Where to stay
Hotel zum Dom Palais Inzaghi Spacious rooms and suites in a rambling, historic building in central Graz. Doubles from £110, including breakfast. Bürgergasse 14, 00 43 316 824 800, domhotel.co.at
Hotel Wiesler Upmarket, shabby-chic style. Some rooms come with roll-top baths, some with river views. The breakfast hall boasts a stunning art nouveau mosaic mural of Venus, by a pupil of Klimt. Doubles from £75, breakfast £13 per person. Grieskai 4-8, 00 43 316 706 60, hotelwiesler.com
Palais Hotel Erzherzog Johann This 400-year-old former palace has spectacular, traditionally furnished rooms and a bar inspired by surrealist artist Ernst Fuchs. Try Austrian-American bartender Scott Forrester’s house cocktail, the Green Hornet. Rooms from £92, without breakfast. Sackstrasse 3-5, 00 42 316 811 616, erzherzog-johann.com
Wein.Genuss.Hotel Pössnitzberg Tranquil luxury in rural wine country. The sleek, comfortable new rooms have unusual touches, such as living vines planted by the beds. There’s a fantastic restaurant, a spa and an extensive wine cellar supplied by renowned local winemakers Erich and Walter Polz. Doubles from £135, including breakfast. A-8463 Leutschach, Pössnitz, 00 43 345 4205, poessnitzberg.at
Graz is one hour ahead of GMT. Currency is the euro. The Alps shield the city from Atlantic winds, so Graz has a warmer, almost Mediterranean, climate compared to much of Austria. It’s generally warm and sunny all year round: summer temperatures peak at around 25°C, and even winters are generally mild, though temperatures can drop to -5°C in January.
Graz Tourism (graztourismus.at) is the city’s official tourist website and includes information on food events, regional produce and farmers’ markets, alongside general travel tips.
Austrian Desserts: The Austrian Pastry Cookbook by Toni Mörwald and Christoph Wagner (Skyhorse, £22.99). Comprehensive cookbook from master pastry chef Toni Mörwald. It covers traditional desserts, such as linzertorte and apfelstrudel, and contemporary creations.
Where to eat
Aiola CIty This city-centre venue also runs a cookery school. Boasts a striking bar, made of mineral stone and lit from within, where you can hang out and enjoy cocktails. Lunch menu of soup and main course: £8. Three-course evening meal: from £35. Mehlplatz 1, 00 43 316 890 335, city.aiola.at
Aiola Upstairs Sister restaurant of the Aiola City, offering inspired, seasonal cooking on top of the Schlossberg. Three courses: from £30. Schlossberg 2, 8010 Graz, 00 43 316 818 797, upstairs.aiola.at
Café Sacher The Graz franchise of this Viennese institution – come here for coffee, fried chicken, schnitzel and cakes that are almost a work of art, including its signature sachertorte. Cakes from £3. Herrengasse 6, 00 43 316 80 050, sacher.com
Restaurant Carl Fine dining in opulent surroundings, with dishes that use local produce and molecular techniques. Three-course set lunch: £9 per person. Three courses a la carte: around £42. Opernring 5a, 00 43 316 824 848, carl-restaurant.at
Delikatessen Frankowitsch This popular spot specialises in open sandwiches and beautifully crafted cakes and pastries. Sandwiches from £1. Stempfergasse 2, 00 43 316 822 212, frankowitsch.at
Der Steirer This relaxed restaurant and bar serves Styrian dishes and snacks. Its well-stocked shop sells gifts, Austrian wines, oils and vinegars. Main courses between £8 and £17. Styrian tapas: £2 per plate. Belgiergasse 1, 00 43 316 703 654, der-steirer.com
Eckstein A restaurant set under vaults in the old town. The cooking is exciting and contemporary: think strawberry-poached char and puréed Grazer krauthaupl lettuce. Daily lunch platter: £6. Seven-course tasting menu: £75 per person. Mehlplatz 3, 00 43 316 828 701, eckstein.co.at
