In October, Maroni Ständl spring up in the streets if Graz. All at once, these roasted chestnut stands appear in every plaza and on every corner, advertising "Heisse Maroni", or hot roasted chestnuts. Until coming to Austria the first time, roasted chestnuts were--to me--just a thing of song. However, "chestnuts roasting on an open fire and Jack Frost nipping at my nose" instantly exits the realm of the theoretical and becomes a full sensory experience when in Austria in the fall.
Chestnuts come into season in October and remain throughout the winter months. Stands are erected throughout the city, and hot roasted chestnuts are sold by the 1/4 liter in newspaper cones. These stands (typically a "Styrian" green, like in the photo above) have a large, covered metal roaster, where chestnuts are continually roasted throughout the day. Once roasted, the steaming hot chestnuts are scooped up and poured into an opening in the stand, where they are then covered with a thick insulating blanket. When you order Maroni, the blanket is pulled back, your chestnuts are scooped out into a measuring cup, and they are then served in a newspaper cone. (See photo above. Note: that is NOT my hand!)
The smell of Maroni fills the streets. It is a sweet, nutty smell that is reminiscent of everything fall, and it brings a sort of nostalgia similar to the smell of burning leaves. Ideally, I would upload some sort of scratch-and-sniff application to my blog so that you could experience it for yourself, but alas, I'm still working out the kinks. When eaten warm (and still steamy!), maroni have a soft, pleasant texture and a neutral taste that borders on sweetness and mild walnuty-ness. The ubiquitous presence of Maroni stands in the city allows for a warm and comforting €2 snack for quite a few months out of the year.
Also amazing and wonderful is Sturm, a drink that is only available in the fall. This drink is the immature byproduct of the winemaking process (available, like wine, in both red and white), and it occurs halfway between nonalcoholic grape juice and fully fermented wine. Like cider with an alcoholic punch, Sturm is served cold and is refreshingly sweet and easy to drink. Austrians will advise Sturm novices to take their first Sturm easy, as its effects can sneak up on you if you're not used to this drink. Sturm is available only in the fall because it coincides with wine season. The fascinating thing about this drink is that it is still continuing to ferment--constantly--and has a very short shelf life. Grape juice becomes Sturm when the yeast is added and the sugar ferments to become 4% alcohol. Once it reaches an alcoholic content of 4%, it may be sold as Sturm until it continues to ferment and reaches an alcoholic content of 10%. Sturm may be purchased in restuarants, Buschenschanks (see below), or in the grocery store, but it must be consumed quickly. When buying Sturm in the grocery store, you must be careful when choosing your bottle, as it is left open to allow for the continual fermentation of the drink; if sealed shut, the fermenting yeast will build up pressure and cause the bottle to explode. Sturm must be drunk within a few days of purchase, as it also continues to build up a yeast-y sediment that settles in the bottom of the bottle; whoever gets the last glass has to be careful not to get a mouthful of yeast-crud with it!
Unfortunately Sturm season is drawing to a close, but I try to order it whenever I'm out so that I can fully take advantage of this unique and tasty drink.
The Austrian Buschenshank is another staple of fall, though they do exist year-round. Found only in the countryside, a Buschenschank is an vineyard establishment that makes and serves all of its own wines and foods. Only cold foods are served here; to accompany the wine (or Sturm) you can order various salads, cold cuts, cheeses, and spreads--all served with fresh homemade bread. Apparently 80% of Austria's wines are consumed in Buschenschanks and other family-owned establishments, before ever reaching the market. It is a very common excursion to hike through the hills to a Buschenschank and then rest a bit with some food and wine before heading back.
Last weekend I went on an impromptu excursion into southern Styria to a Buschenschank. We parked the car and then hiked through the wooded hills into the countryside. It was a cool and cloudy day, but the scenery was beautiful. When we arrived at the Buschenschank, we chose a table that was literally in the vinyard and sat down to our drinks and foods. After out rest and a short wander through the rows and rows of wine grapes, we headed back to the car with a renewed appreciation for this particular Austrian tradition. I am now a huge fan of the Buschenschank, and I could be convinced at any time to make another excursion. Any takers?
(For complete Buschenschank-excursion photos, please see the Flickr link to the right.)
These are just three reasons why coming to Austria in the fall is highly recommended. (Hint, hint, nudge, nudge.) And there will be more exciting tales of Austrian excursions coming soon!