The hills are alive with the smell of braised beef, as Michelin-starred chef Russell Brown, of Sienna restaurant in Dorset, treks through Austria for the annual Kulinarischer Jakobsweg (Culinary Trail of St James). Richard McComb reports
Russell Brown arrives at Heidelberger Hütte lodge after a 90-minute hike through the Tyrolean Alps. Stepping up to the pass takes on a whole new meaning as
the Dorset chef navigates a mountain pass to get to the kitchen where a team of Austrian peers is awaiting his arrival.
Brown has never spoken to the team entrusted with preparing his personal riff on classic braised beef cheeks. He has just a few minutes to taste the dish before making any minor adjustments. If it is not up to scratch, it is too late to start again.
In the lodge's dining room, a pack of 65 international journalists is baying for lunch. They have also trekked up the glorious, flower festooned Fimbatal valley and are very hungry.
We are 2,260 metres above sea level and the altitude, combined with hunger, Schnapps and the thigh-slapping verve of an oompah band produces a steamy atmosphere of culinary expectation. Like they say: no pressure, chef.
Brown, chef-patron of Sienna restaurant in Dorchester, is far from alone inside the kitchen. Next to his simmering pot of beef cheeks is a large pan of spelt risotto, which is being sporadically stirred and checked for seasoning by chef Giovani Oosters of Vous Lé Vous in Hasselt, Belgium. On the opposite side of the station, fillets of char are being seared on a hotplate under the gaze of Dieter Müller, one of Germany's most celebrated chefs. Nearby, Alfio Ghezzi from Locanda Margon in Trento, Italy, is making effusive hand gestures as trays of luminous yellow tagliatelle are assembled amid the aroma of a rich veal ragù.
The frenzied action, watched by a phalanx of reporters, is overseen by Martin Sieberer, who has bagged more awards than any other Tyroleanchef. Sieberer, a former Austrian Chef of the Year, rules the roost down in the valley at the five-star Hotel Trofana Royal in Ischgl.
The previous night, Sieberer, who holds three Gault et Millau toques, prepared an immaculate six-course gala dinner for the journalists and invited dignitaries. The menu showcased Alpine salmon, crayfish and suckling pig.
For Brown and the three fellow European chefs handpicked to unveil their dishes today, the bar has been set high.
A summer of culinary excellence
The quartet has been invited to take part in the annual Kulinarischer Jakobsweg, or Culinary Trail of St James. The event, which runs until 21 September, sees the four internationally renowned chefs prepare dishes to be served at four of the area's mountain lodges. This is the first time an English chef has been chosen,
so there is fevered expectation.
Brown's dish will be served throughout the summer season at Jamtalhütte, near Galtür, in a neighbouring valley. But the day before the beef cheeks are offered to the public for the first time, they are unveiled to the media alongside the other three dishes at Heidelberger Hütte, where taster-sized portions are served.
Kulinarischer Jakobsweg, launched in 2009, is an innovative and successful summer tourism campaign in the Tyrol's Paznaun region. Hikers, mountain bikers and climbers are tempted to the peaks with the promise of awe-inspiring scenery complemented by great cooking. Holidaymakers who take on the four nominated treks out of Ischgl, Galtür, Kappl and See are rewarded with dishes that stand out from soup and schnitzel, and the recipes are available so visitors can recreate them when they return home.
Brown, who is accompanied by his wife and restaurant manager Elena, required little persuasion to take part in the event. "The proposal sounded so interesting, and it is exactly the kind of thing that appeals to us," he says. We like to walk on the Cornish coastal path and Kulinarischer Jakobsweg seemed like a nice idea, combining food and walking. It's a great way to promote the area and we loved the emphasis on regional food, too."
Choosing the dish
Brown had to submit three proposed dishes to Sieberer. They had to appeal to hungry mountain explorers and be both relatively easy to prepare and replicate amid the confines of a lodge kitchen. Brown's shortlist of dishes included rump of veal with braised leeks and butter beans, and cannon of lamb with baby carrots and potato gnocchi. However, it was his beef cheeks, braised in beer, that caught Sieberer's eye. The two chefs had a phone conversation, in which the
Austrian quizzed his counterpart about the cooking methods. Ironically, one of the big issues had nothing to do with food. The beer in which the meat is braised, for anything from two-and-a-half to four hours, at 150°C, is critical.
At Sienna, Brown serves a version of the dish using Sharp's Doom Bar, brewed at Rock, Cornwall. The beer balances "spicy resinous hop, inviting sweet malt and delicate roasted notes" and, significantly, "the bitterness remains into the finish".
Brown forwarded Doom Bar's tasting notes to the Austrians in the hope they could find a suitable match. The chosen beer, a dark Mohren Gambrinus, from Dornbirn, is a great foil for the beef, with a malty aroma, mild hoppiness and sweetness.