Landhaus-Keller Next to the Laundhaus Hof courtyard, the seat of Graz parliament. Hearty Styrian food, such as slow-cooked beef, beetroot and horseradish. Very popular for business lunches. Daily lunch specials from £9.90. Three courses a la carte: from around £35. Schmiedgasse 9, 00 43 316 830 276, landhaus-keller.at
Polz Buschenschank Attached to the Polz winery, here Wolfgang Kohlenberger creates delicious, inventive cold dishes using ingredients such as duck pâté and sheep’s cheese, served with wine, of course, or home-made herb cordials. Lunch from £8.50. Spielfeld, Grassnitzberg 54, 00 43 3453 2730, polz-buschenschank.at
Restaurant Schlossberg Take the funicular up to this smart restaurant, which has amazing views over Graz through floor-to-ceiling windows and excellent seasonal Styrian food and wine. Three courses from around £35. Am Schlossberg 7, 00 43 316 84 00 00, schlossberggraz.at
Schnabelweide Stop for a quick lunch or snack at this café while shopping at the farmers’ market. Everything is made with what’s available at the market that day. From £8. Kaiser-Josef-Platz, 00 43 316 845 961, schnabelweide.at Senf und Söhne Butcher Alois Dopuna serves a selection of unctuous slowcooked meats and sausage. Vegetarians need not apply. Portion of meat with bread from £3. Griesgasse 7, 00 43 316 706 670, senfundsoehne.com
Stainzerbauer A Graz institution, with a beautiful inner courtyard, classic Styrian cooking and a cellar stocking fine and rare wines from all over Austria. Set menus from £6. Three courses a la carte from around £35. Burgergasse 4, 00 43 0 316 821 106, stainzerbauer.at
Starcke Haus Small restaurant at the top of the Schlossberg with a superb view over Graz. Three-course meal: £40. Schlossberg 4, 00 43 316 834 300, starcke.at
- Wild garlic, or ransomes.
- Grazer krauthäuptel
- Distinctive, sweet local lettuce. Its large leaves are tinged pink and loaded with vitamins. In season between March and November.
- Lightly alcoholic, pink sparkling fermented grape juice.
- Literally ‘bug beans’; large, dried scarlet runner beans.
- Styrian horseradish root with protected geographic status.
- Known locally as ‘green gold’, pumpkin seed oil is pressed from Styrian pumpkins in the autumn; 2.5kg of seed makes a litre. It’s used in just about every culinary process in the region.
- Rich, moist cake made with red wine.
- Invented in 1832, this decadent chocolate sponge is coated with apricot jam and chocolate icing; has its own public holiday on December 5th.
Food and Travel Review
Alois Dopuna, the smiley, mustachioed manager of Senf und Söhne (‘Mustard and Sons’) stands behind the counter of his café-restaurant, sleeves rolled up over his chunky butcher’s forearms, stirring a tank of fragrant broth. Everyone calls him Luis, he tells me, and his motto is ‘meat, meat and more meat’. First thing every morning he chooses his cuts, steeps his liquor with herbs, onion and peppercorns, and begins the slow-cooking process. At lunchtime, he opens his doors to the hungry office workers of Graz.
He spoons a little of everything onto a plate for me to try: pork belly, beef brisket, ox tongue and unctuously fatty sausage. It’s served with Luis’ own home-made sauerkraut, pickles and mustard, all splendidly hot and sharp, and washed down with Gösser lager, a crisp local brew. It’s a delicious (if unashamedly macho), full-fat, melt-in-the-mouth experience, the sort of nourishment that could put hairs on your chin. So much so that there’s actually a Turkish barber set up in the adjoining shop who will give gentlemen customers a traditional wet shave during their lunch break.
