Treasured Traditions

Young hosts, farmers and winemakers are breathing new life into the Törggelen harvest festival by serving traditional dishes with a modern flair. We visit three of them on a voyage of culinary discovery

The Eisacktal valley has a special “fifth season”. Every October and November, once the grapes have been harvested and the vineyards have turned golden yellow, locals like to take a short hike through the valley’s villages and colourful autumn forests to a nearby farmhouse inn to sample its wine and enjoy homemade Schlutzer ravioli, homemade sausages with sauerkraut, sweet deep-fried Krapfen pastries and roasted chestnuts. This popular tradition dates back to the old custom of tasting the young wine. The word “Törggelen” comes from “Torggl” (from the Latin “torquere” meaning “to turn”), which was the name given to wooden wine presses.

The grapevines in the hamlet of Pinzagen/Pinzago above Brixen/Bressanone are ablaze with red, brown, yellow and golden leaves. When we arrive at Gummerer Hof farm, the hum of the vacuum cleaner can be heard coming from the dining room. Beef broth is bubbling away on the hob. It’s Törggelen season – the time when farmhouse inns across South Tyrol serve up the fruits of their harvest to their guests. It’s also the busiest period of the year. “I’m currently working 19-hour days,” says Philipp Gummerer. The 38-year-old wipes his hands on the blue apron tied around his waist and inspects the food cooking in the saucepans. He and his mother are in charge of the kitchen, but his two brothers also lend a hand when needed. The Gummerer family purchased the 17th-century farm in 1918, it has passed down through the generations ever since. It was Philipp’s father, Sepp, who began making wine on the estate, and the family first invited guests to celebrate Törggelen with them in the 1980s. “My dad loved socialising and, as a chef, he relished the opportunity to open the farm’s doors and share his food.” Philipp hears a horn beeping and rushes outside. The butcher has arrived and is unloading the meat the family’s ordered. “We use every part of the animal,” Philipp explains, just like in years gone by. Here at Gummerer Hof, he wants to transport his guests back in time so they can discover “the forgotten roots” of the Törggelen tradition.

The exact origin of Törggelen in the Eisacktal valley is unclear. What we do know is that the word “Torggl” (from the Latin “torquere”, which means “to press” or “to turn”) was the name given to the rooms which once housed the grape presses. In late autumn, dealers from north of the Brenner Pass would travel to the Eisacktal valley to sample the region’s new wine in these rooms. At some point, the local winemakers began serving their guests homemade food and roasted chestnuts alongside the wine – and so Törggelen was born. The custom continued, perhaps as a way for winemakers to thank the mountain farmers for letting them put their livestock out to graze on the farmers’ meadows in summer or perhaps as a harvest festival for neighbours and family members. A vineyard or farm offering Törggelen is referred to as a “Buschenschank”, which literally translates as “bunch tavern” after the bunch or bundle of twigs hosts traditionally hang above their door to indicate that they’re open to guests. Törggelen is still a thriving custom today, although in more recent decades, it has sometimes become more about money-making than about keeping the cherished tradition alive.

As South Tyrol’s popularity as a holiday destination grew in the second half of the 20th century, enterprising accommodation providers and other members of the tourism industry discovered that they could turn Törggelen into a lucrative business. Over time, the real essence of the tradition was gradually lost and Törggelen was soon on offer almost everywhere, even in areas not known for wine or chestnuts. Pubs and restaurants – with no field, meadow or farm buildings in sight – also got in on the action, and tour operators from Germany and Austria began organising Törggelen trips to South Tyrol. Instead of serving homegrown produce from their own farms, hosts started offering whatever the tourists wanted: branded fizzy drinks instead of homemade juices; huge meat platters overflowing with ribs, speck ham, blood sausage and salted meat, most of which was not from locally reared pigs; chestnuts bought in from anywhere; and wine, often from some far-flung winery. All served up with a side order of accordion music to make the wine flow faster. By the 1990s, Törggelen had become a mass-produced affair in many places. But, thankfully, those days are now a thing of the past. Today, young hosts, farmers and winemakers from across the Eisacktal valley are breathing new life into Törggelen by serving traditional dishes with a modern flair, like those found at Gummerer Hof.

Occasionally, we receive complaints for not offering roasted chestnuts at the start of the Törggelen season in late September when they’re still ripening on the trees.

Johannes Meßner, Burgerhof Meßner inn

And also at our next stop – the Röckhof winery near Villanders/Villandro, which has been home to the Augschöll family for 250 years.

As we approach the farmhouse, delicious scents come wafting through the open window. Ninety-four-year-old Maria is sitting at the kitchen table, skilfully filling sweet pastries called “Krapfen” with plum jam before passing them to her daughter-in-law Frieda to fry in fat until they’re golden brown. Maria’s granddaughter, Carmen Augschöll, is watching the well-practised team with a smile on her face. “Grandma still keeps her watchful eye over the house and the farm,” she says. Maria has been welcoming guests into her farmhouse dining room for over 60 years. Today, the original farmhouse is connected to a new house by an underground rock tunnel, but the traditional dining experience lives on. Maria has passed on all her recipes from over the years to her son Konrad, his wife Frieda and her grandchildren Carmen and Hannes. Carmen herself returned to Röckhof from Vienna in 2021 at the age of 30, bringing back plenty of experience from her time working in the wine industry. The wine academy graduate now runs the family business with her younger brother, who studied winegrowing and oenology in Germany. During Törggelen season, the family still serves “a little bit of meat, dumplings, deep-fried pastries filled with spinach – a Villanders speciality – and potato fritters with cabbage,” says Carmen Augschöll, just as they did in Grandma’s day. Maria’s grandchildren have, however, brought the traditional menu into the 21st century by offering plenty of vegetarian and vegan options as well.

Like the Gummerer family, the Augschölls are keen to revive old traditions by combining them with modern ideas. Some of their guests aren’t familiar with what Törggelen is traditionally all about, but the families are only too pleased to explain it to them. Occasionally, Philipp Gummerer can be left wondering if all his hard work is for nothing, especially when he’s asked questions like “How much does an overnight Törggelen cost?” or “But there’ll be music, won’t there?” as if Törggelen were an all-inclusive holiday package. For Philipp, it is important to uphold the traditions put in place by his father: “You won’t get any raucous parties or mass-produced products. Instead, I put my heart and soul into my food.” One of Philipp’s great passions is speck. He makes this cured, smoked ham himself and stores it at a constant temperature of below 10 degrees Celsius.

He invites us to take a look. The door to the smokehouse opens with a creak and Philipp walks between the cuts of ham hanging above his head. He knocks on them gently – the more hollow the tone, the more mature the flavour – and then nods happily. His three Swabian-Hall pigs are snorting and trampling around happily in their muddy enclosure behind the vegetable garden. The chestnut and walnut trees dropped their nuts in late October and the garden is almost empty now that virtually everything has been harvested. Eighty per cent of everything Philipp serves to his guests comes from his own farm or other local farmers. “There are some things I have to buy in, of course. Spinach or cabbage, for example. It would be impossible to grow everything myself,” he explains.

The Augschölls source pumpkins, sauerkraut and grains for their sourdough bread from organic farms or local farmers they know well. Other vegetables, chestnuts and fruit for their jams are grown on their farm. “We also make our own butter, cheese, speck ham and smoked dry sausages,” says Carmen Augschöll. “And then there are the special Röckhof sausages my father makes, of course. We don’t serve anything like ribs or salted meat,” she continues, explaining how her family’s policy is to only include food they can make themselves on the menu. Their guests don’t seem to notice that anything’s missing. “Other places tend to serve very meat-based main courses, but our guests still go home full and satisfied.” Since Carmen and her brother took over the helm at Röckhof, the dining experience has become more leisurely, with several small courses rather than a rich menu to encourage guests to slow down and really take their time to enjoy every mouthful. They call this “Slow Törggelen”.

A similar experience can be found at our third stop, the Burgerhof farm, just a few kilometres to the north. The winding road leading up to the three-storey farmhouse takes us to an altitude of 750 metres above sea level. In front of the house, 34-year-old Johannes Meßner is sitting taking a break, his young son on his lap. The little boy has just returned home from an outing with his grandfather and is munching on a biscuit. Leaves from the grapevines are falling silently onto the huge wooden table outside the house. At Burgerhof, the menu is based on the food available on the farm and not visitors’ expectations. “We change the menu every week depending on what we have in our fields, cold room and freezer,” explains Johannes, who took over the farm from his father in 2016. Thought to have been built in the 12th century, the farm has been in the family’s possession since 1843. Johannes, a trained chef, and his wife Katrin first opened its doors for Törggelen in 2018. Not all guests are completely understanding of the farm’s choice to let nature determine the menu. “Occasionally, we receive complaints for not offering roasted chestnuts at the start of the Törggelen season in late September when they’re still ripening on the trees.” The family only serves the meat, vegetables, potatoes, apples and grains that they can grow, harvest and prepare themselves. “We grow rye for our bread, spelt for our desserts, and buckwheat for our dumplings and pasta,” says Johannes, who is now back at work, standing in front of the hob with his blue apron on. He dices an onion, fries it in a pan and adds some green beans to serve alongside the veal dish. The calves from which the meat comes spend the entire year grazing on the meadows around the farmhouse.

