Happy graze in Graz

From or­ganic choco­late to ther­mal ho­tels, Aus­tria’s green heart is all about se­ri­ous sus­tain­abil­ity

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Destination Europe - HE­LEN AN­DER­SON

‘‘WEL­COME to Graz,’’ says Si­grid Al­ber brightly. ‘‘I hope you’re hun­gry.’’ In the of­fi­cial culi­nary cap­i­tal of Aus­tria, most con­ver­sa­tions, like ours, are about food, con­ducted by peo­ple strolling be­tween meals, di­gest­ing the last, think­ing about the next.

In the heart of the south­east prov­ince of Styria, sur­rounded by the best farm­ing land in the coun­try, this city of 300,000 has de­vel­oped what I come to think of the ‘‘Graz graze’’, a daily reg­i­men of hunt­ing, gath­er­ing and eat­ing fu­elled by 14 farm­ers mar­kets, scores of bou­tique food spe­cial­ists, for­mer im­pe­rial bak­eries, choco­latiers, small­go­ods pur­vey­ors, tra­di­tional wine cel­lars and dozens of cof­fee houses, restau­rants and inns.

Twenty-five years work­ing as a guide hasn’t dimmed Al­ber’s ap­petite for the city or its food (and nor has it added any­thing to her slim frame), and her culi­nary tours are a fine blend of food, his­tory, ar­chi­tec­ture and the zeit­geist. Graz is per­fect for strolling. ‘‘It’s small enough to meet lots of peo­ple you know, big enough not to meet ev­ery­one you know,’’ Al­ber says. And it is rich in beauty spots, named a UNESCOCity of De­sign in recog­ni­tion of its strong arts cul­ture and bold ar­chi­tec­tural state­ments (chief among them the lu­mi­nous blue ‘‘friendly alien’’ Kuntshaus Graz art mu­seum), and ac­corded a UNESCO World Her­itage list­ing for the ‘‘bril­liant syn­the­ses’’ of ar­chi­tec­tural styles in the old city and the pres­ence of a clifftop cas­tle fortress, Schloss Eggen­berg.

The city reached its ar­chi­tec­tural zenith in the Re­nais­sance and served as the seat of the Haps­burg court un­til 1618 when Em­peror Fer­di­nand II shifted to Vi­enna. Though there’s Ger­manic, Mediter­ranean and Balkan styles through­out the city, its bones are ex­trav­a­gantly Re­nais­sance and beau­ti­fully pre­served.

A stroll through the farm­ers mar­ket on Kaiser-Jose­fPlatz is a hearty en­tree to the culi­nary cap­i­tal, in a state re­ferred to as the ‘‘green heart’’ of Aus­tria. I can’t see any­thing la­belled or­ganic but that’s the im­plicit un­der­stand­ing; Aus­tria has among the high­est pro­duc­tion and con­sump­tion of or­ganic food in the EU. Tres­tle ta­bles are piled high with pro­duce that de­fines the re­gion: kur­bis- ker­nol, Styr­ian pump­kin-seed oil pressed from a va­ri­ety with hull-less seeds, is ubiq­ui­tous and so highly prized it has a pro­tected des­ig­na­tion of ori­gin. There are eggs laid by Styr­ian chick­ens; trays of a re­gional let­tuce called Grazer Krauthaup­tel; and piles of pale horse­rad­ish roots des­tined to be grated raw and served at wurs­tel (hot dog) stands and on bret­tl­jause (cold-cut plates) along­side the re­gion’s Vul­cano ham, curd cheese and scar­let run­ner beans. It’s pro­duce such as this that’s served at the an­nual Long Ta­ble of Graz com­mu­nal din­ing event.

So par­tic­u­lar are peo­ple about prove­nance and sus­tain­abil­ity here that 27 restau­rants are la­belled as Genuss Re­gion Oster­re­ich, which means they serve only re­gional and sea­sonal pro­duce with a min­i­mum use of trans­port. It’s to th­ese places that Al­ber takes hun­gry trav­ellers. An af­ter­noon on her culi­nary tour might start with a glass of schilcher, a dis­tinc­tive sparkling rose from the in­dige­nous Blauer Wild­bacher grape, and Styr­ian ‘‘ta­pas’’ at Die Steirer, a cheer­ful restau­rant and del­i­catessen. Per­haps she’ll drop into a wine cel­lar for a sip of mo­ril­lon (re­gional chardon­nay) and a dis­cus­sion with a pump­kin-seed oil som­me­lier.