Brown says the dish should be hearty, satisfying the appetite of outdoors enthusiasts for big flavours, protein and carbohydrate, but it should also be comparatively light.
He says: "Normally the dish would have a thicker sauce as well as veal jus to make it richer. But I thought that would be too much, too heavy."
So Brown's sauce uses beer and plenty of beef stock made from mixed marrow and rib bones and trim from the cheeks, but no veal. It is a point that Müller echoes, saying: "The dish should not be too heavy because you have to walk down the mountain again. The recipe should be clear and easy to prepare, because
it has to be done many times."
The beef cheeks are served with potato purée, textures of onions (pickled shallot rings, onion purée and braised button onions) and baby leeks.
The other dishes are Müller's roast fillet of char, which is served on a herb salad with mashed potatoes, a horseradish-mustard sauce and beetroot confit; Oosters' light spelt risotto with Paznaun Alpine cheese, air-dried bacon, herbs, beetroot carpaccio in cherry beer, mustard powder and honey from Ischgl; and Ghezzi's tagliatelle with veal ragù, Parmesan sauce, Ferrari Maximum Brut and coffee powder.
The height of quality
Brown, 47, who only started cooking when he was 27, is in his element, plating up his dish on a large outside table overlooked by towering peaks.
He says: "It's an amazing experience. Here we are looking at the mountains and the snow. The whole trip has been unreal.
"There are some nerves because you don't know exactly what's expected and what you are going to have to do. "You send somebody a recipe, you have
a conversation on the phone, but at the end of the day it is the Austrian chefs' interpretation of your dish using their local ingredients. There is an element of worry that it is not going to be as you want it to be.
"When it comes to cooking, there is an international culinary language but it has so many different dialects. You try to give specific instructions about the building blocks of the main recipe because that can change the balance considerably. But you are dealing with highly regarded chefs and there is a degree of trust."
Was there anything that varied from Brown's own preparation of the dish back in Dorchester?
"They kept the seasoning quite subdued on everything," he says. "The beef was slightly sweeter than I would want it, so we put some balsamic vinegar in the dish just to sharpen it up. That brought the acidity up, which balances the dish a bit better.
"The key part of the sauce is that you get that bitterness from the beer and if it's too sweet the bitter doesn't really come through.
"We finished the dish with some raw beer right at the end and that got it back to where I wanted it to be. Normally, we would cook the beer out as part of the sauce but the beer is a little bit sweeter than the Doom Bar we use at home."
Sourcing the beef
At Sienna, Brown gets his beef cheeks from an Aberdeen Angus cross sourced by Walter Rose & Son of Devizes, Wiltshire, and thinks the Austrian beef, from Alpine Highland cattle, works well.
"The taste is very similar. The beef here is maybe finer grained and I think the cheeks we get are slightly more gelatinous and slightly looser. But the Highland cattle works well," he says.
"The vegetables are really good and the pickled shallots, which are a key part of the dish because they bring in acidity, are bang on."
JamtalhÁ¼tte's fourth-generation custodian Gottlieb Lorenz is delighted with the Englishman's braised beef cheeks and expects the dish to be a big hit.
In fact, Lorenz expects up to 40 customers a day will order the beef, which means total sales of Brown's dish could top a staggering 3,600 plates during the three-month summer period. That is 600 more covers than Brown serves in a year at the 14-seat Sienna, the smallest Michelin-starred restaurant in Britain.
"Food is very important for our business in the mountains," says Lorenz. "The dish will be very good for us. When people come to the mountains we have fresh air; they are walking, so they are hungry, and we must give them a good plate of food."
Beef, of course, is a very British affair and Ghezzi agrees with Brown's decision to showcase the best of his home nation's cooking. Ghezzi says he chose his own tagliatelle dish because he thinks it is important for a chef "to be an ambassador of his terroir". He says: "I am an Italian and I want to represent Italy. If you have food made by an Italian chef you always think of Italy. And walkers need protein and carbohydrate, a complete meal, so pasta with veal works well."
