Step back with me to another late August day a few years ago as I share the great experience that is small-town hospitality deep in the Austrian Alps of Tirol, Austria. My friends and I were fortunate enough to see through locals’ eyes the flavors of Austria – hearty pork, Alpine cheese, wine, and homemade liqueur. It is yet another experience that shows the value of stepping out of the typical tourist’s comfort zone to find the authentic flavors of an unfamiliar town or region’s local cuisine.
A few summers ago while living in Germany, two friends and I drove down to the state of Tirol in far western Austria. Unfortunately for us, we forgot that it was the end of vacation season for Europe – or rather, failed to realize that apparently everyone in Europe was either driving to or from their last week of vacation. Our four-hour drive stretched to nearly eight. But thirty minutes on a peaceful, foggy mountainside above one friend’s relatives’ home was enough to bring contentment to three grouchy people.
In winter, Tirol’s small towns are filled with ski and snowboard bums. In summer, it is a bit quieter, as tourists gravitate towards resort towns and head into Italy.
On that mountainside, with only the eerie sounds of wind, cowbells (seriously!), and a rare train whistle, the peaceful remoteness felt like a bygone era in Europe. It was easy to see why so many of the locals, especially those in our parents’ generation, never left the magic of Tyrol.
That evening, we had one of the most fun and delicious experiences of the summer with my friend’s aunt, uncle, and their friends. It was like dropping in on a Austrian’s Elk Lodge event, but smaller and with three generations dropping by the “fishing hut” built and shared by several families. Couples now in their 70s still congregate weekly with their childhood best friends after all these years, children, and grandchildren.
We three Americans quickly were accepted by the bunch, who were as curious about our American interests and experiences as we were theirs in such a quite, pastoral community. Strangely, their stories seemed not so unfamiliar to those of us who grew up in rural areas in the States.
Of course, our bonding took place over copious food and drink. Freshly grilled Bratwurst (just call them sausages!) and other forms of pork, served with Kaiser rolls, several types of mustard, mayonnaise, and ketchup. The ubiquitous central-eastern European shredded carrot salad, along with potato salads and pretzels. Free-flowing beer, wine, and various forms of honey and herb liqueur that put Jaegermeister to shame. It was a cookout to end all cookouts, complete with war stories, ski stories, fishing stories, and singing – oh yes, singing.
You’ve never lived until you listen to senior gentlemen debating who caught the largest fish and was it really as large as the superlatives insisted by the storyteller. Or when you start singing Bohemian Rhapsody because somehow they have that on a CD.
After all that, when we returned up the mountain to our hosts’ home, another feast awaited us – of Alpine charcuterie and pate-like substances, several fresh cheeses, fresh bread, and even addictive Austrian brands of packaged cheese puffs. I have to say that I never fully appreciated the buttery nuttiness of fresh Emmenthaler cheese until that night. Sitting outdoors in the chilly Alpine night, the cheese tasted as fresh as the wild grasses we saw cows grazing earlier that evening.
If you have never knowingly had Emmenthaler or perhaps forgot its flavor, try it along several other firm cow’s milk cheese, like a traditional Swiss or Gruyere. Emmenthaler lacks the bitterness of Swiss or the stinky pungency of Gruyere. My favorite pairing is with dark rye or pumpernickel. Their strong, sweet, and herbal flavor brings out the buttery smoothness of the Emmenthaler. A dry white wine from Germany or Austria is yet another perfect accompaniment – and it certainly was that night. I have to say that as hard as we tried, we 30 to 40 somethings could not keep up with our elders, who long outlasted us that night and awoke before us. All I can say is that we were amateurs compared with them.
We may have been a bit sluggish the next morning, but waking to the stunning, green, and craggy peaks of the Alps – with the memories of amazing hospitality, food, and drink – was a moment I won’t soon forget.