Friday, October 19, 2007

Three Fundamental Reasons Why Austria is an Amazing Place to be in the Fall

Austria is an amazing place to be. Period. But there are some particularly wonderful things that are uniquely Austrian and strictly seasonal. I would like to dedicate this post to three unique aspects of autumn in Austria...if I happen to entice you for a visit this time of year, then so be it...


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!


Teresa said...

How do I envy you? Let me count the ways. To the depth and breadth and height of sturm I can drink, to the mountain of maroni I can eat, to the elusive Buschenshank I cannot find.

wallowing in jealousy without the $$ to travel this fall.


Bruce said...

Now Austria is indeed amazing and culturally rich place to be in the Fall.

If on the otherhand you want to experience an austere Fall season then the place to be is Arizona. I enjoy the uniqueness of the desert and its own beauty, but that means that whatever deciduous trees exist will generally turn only yellow in the Fall.

To get an idea of the area, with elements of the wild wild west still hanging on in the names of places, all you have to do is take a drive from Flagstaff (mountains and Ponderosa Pine trees) down to Phoenix (desert and Saguaro Cactus).

In your drive down from 7000 feet to about 1000 feet in elevation, you come to Big Bug Creek. Wow! Now I'm motivated to want to walk the creek (usually dry creek beds) and find one of those big insects. But wait! maybe not. yuch. Next comes the exit to Bloody Basin, then Horsethief Basin, followed by the exit to the town of Bumblebee (will the bees chase me if I get out of the car there?. If that's not bad enough, my next ominous exit is Black Canyon, followed by Dead Man Wash. I hope the poor dead fellow is still not there with his skeleton eye sockets watching my every move! But there's more.... my next exit is Skunk Creek. And, yes, believe me, there are lots of skunks out in the Fall in Arizona. Phew! If you can "make it down the mountain" past all those exits, you finally end up in Happy Valley, just before Phoenix. What a relief. --- your travel'n DAD

Sam said...

We have chestnuts in London, too (although they aren't called maroni, sadly, but chestnuts). The predominant smell is of coal, because the chestnuts roast over a coal brazier in the street. It's very cool, and anyone trying maroni should also come to London and try chestnuts...