Chasing Styria’s Liquid Gold

When I woke at dawn on my sixth day in Austria, I rubbed my eyes harder than usual. Not because I’d been up too late all the nights before working my way through an extravagance of Austria’s best wines. Nor because I’d caught a late-spring cold that was blunting all my senses just when I needed them most.

The disbelief came from the scene that met me when I blearily stepped onto my hotel room balcony. As a thousand songbirds and a single church bell affirmed the breaking day, the most poetic landscape I’d ever seen pulled into focus. Impossibly verdant, sculpted hills were echoed in the soft dome of a village chapel, mist rose from the Mur river valley, and sun played through soft clouds that appeared to pick up the pale palette of the houses below. This paradise was on the edge of the wine village of Ehrenhausen, in southern Styria, just over the border from Slovenia — closer to Ljubljana than Vienna — and entirely its own little world, beckoning discovery.

But. I was there for work and a painfully early departure had been scheduled. I pulled myself together and tugged my bags to a waiting bus. Along the way, I bumped into Thomas, an affable young Danish critic. We nodded a silent appreciation for the beauty of our surroundings and the excellence of our accommodations. “Did you have the eggs this morning?,” he asked. No. I had had the black coffee and mineral water — breakfast of champions for middle-aged women plotting survival of a low-exercise, high-temptation tour. “Ah, too bad,” Thomas said, with a touch of sincere regret. “They were lightly scrambled and dressed with chives and pumpkin seed oil. Absolutely delicious.”

I immediately understood the severity of my miscalculation.

Pumpkin seed oil, Kürbiskernöl, is one of Styria’s culinary treasures. Ages ago, the food writer Mimi Sheraton rightly included this lubricious elixir in her book 1,000 Foods to Eat Before You Die. “With a glow that suggests liquid amethysts,” she writes, Styrian pumpkin seed oil “lends a warm nuttiness to many dishes, simultaneously tinting them with an inky sheen that may discourage the uninitiated.”

Photo: steiermark.com

My first exposure to the oil was decades earlier, when, as an au pair for a well-to-do German-Austrian family, I was taken to the sort of small, refined restaurant that seems to spring up everywhere in the Austrian countryside. I don’t know that I ever knew the restaurant’s name, but it was an intimate mix of rustic old wood and modern simplicity, serving a level of cuisine then entirely new to me.

Cream of chestnut soup appeared as a first course, though it may just as well have been the entire meal. Its velvety texture and salty savor set a richly neutral stage upon which a single, luxuriant swirl of pumpkin seed oil played. The oil’s burnished mahogany bled into emerald where it touched the soup, like some woodland tincture extracted from a secret gathering of gnomes. Nothing I have tasted before or since has so perfectly evoked the comforting, thrilling contrasts of fall. (Though I often cheat my way close with a simple dessert of poached Bosc pear and pumpkin seed-oil-drizzled vanilla ice cream.)

Sheraton points out that you can’t get this potent decoction from your standard jack-o-lantern innards. Styrian pumpkins, especially the variety grown around the regional capital of Graz, are dark green, round and weighty despite their compactness. The seeds are removed, roasted, then cold-pressed. Food writer Michael Harlan Turkell cites a mutation in the fruit’s oilseeds that occurred about a hundred years ago as having been decisive in allowing the traditional, then largely home-pressed oil to be more widely produced. It’s now fairly easy to find excellent examples, even in American supermarkets.

Back home in New York, the Styrian egg dish haunted me. Through the seasons, I pondered which elements I might tweak to elevate this deceptively humble dish into a meal in its own right.

Finally, very early this spring, I hit upon a wine that might work this magic.

Like the Scarce Swallowtail (literally the species name) depicted on the gelber muskateller of Styrian wine producer Andreas Tscheppe, this variety is too rarely seen in these parts. It is the golden-skinned scion of the noble muscat family, better known in English — if at all — as yellow muscat, muscat blanc à petit grains in France, and moscato bianco in Italy. Its lilting radiance is the vinous equivalent of listening to Dvorak’s A Major Piano Quintet in a garden in May. Tscheppe, who farms a small collection of the vineyards in Glanz, makes tiny quantities of the wine. He is part of a group of five biodynamic producers working under the name Schmecke das Leben (“taste life”) who banded together to support each other in their journey deeper into individualistic, holistic farming, and the new wine styles they have evolved that reflect this.

You’ll find groups like this all over Austria, which has one of the strongest commitments to organic and biodynamic farming, especially viticulture, in the world. The country goes so far as to protect the clean farming origins of the term “natural wine” in ways few others have (France recently jumped on the bandwagon, but Austria did it first). This commitment to preserving the country’s natural resources makes perfect sense once you’ve visited Styria’s pristine emerald landscape and, even more so, its vineyards.

Tiny to begin with at just over 4,500 hectares, Styria is further divided into three subregions: Weststeiermark, famed for its vivid roses called Schilcher, Vulkanland Steiermark, whose landscape of extinct volcanic cones gives rise to extraordinarily creamy, delicate weissburgunder (pinot blanc) and chiseled sauvignon blanc, and finally, Suedsteiermark. It is here that you find raciest sauvignons, most revelatory chardonnays (known here as Morillon), and of course gelber muskateller.

The century of political instability that began with the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1919 kept this region — though every bit as alluring as Tuscany and with far fewer tourists — off the radar. But a rich tradition of farming and cooking in tune with the gifts of nature has made this one of the most gastronomically exciting spots on the globe. When travel resumes, plan to chart a course on bicycle or foot, letting the unspoiled countryside breeze past as you make your way from Weingut to Weingut, breakfast to lunch, lunch to dinner, and finally back to an inn or hotel that will redraw your standards for good night’s sleep.

Tscheppe’s small farm includes three hectares of terraced vines cut into the high, lush hills. Elevation plays a role in driving stark day-night temperature swings that push the aromatic development of south Styria’s hallmark grapes. gelber muskateller has staged a strong comeback in recent decades as growers have rediscovered ways to coax dry, delicately floral expressions from the grape.

Tscheppe plays a light hand with it in the cellar, allowing native yeasts and two years of aging in traditional, very large neutral oak casks to turn it into a transfixing aperitif or food wine.

When I finally found a bottle, I made plans.

Photo: steirerkraft.com

Ingredients assembled and set out beside a lightly dressed green salad and slices of sturdy bread, I uncorked the wine and poured a pale golden stream into the glass. At first, it kept its wings folded, like a butterfly shyly concealing its intricate iridescence. I set the glass aside to prepare the eggs. By the time I sat down and anointed them with the last drops of the small bottle of the oil I had brought home from Styria, the wine had opened. Ethereal, shimmering, with hovering notes of jonquil and ripe yellow plums, invigorating acids, and a fine filament of salinity.

I layered a forkful of the eggs on to the bread and took a bite. I’ll never know if it matched the sublimity of the Austrian original. But I was happy. The unctuousness of the oil amplified the salty richness of the eggs. The oil’s infusion of nuttiness took up a quiet side conversation with the earthiness of the rye bread. The bright acidity of the wine both cut through the opulence and intensified the vividness of each individual flavor. Bite begot sip, sip begot bite. Far too quickly, I was left with nothing more than impressions of shifting color, texture, and weight.

The pursuit of creating a concrete experience from one I’d never had persists, demanding repetition to pin down and preserve something that inherently eludes capture. I’ll keep working on the dish and hunting for gelber muskateller. And maybe someday I’ll get back to Austria to measure them against the dream.

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Valerie Kathawala

Valerie Kathawala

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Feet on the ground in New York City, heart and mind in Germany and Austria. Writer / Editor. TRINK magazine. @valkatnyc