Beer-braised beef cheek with potato purée and textures of onions
(Makes 20 portions)
For the beef stock
6kg small cut mixed marrow and rib bones
Trim from beef cheeks
2 medium onions
2 large leeks
3 sticks celery
For the beef cheeks
4kg beef cheek, trimmed and cut into 125-150g portions
4kg sweet white onions, finely sliced
4 star anise
1 small bunch of thyme
2 litres Doom Bar beer or similar
For the beer sauce
1kg sweet white onions, finely sliced
5 litres beef stock
1 litre Doom Bar beer or similar
500ml good red wine
2 star anise
1 garlic bulb, halved
1 small bunch of thyme
Maldon sea salt, to taste
A little cornflour to thicken
For the baby leeks
60 baby leeks
For the pickled shallot rings
6 large banana shallots, peeled and sliced into
4mm wide rings
250ml red wine
250ml red wine vinegar
250g caster sugar
1 sprig of thyme
1tsp yellow mustard seeds
1tsp black peppercorns
5g Maldon sea salt
For the onion purée
2kg sweet white onions, diced
100g unsalted butter
Double cream if required
Maldon sea salt
For the braised button onions
60 silverskin or baby brown onions (approx. 1kg unpeeled weight), peeled, roots trimmed but intact
5g sea salt
5g caster sugar
20g unsalted butter
150g potato purée per portion
To make the beef stock, roast the bones until well coloured, turning frequently. Add the beef cheek trim for the last 30 minutes. Halve the onions, peel the carrots, halve the celery, wash and halve the leeks. Place in a deep pan and add the bones and beef cheek. Cover with water and bring just to the boil, skim well, reduce to a simmer and cook for 6 hours, skimming frequently and topping up with cold water as required. Pass, strain through muslin and chill. Remove any surface fat when solidified.
Next prepare the beef cheeks. Tie the thyme and star anise in muslin. Slowly caramelise the onions in olive oil and add the bag of anise and thyme. Season and seal the trimmed beef cheeks, colouring well. Once the onions are caramelised, add a little water to dissolve any solids. Transfer the onions to a deep roasting
tin with the anise bag, place the caramelised cheeks on top, re-season and add the beer.
The cheeks should only be a third covered. Add some beef stock if necessary. Cover with silicone paper and then a double layer of foil. Braise for 2Â½-4 hours at 150Â°C. Check after 2Â½ hours and then every 20 minutes until the cheeks are tender but not breaking up. Remove the cheeks and chill. Pass the braising liquid through a fine chinois, pressing down well on the solids. Season to taste and use this liquid for reheating/glazing the cheeks.
Caramelise the onions and add the bulb of garlic, cut side down, to colour in a little oil.Add the thyme and star anise. Add the beer and wine and reduce by Â¾, add the beef stock and reduce to taste. The sauce should have a good beefy flavour with just a hint of bitterness from the beer balanced by the sweetness of the onions. Pass through a fine chinois, season to taste and thicken slightly with cornflour. Add good veal or beef jus if more depth of flavour is required.
Prepare the baby leeks. Trim, clean and blanch in boiling salted water. Refresh in iced water and keep al dente. For the pickled shallot rings, combine all
the ingredients for the pickling liquid in a small stainless steel pan and bring to a boil. Separate the sliced shallots into individual rings, discarding the small centre pieces. Add the shallots to the pickling liquid, bring back to a simmer and immediately remove from the heat. Allow to cool and chill.
For the onion purée, sweat the onions in the butter until completely tender. Purée in a food processor until smooth and silky. Add cream only if necessary. Season to taste. Cool and transfer to squeezy bottles.
For the braised button onions, cook sous vide on full pressure at 90Â°C for 90 minutes.
Reheat the beef cheeks in the braising liquid, basting frequently to glaze. Heat the potato purée and warm the button onions and baby leeks in an emulsion. Heat the onion purée in a bain-marie or in a microwave.
Drain the picked shallot rings on a paper towel. Heat the sauce and shake in some good arbequina olive oil. Do not try to emulsify. Spoon the potato purée into the centre of a deep bowl, top with the glazed cheek and mound some shallot rings on top. Scatter the leeks and button onions around the bowl.
Squeeze on 1cm dots of the onion purée and drizzle with the sauce.
The Kulinarischer Jakobsweg (Culinary Trail of St James) was launched in the Austrian Tyrol's Paznaun region in 2009 to boost tourism. Regional dishes, devised by a quartet of international Michelin starred chefs, are served to hikers and mountain explorers in alpine huts, or lodges, throughout the summer. The chefs launch the dishes at a special event in July before cooking duties are handed to the local kitchen brigades for the rest of the season. The overseas chefs are encouraged to showcase their national style of cooking while incorporating ingredients sourced in Paznaun.
This year's chefs
•Russell Brown, chef-patron, Sienna, Dorset, UK
•Alfio Ghezzi, executive chef, Locanda Margon, Trento, Italy
•Dieter MÁ¼ller, chef, Dieter MÁ¼ller restaurant, MS Europa cruise ship
• Giovani Oosters, chef-patron, Vous Lé Vous, Hasselt, Belgium
Accommodation details •Richard McComb stayed at the four-star superior Hotel Alpvita Piz Tasna in Ischgl.
•Rooms from â¬75 per person, per day, halfboard, including the Silvretta card, which gives free or discounted use of summer activities and facilities in the four Paznaun villages of Ischgl, Galtur, Kappl and See.
•More on www.ischgl.com or +43 5099 0100.