One of the best things about summer in Austria is spending lazy afternoons in the beer gardens. In Graz, we have some particularly fine ones, but my favourite is on the Schlossberg, the old castle hill. The hill dominates the city, and gives Graz its name, which comes from the old Serbian word Gradec, which means fort. Since the Napoleonic wars however, the castle has been nothing but a ruin, as the victorious forces ordered the defenders of the city to dismantle their fortress. They peole of Graz paid a ransom for their most beloved landmarks, the bell tower, and the clock tower, and they still stand over the city, chiming the hours faithfully.
The rest of the old castle, the old barracks and stables, the dungeons and the gunpowder stores, have all been given over to the pleasure of the people of Graz. They are now concert halls and restaurants, bars, and pretty little cafes. The middle of the hill was hollowed out like honeycomb during World War Two, and now there is a railway for children, and a huge concert venue buried deep in the rock.
But the very best thing about the Schlossberg is when friends and family come to visit, and we go to the beer garden on the top of the hill. We drink beer, eat soft pretzels and look out at the view which stretches to the Alps in the north, and to Slovenia in the south. The pretzels are the perfect beer snack, and a beer garden shaded by the Kastanienbäume is the perfect place to enjoy them, but a barbecue with plenty of cold beer and sausages would make a good substitute.
Brezeln are not particularly difficult to make, but they do require precision. Normally, when baking bread you can leave the bead to prove for an hour or two hours, and it does not make much difference. With the brezeln, it is really essential that you follow the timings accurately. It is also very important that you cover them with a plastic bag, not with a damp tea towel as I was first told. They stay much softer if you exclude as much air as possible.
The most enjoyable part of the pretzels is forming them. A man in a pub showed me how to do it, and I have tried to recreate it with photographs. It takes a bit of practice, but is quite fun. If you really can’t do it, they taste good rolled into hot dog bun shapes, and stuffed with salami.
How to make soft pretzels: (Makes 8-10)
25g fresh yeast
25g margarine, melted
25g bicarbonate of soda
1 heaped tsp salt,
Coarse-grained salt or sesame seeds for sprinkling
1 Tbsp sugar
Put the flour and sugar in a large bowl. Make a well in the centre and crumble over the yeast. Add 100ml of lukewarm water and mix. It will not form a real dough at this point, but a crumbly “pre-dough”. Cover and leave it for 15 minutes.
Take the pre-dough and add the salt, the melted margarine and 175ml of lukewarm water. Work it until it comes together to form a dough and then take it out and knead it on a lightly floured work surface until it is smooth and elastic. Pinch of a piece of dough and taste it, it should be quite salty, add more if you think it needs it.
Divide the dough into eight or ten pieces. Form them to balls and put on a board. Put the whole board inside a carrier bag , close the bag loosely, and leave in a warm place for half an hour.
After half an hour, form the pretzels. Start by rolling the shapes into long sausages. Then, pick them up by the ends and swing them like a skipping rope. Do this very gently, so that they form two long, thin “arms” and a fat “belly” in the middle.
Twist the arms around each other, and form to a pretzel shape like in the pictures. At this point you can twist and stretch your pretzel as much as you like until you have the perfect shape. Remember to leave a lot of space on the inside of the pretzel so that they have room to rise.
Put the pretzels back on the board and in the bag, and return to the warm place for fifteen minutes.
In the meantime, preheat the oven to 200°C and line two large baking trays with parchment.
Boil a litre of water and dissolve the bicarbonate of soda in it.
Take one pretzel and trying to handle it as little as possible, put it on a slotted spoon and slide into the boiling solution of bicarb. Time it for twenty seconds, then fish it out, let it drain a moment, and put it on the baking tray. Sprinkle with either salt or sesame seeds while it is still wet. Repeat with the remaining pretzels
Put in the oven and bake for twenty minute, until golden brown. Swap the trays over halfway to make sure that all the pretzels are equally cooked.
Enjoy in the sun with beer and sausage.