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The Intimacy of the Pear

The Intimacy of the Pear

The Intimacy of the Pear

As a multi-award-winning chef, Milena Broger pursues the goal of helping all the ingredients in her kitchen to taste their best. To this end, she searches for allies among the food & drink producers, and finds one in Master Distiller Bartholomäus Fink in Bizau.

For our Weiss restaurant in the city centre of Bregenz, our original plan was to source whisky and rum from Bartholomäus Fink, as he’s a one-of-a-kind character within the local gastro scene. But after visiting his shop, which is also his distillery, things turned out a bit differently. Soon we find ourselves discussing schnapps instead. Small wonder: Bartholomäus is a very passionate fellow and his enthusiasm for his work is contagious. Just driving to Bizau and spending some time looking over Bartholomäus’ shoulder is an experience in itself. Within moments he will offer you a schnapps and begin philosophising about what’s currently in the room: e.g. his distillery equipment and what’s currently bubbling inside. Honesty is Bartholomäus’s number one priority.

He doesn’t waste time romanticising his homeland for marketing purposes; there are no empty words here, just transparency, not unlike the clear schnapps from his distillery, which stands in the middle of the room, working, while Bartholomäus himself is busy doing everything else. Every now and then he casts an appraising glance at “his little darling”. The entire operation has been set up at the site of an erstwhile bakery on the outskirts of the village of Bizau. He tells us that in the past, around 300 loaves of bread were baked here every day. For comparison’s sake, on average around thirty bottles of his fine schnapps are now produced here on a daily basis. Soon, the conversation turns to mashing, experimenting, distilling, reflecting, bottling, philosophising, selling and tasting: all under one roof.

“Distilling liquor has a lot in common with cooking,” says Bartholomäus, who once aspired to be a chef before hip surgery thwarted that dream. Nevertheless, Bartholomäus refused to give up on working in gastronomy. He first started out in the related field of agriculture after completing an apprenticeship as an Alpine dairyman. There was a lot to like about this line of work but back then it was typical for dairymen to work 29 days out of 30. As a generally curious young man, however, he also wanted to make space for other things in his life and soon changed professions.

At that time, the Pfanner fruit juice company was looking for people from the food industry, especially those who knew their craft: Although they often work with similar or identical machines, clean work and cleaning have to be learned, and this also applies to the storage containers and all the equipment.

After a few years working with the fruit juice producer, Bartholomäus began to dabble with wine on the side, which meant that he was allowed to go along when grapes were purchased in Burgenland. “There was a collection station where all the grape growers gathered to analyse the size and quality of the grapes, the levels of sugar, etc. I really, really liked that.”

When the Pfanner distillery was short of staff in winter, he managed to contribute there as well. “That’s how I got into distilling. I stayed on for two seasons, then applied for a job at the Freihof Distillery. Though I didn’t get a chance right away, it came with time and then I was really able to hone my craft there. My 15 years there were a very good time.” While with the company, he was able to take various courses and complete master distiller school. Today, he is one of just three active master distillers in Austria. “From milk to fruit juice, wine to liquor – things are becoming more concentrated. In the food industry, all professions have one thing in common: a love for tastes, smells, quality, enjoyment and working with your hands.”

Bartholomäus has spent countless hours distilling and acquiring plenty of knowledge and routine. Routine is also important for a cook like me, but I also love a good challenge. Pushing the envelope – that’s when things get exciting. Bartholomäus sums things up nicely: “Fruit schnapps are the biggest challenge. I have to work very precisely to tease out the aromas. With fruit schnapps, so much depends on the work done by the orchard, the variety and the time of harvest. Fully ripe is not always the best for the schnapps. With the Williams pear, for instance, I want to capture the crisp, fresh, partly edgy aromas. A fully ripe pear is too buttery and too soft in taste for that.” Accuracy is also the key to further processing: “The mash shouldn’t be left for too long, it has to be processed when it’s ready and not when I have time for it.As one of the great pioneers in fruit schnapps quality, Gebhard Hämmerle, the founder and senior director at Freihof, used to say: “Once you have selected the ideal fruit quality, you can only ensure that this quality is maintained. One thing that I always emphasise is that at every stage, make sure to stick as closely as possible to the taste of the fruit, because it doesn’t get any better than that.Distilling fruit is like seasoning in the kitchen. Your nose will help you to decide about the preparation stage and maintaining the fruity notes.”

Together, we sample the aroma of his Williams schnapps, which transports us beneath a pear tree. Honesty is important to both of us – our mission is to let our ingredients speak most intimately for themselves.

Author: Milena Broger
Issue: Winter 2021-22 Travel Magazine