Millions of years ago Vulkanland in Styria, southern Austria was moulded by powerful, volcanic events. Today, it is a tranquil Arcadia where you’re more likely to find wine or even chocolate flowing (as opposed to lava) amongst the rolling hillsides and dense forests. Known as the green heart of Austria the land is fertile, lush and serene. The climate in this part of Austria is mild, more often influenced by the Mediterranean than the Atlantic. It’s perfect for hiking or biking as well as wine growing and, being a small region, it’s easy to fit a lot into even a short stay. As I found out earlier this year, there’s no better place to discover great Austrian food and wine, not to mention the thermal spas that Vulkanland is renowned for. And then there’s also Austrian chocolate. Zotters Chocolate to be precise.
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Zotter’s Chocolate Factory
In Bergl near Riegersburg, about an hour’s drive from Graz, a chocolate wonderland awaits. Having been to Zotter’s Chocolate Factory myself, I still can’t quite believe what I experienced, namely hundreds and hundreds of different chocolate varieties all begging to be tasted. As I walked around one quirky tasting room after another, I realised this was a chocolate tour above and beyond any other.
Here you can learn all about chocolate from bean to bar as well as tasting a gazillion different flavours. All the chocolate is organic, and fair trade and flavours vary from the everyday coffee, salted caramel or raspberry to peanut butter with ketchup and even fish!
The tour starts with a short film to give you an introduction to the Zotter family and chocolate production before you head off around the tasting rooms.
We each pick up a tasting spoon and are soon tucking into one delicious chocolate treat after another and then another, and another. There must be hundreds of tasting stations. There’s no way on earth you could try every flavour on offer in one day, but we do our best. Vending machines dribble out melted chocolate, while others break chocolate bars. One chocolate station is like a cable car, another a helter-skelter and yet another a big Ferris wheel. Imaginative minds have created a chocolate lover’s heaven, liable to send you into a frenzy trying to decide which type of Zotter’s Chocolate to try next.
Zotter’s Edible Zoo
Zotter’s founder, Josef Zotter, is an interesting character. At his Edible Zoo next door to the chocolate factory, he invites you to “Look your food in the eye!”. He points out that animals and plants are creatures, not products and should be loved and respected. Through his farm come zoo come restaurant, Josef has seen his dream of self-sufficiency and autonomy come to life.
“If you want to enjoy your food in a respectful manner, look it in the eye!”
In the organic restaurant, Öko-Essbar, all the ingredients are grown and raised on Zotter’s farm. The food is beautifully presented, and I discovered a traditional Austrian dish I’d not come across before, Beuschel (pictured below). This once-popular dish was a favourite with the Emperor in the 19th century. Like many dishes made from offal, however, it’s rather fallen from grace, and it’s now somewhat unusual to see it on menus. If you do, though, I urge you to try it. The dish is made of pigs’ and cows’ hearts and lungs. My local guide, Robert, turned his nose up at it. However, I was not deterred in my quest to seek out authentic Austrian cuisine. And I’m so glad. It’s delicious. I even converted Robert who admitted that now having tried a little of mine, he was eager to order it next time. Venturing into the realm of unknown cuisines doesn’t always pay off, but this time it did. Ingredients include wine, cream and root vegetables, as well as offal, and it’s served with slices of fried dumplings. Delish!
Zotter’s Edible Zoo is a real find. Not only are they preserving rare breeds ethically and sustainably, but they are also preserving endangered traditional dishes too, and doing it with great success. The local beer wasn’t bad either. Cheers!
Where else to visit in Vulkanland?
There’s a whole host of excellent food and wine producers in the area. Be sure to visit Vulcano in nearby Auersbach and sample their superb range of cured pork. At Gölles near Oberstang, don’t miss their apple balsamic vinegar as well as their schnapps. And for wine, check out Vulkanland Sekt sparkling wine just up the road from Zotter’s in Riegersburg.
Where to stay in Vulkanland?
We stayed at the quirky Rogner Bad Blumau, a fabulous thermal spa resort renowned for its excellent cuisine. The buildings’ design by Friedensreich Hundertwasser is unlike anywhere I’ve stayed before and transforms the whole retreat into a work of art. The thermal waters are an absolute joy to relax in, and the restaurant has to be one of the best hotel dining experiences I’ve ever come across. Frustratingly, I didn’t get a chance to enjoy any treatments here, but I can’t imagine them being anything other than excellent.
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