Wider culinary horizons: tasty titbits to stimulate the appetites of gourmets on both sides of the national border, seasoned with fresh mountain air and tasting of the sea! Fine cuisine between the Alps and the Adriatic is best enjoyed in Carinthia, on the sunny southern side of the Alps.
It is no coincidence that Carinthian curd cheese pasta pockets resemble outsize ravioli, no surprise that the chopped bacon spread popular in other parts of the country as “Verhackertes” is known in southern Carinthia as “Sasaka” and yes, it goes without saying that here in Austria’s southernmost province you can even find pumpkin seed oil! Many of the classic Carinthian dishes have a tasty counterpart on the other side of the border too – to take just one example, the traditional cinnamon and raisin filled yeast cake known here as “Reindling” is called “Gubana” in Friuli and “Pohača” in Slovenia. One special feature of Carinthian cuisine is the fact that sweet and savoury cosy up alongside one another with no worries. Thus the sweet Reindling or Pohača, for instance, is happily passed round alongside the sour “church fair soup” (consisting of three types of meat with plenty of cream) or with the Easter ham.
And talking of Easter: it’s not just gourmets seeking hearty delicacies who will find just what they are looking for during this festival, but lovers of authentic customs – and it is probably not by chance that they revolve around eating and enjoyment here in the sensuous south – will also appreciate Easter in Carinthia. For tradition-conscious Carinthians an Easter feast is simply inconceivable without a consecrated ham. The custom of the Holy Saturday “food blessing” also known as “consecration of meat” has been in existence since the 7th century. Believers pack a basket with ham, eggs, horseradish, sausages, Reindling cake etc., cover it with an embroidered cloth decorated with cross-stitch and go to church to obtain the blessing for the pleasures which will celebrate the end of the Lenten fasting. Incidentally, in many churches in Carinthia you can admire both historic and modern Lenten veils covering the altars – pieces of art history which bear witness to faith, and are unique in the Alpine region in terms of their volume and artistry!
Dishes with a past
Equally bathed in history are many of the dishes which nowadays still adorn the menus of Carinthian restaurants. At Easter it’s also high season for a popular salad made of dandelion leaves, bacon and potatoes: when the dandelion harvest is in full swing you will see men and women bent over double in the spring fields and meadows up and down the region, a knife in one hand and a basket at their side to collect the young leaves.
Hearty farmhouse cooking has given us the “Ritschert”, a casserole made with pearl barley, beans and smoked meat; a “Frigga” was originally a meal for the lumberjacks in the Carnic mountains, where bacon would be fried, baked with cheese on top and served on polenta; in fact, polenta in every form possible, from golden yellow “Türkensterz” made of cornmeal through to the dark-coloured “Hadnsterz” made of buckwheat flour, has been on the menu for centuries in all three regions – Carinthia, Friuli and Slovenia. “Maischalan” (pearl barley and pigs’ innards in a pig’s caul, a fixed item on every Carinthian mixed meat platter), “Kutteln” (tripe, in Italian “trippe”) and various lamb and game dishes can look back over a long tradition back through history, as can the obligatory schnapps afterwards such as a “Lustock” (a fruit schnapps with more than a hint of lovage). While the “Lustock” glows a toxic green in the glass, the highly aromatic stone pine schnapps is a radiant raspberry red! This sophisticated schnapps is made from the violet coloured cones of this much sought after conifer. Incidentally, from the Carinthian Nockberge Mountains to the Styrian Zirbitzkogel you will find the largest continuous stock of stone pines in Europe!
And in keeping with this Alps-Adriatic region, the trio can be rounded off with a grappa, the bitter grape marc spirit. And for all those who like things sweet: foodies will be just as delighted by the sweet version of Carinthian pasta pockets, the “Kletzen-Nudel” with a filling made from dried pears, cinnamon and nuts, as they will by “Grantnschleck” made of curd cheese, whipped cream, cranberries and honey.
Carinthian wine miracle
The classic drinks with Carinthian cuisine are cider and beer, both of which can look back over a long history in southern Austria. But in the meantime wine from Carinthia can claim to do the same, since for the last few years grapes have again been playing a role in this province. Back in the Middle Ages there was a lively wine growing industry here, but in the 19th century the change in the climate and fungal diseases afflicted the Carinthian wine to such an extent that it totally disappeared from the map of Carinthia for several decades. 1972 saw the end of the long sleep for wine growing in Carinthia, thanks to the then Director of the fruit growing experimentation centre in St. Andrä, Herbert Gartner, who was the first to plant vines again in the Lavant Valley. This is where the Carinthian wine miracle started. Today the Lavant Valley is regarded not just as the orchard of Carinthia, but also as the most important of the five wine regions in the province. And now in the region’s specialist wine stores you can buy classy wines not only from Friuli, Slovenia and Istria, but also from Carinthia.
If you literally want to absorb Carinthia, you should get a taste for the variety of aromas between the Alps and the Adriatic. Where better to sample them than in the numerous restaurants, country inns, farmhouse pubs and trendy eateries in the region? The Grande Dame of local cuisine and pioneer of Alps-Adriatic cuisine is the native of the Gail Valley, Sissy Sonnleitner. She was the one who coined the term “Carnic aromas”, which she says are what make her home in the border region between Italy and Carinthia (Kötschach-Mauthen) “the most exciting culinary stretch of land in Austria”. Meanwhile her daughter Stefanie has joined her to provide congenial support. While at the entrance to the Lesach Valley it is a mother and daughter, in the Lavant Valley it is a father and son who work side by side in the kitchen: in their restaurant “Zum Bären”, right in the middle of the main square in Bad St. Leonhard, Josef senior & Josef junior Trippolt work to perfect their Alps-Adriatic cuisine, which has also been awarded Gault Millau chef’s hats.
But rural inns too, such as the old Carinthian Antonitsch inn in Glainach near Ferlach, the Bachler culture inn in Althofen, the Ogris inn in Ludmannsdorf or the Liegl inn in St. Georgen am Längsee have fully committed themselves to the Alps-Adriatic way of thinking in their menus too. And that is just a small sample of the great-tasting Carinthian cooking pot!
Seasoned with a good portion of creativity, a knife-tip of curiosity, a handful of love to taste and a generous pinch of hospitality, contemporary Carinthian cuisine looks beyond the end of its nose towards the south – but without forgetting the essentials of its own tradition.