I love Christmas. Not nessasarily the religion part, though I’ll gladly take a helping of peace on earth and goodwill toward men if you’re offering. I love the traditions of Christmas. Cold weather, hot drinks, heavy foods, and recklessly spending money on my neice and nephew. That’s what I’m after. I’m also a big supporter of any holiday where coziness is highly valued, whipped cream is applied liberally, and people roam the streets singing carols.
That’s why I love Christmas in the Austrian alps. It’s all your favorite Christmas traditions turned up to 11, plus a few weird ones added for good measure. The hot cocoa is richer, the people are cheerier, and it’s perfectly acceptable to drink mulled wine by midday.
Then, at night, a giant wooly f*cking monster runs screaming through the streets. It’s a real-live winter wonderland!
This year, you might be running a little late to make it to Austrian Tyrol (Tyrol, sometimes anglicized to Tirol, is the region; the alps are the mountains; Austria is the country), but you should definitely poach some of their holiday traditions for your own. Then, in 2017, when October rolls around and the weather starts to turn, book a ticket.
If you love Christmas, there’s no better place on earth to spend the season — as a recent pre-holiday trip reminded me. Here’s why:
FOOD & DRINK
Do you remember that scene in Inglourious Basterds in which Hans Landa (played by an Austrian) insists that Shosanna Dreyfus eat strudel, then makes her wait in petrified agony while the waitress rushes to get some cream? It’s a truly harrowing moment in one of my favorite movies, but all I can remember thinking the first time I saw it was: “Have I ever tasted a really good strudel?”
The answer was “no.” I feel like the apples aren’t usually roasted down enough (so they stay too crisp and too tart), the dough gets dry, and the creme is boring. But, inspired by the Basterds scene, I decided to try one more strudel while I was in Tirol — a “When in Austria, do as the Austrians” moment. I got my chance at ICE Q — a restaurant literally on top of a mountain in Sölden — where Quantum of Solace was shot.
After one forkful, I knew it was the best strudel I’d had in my life. After the second forkful, I glared at any travel companion who might want to sample a bite. The dessert was served with a sweet cream filled with flecks of vanilla bean. The dough was delicate and crisp and the apples were sweet, paper thin, and cooked down until they melted on your tongue. It was bliss.
That’s what Tyrol does: They make perfect versions of the wintry foods that other people screw up. Strudel, shnitzel, glhüwein were all executed flawlessly, everywhere I went. Where’s the Christmas connection in all that? I’ll tell you where: The holidays are the season for putting on excess weight without a huge degree of remorse and the food in Tyrol sticks to you like spackle.
Gröstl — This is a hash of potatoes and pork (often lardons) with a fried egg and some chives or flat leaf parsley on top. Does that sound revolutionary? No. But it’s cooked in a giant cast iron pan and arrives steaming to your table and you feel like you’re in some long lost era.*
Gröstl makes the ultimate case for experiencing cultural comfort foods in their respective countries of origin: they’re better. I had this dish three times in a week and it was better each time. Sidenote: If you were an actor gaining weight for a movie role, the Austrian Alps would be a good place to put on a quick 50lbs.
*As if that wasn’t enough, the same region also specializes in kaiserschmarrn — a similar one pan dish, but with shredded pancakes. The fact that everyone is slim and fit and lovely is a testament to just how much activity they get in those mountains.
Gluhwein — Look, I think if I really knew Europe, if I lived there, my childlike love for gluhwein would make me “basic.” That’s cool, I’m fine being basic. Wine with cinnamon and cloves, served hot? I would literally rather drink that between December and March than some 30-year-old French merlot that I’m not smart enough to properly appreciate.
Gluhwein is so warming, there’s nothing on earth I can think of to compete… except for weihnachtspunsch — which is served in all the same stalls and is basically a mix of tea, gluhwein, and rum. Why don’t we have rum punch stalls?
Spatzle — This is kind of a known entity in the U.S. now, because chefs are putting it on menus where they need a comfort food. It’s basically mac and cheese but the noodles are kind of mini dumplings. For a pretty straightforward dish, you get a lot of iterations on this one. The old world places seem to make it far less cheesy, really focusing on the dumpling.
Considering the main ingredients — pasta, cheese — I took it upon myself to sample as many variations as possible. What can I say, I take my job seriously. Result: They were all really good.