Our next stop is a plate of trout and new-sea­son white as­para­gus risotto at Gasthaus Stainzer­bauer, a restau­rant in one of 50 Re­nais­sance-era court­yards in the city.

More strolling, then a schluck­erl (lit­er­ally a sip, or a small glass) of hoppy Puntigamer pils brewed in Graz served with a warm ham crois­sant at the 16th-cen­tury Land­haus Keller inn. From here we tread a blue car­pet spread along the cob­ble­stones of Stempfe­gasse, a lovely lane lined with bou­tiques, to Frankow­itsch, a splen­did del­i­catessen-cafe where we join out­door ta­bles of Graz burghers en­joy­ing glasses of wine and the city’s finest open sand­wiches.

From here we head to Kast­ner & Oh­ler depart­ment store, a 130-year-old Graz in­sti­tu­tion, past its cham­pagne bar, up six floors of re­cently ren­o­vated em­po­ria to Freib­lick, a cafe-lounge-rooftop ter­race for cof­fee and strudel with mag­nif­i­cent views over the red beaver­tail tiles of the old town and up to the Schloss­berg hill­side.

This is pos­si­bly the finest place in Graz for fruh­stuck (break­fast). Dur­ing the af­ter­noon we’ve passed the carved oak and wal­nut fa­cade of a for­mer im­pe­rial bak­ery, Hof­back­erei Edeg­ger-Tax, its win­dows bear­ing boxes of Sis­si­busserl, lit­tle choco­late-coated mac­a­roons filled with apri­cot jam favoured by Em­press Elis­a­beth, aka Sisi, and pan­ther­tatzen, or ‘‘pan­ther paws’’, crisp pump­kin-seed and al­mond bis­cuits favoured by Arch­duke Jo­hann.

And we’ve win­dow-shopped at Linzbich­ler, a pint­sized choco­late shop in the old town spe­cial­is­ing in the Schloss­berg Ball, schilcher truf­fles and choco­lates flavoured with plum, ap­ple and pump­kin-seed oil.

Less than an hour’s drive away is the source of one of Linzbich­ler’s lines: the Willy Wonka world of the Zot­ter Choco­late Fac­tory. The road is flanked by vine­yards, pad­docks green with crops and farm-gate signs for ap­ple vine­gars and juice, eggs, fresh veg­eta­bles and buschen­schank. Josef Zot­ter grew up on a farm here, near the cas­tle town of Riegers­burg; he be­came a pas­try chef and at 26 es­tab­lished a shop in Graz and be­gan ex­per­i­ment­ing with high-qual­ity ‘‘hand-scooped’’ choco­late in novel flavours. Twenty-five years later, Zot­ter is the only choco­late maker in Europe, and one of few in the world, us­ing ex­clu­sively or­ganic and fair-trade in­gre­di­ents and with a bean- to- bar pro­duc­tion line that’s trans­par­ent to cus­tomers. It’s also a rol­lick­ing day’s en­ter­tain­ment full of sur­prise and en­dor­phins.

Built on his fam­ily’s farm, Zot­ter’s fac­tory is walled in glass and ev­ery step is vis­i­ble — from the sacks of beans from Panama and Peru de­liv­ered to­day by truck, to roast­ing and grind­ing, conch­ing and wrap­ping. We watch the pro­duc­tion line while walk­ing along a gantry, through an ob­sta­cle course of ir­re­sistible taste tests, ‘‘guess the aroma’’ games, choco­late foun­tains, a DIY drink­ing choco­late lab­o­ra­tory and fun ex­pla­na­tions about the alchemy of choco­late mak­ing.

With 365 lines, Zot­ter is con­tin­u­ally dream­ing up new flavours and re­tir­ing old ones: in­trigu­ing (and some­times crazy) com­bi­na­tions such as pineap­ple and cele­riac; red and white wine; hemp and mocha; Ara­bian date and mint; ba­con bits; goji berry and se­same nougat.

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