Peter Welcome to our travel podcast. We’re specialist travel writers and we’ve spent half a lifetime exploring every corner of the world.
Felice We want to share with you some of our extraordinary experiences and the amazing people we’ve met along the way.
Peter This week, we’re taking an intimate look at one of Austria’s largest, most diverse and exciting ski areas. No, it’s not St Anton in the Arlberg, nor is it the 280 kilometres of Soll in the Ski Welt. Its name, it must be said, is not exactly memorable. It doesn’t trip easily off the English-speaking tongue. So here we go: Ski Circus Saalbach Hinterglemm Leogang Fieberbrunn. Actually, if you must, you can even add in – with a short ski bus link – an extra 77 kilometres of Zell am See’s Schmittenhohe mountain: a total of 347 kilometres of piste. Not a bad ski area by anyone’s standards. But here we’re sticking with the four main resorts; they alone make this the country’s third largest ski area behind the old burg and ski belt.
Felice Saalbach is known for its 2000-metre peaks on both sides of the valley, and that includes Hinterglemm which is a family-friendly resort. The whole thing can be skied in either direction. It’s great intermediate terrain and it’s been popular with skiers for more than 50 years. In fact, I went there myself when I was a child – not that I remember a lot about it, but I know that my family was very keen on the area. Anyway, there are lots of blue and red pistes – a bit steeper than average, and there’s some proper black runs too, and of course some great off piste as well.
We’ve based ourselves in Leogang for three days and that’s a long, rather straggly village in the heart of the ski area. It’s not as well-known as Saalbach, and therefore you don’t have any queues in the morning to get out of the village. But as we discovered, it wasn’t disappointing at all. A ski holiday isn’t just about how far you can go each day, although the daily totals are really huge here. For me, where you eat on the mountain is just as much fun as the skiing, especially when the weather’s good and you can sit outside. And it’s very important to this region, which is well known for its food.
We’re featured in this video. Felice wearing turquoise ski pants and Peter in a bright blue jacket. © Austria Tourism
I’ve an interest declare here: I’m half Austrian. My grandparents came from Vienna and I’ve never lived here, but we had lots of family holidays and every time I come back I feel like I belong. I absolutely love the food. Kaiserschmarrn is one of my favourite dishes. It’s meant to be a pudding, but actually I sometimes eat that as my whole meal. It’s a pancake, a sweet pancake, very fluffy with some icing sugar sprinkled on it and stewed plums, and then the restaurant will chop it up for you. It’s a sort of omelette; it’s delicious.
Then there’s Wienerschnitzel which I love; I don’t think that needs any explanation. Then in the Salzburgerland area, where we are now, there’s Salzburger Nockerl which is a delicious souffle-meringue with cream. It’s a bit like Baked Alaska; it’s the Austrian version…it’s delicious.
Peter Yes. Well, I could give you a ten minute lecture on the cultural significance of Salzburger Nockerl, which was invented by the mistress of an obscure prince archbishop in the 17th century. But I’ll spare you that one.
Yes, I entirely agree with your menu so far. However, as a non-Austrian, I can remember long ago as a child, when the mountain villages of Austria vied with the pubs of rural England for some of the most unappetising, not to say inedible, food in Europe during summer family holidays.
When I was a small child in Salzburgerland, pig’s liver in a blood sauce, onions and Sauerkraut was a lunchtime staple, all served up in a canteen-style compartmentalised steel dog bowl. The fact that I’d heard the pig being slaughtered that very morning in the barn opposite my Gasthof bedroom window added a certain frisson to the meal.
But hey, what a difference half a dozen decades make. You can now eat better here in Austria at a far, far more sensible price than anywhere in the French Alps. Switzerland has priced itself onto another planet, leaving only Italy in the same gastro ski league for non-millionaire ski gourmets.
But before we went skiing first we took a sleigh ride to a nearby organic farm to, well, check out the raw materials. Leogang has no less than 65 of these. And we met up with Bernhard Perwein, who owns Mei Muich, a 50-hectare dairy farm that his family’s been running since 1995. Bernhardt, you’ve got quite a spread here. You don’t just have cows, do you? I saw some pigs as well.
Bernhard Yes, we also have pigs, cows, cats, a dog.Everything.
Peter You have some cereal crops as well.
Bernhard Yes, cereals we have rye.
Felice I was amazed to see the cows were milking themselves. They choose to go in?
Bernhard The cows choose by themselves how often they can go milking and when they want the milk they can milk the whole day. And it’s also good for us. So when we don’t have this system, we have to milk the cows every day at 5:00 in the morning, at 5:00 in the evening, and now we can go in the barn when we have time and the cows can go milking the whole day.
Felice Are there are some cows who go in much more often than others?
Bernhard Yes. The cows can go inside every time, but the system don’t milk this every five minutes. So we have put a time between milking. So it’s also different how much milk do the cow gives.
Peter Certainly times have changed. My grandmother had a farm in the north of England and I can remember milking – or trying to milk cows by hand – many, many years ago. It’s a bit changed now, isn’t it, then?
Bernhard Yes, I see on our farm I think it’s the fourth system I know. So I know when we milk the cows by hand, and then the milking system where you take the bottle and you put it in the tank. Then there was a new system. And the newest system now is the automatic system.
Peter It changes the life of a dairy farmer; you’re no longer tied to your cows.
Peter And you also make yogurt?
Bernhard Yes, we make yogurt and also cheese.
Peter And all of it is organic?
Bernhard Yes, all of this.
Peter No herbicides on the farm?
Bernhard No herbicides.
Peter Bernhard and his family also grow organic potatoes as well as maize for cattle feed. Then there’s the bread – they get up at 4am to make this. And also there’s delicious honey from the bees. And inevitably, perhaps in this part of the world, Bernard’s father makes his own fruit Schnapps. Talking of alcohol, Felice, I think it’s time to get back to our hotel and check out the wine cellar before dinner.
Felice Well, we’re staying at the family-run Hotel Riederalm in Leogang, and it’s very convenient. It’s right at the edge of the piste and close to the main gondola. It’s a modern hotel with great indoor-outdoor thermal pool and, of course, a gourmet restaurant where we’ve got a multi-course banquet waiting for us this evening.
The bedrooms are light and airy, wood and glass, and there’s a sort of carved wood mountain range on one wall in a pale colour wood, which is quite interesting. In the reception, there’s something quite unusual – there’s a glasses cleaning station, I’ve never seen that before. So you can put your goggles and sunglasses or ordinary glasses into this container of water and it washes them for you. So you can see everything very clearly.
But first we’re going to the extensive wine cellar. Now, if you don’t know much about Austrian wines, they’re some of the best in Europe. They’re full-bodied reds and delicate whites, but you need to go there to drink them. As in Switzerland, a low percentage of the top vintages are exported each year and the best are kept for home consumption. It’s another good reason for coming skiing here.
Sommelier, Fernando Fernaro run us through what we’d be drinking tonight and we looked at other rare bottles that we can only dream about. Fernando has some pretty unusual views on maturing wine, ones that I think King Charles might well approve of. Fernando, I was very interested to hear that you play Mozart to the wine.
Fernando Yes, I try.
Felice And why do you do that? Do you think that the wine enjoys music?
Fernando Yes, of course. It’s very important for the wine to get a better maturity.
Peter So sitting in this wonderful wine cellar here, you are also very worried about the light; you like to get the light correct?
Fernando Yes, with lighting you can have a chemical reaction in the wine, and the wine will lose its clarity. And it’s not good for the wine – sunlight or also normal lights.
Peter Almost inevitably in Austria, wine goes arm-in-arm with Schnapps; wickedly strong liqueurs made from a seemingly endless range of fruit and nuts. And so for a digestive or two, we met up with master distiller, Siegfried Herzog, in the nearby village of Saalfelden. Siegfried, it’s quite difficult to interview you to do this because we’ve just tasted ten different glasses of your Schnapps. How did you come to do this?
Siegfried I have had no money and I must do something. And so I said, I’m my Schnapps. And this was in 1998.
Peter And now there are how many thousand distilleries in Austria?
Siegfried In Austria, there are 94,000 distilleries.
Peter Those are just the legal ones. So illegal ones….
Siegfried Illegal ones, I don’t know, but 94,000 are the legal ones.
Felice You have won a lot of prizes?
Siegfried We won a lot of prizes from 2003, 2008…
Peter Your distillery is one of the most important in Austria.
Felice How many flavours do you have?
Siegfried We make 70 kinds of Schnapps.
Peter That’s a lot of Schnapps! And the obvious question is how much Schnapps do you have to drink yourself to do this?
Siegfried I drink every second day one glass.
Peter But you have to taste the Schnapps when you’re making it?
Siegfried I have to taste it, but I don’t drink it.
Felice My favourite tonight was the hazelnut.
Siegfried It’s made with nuts, roasted nuts.
Peter When you make the Schnapps, what goes into it? There are no other ingredients, just the fruit?
Siegfried It’s only the fruit.
Peter And how did you learn to do that?
Siegfried Oh, I learnt it by myself.
Peter But you went to other distilleries and you go to other distilleries?
Siegfried I have many important persons, many friends.
Felice Now, you have here the most amazing little distillery. It’s all stainless steel and it’s all in your farmhouse.
Siegfried Yes, it’s my distillery. It’s my living room and I am here from 4am to 10pm.
Felice And people coming on holiday to the area…they can visit your shop?
Siegfried Yes. We are open every day – not on Sunday – but open every day from 8am to 6pm.
Peter But in all seriousness, skiing is what we’ve come here to do and believe you me, that’s what we did today. We were in a group of semi-professionals: two younger Swedes who seem to have been born on skis, and a couple of much older but vastly more experienced American ski instructors.
I’m not quite sure where Felice and I fitted into this, but there was a bit of a tortoise and the hare here. But hey, they really held their own through some 30 kilometres, really quite extraordinarily difficult at times skiing that both demanded and relinquished pleasure in favour of survival technique.
You really had to keep your wits around you. One minute you’re trying to control momentum on a really steep pitch. Seconds later, the terrain opens up into a glorious wide bowl where you can truly go for it.
I think the secret of Saalbach and its adjoining resorts lies in its variety. This is not the kind of bland, burn-it-up terrain that you find in, say, the Ski Welt, nor the ever- demanding steeps of St Anton, which can be really tough. It’s a cocktail mix that never ceases to both ask and delight. Frankly, you never know what the second course is that’s about to be served up.
Best bit, no doubt about it, is around Fieberbrunn. Not for nothing is that considered one of the prime freeride areas of Europe. For the past couple of decades, it’s been an iconic venue on the Freeride World Tour. But even on piste, it’s a world class challenge for everybody.
Felice A few years ago, while we were staying in Salzburg, we came across the Viehhofen link, which is an amazing addition to the area. Basically, it links Zell am See with the Saalbach whole ski area, making it absolutely enormous, I think one of the biggest in the world, isn’t it, Peter?
Peter It’s certainly one of the biggest in Austria.
Felice It’s an easy link. You go via a small village in the valley and yes, it makes a huge difference. And intermediates can do it too, not just expert skiers. Anyway, I think that the Saalbach Leogang Hinterglemm Fieberbrunn area is definitely one of Austria’s best ski areas. Obviously the Arlberg and St Anton gets most of the praise, but this area, despite its difficult name, is definitely a contender as well…for the best ski resort.
Anyway, the proof is in the pudding, as they say. In this case, the first course and the main course and we stopped at the Wieseralm mountain restaurant for the most amazing lunch. I mean, you wouldn’t expect a lunch like this up the mountain.
Peter Yes, it was really special, I have to say.
Felice I’m just looking back on my pictures now, and they’re dishes of caviar surrounded by ice, oysters, the sort of things you don’t expect to get up the mountain. Obviously there’s the usual dried meats and cheeses and pickles.
Peter And never forget Wienerschnitzel.
Felice Wienerschnitzel with all the bits that go with it that we think is so important, like the redcurrant compote type of thing and potatoes with herbs – really, really delicious. But this was an amazing lunch, a very memorable lunch. It’s worth going to the area almost for this restaurant alone.
Peter And I have to say the prices were high, but nowhere near as high as you would pay in a mainstream resort in France or obviously in Switzerland.
Felice Yes. And for what you’re getting, it’s incredible.
Peter One great tip here is that seafood in a mountain restaurant in the Alps is really one of the safest things you can eat because they have to be so careful to make sure it’s fresh. And it’s usually flown in daily from the nearest airport, and in this case, it was absolutely superb.
Felice I mean, I suppose that’s not very good for environmental things to fly in seafood every day, but you can have a treat once in a while.
Peter I think that’s fair. Then of course, we had to ski home afterwards.
Felice So it’s a good idea not to eat and drink too much because the journey back to wherever you’re staying will be quite long – lots of runs and lots of lifts. It’s certainly a trek around the ski area because it’s so huge.
Peter Yes, in our case it was a bit of a long journey home, but hey, we got there.
Felice That’s all for now. If you’ve enjoyed the show, please share this episode with at least one other person! Do also subscribe on Spotify, i-Tunes or any of the many podcast providers – where you can give us a rating. You can subscribe on Spotify, Apple Podcasts or any of the many podcast platforms. You can also find us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. We’d love you to sign up for our regular emails to [email protected]. Until next week, stay safe.
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