Notes From Nature: Magnificent Marillen
Veronika Unger brings a small glass dish to the table on her terrace before striking a match and lighting the cheap coffee grounds that it contains. As we sit and admire some of her 30 hectares of pine forest and gently undulating meadow, smoke wafts about us and the still August air is filled by a pungent smell of burned coffee.
"To keep the wasps away," she smiles, before disappearing into the kitchen to bring out a plateful of glistening Marillen and caramelized almond cakes.
I have come to talk apricots and more with Veronika, who has been making her own jams and chutneys for nearly 40 years. Less than an hour’s drive from the centre of Vienna, her home is on the outskirts of the Wachau valley in the small, rural village of Gföhl, just 15 or so minutes north-west of Krems an der Donau.
Like many Austrians living outside the city, Veronika is something of an authority on home-grown produce. As well as making her own apricot jams and chutneys which she exports to restaurants in Bavaria and Styria, Veronika shoots and butchers her own deer and wild boar, uses the grapes from her daughter Petra’s vineyard in Krems to produce various other jams and jellies, and collects her own herbs and wild mushrooms.
"If you get really good porcini mushrooms," she says, "all you have to do is slice them very finely and add olive oil, salt, pepper and a little parmesan."
But it’s the apricot that rules the roost in these parts. The oldest apricot stone found near here is about 4,000 years-old, Veronika says, and the first recipes for apricots in the area date from the beginning of the nineteenth century.
"There are thousands and thousands of trees here," she explains, adding that many of the locals are involved with the fruit in one way or another. Indeed, she feels that apricots are even enjoying something of a renaissance.
"There are now more and more apricot farmers here. For the last two generations, nobody wanted to collect them or take care of the trees. But now the young people, they are keeping the tradition going. It’s big business."
But why apricots?
"It’s an extremely good climate for them," she explains. "For wine and for apricots, warm days and cool nights are important." In fact, the fruit is famous in the region. There are Marillen fests, Marillen Kirtags, even Marillen kings, queens and princesses. "In the spring time, when the blossom is on the trees, the Viennese come out to see it in droves. It’s white; everywhere is really white and very beautiful."
The apricots that Veronika uses are from a farmer friend in the Wachau.
"He calls me up each July and says the apricots are in a really ripe state, and I have to go immediately," she explains. "The best apricots are collected from the ground. They must be very, very soft – but healthy, never rotten."
We move on from the apricot cakes to Veronika’s apricot jam and chutney, the former, a fine balance of sweet and tartness, the latter tangy and intense, thanks to liberal quantities of fresh chilli. Then she wheels out a magnum of 10-year-old Marillen schnapps, produced by a neighbour. It’s strong but still fruity, and not so harsh and fiery as some of the Obstler I’ve tried.
Just a few moments before, as I bumped down Veronika’s long, winding driveway flanked by scores of mountain ashes, I’d wondered whether the bright-red rowan berries hanging heavy on the branches too would find their way into her kitchen.
Sure enough, she puts them to good use. Right on cue, Veronika brings to the table a pot of 5-year-old rowan jelly, a traditional accompaniment to game and venison. I take a spoonful; it has a subtle, floral taste.
"Rowan berries are a lot of work, because they’re so small," she says. "But they’re very medicinal, very good for digestion."
And then, though it’s still only early afternoon, there’s another glug, glug, glug as Veronika pours a 2006 rowan berry schnapps, made by another neighbour. It’s strong and earthy; more fiery than the Marillen schnapps we tasted earlier, but still good.
"When you come to the countryside in Austria," says Veronika with a smile, "we use just about everything."
For more information about where to try or buy Unger produce, see: