South of Vienna, nestled between Hungary and Slovenia, with just a short drive to Croatia or Italy, is the Austrian state of Styria.
It’s the green heart of the country. While Austria is often associated with the white snowy alps, Styria sits within their foothills and, by the time you reach the capital city of Graz, down in the lush lowlands.
The land is fertile here, perfect for farming. The waters running down from the mountains provide the backbone for the agriculture industry, leading Styria to be known as the ‘food bowl of Austria’.
And so it’s no surprise that a visit to Graz opens up a buffet of wonderful food experiences, reaping the rewards of the fresh produce being grown nearby.
For visitors who want to travel a bit deeper, a journey out into the Graz region takes your directly to these food producers, to taste right from the farm and meet the people behind it all. And along the way, there are plenty of other treats to discover.
I’ve written before about the fantastic food scene in Graz and the variety of dishes you’ll find here in Austria’s ‘culinary capital’.
At the simplest level, there are the würstelstands that you’ll see in some of the public squares. Literally meaning ‘sausage stands’, you can normally get a sausage and some bread for about €3.
There are the al fresco cafes that spill out onto the streets, embracing the Mediterranean vibe you find in Graz, serving local specialties like cured ham and scarlet runner beans.
And I would always recommend the Aiola Upstairs restaurant, which has excellent food but also boasts an incredible view from its location in the Schlossberg as the main attraction.
On my latest trip to Graz, though, I discover some of the new additions to the city – and the increasing trend here of plant-based meals.
The most interesting of these new restaurants is Gerüchteküche, where chef Michael Wankerl creates degustation menus each day, inspired by what he can find or is in the mood for.
Over six courses, I try things like ‘caviar’ made from seaweed; a dish topped with asparagus ash that tastes like coffee; and an intriguing combination of rhubarb, fennel, and cabbage. Each course is not just tasty, it’s a dive into innovative cooking techniques that present vegetables in ways you would never have imagined.
“The idea is you use one product, and try to use the product in different functions, and different tastings, and different textures,” Michael tells me.
He’s not trying to only attract vegetarians, and he’s not trying to replicate meat to attract non-vegetarians. It’s about creating an interesting dining experience for everyone by showcasing what can be done with only plant-based ingredients. (The six-course dinner costs €79, while a main course at lunch is about €10).
It’s a similar approach at Hummel, a new restaurant that’s opened in the trendy neighbourhood of Lend, and one of the most popular spots for a bite at the moment.
There’s an emphasis on plant-based dishes here too, but not exclusively. You can get a few meat dishes for that protein hit. But the young restaurateurs do focus on fresh regional and seasonal ingredients, with a mind to sustainability.
Prices are reasonable (€38 for a large mezze selection to share between two people). All the dishes are meant to be shared, so you’ll be able to taste a few things.
In the centre of Graz, you get a sense of the abundance that exists in the farms of this part of Styria. Daily farmers markets in some of the public squares bring in the fresh produce, bridging the city with the countryside.
If you’re staying in Graz, you’ll be able to find the two main markets at Kaiser-Josef-Platz and Lendplatz. They’re great spots to visit – not just to browse the stalls, but because there are quite a few cool cafes and bars on the fringes for a drink or a meal.
But I head a little further out, just beyond the outskirts of Graz, about 20 minutes’ drive from the city centre. And it’s here that I find Gundi’s Shop, run by Aussie Jason Nunn and his Austrian wife Michele.
The shopfront is a place for them to sell the produce that they grow organically in their own small farm. During the week, they’re in the fields, and on Friday and Saturday they’re in the shop with the vegetables, fruit, and herbs that have just been harvested – plus other local products.
It’s not a large farm (after all, the work is only being done by one or two people), but there’s a lot of variety – which also helps keep it organic.
“Everything is really divided up and we very rarely have any insect problems,” Jason explains.
“So we’ve got salads here, we’ve got carrots there, we’ve got zucchini over there. If the hail comes, maybe we have a little less of something for a couple of weeks, but we haven’t put all our eggs in the one basket.”
Gundi’s Shop is very close to the start of the hike up the Schöckl, Graz’s local mountain and a glorious place to spend the day (or even half the day, if you’re short of time). You could even pop in and get some supplies for a picnic.
Speaking of the Schöckl, I’ll have a bit more to say about visiting it in a future story, but it’s a fantastic way to get out of Graz and see some of the beautiful landscapes in the Graz region.
There’s a cable car that goes to the top of the mountain so you don’t have to hike both ways (or either way). You’ll get beautiful views from the summit, and there are even a couple of places to eat, with hearty Styrian meals and refreshing beers. Ahhhh!
At the farm
Of course, the Schöckl isn’t the only way to enjoy the scenery around the city, so I travel even deeper into the Graz region on my quest for food – straight to the source, in fact.
Dairy Farm Tax
At the Dairy Farm Tax, Rupert Tax shows me around his small setup amongst the lush green slopes where sheep are grazing.