Gummerer Hof, Röckhof and Burgerhof are all venturing into pastures new, but the desire not to lose sight of old, tried-and-tested traditions is strong. This is also reflected in their choice of décor. Their walls are all adorned with old family photos and documents providing evidence of the farmhouses’ long history. Philipp Gummerer has even hung on to the old menus from the 1980s as a testament to how his farm has developed over the generations. Carmen Augschöll, meanwhile, has kept the old farmhouse dining room exactly as it was in the days when Grandma Maria was catering for her guests. The stone walls of the smokehouse next door are black with all the soot that’s accumulated over the years. The smokehouse’s smouldering fire is still used to smoke the farm’s speck and sausages, creating the slightly nose-prickling aroma so quintessential of Törggelen. But, these days, it is also used to make smoked carrots for the vegetarian and vegan dishes. In fact, carrots play an important role on Röckhof’s modern-day menu, as Carmen also uses fermented carrots as a substitute for cheese. Even her grandma loves the taste of Carmen’s beetroot tartare and egg-free potato fritters. In future, the Augschöll family are also planning to make dumplings using local flaxseeds as the binding agent instead of eggs. At Burgerhof, Johannes Meßner is also experimenting with alternatives to “create a new twist on traditional products and dishes,” as he puts it. His pumpkin ravioli don’t necessarily need to contain egg, and he’s learnt that ginger is just as good as cheese for adding flavour to the filling. He’s also noticed that apple and celery soup always goes down well and that nobody would ever realise that his carrot cake recipe is vegan. “Clearly, Törggelen without animal products is a big challenge for us chefs and requires a lot of work,” says Johannes, “but it’s a challenge I relish!”

Johannes, Carmen and Philipp are also breaking new ground in their vineyards. Although their farms only have a few hectares of grapevines, they are producing an impressive array of wines. You can’t help but admire their innovative spirit and the hard work they are putting into their grapes. Philipp Gummerer continues to grow the handful of grape varieties that his father planted, including a special variety called the Blaterle, which he explains is “the oldest white wine variety indigenous to South Tyrol”. It was originally cultivated to add to red wine, but Philipp’s father, Sepp, began using the Blaterle to make sparkling wine. Philipp still serves it to his guests today. Like Philipp, Johannes Meßner is building on the work started by his parents. In the early 1980s, they were among the first South Tyrolean farmers to switch to organic growing methods. “At the time, they were ridiculed and seen as being backwards for not using synthetic chemicals in their vineyard,” recalls Johannes. “But today, it’s the other way around and using chemicals is seen as backwards.” At Burgerhof, Johannes grows his four grape varieties completely naturally. Carmen Augschöll’s father, Konrad, was the first to start growing grapes at Röckhof, but it took time for him to come round to the merits of organic techniques. “Conventional methods using chemical sprays gave him a sense of security,” says Carmen. “And he found it difficult to comprehend our plans.” Today, however, Konrad is in complete agreement with his children’s way of thinking – and he’s proud of them.

The young hosts, farmers and winemakers from the Eisacktal valley have three priorities: staying true to their roots, identifying with their work and creating a happy life for themselves. With this modern mindset, Carmen Augschöll, Johannes Meßner and Philipp Gummerer are keeping their old farmhouses brimming with life. Their stays abroad have also given them a wealth of new ideas to try out at home. “I’ve discovered a new-found love and appreciation for my home,” says Philipp. Carmen, meanwhile, feels “as if she’s come full circle and is finally home”. And Johannes too sees his future here on the slopes above Brixen. The trio have put quality at the forefront of all they do, safe in the knowledge that authentic food and drink of exceptional quality are what enjoying Törggelen should always be about.

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