by Gregor Sieböck
It was dark already when I got off the train in Feldbach and my appointment at the Gölles Schnapps and Vinegar Artisan Workshop was not until the next morning. Where to sleep? I decided simply to start walking into the darkness. I had my hammock and sleeping bag on me, so I was prepared to spend the night under open skies if no better alternative presented itself. Surely I would be able to find two trees that were neither too close to each other nor too far apart.
The longer I walked, the more certain I grew that I wanted to walk all the way to the Zotter Chocolate Manufactory, which was located between the train station and Gölles. Luckily I am perfectly able to find my way in the dark. If only it wasn’t for that vicious dog almost exactly halfway between the Feldbach train station and Zotter, directly next to the footpath. How would I ever get past there in the middle of the night? I decided to take a detour through a field of dense and tall corn. Strenuous walking, but at least it spared me from meeting the dog in the middle of the night! The unexpected challenges of travelling on foot...
After an hour I arrived at the Chocolate Manufactory. It was almost midnight by now and I spotted two young trees directly behind the silver sausage stall. I put my hammock up, unrolled my wonderfully warm sleeping bag and looked forward to a good night’s sleep. As soon as I lay down, there was a loud "CRASH" and I ended up on my coccyx, a metre (three feet) below my hammock. One of the ropes had come loose. Luckily I had not been hurt too badly in the fall. I wasn’t going to give up that easily! That’s a virtue that has usually stood me in good stead, but not this time! I fastened the hammock once more, this time tying it more securely to a fork of a branch a bit higher up, and looked forward to falling asleep- I was so tired! I crawled into my warm sleeping bag and then "RIP!" – I ended up on the ground for the second time, the rope had come loose again. This time I was less lucky. I hit the curb 1 ½ metres (4 ½ feet) below the hammock with all my weight. I fell on left hip and felt a stabbing pain. How crazy was that: lots of people are scared of getting robbed in Latin America, catching malaria in Africa or whatever other disasters they can think of, and here I was, falling out of my hammock in Bergl, before the Zotter Magical Mystery Tour had even got off the ground properly, right behind the sausage stall. The whole thing was so stupid that it initially made me laugh out loud, but then I noticed that my leg was really hurting. I grabbed all my stuff and decided to sleep on the wooden floor nearby. Without a foam mat and with my damaged hip I was in terrible pain, but I was far too tired to look for a better place to sleep.
At half past two at night I received a text. Who could have sent it? Suddenly the pain in my hip was gone – who on earth might have sent me their support? It was Liesi! We have known each other for many years and she is a wonderful companion! I replied to her text and then my phone rang. Before we started talking, we had a good laugh at my absurd situation and I said to Liesi: "I had many crazy nights while walking around the world from Austria to Aotearoa (New Zealand), but this really takes the biscuit!" We laughed and told each other stories and by way of good-bye Liesi said: "Enjoy your night in your bed of wood!" "Bed of wood? Are you serious?" I responded. It was like a rock! We laughed again, rang off and I slept until sunrise...
The walk from Zotter to Gölles was hard going. It was only a short walk really, but my rucksack was heavy because of all the equipment I was carrying for my camera and I was limping along because my foot hurt. But still I made it. When I got to Gölles, I sent Simone a text to tell her that I had fallen out of my hammock… twice. A little while later we spoke on the phone and of course: She laughed so hard that I couldn’t help myself, I had to join in her laughter! Not for the first time I noticed that my life feels a lot lighter as soon as I can see the funny side of things.
Gölles supplies balsamic cider vinegar and a number of different varieties of schnapps to Zotter: apricot and plum schnapps, apple, cherry and cane sugar spirits and grappa. The vinegars from Alois Gölles’ artisan workshop originate in Riegersburg in the heart of Styria. 70% of all Austrian apples are harvested in this sun-drenched region, which offers ideal growing conditions for fruit. The diversity of varieties is equally remarkable. The region still boasts meadow and cider orchards where heirloom varieties such as Maschansker, Holzapfel, Ilzer Rosenapfel, Schafnase or Reinette are preserved. These varieties have lost their commercial significance not just because of their unappealing appearance, but also of their high acidity content. But they are perfect for producing premium vinegars. Apart from the rich diversity of apple trees, many different varieties of pears and plums are grown here as well as exquisite wild fruit. Most of the fruit used for the production of Gölles vinegars is grown in their own orchards or sourced from the surrounding region, which is known as the Styrian volcano land.
Vinegar is made from very ripe fruit, which are only available to producers who work directly inside the growing region – very ripe fruit can’t be stored and can only be transported over very short distances. Damaged fruit are picked out by hand before the fruit are mashed, pressed and left to ferment.
In the early 1980’s, Alois Gölles developed a balsamic cider vinegar based on the method for making Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale: apple juice is first reduced by boiling, then fermented into vinegar and stored in wooden barrels for twenty years. As with wine, the character of vinegar changes as it matures, so not every kind of vinegar is suitable for long-term storage. Premium vinegar made from high-quality fruit becomes more interesting with age: the acidity recedes, while the sweetness of the fruit becomes more dominant and blends with the various scents and aromas of the wooden barrels. Gölles was the first Austrian company to store its balsamic cider vinegar for many years in order to produce a first-rate product for quality-conscious customers with sophisticated tastes.
Like good vinegar, good schnapps also depends on the quality of the fruit. To make a good schnapps, you need very ripe, healthy and freshly harvested fruit. You also need the sensory sophistication of a great distiller and the use of state-of-the-art technology such as electronic temperature control during the fermentation and distillation processes and high-precision pitting equipment for certain varieties of fruit. Of course, experience is another essential ingredient: Alois Gölles has been making schnapps since 1979 and fruit has been grown in his orchard for decades.
Alois Gölles talks about what motivates him to run an organic production facility. As a farmer, he is used to thinking in terms of generations, and he would like to pass on his land to his children in a healthy state, rather than destroy it with chemicals. He wants to manage resources responsibly and run his business in an economically efficient way that protects the environment at the same time. His heating system burns wood chips from his own woodlands, waste from the distillery is fermented in the biogas plant, and water is purified and reused. Alois Gölles’ parents still used chemicals because that’s what the experts recommended at the time. Alois himself initially used conventional farming methods, including chemical fertilisers and pesticides. But over time he came to realise how harmful these substances are, and in 2007 he converted his operation to organic farming.
Sepp Zotter and Alois Gölles run their businesses within a few kilometres’ distance from each other. When they first started working together, their common interest in fine food created a bond between them, and a few years ago Alois Gölles decided to follow Josef Zotter in converted his business to organic farming practices. Currently his focus is still on the economic profitability of organic farming, because that makes good business sense. At the same time, he works very conscientiously and consistently to implement organic practices – a vital foundation for a spiritual awareness of living in harmony with our planet and its natural rhythms! Alois: best wishes and many blessings for the future – for "each beginning bears a special magic/that nurtures living and bestows protection," as the German poet Hermann Hesse says in his poem "Die Stufen" ("Steps").