Understanding nature, enjoying fresh produce, staying healthy. More and more people are getting out into the forests and meadows to search for ingredients for their kitchen. The trend, known as foraging, has spread around the globe. In Tirol people have been living off the land for thousands of years, making the most of what nature provides. We went to the village of Nauders to meet two herb experts and a cook who is reinventing this age-old tradition.
On hot days, the walk from the top of a mountain down into the valley can feel like a never-ending journey. Your legs ache, the water bottle is empty, and your mouth is as dry as sandpaper. There is no stream or river in sight, nor any alpine hut, and the thirst-quenching apple juice you enjoyed at the last stop is nothing more than a distant memory. The grass on the meadows, on the other hand, is lush and full of flowers. Along the edge of the trail lie berries of all different colours, from bright yellow to red to almost black. Bursting with juice, they are a huge temptation. But are they edible? If so, which ones are and which ones are not?
“Collecting herbs means listening to your own senses and immersing yourself in nature and the surroundings.”
Fortunately, we have an expert to tell us just that. “You can eat quite a lot of them,” says Barbara Waldegger, a herb expert from Nauders. “But you need to be careful – if the petals are yellow and shiny, then that always means they are poisonous.” Barbara is out and about in the mountains the whole year round. In winter she works as a ski instructor. In summer she hikes through the meadows and forests – mostly barefoot so that she can “get a better feel for nature”. Barbara is a forager. Her whole life she has been searching the mountains and valleys of Tirol together with her mother Rose-Marie looking for berries, mushrooms, herbs and flowers. “Collecting herbs means listening to your own senses and immersing yourself in nature and the surroundings,” she explains.
More and more people are sourcing ingredients for their meals no longer in the supermarket but in the forests, parks and meadows. Foraging, as it is known, has already been the subject of hundreds of books, while the BBC’s Good Food blog gives tips these days on the best places and time of year to find produce in nature. Noma in Copenhagen, which has been named Best Restaurant in the World on four occasions, uses mostly regional and seasonal produce from the surroundings. Barbara and Rose-Marie aren’t familiar with the word foraging, but they know all about the idea. “Humans have been doing it forever – and now there are people getting into it who didn’t used to spend much time in nature,” says Barbara. “I think these days people are trying to slow their lives down and really appreciate the moment,” adds Rose-Marie – and what better way of doing so than walking through the mountains and then preparing a meal using the ingredients you have found?
For the Waldeggers, walking and collecting is almost part of their philosophy on life. On top of that, it is a good way to earn a little pocket money. They sell what they find to restaurants and offer guided herb hikes as well as selling homemade salts, infusions, creams, lipsticks and herb mixtures. The family has lived in the area around Nauders since the 17th century. They have herbs quite literally on their doorstep – and the large pasture stretching out in front of the farmhouse where they live is full of more delights. “Everything we need basically grows next to our house,” explains Barbara. As well as herbs, that also means plums, greengages, apricots and apples plus all kinds of root vegetables and bushes planted in raised beds. The house itself is full of books, herb collections and apparatus for drying fresh herbs. In their air hangs the scent of wood, grass, flowers and berries – sometimes thick and heavy, other times fresh like pine and juniper. The Waldeggers own large stretches of land in the dry valleys around Nauders. They never use fertiliser and only cut the grass once the plants have shed their seeds.
The pastures and meadows are an explosion of colour. With each step they take, hikers scare swarms of grasshoppers, crickets and other small insects into action. Butterflies of all colours dance between the flowers in bloom. Every few metres Barbara and her mother discover new herbs, new tastes: wild caraway, mountain stone-parsely, pimpinella, campanula. And then, under an old beech tree, a large shingled hedgehog mushroom. “It’s something that can’t just be cooked and eaten,” explains the 76-year-old Rose-Marie, “but by drying and grinding it into a powder it produces a wonderful spice for soups and other mushroom-based dishes.” She has been working with natural ingredients for decades: “We just used what was there.”
