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Montrealer Meredith Erickson on the rewards of eating your way through the Alps

Our cookbook of the week is Alpine Cooking by Meredith Erickson, co-author of the Joe Beef cookbooks, among others. To try a recipe from the book, check out: Spiced cheese spread (liptauer), Wiener schnitzel and kaiserschmarrn (shredded pancake).

With its Belle Époque stylings, Gothic frescoes and raging waterfall cleaving the town in two, Bad Gastein epitomizes the eccentric allure of the Austrian Alps. Since the 19th century, its hot springs — and their healing promises — have drawn empresses, kings, artists and composers. Today, its steep surrounding slopes entice skiers and spa-goers in equal measure.

Renowned for its thermal properties and surreal trappings rather than culinary offerings, author Meredith Erickson managed to eat well there all the same. While travelling the Austrian Alps as she researched her first solo cookbook, Alpine Cooking (Ten Speed Press, 2019), she sustained herself on such hearty classics as Wiener schnitzel, Tafelspitz (boiled beef rump) and Kaiserschmarrn (shredded pancake).

When compared with the other three regions she covers in the extensive culinary travelogue — the Italian Alps and the Dolomites, the Swiss Alps and the French Alps — the food of the Austrian Alps stands apart. Whereas in the mountains of Italy, Switzerland and France there are distinct culinary signatures notably unlike anywhere else in their home countries, the food of the Austrian Alps bears the mark of its capital, Vienna.

“Austrian eating in the Alps is more homogeneous than France, Switzerland and Italy. But it also has an esoteric-like edge to it. There’s something more mysterious here — it just takes going to the very, very weird town of Bad Gastein to realize that,” says Erickson. “It feels like a bit of a darker fairy tale than let’s say the sunny side of Italy is, but it’s fantastic.”

Disparate as they may be, the four overarching food cultures she features in Alpine Cooking are united by necessity; the fact that they arose from the need to eat in challenging, extreme environments. Rooted in survival, they depend on industrious people who are prepared for any eventuality, and embody the ability to turn constraints into creativity.

Erickson, who divides her time between Montreal and Milan, has co-authored several cookbooks including, most recently, Joe Beef: Surviving the Apocalypse (Appetite by Random House, 2018; with Frédéric Morin and David McMillan). Themes of independence, isolation and self-sufficiency run through both works, albeit manifesting in contrasting ways.

“As my career continues, it’s quite clear that I use recipes as a punctuation in my storytelling,” says Erickson. “(They’re) an excuse to tell the greater story, and I’m coming to the realization that the greater story is always a human story. Whether it’s surviving the apocalypse and where we were at, or where I was at writing this. It’s always about uncertainty, joyfulness and terror, which I think culminates in the sublime.”

This story — of family-run restaurants and rifugios, chefs and winemakers achieving the exceptional at an elevated altitude — is also one of adventure, of taking chances and in the process, earning your reward. Erickson opens Alpine Cooking with the tale of a mishap that emphasizes the unpredictability of the mountains. Just like the sea, she says, conditions can change in an instant, rendering you powerless if you’re unprepared. She learned this lesson the hard way: In pursuit of Zürcher Geschnetzeltes (veal strips in cream sauce, Zürich-style; the recipe is in the book), Erickson suddenly found herself in less-than-ideal skiing conditions en route to a village above Zermatt, Switzerland at an elevation of almost 3,900 metres.

Her Alpine education, gained from enduring this misadventure (those veal strips, she confirms, were worth the anger, fear and self-flagellation) and others like it, as well as the unexpected pleasures and exchanges that occurred during her travels form the basis of her primer. Intended to encourage others to experience the beauty of the Alps, she shares her blunders and triumphs in the book, and charts the mountain huts that provided recipe inspiration in four foldout country maps. “I made so many mistakes over the last six years in my life,” says Erickson. “Travelling the Alps isn’t obvious. There’s no how-to guide. And with this book, at least food-wise and people-wise, I’ve steered you on the right path.”

Luxe resorts at the foot of Mont-Blanc or plush ski chalets in Zermatt can give the Alps an exclusive quality, but Erickson stresses they’re accessible to all travellers, regardless of the magnitude of your budget. “The mountains are extremely democratic,” she says, adding that you can gain a sense of true Alpine-ness by simply packing a rental car with local foods and staying at small inns or Airbnbs along the way.

The book’s 75 recipes — colour-coded by level of difficulty, just as pistes (ski runs) are in the Alps — are likewise meant for cooks of all skill levels. It was the simplicity and dynamism of the food, Erickson explains, that initially attracted her. Far from the common misconception that Alpine cooking begins and ends with cheese, the reality is much more varied; an expression of the land, as precipitous and capricious as it may be, and its intrepid inhabitants.

“It’s completely singular in the world. Each country is very different from the other, in terms of the Alps and in terms of the cuisine,” says Erickson. “There’s no avocado in the Alps. There’s no one doing sushi in the Alps. They stick to great product … When people say that it’s heavy, yes there’s meats and cheeses and bread, but if you go to the mountains and you’re hiking, you’re skiing, you’re working all day, (you want to) eat real food. There’s no access to junk, really. So people seeing a really broad spectrum, from the most rustic to the most sophisticated, (was important). And like anything in life, it is what you make it.”

Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019

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