Helping me understand the Austrian dialect – and exactly which cuts of beef and pork I’ve just been sampling – is Muamer ‘Mo’ Cinac. He’s the manager of the luxuriously shabby-chic Wiesler Hotel, in turn part of a larger hospitality empire that includes both Luis’ Senf und Söhne and a restaurant and coffeehouse, Der Steirer (The Styrian). Mo is keen to tell me anecdotes about the man who is, without doubt, Graz’s most famous export: Arnold Schwarzenegger. The bodybuilder-turned-actor-and-politician grew up here, and often returns to the city, says Mo. ‘He and his son came to our café at Der Steirer, and they ordered and ate four portions of apple strudel each.’
There’s much more to Graz than sausages, strudel and Schwarzeneggers, however. Austria’s second-largest city, 200km south-west of Vienna and capital of the Styrian region, is a refined and beautiful place, and a standout destination for food lovers. Since 2008, it has had the official title of Genuss Haupstadt: Austria’s ‘capital of culinary delight’.
Divided east and west by the river Mur, and guarded by its Schlossberg, a 460 metre-high mini-mountain topped with a 16th-century clock tower, Graz is compact enough to be manageable on foot. In some ways it’s reassuringly traditional: wellmanicured, well-heeled, with pretty, cobbled lanes, efficient trams, a Franciscan monastery, and baroque buildings that point to the city’s past as an important seat of the vast Habsburg Empire. It’s the kind of place that still has an old-fashioned hardware shop where the proprietor will change light bulbs for his dowager widow customers. But it’s also a university town, and that rescues it from becoming too staid. The centre is crammed with nightclubs, cocktail lounges, bars and cafés and, on the west bank of the Mur, the Kunsthaus (art gallery) – a futuristic, blue glass blob, proving this city isn’t stuck in the past.
Weekends bring out both sides of Graz: retired couples – the women wearing traditional dirndl – stroll though the market square, while the young gather under the awnings outside cafés such as the Delikatessen Frankowitsch for afternoons of open sandwiches, delicately crafted cakes and long glasses of Aperol spritzer – a sparkling, bright orange cocktail of soda and bitters that looks uncannily like Irn Bru.
The culinary lifeblood of Graz has always been the farmers’ market, however, held in the square behind the opera house six mornings a week. I strike out to explore it with the immaculately dressed Waltraud Hotter, who manages Graz’s ‘capital of culinary delight’ project. One of her duties, she tells me very earnestly, is to eat her way around the city’s best restaurants for quality-control purposes.
This morning, the market stalls are laid out with bouquets of lilac and branches of apple blossom. Bundles of stinging nettles, flowering spring herbs and aromatic wild garlic leaves are for sale beside the hessian sacks full of dried, red-brown käferbohne (red runner beans), black and red beetroot, kren (Styrian horseradish) and numerous varieties of apples. It’s just €10 a day to rent a pitch, Waltraud says, so small-scale stallholders can come here with cottage-industry jams, home-made cakes, pine syrup and fruit schnapps distilled in the back of farmhouse kitchens. Two resident butchers sell meats, such as rare-breed Weiz mountain lamb, and cured and smoked ham. ‘Everyone in Graz shops here,’ says Waltraud. ‘No-one goes to the Spar for their food. Only in an emergency.’
At one corner of the market is Schnabelweide café, run by Gisela and Andreas Zöpnek. The menu depends on what’s available in the market that morning – today it’s backhendl (Styrian fried chicken), coated with a crispy, mahogany crumb, and scrambled egg and smoked salmon on rye. It’s served with heckenfrizzante, a sparkling, lightly fermented grape juice topped with mint and a slice of lemon. Gisela, petite and looking about 28, is assisted by a tall young man who, incredibly, turns out to be one of her teenage sons. ‘My eldest was born on 13 April 1990,’ she says. ‘We opened our café the next day, and it’s been going ever since.’
