Fondue: The big cheese of the Austrian alps

There are some foods that only make sense in their local environment. Tapas, for instance, should only be eaten in Spain: there it morphs from just small portions at large prices into a fantastic culture of nibbling tiny bites of delicious food and then moving on to the next bar for more, more, more.

Sushi, too, can seem fairly average when it arrives at your table by "train"; however, sit in a tiny bar in Tokyo and watch as an absolute master carefully creates every amazing morsel and you begin to understand the fascination that the locals have for it.

And so it goes with fondue. You might remember fondue from the 1970s, from the time of high-necked sweaters and kitschy parties involving long, thin forks and bubbling pots of cheesy weirdness. Fondue makes no sense when it's served in Australia. The weather is too hot. The cheese tastes wrong. 

For fondue to make sense, you need to be here, deep in the Austrian Alps. You need to have arrived in this tiny village tucked into a forested valley by snowcat, a sort of all-terrain, snow-going minivan, because there are no actual roads in. You need to have wrapped yourself up against the cold and the driving snow as you leapt out of that snowcat and shuffled over to the door of the Gasthaus Aelpele. 

You need to have walked into this more than 300-year-old restaurant, with its walls made of raw local timber, its ceiling stained by centuries of candle-smoke, with its fire blazing in a corner, and its waiter decked out in lederhosen, and felt the convivial warmth of the whole room, of people laughing and joking and telling tall tales of their exploits on the ski slopes earlier in the day. And you need to have seen the fondue. 

Suddenly, fondue makes sense. On the wooden tables there are bubbling pots of beef stock and oil surrounded by cuts of local meat. There are gurgling vats of melted cheese set amid hunks of local farmhouse bread. There are long thin forks at each place setting.

This is not the food of pompous parties, you realise, but the dinner of champions. It's cuisine to get warm to. It's fare to savour.

You need to come to Lech in winter to get it. Lech, this traditional ski town in the heart of the Vorarlberg region of Austria, is not just about chairlifts and black diamonds, or even apres-ski bars and posh hotels, but about food, glorious food.

There are more great restaurants in this town of 1500 residents than any place really deserves. Most of those eateries are much like the hotels in town, traditional old places that have been passed through families for generations, handed down over hundreds of years, with recipes guarded as secretively as the powder stashes up on the slopes.

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Cheese is big around here. In winter this might be a hangout for powderhounds and their fur-clad entourages, but for the rest of the year it's home to dairy farmers and cheese makers. It's that local produce that goes into the fondue – with a little kirsch, of course – that makes it so insanely tasty.

Of course you can't spend your entire time in Lech eating. From the village, skiers have access to more than 350 kilometres of marked ski runs, serviced by 97 cable cars and lifts. This is one of the oldest ski areas in the world, a place of rich traditions that extend all the way from the upright, knees-together ski style preached by the instructors to the long hours of apres-ski good times preached by the general sporting populace. 

There are no wild parties, however, like you might find in nearby St Anton. Lech is all about a more refined style of enjoyment. While some might warm themselves with beer or schnapps after a long day skiing, others head to the Gasthof Post, a luxury hotel set in an almost 400-year-old building, to drink tea in the historic tearoom. There's only one building in town that's older than the Post, and it's Lech's 12th-century church.    

There's a feeling of deep tradition that pervades everything in this village, from the dirndl-clad staff at the hotels to the guests you meet on the chairlifts who say they've been coming here every winter for their entire lives. People like it in Lech, and you can understand why.  

All you need to do is sit by a fire in an old restaurant deep in the snow-covered forest, dipping hunks of bread in bubbling, delicious cheese.

TRIP NOTES

MORE INFORMATION

lechzuers.com

austria.info 

GETTING THERE

Emirates Airline flies from all major ports in Australia to Zurich, via Dubai. See emirates.com/au for more. From Zurich, Der Lecher offers transfers to Lech. See taxi-lech.at/en/

STAYING THERE

The Hotel Sonnenburg is a ski-in, ski-out four-star property in the village of Oberlech, which offers comfortable rooms with half-board for excellent prices. See sonnenburg.at 

The writer travelled as a guest of the Austrian National Tourist Office

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