He started a personal dairy here in 1997 before it gradually expanded and he had to bring in milk from surrounding farms. But now that he’s heading towards retirement, he mainly uses the sheep milk from his own herd and processes a maximum of 6000 litres a day.
The product Rupert now focuses on most is cheese, and he makes a wide range of types. He lays out a plate of seven different ones for me to taste, and I start with the mildest (a feta from sheep’s milk) and make my way around, particularly enjoying the raclette-style cow cheese and the manchego-style sheep cheese.
“A lot of manual work goes into handmade cheese”, Rupert tells me. And a lot of passion, it seems.
“Philosophers say don’t work with cheese when you’re angry, otherwise it’s reflected in the taste.”
The local producers around Graz are blessed with fertile lands and a favourable climate, but farming still requires hard work and patience.
Siegmund and Gisela Rosenzopf started beekeeping as a hobby but, even though they also have full time jobs, their honey farm has become a huge focus.
They have 140 bee hives here at Imkerei Rosenzopf and produce three main types of honey, based on where the insects are collecting the nectar from. There’s forest honey, flower honey, and chestnut honey (which is a speciality of this region).
As I’m offered tastes of each of them, it’s easy to tell the difference. I had never before realised there was such a range in the taste of honey – gosh, I’m a silly bee! But I guess it’s easier to appreciate this when it’s fresh and organic, made just metres away.
It’s fascinating to learn more about beekeeping, while Siegmund and Gisela also show me how they make candles from the wax, while I take sips from a glass of mead (honey wine).
Exploring the Graz region
Am I visiting these local producers as an excuse to see the Graz region, or is it the other way around?
It probably doesn’t matter. What is important, what is nice to realise, is how wonderful it is to do this drive in the countryside and take in the vistas of this part of Austria.
There are also plenty of interesting things to see in the Graz region, making it easy to stitch together the sights with the local farms to make a full day out.
Piber Stud Farm
One of the obvious attractions is the Piber Stud Farm, where the famous white Lipizzaner horses are bred for the Spanish Riding School in Vienna.
These magnificent animals have centuries of history to their names, and all of the original stallion and mare lines are represented in the animals at the Piber Stud Farm. Their story is captivating and you can learn more about it at the museum on site.
Because this is an active stud farm, there’s lots to see. You can watch the mares look after their young foals (which, interestingly, are born with dark hair that only gradually turn white), there’s a training session in the central ring each day, and you can even pay an extra charge to take a carriage ride around the countryside with a couple of the Lipizzaner horses.
Church of St Barbara, Bärnbach
And then, in the small town of Bärnbach, there’s the striking Church of St Barbara, also known as the Hundertwasserkirche, and an icon of the region.
It seems a little out of place in this small town, a colourful church covered in odd shaped sculptures and designs. In fact, it seems a bit of place in relatively-conservative Austria generally. But that was the point.
The Church of St Barbara was designed in 1988 by controversial artist and architect, Friedensreich Hundertwasser, who tried to avoid straight lines as much as possible. He created a building full of symbols, each open to interpretation – just as the religion it houses is also.
The steeple was turned into a clock town, some of the external columns are covered in random coloured mosaics, and the roof tiles have large splotches painted on them. But of particular interest are the twelve gates in the garden outside that represent different religions of the world.
Don’t forget the wine!
The local produce of the Graz region is not just eaten, but also drunk. Climbing up its green hills are dozens of family-owned vineyards, the grapes growing plump amongst the leaves.
While there are several grape varietals that are popular around here, in this region one of the most significant is called Schilcher, because Western Styria is the only place in the world it is grown.
The Schilcher grapes produce a rosé wine that commonly has a light strawberry smell or taste, and it can be made as a sparkling or still wine.
To my mind, the best place to enjoy a glass (or a bottle) of Schilcher is at a buschenschank, a concept which I’ve mentioned before as a great way to experience local life in Graz.
In short, buschenschanks are small wineries that are allowed to sell their own wine and cold local food, but no other prepackaged drinks (like cola) or hot food.
This afternoon, I end my exploration of the Graz region at Kremser-Greitbauer, a wonderful buschenschank where people are gathered outside under the shade of the trees. Owner Bernhard Kremser pours me a glass and a platter of cold meats and cheeses appears on the wooden table.
When I ask him why people should visit, Bernhard’s got a simple answer.
“For the view, and for the good food, and for the good wine. It’s all special!”
And that’s exactly it. The green hills, the taste of the fresh food, the discovery of a new (to me) type of wine. This why we travel deeper, spend longer in destinations, and explore beyond the obvious sights in the city centre.
THE BEST ACCOMMODATION IN GRAZ
Staying in the city of Graz is a fantastic base to explore the region of Graz, with plenty of options for day trips.
Clean, comfortable, and right next to the main train station, a&o Graz Hauptbahnhof is a great hostel option.
Although the rooms are small, Minihotel Graz is right in the centre of town and is great value.
Filled with art and an interesting design, Augarten Art Hotel offers very cool accommodation.
And for luxury, Schlossberghotel has an incredible blend of modern and historic in a building full of art.