Happy graze in Graz
From organic chocolate to thermal hotels, Austria’s green heart is all about serious sustainability
‘‘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.