Pitztal Glacier: High Altitude Baking
What’s the best thing after a long day of skiing? Stopping in for delectable food at an on-mountain eatery. In my opinion, Kaiserschmarren simply tastes best when enjoyed at an on-mountain restaurant or lodge. Why is that so? I asked someone in the know: Pastry Chef Norbert Santeler works at the Pitztal Glacier Ski Resort with over 32 years of experience creating unique and delicious pastries, strudels, cakes, and much more for the highest coffee bar of the Alps, Café 3440 at Pitztal Glacier. Sitting at an elevation of 2,800 meters above sea level, his bakery is the highest lying in all of Austria. Norbert Santeler tells me how altitude affects baking and what works best for this particular location.
Norbert Santeler, Pastry Chef at the Pitztal Glacier Ski Resort
Mr Santeler, why does food seem to taste better at an on-mountain dining spot?
(Laughing) I guess it is because skiing and riding the mountain are sure to work up an appetite. And great food tastes just right after the exertion of the day.
How does the high altitude affect your baking?
At high altitude, the air density is lower than at sea level. As elevation rises, air pressure falls, which means that bakers at high altitudes see different results than lowland bakers. Since most recipes are designed for sea level, high-altitude success requires a few clever adjustments, especially with sponge mixture. As leavening occurs faster, gas bubbles tend to coalesce into large, irregular pockets in the batter. The result? A cake that won’t rise. Through much trial and error, I’ve come to rely on a set of adjustments. I found what works at this altitude and only make sponge mixture under the right conditions. If so, I make plenty of it on stock!
Does the low air pressure affect other things, too?
Well, yes, there are many casualties that can befall things at high altitude: When they opened the Café 3.440, named in tribute to the coffee bar’s elevation, which is 3,440 meters above sea level, the coffeemaker didn’t work well. The grinding apparatus responds differently at high altitudes — and it took the company and the barista a whole lot of time to experiment and find out. The solution was to put in less coffee than down in the valley. Low air pressure has effects on cooking, too, as foods take longer to cook at high altitudes. Adjusting for climate almost makes everything into a science because it requires so much trial and error. But I have been working here for 32 years and experimented a lot so I found what adjustments work best here.
What is your favourite cake?
Honestly speaking, I prefer meat. I don’t eat a lot of pastries, as usually is the case with those working in such a sweet tasting environment all day. Every now and then, though, I give the glacier snow cake a try, which was exclusively created for the Café 3.440.
Enjoying a delicious cake and drinking in the jaw-dropping scenery at an elevation of 3,400 meters above sea level (Photo Credit: Daniel Zangerl)
Which baked good to you produce most?
Kaiserschmarren is our top crowd-pleaser – we produce four tons of it a year. On good days, we sell up to 150 servings a day. That requires a lot of preparation and time. We prepare the batter in advance and shock freeze it. Cakes and pastries are freshly baked every day. Some goods are prepared in advance; after all, we sell about 250 pieces of cake a day in the winter.
How do you transport the baked goods from your 2,800-meter bakery up to the café 3.440?
The pastries and cakes are whisked up by gondola early in the morning and all through the day. We take the cakes to the base of Wildspitzbahn Gondola and they pick them up at the top. It takes a lot of effort to ensure that everything runs smoothly. It has happened that the pastries travelled up and down the mountain for hours.
What do you like most in your workplace – the view?
Well, it’s not necessarily the panorama, although the view of the snowcapped mountains is amazing. To me, it’s more about the feedback of guests. I remember my humble beginnings, when no one knew how it would work out. On my first day, I created two cakes and everyone was enthralled. Now, 32 years later, we create highest quality pastries at this high altitude, which is second to none in Austria. It’s only my daughter and me working in our pastry shop. If we need an extra hand, my second daughter supports us. For our baked goods, we do not use finished products but instead take pride in crafting everything from scratch, with love. This is by no means the most natural thing in the world nowadays.
Café 3.440 is Austria’s highest coffee bar and pastry shop