Which Austrian cheeses are protected foods and why?

Italy’s Parmesan is well known for having the Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) status, but are there any protected cheeses in Austria? Here’s what you need to know.

Which Austrian cheeses are protected foods and why?
Six Austrian cheeses have PDO status. Photo by Nastya Sensei / Pexels.

Austrian cheese might not be as famous as cheese from its EU neighbours like France and Italy, but the small Alpine republic has still managed to make a name for itself as a cheese-producing nation.

In fact, there are six cheeses in Austria with PDO status, all of which originate in the mountains and are worth a taste.

What does PDO mean?

PDO is an EU quality scheme for food, wine and agricultural products. The term refers to a geographical indication of a product due to intellectual property and a special connection to the place where it is made.

The status is then used by producers to market their products and allows consumers to identify quality products from a specific area.

To be granted PDO status, every part of the production, processing and preparation of a product must take place in the designated region.

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Gailtaler Almkäse

Gailtaler Almkäse originates from the Alps region of Carinthia in the south east of Austria. It is a hard cheese made from mostly untreated cow’s milk and up to ten percent raw goat’s milk.

The first references to the cheese were found in the land register from 1375 to 1381 with details about cheese-making on the pastures of the Gail and Lesach Valleys, so this is a cheese with a long history.

The story behind Gailtaler Almkäse is that farmers found it hard to transport milk over the mountains during the Middle Ages, so instead of letting the milk go to waste it was preserved in the form of cheese.

Today, the spicy-tasting cheese is produced on 13 different pastures in the region and is often served as part of a charcuterie board.

Tiroler Almkäse

Tiroler Almkäse (mountain pasture cheese), also known as Tiroler Alpkäse, is a long-lasting hard cheese made from raw alpine cow’s milk. It is characterised by its strong flavour and higher fat content and takes between 90 to 120 days to mature.

The origins of this product go back to a document from 1544 in the Tyrolean state archives that details the production of the artisan cheese in mountain settlements. As above, this cheese was traditionally made to withstand the long winters without going bad and to be easily transported.

Cheese-making alms in Tyrol are located up to 2,500 metres above sea level and many still make this traditional cheese today.

Tiroler Bergkäse 

This is another hard cheese from the Tyrolean Alps with an aromatic, slightly spicy flavour.

The Tiroler Bergkäse (mountain cheese, in English) is made from raw cow’s milk. The cows are mostly fed green fodder and hay from the surrounding mountains and pastures, which gives the cheese its signature flavour.

Records show Tiroler Bergkäse goes back to the 1940s when the production of long-lasting cheese with a high fat content spread across the region. This was to make it even easier for cheese to be transported to larger cities, like Vienna and Berlin, from the Tyrolean valleys.

For Tiroler Bergkäse to receive the PDO certification there are a couple of strict rules: the milk must not be transported before production, and the fodder for the cows must not contain any fermented fodder or hay milk to preserve the flavour.

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Tiroler Graukäse

The name of this cheese translates to grey cheese and it has a cult-like reputation in Tyrol – both among locals and holiday makers.

Unlike the other Tiroler PDO varieties, the Tiroler Graukäse from the Zillertaler Alps is a low-fat cheese (made from skimmed milk) and has a strong flavour and smell. 

This cheese is even touted as a high protein ‘sports dish’ when served with onion, chives, naturally cloudy apple cider vinegar, cold-pressed oil, cracked black pepper and bread. As an extra health benefit, there is only around 1 percent fat in 100g Graukäse but around 30g of protein.

Despite the name, Graukäse is usually white or yellow in appearance.

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Vorarlberger Alpkäse

It is believed that production of this cheese dates back to the Thirty Years’ War within the Roman Empire between 1618 to 1648, but the name Vorarlberger Alpkäse has only officially been in use since the 18th Century.

The Vorarlberger Alpkäse is another hard cheese from natural raw milk and is produced in the Vorarlberg Alps – in Austria’s most western province – during the summer months. 

The cheese gets its spicy flavour from the alpine vegetation that the cows eat and the soil is carefully managed to protect the herbs and grasses on the meadows.

