• Vineyards around Wachau

    Philipp Essl: The gourmet chef on the banks of the Danube

    The Danube, the apricots, and the wine: they go together with the Wachau like Philipp Essl with Landgasthaus Essl. The 30-year-old gourmet chef’s cooking style is traditional but not old-fashioned. His signature dish: Topfen Strudel Soufflé with Wachau Apricots and Vanilla Panna Cotta.

    Are the Wachau apricots ripe yet? Philipp Essl inspects 75 apricot trees—some of which are over 100 years old, planted by his great-grandmother—on his strolls through the orchards behind his country inn. It is not just any apricot variety that he processes in the kitchen. It is the Wachau apricot PDO (the EU protected designation of origin): “It has slightly reddish cheeks, is visually attractive but not a top model because its measurements vary. It has an intensely sweet flavour, a bit sour. Anyone who has tried one knows how an apricot tastes.” Philipp experiences the taste of his childhood every year in July, when he cuts into the first fluffy apricot dumpling of the season and lets every bite slowly melt in his mouth.

    • Welcome to Landgasthaus Essl! Philipp grew up in Rührsdorf, a town on the right bank of the Danube in the Wachau Valley. “30 years ago, my parents converted Granny’s wooden barn into a little wine tavern.” After several years of seeing the world, he returned to his roots. Today—thanks to Philipp’s passion for cooking—Landgasthaus Essl stands here on the Danube, complete with a bright dining room, a modern inner courtyard, and a garden with a biotope. Two old tables from the tavern still stand here by the bar. “In the future I plan to offer overnight accommodations in addition to food and drink.”

    • At Landgasthaus Essl, the gourmet chef serves up fresh interpretations of traditional dishes from morning to night and at the same time enjoys trying out new things with his young team. At midday, the cyclists and hikers have big appetites but little time. The lunch menu features items like steak tartare, veal lights, dumplings stuffed with greaves, fried liver, sliced striploin, and fried chicken. In the evening, things are a bit more elegant and relaxed: on offer are a nine-course dinner, a five-course vegetarian meal, and a small selection of dishes served à la carte. Philipp places importance on cooking traditional fare, but with a modern touch and pleasing to the eye. And particularly on creating new dishes—such as oven-baked cauliflower with a “deep purple” sauce.

    • From blossom to harvest: a critical period

      When the Wachau apricots are ripe is determined by the climate on the Danube. Philipp Essl must be patient. The fruit is not sprayed or protected from frost: it is at the mercy of the whims of nature. The apricot is the first fruit to blossom in the Wachau, followed by apples, pears, and cherries. “After the frost I take a closer look at the petals. If the blossom is green inside, then the apricot has survived for the time being.” After that there is the danger of June fruit drop: some of the green, immature fruit falls from the tree because it was improperly pollinated. The young trees are cut short so they have more room next to each other, get more sun, and to allow the fruit to be picked more easily.

    • A new take on topfen strudel

      The Wachau apricot does not keep well and is thus not sold to supermarkets. “Because of their sweetness, we take the fully ripe apricots that have just dropped from our trees. This is why we go to the orchard three times a day to pick up apricots and immediately process the fruit in the kitchen.”

      “My team and I are all young people, which is why we strive to prepare classic dishes in a modern way. Our signature dish is a topfen strudel soufflé. In this fluffy little dessert, the strudel dough is buried between layers of topfen. We serve it with stewed apricots, apricot sorbet, and vanilla panna cotta.”

    • Tip from Philipp Essl: Wachau Apricot Jam

      The jam will not become transparent or translucent when it cooks. This is typical for the Wachau apricot jam. Ingredients: Preserving sugar and apricots in a ratio of 1:2, ascorbic acid. Cut any brown bits off the apricots. Sprinkle the preserving sugar over the fruit and let stand for two to three hours. This gradually draws the precious juice from the fruit. Add a bit of ascorbic acid for the lovely colour and the necessary acidity. Stir briefly and bring to the boil. Ladle into sterilised jars.

    Working with regional partners

    The gourmet chef Philipp Essl uses only products of the highest quality from the Wachau or the surrounding area and is a proud member of the Wirtshauskultur Niederösterreich (Lower Austrian gastropub culture). “Guests will find no marine fish or quickly bred, over-cultivated freshwater fish on my menu. I buy from an organic fish farm where the lake char and trout that originate from the cold Ramsau Brook swim about in the ponds. The fish grow slowly and are fed organic crustaceans.

    Our wine list features predominantly Wachau wines, among them many from young vintners on the right bank of the Danube, such as Josef Fischer and Georg Frischengruber, who are less well known than the winegrowers in the villages of Spitz, Dürnstein, and Weißenkirchen. “We are young people still building our businesses, and we want to attract attention. That is why we are a bit more innovative. Young, daring people who take over wine taverns or restaurants, or forge new paths in winemaking.”

    Hood chef Philipp Essl Country Inn Essl Wachau Lower Austria

    It is early morning, and he is already walking with his dog on the gravelly bank of the Danube. His Flat-Coated Retriever enthusiastically leaps into the water regardless of the temperature. Philipp only needs to take a few steps from the restaurant to see otters, beavers, herons, cormorants and kingfishers. This wonderful encounter with nature is made possible through the “LIFE-Project Wachau”. The banks were revitalised, the towpaths broken up, and the tributaries opened. This resulted in a meadow landscape being created between the river and the vineyards, a vital habitat for animals and plants.

    It is a landscape that is very attractive not only for animals but also for people: you can paddle down one of the streams in a rubber raft, meet friends for a barbecue over an open fire, or enjoy a bottle of wine on the gravel riverbank. The advantage of the right bank of the Danube is that the Danube Cycle Path follows this side, and cyclists can enjoy views of the famous wine villages across the river while they’re pedalling, such as Weißenkirchen, Dürnstein and Spitz. The Danube’s right bank is the more peaceful side, with its numerous wine taverns situated in the vineyards and meadow orchards.

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