The seasonality of the market is also reflected in Graz’s restaurants, in brilliantly creative ways. Take wild garlic, for example, which reaches the peak of its brief season in April. At Aiola Upstairs, on the Schlossberg, Thomas Galler makes wild garlic ravioli, while at the Starcke Haus nearby, Milivoj Novak serves the leaves with poached salmon-trout. At Restaurant Carl, by the opera house, Philipp Haiges creates molecular wild garlic pearls. Meanwhile at Restaurant Eckstein, near the market square, Robert Ferstl does amazing things with Grazer krauthäuptel lettuce: blending it into chilled soup and topping this with tempura made from Styrian prosciutto-style Vulcano ham.
On the way back from the market we stroll through Graz’s central square. This main thoroughfare is the setting for the city’s most ambitious project: the Long Table, an al fresco banquet for 600 that takes place in August each year. ‘Tickets for this year sold out in January,’ Waltraud says with pride. ‘But I do worry about the weather – in Graz, you never know.’
At Graz’s own branch of Viennese institution Café Sacher, I sample desserts that are short-listed for this year’s Long Table menu. It’s a toss-up between the sweet cheese soufflé with strawberries and the chocolate-nougat torte with pumpkin-seed ice cream. Everything here is made in-house under the eye of head chef René Leitgeb – apart from the hallowed dark-chocolate sachertorte, which is sent down from Vienna and made to a secret recipe that not even René is party to.
Not to be outdone, the grand Palais Hotel Erzherzog Johann’s kitchen is giving Viennese sachertorte a run for its money with a Styrian version. The name, ‘Erzherzog-Johann-torte’, is a mouthful in itself. It’s a snow-white disc, like a sort of anti-sachertorte, but there’s no hope of one cancelling out the calorific effect of the other. Under a layer of silky, white-chocolate ganache and marzipan lies gorgeously dense, rich chocolate cake, studded with green pumpkin seeds. I can’t help shovelling in another forkful.
Pumpkin seeds, however, aren’t just used to garnish desserts: they’re integral to Styrian cuisine. Stainzbauer, a restaurant off a hidden inner courtyard, serves the region’s traditional classics, including marinated käferbohne dressed in the ubiquitous kürbiskernöl pumpkin-seed oil. The oil has a sweetly earthy, nutty flavour and almost magical colour properties: a teaspoonful appears red-brown, but streak a thin layer across a white plate and it’s a startling light green. Cold-pressed in the autumn from Styrian pumpkin seeds, kürbiskernöl finds its way into almost everything, from salad dressings to ice cream toppings. Locals will tell you how to get the inevitable green stains out of your clothes (leave the garment out in the sun before washing). Is it any wonder that the Styrian flag is green and white?
Next morning, curious to discover the provenance of these distinctive ingredients, I set out into the hilly countryside east of the city; a land shaped by long-spent volcanos. A short drive past the hulking, medieval Riegersburg Castle brings me to the producer of the distinctive Vulcano ham featured in so many dishes.
Bettina Habel, with her long blonde hair and photogenic features, doesn’t look like a pig farmer but, as she explains, that’s exactly what she and her family were 13 years ago. Demand and prices were so low, however, that they made the brave decision to try something different, and created their own prosciutto-style cured hams and salamis. ‘We went to Italy and Spain to learn curing techniques,’ she explains, ‘and then began to experiment – it took us four years before we finally found our own method and got it right. We made a few mistakes along the way – too much or too little salt, or the wrong humidity for the curing and air-drying process.’ What’s different about the Vulcano method is that the hams are salted and herbed for a relatively short time, meaning much of the flavour is dependent on the creamy, delicately aromatic fat.
Bettina recalls: ‘At first no-one believed we could make something like this – we were only Styrian pig farmers. What did we know?’ It was neighbouring Germany that gave the products – which include salamis and truffled sausage, as well as the flagship Vulcano cure – their first vote of confidence, when Berlin’s colossal KaDeWe department store began to stock them.