Like in Tyrol, this type of cheese was made to survive the long alpine winters after locals learnt about the production process from their Swiss neighbours.

Vorarlberger Bergkäse

Similar to the Vorarlberger Alpkäse, the Bergkäse is a traditionally made hard cheese from natural raw alpine milk. It is believed production of this cheese started in the 14th Century.

The strong flavour of the cheese is impacted by the milk used, the alpine flora and the local climate, while the production method remains manual, resulting in an artisan cheese.

Today, Vorarlberger Alpkäse is exclusively made in the districts of Bregenzerwald, Kleinwalsertal, Großwalsertal, Laiblachtal (Pfänderstock) and Rheintal.

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Austrian traditions: How to celebrate St. Martin’s Day in Austria

Austrians celebrate St. Martin's Day, also known as Martinstag, even if it is not an official bank holiday. From traditional food to parades, here's how to enjoy the day.

Austrian traditions: How to celebrate St. Martin's Day in Austria

Austria is a very catholic country and several important dates for the church are official bank holidays. However, even the dates that are not holidays are still often celebrated by the population – even if just by preparing a traditional meal.

Martinstag, or St. Martin’s Day, is one of those dates that people don’t get off from work, but still, many Austrians will commemorate every November 11th. 

Who was Saint Martin?

According to Catholic tradition, Saint Martin of Tours was a “conscientious objector who wanted to be a monk; a monk who was manoeuvred into being a bishop; a bishop who fought paganism as well as pleaded for mercy to heretics”. 

As the legend goes, Saint Martin, a Roman soldier, gave a beggar half his red cloak to protect him during a snowstorm. 

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Through this good deed, Saint Martin is considered the patron saint of travellers and the poor and is seen as an example to children to share and be giving.

One legend has it that he hid in a goose stall when he was summoned by the church to become a bishop, as he felt unworthy. But the geese cackled so loudly that Martin was found – and now geese are eaten on his name day.

How is the date celebrated?

The main festivities revolve around the evening meal; traditionally, Martinigansl goose often served with cabbage and dumplings.

Mid-November was the time of year when farmers completed their autumn wheat seeding and slaughtered the fattened cattle before the winter.

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But across Austria, St Martin’s Day, and the weeks leading up to it, is marked by eating Martinigansl – roasted goose served with aromatic chestnuts, red cabbage and fluffy bread dumplings. The meal is just as important for some people as Easter and Christmas dinners.

Traditionally, the day is also the occasion for naming the year’s new wine. Therefore, it has special significance for the wine regions and villages in Burgenland around Lake Neusiedl.

Where can I try the traditional meal?

If you’re planning to try Martinigansl in Vienna, the Kurier newspaper recommends Rudi’s Beisl in the 5th district. Their goose is served with red cabbage, white cabbage and potato or bread dumplings for €29.90.

If you don’t eat meat, you could try the ‘goose’ at Cafe Harvest, Vienna’s second district. It’s made from soy fillets and served along with red cabbage and potato dumplings. It’s already available for €17.80.

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A goose broth with baked Kaiserschöberl croutons is followed by free-range goose breast with goose praline, red cabbage, and Waldviertel dumplings. Dessert is a sweet baked apple served with gingerbread foam. 


The St. Martins procession

In parts of Austria, children celebrate Martinstag by carrying paper lanterns they have made in school in an evening procession. In some places, the lantern procession ends with a Martinsfeuer (bonfire).

“Der Laternenumzug”, or lantern procession, is an annual celebration in honour of St. Martin’s Day. 

However, while St. Martin’s Day is an occasion celebrated by Catholics across Europe, including the UK, this children’s tradition seems to only be commonplace in German-speaking regions (Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Luxembourg and some areas of Belgium, Italy and Poland).

READ ALSO: German word of the day: Der Laternenumzug

The procession is usually organised through local kindergartens and schools, and the children themselves often make the lanterns during their classes. The children are often accompanied by a man dressed as St. Martin in his iconic red cloak.