At first glance, Kroll is a cafe that sums up Innsbruck's often jarring mix of old and new. In the heart of the city's medieval warren, its ceilings are low and vaulted, with tables squeezed into alcoves. But there's a breezy modernity to it – goodies behind glass counters, coffee machine earning its keep as workers drop in for an early morning caffeine hit. It's supposedly an 800-year-old former prison, with the heavy metal doors hinting at that past, but it's also the only place open early on a Sunday morning.
What makes Kroll truly special, though, is what's behind those glass counters – strudels, strudels and more strudels. It is determined to rip up everyone's assumptions about Austria's kitschiest, but most beloved dish. For a start, it's not all about the apples. While the good people of the Tyrol region know that any stewed fruit can be put into their traditional dessert, worldwide strudel intake tends to be limited to pastry stuffed full of apple, perhaps with the odd sultana thrown in and a sprinkling of cinnamon.
Indeed, at Kroll, apple is the bestseller. But it's very much treated as a gateway drug to a bizarre world of flavours that would make Willy Wonka think he's got serious competition. What starts with other fruits – mango, peach, plum and walnut – branches off into sweet-savoury combinations such as sour cherry and ricotta and then goes full savoury. A chicken curry, or cabbage and bacon, strudel suddenly becomes something you can have as a lunchtime meal rather than a guilty afternoon treat. That, of course, is the plan – making strudel an any time of day all-rounder.
The cafe opened 42 years ago, under the steady hand of Margit Kroll. It was the first time a bakery and coffee shop had been put together in the centre of Innsbruck. When Margit's daughter, Stephanie Cammerlander, took over in 2005, however, she looked at how supermarkets were muscling in on bread sales and realised a new concept was needed.
"It could have gone wrong, but the strudel concept worked from the first day," says Cammerlander. "The ingredients are quite healthy and light, largely fruit and vegetables, and the varieties are endless. I also like that you can make them to go with whatever's in season – asparagus, mushrooms or cherries for instance.
"Some are traditional recipes, some new creations. My favourite is spelt with sweet cheese and apricot jam."
Kroll will generally offer at least 20 flavours of strudel at any one time, and with three half-sized strudels available for €8.40, they can be attacked almost like a tasting flight in a wine bar.
It would be easy to dismiss as a gimmick, although Cammerlander is intensely proud of the quality standards. It's still a family business so there's also plenty of heart and in a wider sense than just ownership. The Kroll Feinbackerei, the bakery where all the strudels are made, is on the other side of the building and is run as a standalone business by Cammerlander's cousin. And Cammerlander's mother hasn't retired, either. She still makes the jam and the elderflower syrup.
"The eggs come from my mother's hens at home," she says, in what seems to be a happy trading system. "The hens eat the leftover strudels, and we get the eggs from them. All products we don't sell go to the animals."
The hens eat well, and so do the perplexed visitors who come in search of a sweet treat and end up reassessing their whole perception of what a strudel should be. Spinach, feta and pine nuts, anyone?
David Whitley was a guest of Innsbruck Tourismus.
Lufthansa, codesharing with Cathay Pacific and Austrian Airlines, operates two-stop routes to Innsbruck from Melbourne and Sydney. See lufthansa.com
Stage 12 combines a traditional exterior with wooden floors and a raft of quirky design touches. Doubles from $200, room only. See stage12.at
Cafe Kroll is at Hofgasse 6. See strudel-cafe.at