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Austria: The Mile High Michelin Club - Hiking With Chef Matthew Tomkinson

St Jacobs Culinary Way
Paznaun-Ischgl, Tyrol
Cuisine: European
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Helen Hokin: Four upwardly winding hiking trails, historically part of an ancient pilgrim’s path, have their finishing points at restaurants all perched high in the mountains.
 
The Austrian Alps are not Chef Matthew Tomkinson’s usual habitat. Mostly you’ll find him in the New Forest at his Michelin-starred restaurant, The Terrace at the Montagu Arms, which he arrived at by way of Ockenden Manor, Les Pres d’Eugenie and south Manchester in the north west of England.
 
But on a weekend earlier in July this year, his chef whites switched for a pair of khaki shorts, a T shirt and some sturdy  walking boots, Matthew is standing at an outdoor cooking station on a mountain peak some 2000 metres above sea-level searing half a dozen veal cheeks on a hot plate.  As if the heat from the stove wasn’t enough, the sun is beating down – it’s a freakily hot 35 degrees – and to reach his vertiginous cooking station, Matthew has just hiked two hours up the mountain.
 
If he’s hot and bothered it doesn’t show.
 
Today marks the start of a summer season of hiking and good eating in the Paznaun Valley, a beautiful valley high in the Austrian Tyrol surrounded by the central eastern Alps. Here at the Jamtal Lodge, a restaurant almost touching the clouds, there are majestic views all round of the Blue Silvretta mountain range.
 
Matthew is at Jamtal Lodge to launch the veal dish he has personally created to feature on the menu until the autumn. This season, in the Paznaun Valley, from July to September four upwardly winding hiking trails that are historically part of an ancient pilgrim’s path now collectively named, ‘St Jacob’s Culinary Way’ will have their finishing points at restaurants all perched high in the mountains.
 
As if any further incentive were needed to walk the old pilgrim’s path which passes through lush Alpine meadows ablaze with silvery white edelweiss, electric blue gentian and golden arnica; all set to a rural soundtrack of cow bells and rushing mountain streams, each restaurant will feature a dish created by chefs from Germany, Holland, France and of course, our Matthew from the UK.
 
A delicious reward for those completing their pilgrimage. Or as the Paznuan tourist board slogan goes: ‘Pleasure At The Highest Level’ which, to me, has connotations of a Mile High Club with the added bonus of a Michelin meal thrown in.
 
Matthew’s dish of beer braised veal cheek with smoked potatoes, broccoli, carrots and Bourguignon garnish was not his original choice. Earlier as we hiked the steep ascent to Jamtal Lodge he explained his wish had been to create something around pork belly; a particular favourite of his, as well as an ingredient common to both the Tyrol and the New Forest.
 
By the time he discovered his counterparts from Germany, Chef Jorg Sackman at Niederelbe Lodge, and from the Netherlands, Chef Laurent Smallegange at Friedrichshafener Lodge, had both come up with pork recipes, his plans for the dish were already well under way. But between Sackman’s Iberico pork neck in spiced plum, and Smallegange’s crispy pork belly with potato crème, Matthew saw he had little choice but to come up with an alternative.
 
As a widely popular meat across the Alps veal, his final choice, made sense. Pairing it with touches from home: seasonal veggies and a winning Bourguignon garnish, an influence no doubt from his classical training, and time spent cooking in France, Matthew had  not only avoided a clash with the other participating chefs, but achieved his goal of using local Tyrolean ingredients to bring a ‘little bit of Hampshire’ to Austria.
 
We’re reliably informed it’s one of the hottest days on record and as we stop for a breather along the way we fall silent, taking in our surroundings: a rushing mountain stream, that is hard to imagine as a frozen ski run in winter, a single bird of prey, swooping and diving overhead, rugged rocks with snow crested peaks.
 
“Now this really is the definition of awesome in the true sense of the word,” says Matthew. “Sometimes in the restaurant we might come up with a new dish and when the guys taste it they immediately say: Wow! That’s awesome. And I say no, it isn’t. I tell them that’s the wrong use of the word. But this - all this,” he gestures, “this really is the definition of awesome.”
 
Earlier that morning at a rather lavish press conference for the opening of the 2015 summer foodie hiking season (there is a certain amount of hoo-haa around this event every year including flying chefs lavishly about the mountains in helicopters), Matthew had mentioned how humbled he felt at being asked to join the other three top name Euro chefs (Jorg Sackman, Laurent Smallegange and Marc Veyrat)  in creating a dish for the St Jacobs Culinary Way.
 
This down to earth lad from the north west of England who counts amongst his achievements a Roux scholarship, a stage at Les pres d’Eugenie, a Michelin star at the Goose in Britwell and another now at The Terrace appears refreshingly devoid of ego. For example, despite his Michelin star, it’s only recently he stopped working hands-on in the kitchen, he tells me, to keep on top of all the management responsibilities that come with running a restaurant.
 
He remembers back to the day he started his Roux scholarship and the moment Michel Roux senior made a cup of coffee and served it to him, the student. It was an ah-ha moment, a realisation that restaurants are all about service, making people feel important, privileged, grateful even though they're the ones paying. That light bulb moment set the tone for his career.
 
A vital mix of talent, persistence and humility have sent him onwards and upwards.
 
When we eventually we reach Jamtal Lodge, we are 2165 metres high in the imposing, craggy peaks. Just past midday the sun is high in the sky and it's hot.
 
Exhilarated and exhausted, everyone heads for a seat in the shade, gasping for water. There's talk of cooling off of feet in the mountain stream and a search for a waiter to bring wine.
 
Matthew, though, coolly, calmly takes his position at his outdoor cooking station to begin work at the stove delivering plates of his feted dish. Unctuous smoked potato mash topped with a slow-braised veal cheek that simply falls apart on the fork, then a crunchy, savoury Bourguignon garnish  - I could eat a bowl of that just on its own. A bottle of Austrian Riesling, cold and crisp works well with it. The final, magic ingredient is the mountain air.
 
And even though it's not the correct use of the word I really do think Matthew’s dish is awesome.
 
Helen Hokin travelled as a guest of the Paznaun-Ischgl Tourist Office
 
For bookings and further information
www.paznaun-ischgl.com
0043 50990 100
 
Accommodation
4*superior Hotel Piz Buin where summer packages are from €665 per person for 7 nights’ accommodation, with breakfast, afternoon buffet, five course evening meal and Silvretta Card www.pizbuin.at/en
 
Culinary St Jacob’s Way
the Culinary Jakobsweg brings high quality cuisine to the mountain lodges along this stretch of the old pilgrims path of St James, with guest chefs from across Europe creating new dishes using local produce – this year Hampshire chef Matthew Tomkinson was one of the four Michelin starred chefs to take part, creating a delicious dish of beer braised veal cheek with smoked potatoes, broccoli, carrots and Bourguignon garnish
 
Getting Around
the summer season runs from the beginning of July to the end of September and offers many mountain sports including hiking, mountain biking, bouldering, via ferrata, e-biking and Nordic walking.  The summer Silvretta Card All Inclusive is free to all guests staying in any of the four Paznaun villages and allows free or discounted use of many facilities and activities, including all cable cars and lifts, local bus, Kids Club, guided walks, High-Bike Centre, swimming pools and museums .
 
Getting There
Swiss International Airlines from London Heathrow to Zurich www.swiss.com
British Airways London Heathrow to Zurich
www.britishairways.com
easyJet from London Gatwick, Bristol and Liverpool to Innsbruck www.easyjet.com
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