‘Put it straight at the back of your mouth. Don’t swallow – just let it melt.’ In front of us, a cauldron of liquid nitrogen swirled clouds of frozen mist into the air. I shut my eyes, took a breath, and popped the vividly green nugget into my mouth. It burned briefly with extreme cold, then suddenly flooded my senses with pine, before the sweetness of corn, just for a moment – and then it was gone. This was my first taste of Michelin-starred popcorn, born from the forests of South Tyrol and created by the culinary mind of Egon Heiss. I was there to attend a cooking lesson with the acclaimed chef.
Before the lesson, however, we would need to fetch some supplies. We stopped off a few miles down the mountain at Afingsbruckhof, where farmer Robert Thurner showed us cheerily around rows of fruit and vegetables, zig-zagging up the steep slopes. We stopped to taste tiny wild strawberries, pick cloudy froths of elderflower and admire stalks of gooseberries, while a bevy of quail rushed dizzily around their run. We left carrying a huge box of produce so vividly fresh that the colours popped, the ingredients plucked from the soil just minutes ago.
We arrived at Egon’s restaurant Bad Schörgau and were shown into the kitchen, which was remarkably calm just a few hours before dinner service. He has trained around the world, including some of London’s best restaurants; he worked with Marco Pierre White, Anton Mossiman and – what he admits was his ‘hardest ever experience’ – Gordon Ramsay’s eponymous three-star establishment in Chelsea.
But his own restaurant (which now boasts a Michelin star of its own) does not try to impress by piling plates with foie gras and truffle. Instead, everything comes from Robert’s farm and the forest that surrounds it in the craggy heights of the Dolomites, where Italy meets Austria and the air is so clear it practically sings. His signature ingredient is pine.