in Switzerland, so I haven’t cooked it once at home since we arrived in January. We’ve had a lot of vegetarian dishes, with the occasional chicken or veal thrown in. He was ready for a big meaty hunk of beef.

We are not usually dessert people, but we were caught up in the evening and ordered a warm apple streudel with vanilla sauce. Not awesome, but an appropriate end to a romantic dinner.

The next day was our travel day… coffee in the train station….

To kill time waiting for the train, I decided to explore the supermarket. Supermarkets aren’t usually a place you visit when traveling, but they provide a unique insight into the local food culture so I try to make a point to duck into at least one when in a new place. I was rewarded with shiny pearls of red currants.

And a mouthwatering display of bread dumplings.

I picked up a couple of twin packs of fist-sized dumplings for dinner – spinach and herb, and of course, speck and herb. Exporting my speck addiction to Switzerland – was that legal?

I also grabbed a roast pork with crackling and spicy mustard sandwich for a lunch on-the-go. Tender, salty, with a horseradish bite from the spicy mustard. Dude. I love Austria.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Schaffhausen

Home to the International Watch Company (IWC) - one of the country’s most luxurious brands - and located on the Rhein, Schaffhausen is uniquely Swiss-German. After an interesting tour at IWC with Phil’s MBA class where we got to watch watch-makers and wear watches worth $350,000, we made the climb up to the city’s circular Munot (castle). Creepy things probably happened here in the past, and they still happen here today.

But the castle is mostly a great spot for views over Schaffhausen and the Rhein.

On the rooftop is a stage for summertime plays and concerts. I performed a graceful ballet solo to a packed house.

We love Switzerland.

Sorry folks, no food in this short post, lunch in Schaffhausen was snowflakes and sunshine. Oh, and a packed lunch of bread and pretzels and smoked sausages and cheeses, but I eat that almost every day so didn’t think it was special enough to take a photo…

Did you know that the largest waterfall in Europe is in northeastern Switzerland? Schaffhausen is the gateway to the huge and spectacular Rheinfalls.

Oh, oops, sorry wrong photo. Here’s the Rheinfalls. I forgot, they’re NOT huge and spectacular… !

I guess seeing this waterfall is a tick off of a travel list but if you have limited time to spend in the country I wouldn’t recommend the trek. There are so many worthwhile trips in this part of Switzerland, I mean you could spend more time in Schaffhausen or take a boat down the Rhine or stroll around Stein am Rhein… sorry Rheinfalls, you were kind of disappointing, but worthwhile for a good laugh!

Stay tuned later this week for gastronomic adventures in Innsbruck, Austria…

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Appenzell

Appenzell is a town after my heart. The rest of Switzerland might call it a po-dunk place and make fun of the fact that the canton has the lowest population in the country, that Appenzeller women were not allowed to vote 1991, or that the local ideas of fashion and style involve women wearing lace mohawks on their wedding day.

But Appenzell is a major attraction for food-lovers, so you’re not going to hear me diss the place. Apparently in 1880 there were 144 restaurants for the mere 3,000 inhabitants of Appenzell, and today it contains the greatest restaurant-density in all of Switzerland. !! This region sure knows how to eat. Much, much more on that later on in this post.

First let’s check out some of the scenery. I joined Phil’s class on a daytrip to this tiny, picturesque town located about 45 minutes from St. Gallen.

The town is in a valley and the surrounding mountains and countryside can be seen from high points in the old city. I’m sure it would be even lovelier in the summer.

But winter here has its own special charm. How cute is this wooden house with a stack of firewood, a sled and gingerbread cookies in the window? Can you get any more winter-in-the-Alps than that?

Here are some traditional houses with the church tower in the background.

We wandered around town checking out the painted houses. Notice the lack of people? Apparently the Swiss hibernate in the winter - it sometimes feels like we have the country all to ourselves.

I was really wishing we had the country to ourselves so I could steal the Appenzeller beer truck. Sure, it would be nice to have all that beer, but I had a short-lived fantasy of roadtripping around Europe in the most pimp truck I’ve ever seen.

The beer was just the beginning of the gastronomic delights in Appenzell. Smelly cheese is a local specialty and has a history that dates back to the thirteenth-century when the monks gorged on it in the Appenzell monastery.

Appenzell goats and cows are widely admired and the enormous cow bells decorating most establishments never let you forget the cheesy delights waiting for you around every corner.

There are decorated Christmas gingerbread cookies in the windows of many homes. These cookies are very expensive and given as gifts around the holidays. The more cookies you have displayed in your windows, the more people who love you, the more bragging rights you have around town. I wish cookies equaled popularity where I come from.

My lunch was a brezel sandwich. This is the bomb and I’ve been making it quite a bit here. Ya take yer massive pretzel, split it horizontally through the middle, slather it with butter, and layer it up with cheeses and cold cuts. You can buy these gigantic pretzels in any grocery store or bakery and they are always fresh and slightly chewy. And even average cheap-o Swiss butter is richer and creamier than what I’ve been used to in Australia and the States. Throw in some local cheeses and some of the many varieties of sausages and this simple sandwich turns into a real delicacy.

Appenzell is also renowned for its Appenzeller Alpenbitter liqueur.

We visited the Alpenbitter distillery to learn about its history and production. The unique drink contains a secret mix of 42 plants and herbs to produce a flavor similar to Jagermeister but much more smooth and gentle. It has been valued as a digestif for over 100 years and is often enjoyed on-the-rocks after a heavy Swiss meal.

Only two people know the closely-guarded combination of herbs and the original recipe is locked in a safe box in a local bank. They’re not messin’ around. However, we were permitted to smell some of the herbs in the hidden, locked herb chamber.

I had a field day here as there were some alpine herbs I had never seen before.

At the end of the door we were permitted to sample any of the liquors that are produced and/or bottled in the factory. It definitely could have gotten messy.

You can learn more about Appenzell’s food and drink specialties here.