Bettina’s pigs are a cross of three breeds selected for their fat content and big hams. She calls to Brandy, a pink-and-white, 340- kilo bruiser, who trots over obediently, raises his mighty snout and poses for a photograph. Four years old, he’s so far escaped the fate of his stablemates who are slaughtered after a year (which is still six months later than most porkers). Bettina tosses whole eggs into Brandy’s open jaws. ‘He’s more a pet than anything, almost like part of the family,’ she sighs. So you’re not going to turn him into ham? ‘Oh yes. Probably.’ Brandy blinks his small eyes. ‘We’ll see.’
The Habels’ farm forms part of a food and wine trail through south-east Styria – visitors can eat their way around the countryside before staying in the tranquil luxury of a place such as the Hotel Pössnitzberg, complete with its excellent restaurant and cellar, stocked by local winery Polz.
This southernmost part of Styria, near the Slovenian border, is sometimes compared to Tuscany, with its gentle hills striped with acres of vineyards. Wine is a major industry here – the cool, changeable climate particularly suits white-wine grapes, many of which have local names: weissburgunder (pinot blanc), morrillon (chardonnay) and grauburgunder (pinot gris). Many wineries are attracting visitors by reopening traditional buschenschank hostelries that serve food grown on their own land. An 18th-century Styrian law decrees that they can only serve cold food – not even hot coffee is permitted – so they have to be inventive.
We bend this rule, however, at Weingut Skoff Original. Delicious scents are wafting from the kitchen – beef consommé, fried chicken, käferbohne. The buschenschank is officially closed today, but I’ve been invited to join the family’s lunch by Joachim Skoff, the fifth generation of the Skoff viticulture dynasty. Aged 32, he’s one of the youngest winemakers in this part of Styria. Before we eat, however, he takes me to see some of his family’s single-estate vineyards, which produce grapes for the premium Skoff Original brand. We wind along country roads in his Land Rover, directly parallel to the border with Slovenia. Joachim points out places where the border is actually indicated by a line on the road. ‘If I drive down the middle here, I’m in Austria, and you are in Slovenia,’ he laughs.
We arrive at steeply terraced vineyards; one slope facing south, the other south-east. ‘Both produce sauvignon blanc grapes,’ he explains, ‘but you can taste the difference in terroir in the resulting wines: those that get only the morning sun are cool, grassy and minerally; the full-south-facing vines produce wine with a hint of tropical, ripe-banana flavour.’
Joachim is typical of the younger generation of Styrians: highly educated, multi-lingual, well travelled, and with a nose for business as well as wine. He roamed the world, and met his Taiwanese fiancée, Tammi Yang, in New Zealand. They returned to Styria and Tammi now runs the sales and marketing side of the Skoff export business. Austria may have a reputation for being conservative, but Joachim says his family welcomed Tammi with open arms. As we stand under a blue sky scribbled with chalky clouds, looking over vine-striped hills towards tiny farmhouses and distant forest, the spring sun warming our backs, it’s easy to understand why he came home.
Schloss Eggenberg Ten minutes’ drive west of Graz city centre is this glorious 17th-century baroque palace, with extensive landscaped gardens. The centrepiece of the palace is the ‘planetary room’, decorated with frescoes of the resident family (minor Austrian royalty) depicted as signs of the zodiac. Entry to palace and grounds, £7. Eggenberger Allee 90, 00 43 316 8017 9532, museum-joanneum.at
Vulcano Schinkenmanufactur New tasting room and shop in the Styrian countryside where you can see how the Habels’ farm makes its distinctive Vulcano hams and salamis. 8330 Auersbach, Eggreith, 00 43 311 421 51, vulcano.at
Zötter Josef Zötter is Austria’s Willy Wonka. At this chocolate factory, next to the hulking Riegersburg Castle, you can learn how the beautifully packaged chocolate is put together, as well as sampling some of the seriously off-the-wall flavours, including blood, red-wine jelly and blue flowers; pork crackling and walnut; and pink coconut and fish marshmallow. Bergl 56, 8333 Riegersburg, 00 43 3152 5554, zotter.at
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