The first time I visited Austria it was for love. The second time, it was for pumpkins. Now I know, pumpkins aren’t exactly synonymous with Austria. Even after you’ve discarded singing nuns, sachertorte, cowbells and lederhosen - or in my case, a Viennese prince charming - pumpkins don’t immediately spring to mind. However, Styria in the heart of Austria bordering Slovenia to the South and clustered around the picturesque medieval town of Graz, is indeed the home of Styria’s distinctive roasted pumpkin seed oil. Only the Styrian pumpkins grown here curcurbita pepo convar.citrullina var. Styriaca, with their characteristic sage green seeds, yield this unique sweet, nutty oil, prized for its rich flavour and healthy alphabet of vitamins and essential fatty acids.
As you fly into Graz airport, you can see the rows of pumpkins laid out like neat lines of yellow embroidery amidst the chain stitch ridges of grapevines and boxy fields of corn. But once on land, if like me, you were expecting acres of giant waxy, orange pumpkins swelling underneath a vast panoply of baroquely twisted leaves, straight from the pen of Aubrey Beardsley, you might wonder if you’ve wandered into the wrong fantasy. Every other fairy tale cliché is on hand from densely wooded forests with Gothic, turreted castles piercing the skyline, to Graz’s red tiled roofs and cobbled streets. Traditional, deep roofed Austrian homes, painted in pastel shades of lavender, pistachio and girasol, boast window boxes filled with colourful Marigolds and Black Eyed Susans, and look like a scene straight from a child’s picture book, but on a wet, misty day in late September, the scene in the countryside is more Sleepy Hollow than Cinderella. The mountain peaks are shrouded with low lying cloud, mushrooming clumps nestling in the valleys like cotton wool tumble weed, and a lone man with a pitchfork stands surrounded by swirling early morning mist, a pinprick on the ghostly horizon, tossing pumpkins from a muddy, almost empty field, into a cart on the back of his tractor.
Throughout the early months of summer, the pumpkins are still uniformly green and covered and a canopy of leaves. But as the season progresses, the leaves slowly die and wither, the curlicues of their prickly gooseberry-skinned stalks shrivelling into papery, ribbon-like cords as the pumpkin ripens under the late August sun. By the time you have a field of glossy, green flecked, amber pumpkins ready to harvest, the rest of the vegetation has all but disappeared. Weather conditions will also dictate the size the pumpkins reach. After a cold season with little sun and a heavy rainfall the pumpkins will be smaller than usual. This year, few are larger than twelve inches in diameter, and if the fairy godmother was looking around for a way to get to the ball, Cinderella would be riding in a small, battered 4 door Ford Escort, rather than the gold, Roll’s Royce of pumpkins.
Luckily, in the real world, none of these pumpkins are harvested for transport and only about 5% of the crop is eaten as food. The rest are produced primarily for the seeds – a special variety native only to Styria, which are grown without shells - a small proportion of which are used for snacks. Anyone who has ever visited a third world cinema where people eat pumpkin seeds instead of our more usual Western popcorn, and who has been sprayed on the back of the neck by an avid muncher deftly spitting out the shells, will understand the attraction of a shell-less snack. However, the majority of the seeds are not eaten, but roasted and pressed to produce ‘kürbiskernöl’ -roasted pumpkin seed oil - a dense, spinach green oil, rich in vitamins, minerals, and fatty acids, and said to be good for both the plumbing and the prostate. Each pumpkin produces about 75 grams of seeds and as it takes about two and a half kilograms of seeds to produce a litre of oil it is easy to see why Styria is full of pumpkin fields.
Some small farmers, like our solitary chap with the pitchfork, may grow only enough pumpkins to provide oil for his own needs, while for others it’s an important local crop, accounting for 15% of Styria’s agricultural produce.
F.Url & Co, the long-established Austrian agricultural company that supplies Merchant Gourmet with pumpkin seed oil, presses seeds collected from over 300 Styrian farms. As a result, when their Sales Manager, Franz Peier, drove us through the countryside, he seemed to know almost every farmer we met – a blessing, as he was able to explain that the reason the ‘visiting English journalists’ standing without coats in the vertical rain and up to their scantily shod, strappy, sandaled ankles in claggy, clay mud was not because we were eccentric, but because the airline had lost our luggage.