Little may have changed in the last few decades for Rose-Marie, but most people buy their produce at the supermarket. Even fresh goods are packed in plastic and have to conform to strict standards. Whatever the time of year, everything seems to be available all the time. Foraging in nature, on the other hand, seems like a quiet protest against the supermarketisation of the world. By opening your eyes as you pass through nature, you also open your eyes to the importance of sustainability.
The mother-and-daughter duo also provide ingredients to Michael Ploner, head chef at the Hotel Central. For today’s dishes the 25 year-old needs young juniper branches, a large basket of French sorrel, fresh flowers and rowan berries. These small bright orange berries are very bitter when raw and can cause an upset stomach, but when cooked and mixed into Michael‘s homemade barbeque sauce they are a dream. The only item sourced from the Waldeggers’ garden are the cornflowers which Michael wants to decorate the plates with. In the region around Nauders there are hardly any corn fields left, meaning it is almost impossible to find cornflowers growing in the wild.
Michael Ploner learnt his trade in Copenhagen, where he cooked with berries, moss, wild herbs and mushrooms. “We always had professional foragers who went out and collected produce for us,” he explains. “In Denmark and Sweden it’s a normal job.“ His time in Denmark gave him a sense for the richness of nature. Back in Nauders he discovered the huge variety of natural ingredients in Tirol with the help of Rose-Marie and Barbara. “As a chef, your main focus should be on fresh herbs,” says Michael. He adds that the taste of these herbs is so intense and so rich that “you don’t really need to add anything else”. Far from being new, this way of cooking has existed for hundreds of years. “But we have forgotten about it,” he explains.
This fusion of nature and culture, tradition and modernity, has brought success. In 2018 Michael won the Culinary World Cup together with the Austrian national youth cooking team. When he is not hard at work in the hotel, which has been owned by his family for years, Michael studies Business and Management two days a week in Innsbruck. It’s always about learning new things, taking the next step. But, he quickly adds, the most important thing is cooking – an activity which has fascinated him since he was a child. At the tender age of six he stood at a buffet in the hotel and served guests the traditional dish of Palatschinken, freshly made pancakes with a sweet or savoury filling. He has also known the Waldeggers for many years – when he was a child at primary school it was Rose-Marie who helped make the school’s herb garden. Michael was one of the first pupils to volunteer.
“The food should look as good as it tastes.”
Today, Michael Ploner combines classic dishes from the region with the ancient secrets of Rose-Marie and Barbara, his “herb ladies”, to develop new recipes and methods. The young juniper branches will be used, for example, to smoke well-hung flank steaks. The French sorrel will go into a wonderfully creamy frozen yoghurt. Wild petals and leaves on mountain stone-parsley are scattered together with grated pine cones over beef tatar. Michael also enjoys playing with shapes, colours and scents. “The food should look as good as it tastes,” he says with a smile.
It’s a creative process in which both cook and collectors learn plenty. Barbara and Rose-Marie bring new herbs or berries to the hotel kitchen. Michael thinks, experiments – and if he likes the basic taste, he gets to work. Vice versa, the Waldeggers often go foraging in the forests and meadows if Michael needs something specific. On many occasions they are surprised themselves when they find out what he has used the produce to create. This type of cooking requires knowledge, curiosity, creativity, time and spontaneity. “Even if you are looking for something specific – it’s either there or it isn’t. And it is only ready to be picked when it’s ready – that’s not something you can influence,” explains Rose-Marie. For example, it can take up to six hours for the two women to collect just one kilo of nettles. Foraging, it seems, is a lesson in patience and humility.
However, the result is more than worth it. Proof, if any were needed, is provided by Michael Ploner as he serves Rose-Marie and Barbara larch-tree parfait and French sorrel ice cream on a spicy biscuit base. The plate is decorated with flowers and pine needles. “Michael gives new life to the things we bring him,” says Rose-Marie. She gazes down at her plate and seems even a little emotional. “I know that you can do a lot with nature,” she adds, before taking a spoonful. “But this here is spectacular.”