Maybe I have just discovered Europe’s best foodie city, a city I have never heard of. Graz is the capital of the province of Styria and is Austria’s second largest city, 200 kilometres from Vienna and situated on the Mur River. It was awarded the official title of GenussHauptstadt, or Capital of Culinary Delight, in 2008. It’s surrounded by vineyards in the south, with local farmers supplying markets and restaurants with the freshest produce.
The city’s beautiful streets link to two main squares, Hauptplatz and Jakominiplatz, which are jam-packed with restaurants, cafés, bakeries, bars and coffee shops. This university city has seen an explosion of affordable eating options, mixed with jazz bars and great shopping. Influenced by the Mediterranean climate which provides endless sunshine hours, Graz sits south-east of the Alps and is shielded by the westerly winds from the Atlantic into Central Europe. This microcosm is warmer than other parts of Austria, with ideal growing conditions, and is where Styrians have built a reputation with their light, dry wines, having more grape varieties than any other wine-growing area on the continent. Although small, this region’s special characteristics – shaped by location, climate, range of soils and position – emphasise the diversity within each grape variety. Yield is limited, which creates a good-quality wine within this small area.
I head to s’Auenbrugger, where wine academic Anna Schachner has opened a restaurant focusing on wine, art and design. In prime location on the Südtiroler Platz square, a downstairs cellar makes the experience even more interesting. Housed in one of the oldest buildings in Graz, the original inn dates back to 1568. Now renovated, the modern central bar is where Schachner shares her local wine knowledge. “Although Styria is Europe’s smallest wine growing region, it is the most diverse,” she says. It is amazing to taste such different wines from the same little area. “We love our wine here and, matched with fresh seasonal food, it is the perfect combination.”
The Steirische Junker is a trademark for the first young white wine of the season, produced by 300 Styrian winemakers. The main grape variety, welschriesling, sits comfortably alongside pinot blanc, chardonnay, pinot gris and pinot noir grapes. The unique speciality of Styria is schilcher, a crisp rosé wine that is delicious with lunch, as I discover as I sit in one of the laneways sampling great food and wine.
I visit the farmers market at Lendplatz, where growers from different parts of Styria bring their homemade produce to town at 6am. Open until 1pm, the markets are not run by large companies, but supplied by small family-run businesses. Lendplatz is also a wonderful meeting place for locals and has a great range of cafés and small restaurants, a lovely spot to spend some time over coffee or a local wine. The oldest and largest farmers market, Kaiser-Josef-Platz, is also worth visiting.
I come across Styria’s “green gold” at the Lendplatz farmers markets. The pumpkin seed oil is dark in colour, untreated and healthy; I buy a few bottles for salads, and to be drizzled on soups and dipped in bread at home. Franz Höfer’s family has their own branded pumpkin seed oil (see next page). “I was the mayor for many years of Hitzendorf, but having stood down I now focus on making pumpkin seed oil,” he says. “It’s a family business, so it’s great working alongside my children.”
The pressing of pumpkin seed oil is carried out by hand using traditional Styrian stamp pressing. The seeds are first ground with water and the mixture is then gently roasted. The warm pumpkin seed mass is then squeezed carefully using a traditional stamp press without any heating. This releases the thick dark green oil, which is then stored for seven days. During this time, all the suspended solids and fibre residue sink to the bottom as part of a natural process. The oil is bottled without any additives or preservatives.
Although the quality and taste have remained the same, the production of Styrian pumpkin seed oil has changed considerably over the years. Every bottle of oil is pressed from about 35,000 seeds and carries a label with its own control number that documents the path of the pumpkin seed from the field to the press, ensuring the origin of the seeds. The oil smells quite nutty, has an intense flavour, is high in vitamin E, rich in essential fatty acids and is cholesterol-free.
The other well-known local produce is horseradish, with more than 100 farms in Styria producing about 3000-4000 tonnes annually. Available in jars as a condiment, you will find it always accompanies the traditional brettljause (a bit like a ploughman’s lunch) consisting of hams, pâte, cheese and sausages on wooden boards or, during Easter, hardboiled eggs, ham and sweet white bread. Containing twice as much vitamin C as citrus fruit, horseradish is also used as a cold remedy.
The käferbohnen, or scarlet runner bean (with its bright pink seeds), is also a Styrian speciality and, once harvested, the beans are carefully stored so they can be sold all year round. Grown in perfect soil and climate conditions, they are an excellent source of protein, carbohydrate and fibre, while being extremely low in fat.
As I wander around the city, it is the bakeries using only local and organic ingredients from Styrian farmers that stand out or, in this case, I’m drawn towards them because of the gorgeous smell of freshly baked bread. The city is well known for its bread-making tradition and the Capital of Delight Roll (organic, vegan and handmade using ingredients from the region) is definitely worth trying and readily available. Tasty dipped in pumpkin seed oil or with a lick of scarlet bean dip and with fresh ham, the Styrians know how to enjoy good food – it’s a secret no more.