The area’s other main crops are corn, apples and grapes, with sheep and dairy cattle grazing everywhere in the undulating countryside. ‘We also have lots of pigs in the south’, Franz said as we huddled together, soggily, in the middle of a field. ‘The pumpkin farmers like them because the eat all the snakes.’ ‘Snakes!’ I exclaimed as the photographer and myself squelched hurriedly back onto the tarmac road, with a worried eye cocked for unwelcome slithery things. Happily, after a round of linguistic charades and a few hurried drawings, we established that there were no serpents in paradise and that the pigs ate only snails.
The pumpkins are collected in a number of ways. The traditional, low tech method is the the farmer we have already seen, using a simple pitchfork and an axe with a crescent shaped blade. Here, the pumpkins are split open, the seeds removed and the husk of the pumpkin thrown back on to the field to fertilize the land. Alternatively, the pumpkins might be trundled back to the farm, deseeded and the remaining dry, fibrous sponge like flesh fed to livestock.
But big business necessarily requires big time machinery. Large farms and producers such as F.Url use a tractor fitted with something resembling a v-shaped snow-plough which divides the field like Moses crossing the Red Sea, pushing the ripened pumpkins into orderly rows. This is followed by a great mechanical beast, which looks like a medieval instrument of torture and does everything but blow fire through its nose. The heavy-duty contraption rumbles down the field like a crusading tank, gathering the pumpkins on a wheel of rotating spikes, before processing the pumpkin by crushing it, retaining the seeds and depositing the crushed husks in its wake like the remains of vanquished enemies.
The next step is to wash the seeds, scrubbing off any pulp that might still be clinging to them, and rinsing the clean seeds in a huge centrifugal cylinders like a giant spin dryer, before being dried in enormous containers pumped full of hot air. After being sorted according to colour, the seeds, polished like pewter to a teal-coloured patina, are bagged up ready to go to press. Following the pumpkin seeds’ progress, Franz drove us to F.Url’s oil press via the scenic route, or what would have been the scenic route on a day without grey sheets of rain and fog blinded hilltops. The road whipped back and forth like a fairground ride at ever increasing altitudes until, as we jack-knifed round a hairpin bend and screeched to a halt astride a double-parked bread van, Franz pointed in the general direction of the Slovenian border where, on a clear day, he assured us, you can see Maribor. How Julia Andrews managed to ‘climb every mountain’ without expiring, never mind deliver two verses and a chorus of The Sound of Music as she did so, remains one of life’s great mysteries. Well at least she wasn’t driving [I’d say car sick but that would be too frank].
Once back on reassuringly, flat land, we arrived at the oil press to be greeted by the pungent, bonfire-night aroma of roasting pumpkin seeds. The flavour of the seeds is at Master Roaster Ernst Dirnbäck’s fingertips as he adds salt, and asjusts the temperature to get the flavour absolutely right, dry roasting them in twin vats for one hour. On completion, they are pushed and pulled through a Heath Robinson type contraption of vacuums, tubes and pipes, before being placed between disks to ensure even weight distribution of weight and pressed. As the pressure increases, the first drops of oil seeps out, until it runs like a dark, emerald coloured river, ready to be bottled and labelled by Annie, Gabi and Anna-Marie, and taken to a shop, somewhere near you - if you’re lucky. Approximately 80% of the oil never leaves the country.
The Syrians are very fond of it themselves, as a local supermarket confirms. The shelves groan with numerous brands and varieties of roasted pumpkin seed oils, most of which are used on salads, drizzled in soups or stews and, according to Franz, terrific with scrambled eggs. Similarly, restaurant menus are replete with schnitzels, stuffed noodles, soups, pies and cakes, all containing pumpkins, pumpkin seeds or pumpkin seed oil. Even the small rural villages are full of pumpkins. Windows and driveways are decorated with Mr & Mrs Pumpkins dressed in jaunty Tyrolean hats, headscarves and, in some cases, full national costume, while in the village of Rasach, a popular tourist spot in West Syria, and recent host of an autumnal Pumpkin festival, there were numerous tableaux of pumpkin suckling pigs, sheep and even a football team kitted out in local colours. In fact, there appeared to be many more pumpkin people than locals on the streets.
A worrying thought occurred to me as I tucked into yet another helping of kürbis streudel after a hearty salad sprinkled with toasted pumpkin seeds, and dressed with pumpkin seed oil, that perhaps I was trapped in the wrong sort of fairy tale. Cinderella may have been transformed into a beautiful princess, but there was a distinct possibility that I was going to turn into a very rotund pumpkin.
Ah well, I’d look very fetching in a headscarf and a dirndl skirt.