And Now There Was This Woman, Austria: My Viennese Affair, Fall 2014
“Strangely enough these were women in history, Louise de la Valliere, Catherine of Russia, Madame de Maintenon, Catherine de’ Medici, and two women out of literature, Anna Karenina and Catherine Heathcliff; and now there was this woman Austria.” – Djuna Barnes in Nightwood
My introduction to Austrian cuisine dates back to 1984, when I spent a week of what remained of my summer holiday with my parents in Tyrol, in the western part of Austria. I had just spent a month in a small town called Thame, in Oxfordshire, boarding with a local family and going to the school their children went to. After a steady diet of sandwiches and cold cuts, I was ravenous for good food, for I always had a big appetite.
In Tyrol, we stayed in a small, sleepy town called Seefeld, which only came alive during winter, when it became a full-fledged ski resort. A friend of my mother’s, Katja Rass, owned a lovely B&B on the foot of the hill that looked out over a green pasture, with a postcard-perfect backdrop of the Alps. She had let us stay there, free of charge, and I can’t remember a happier memory from my teenage years.
It was during that week that I was introduced to such Austrian specialties as tafelspitz (boiled beef in broth, served with horseradish sauce), the closest thing Austria has to a national dish; zwiebelrostbraten (roast beef served with gravy, garnished with fried onion rings); leberknodelsuppe (beef liver-ball soup), kaiserschmarren (shredded pancake, sprinkled with powdered sugar, served hot with fruit compote, usually plum), and, of course, the famous Wiener Schnitzel (thin, breaded and fried veal, or pork).
The long, complicated names didn’t bother me at all for my father, who studied in Berlin, speaks fluent German and often peppers his speech with German words. And because he was quite the cook himself, I grew up with bratkartoffeln (roast potatoes) and sauerkraut (sour cabbage) as much as I did with nasi goreng and bubur ayam. His favorite jam at the time, which is now also mine, was Johanisbeere (black currant). This familiarity made it easier for me to embrace the rest of the hearty Austrian repertoire, and even to turn cleaning out my plate—despite the gigantic portions—into something of a sport. We’re only twelve once!
Three Tyrolean trips later—two of which were reached from Munich through the German state of Bavaria, which meant lunch stops at a forellen haus to feast on trout pan-fried in butter and almond and tea time of topfentorte (quark or cream cheese pie) or mohnpalatschinken (crepes doused in cream sauce) with our mélange (that most Viennese of all things Viennese: half a cup of black coffee half a cup creamy milk, topped with foam)—the I was a pro. Or so I thought.
Vienna came next, and I dutifully completed my Austrian education with a quick run through the cakes—the Sacher torte, so beloved it merits its own National Day, on 5 December, apfel strudel, punschkrapfen, Malakov Torte (layered cake made with ladyfingers and cream), etc.—but I didn’t have much of a sweet tooth then. The Sacher torte was definitely too rich and too sweet for my taste, and all the other desserts seemed equally calorific. Instead, it was the humble semel—bread roll, crusty on the outside, chewy on the inside—that stole my heart. I could eat at least half a dozen of them in a day.
What also became apparent to me quite early was that if Vienna were a person, it would be a woman (just as Budapest is undoubtedly a man). Cities are funny that way; you just know.
It is now thirty years since that first trip, and I am back in Vienna, with my husband, who grew up here. We married in late 2011, and now with my daughter in her second year in college in the US, we have more time on our hands to go on overseas trips together. I had just returned from New York, where I had a full week of binge-eating in between attending The New Yorker Festival events, and at first didn’t think I would be able to relive my teenage culinary trip, reduced, ‘modern’ portions notwithstanding.
How wrong I was! A week in Vienna turned out to be as much a culinary week as it was a lovely stroll down memory lane—for my husband, that is—and a reconnection, for me, with this strangely aloof, yet beautiful city.
So here is a small taste of our experience:
Herrengasse 14, 1010, Vienna
Tel. +43 1 5333763
"And who will lead this revolution? Perhaps Mr. Bronstein (Leon Trotsky) sitting over there at the Cafe Central?”– Count Berchtold to Victor Adler
This is one of your cultural do-or-dies in Vienna, and it’s best to get it over and done with as soon as you can. My husband, who arrived four days earlier from Jakarta, took me here almost as soon as I landed, sleep-laced from the East Coast time zone, and sat me down to a bowl of goulash, perhaps a little too wintry for the Indian summer, yet soothing all the same, accompanied by a glass of the ubiquitous Gelber Muskatel, a renowned local wine. Dry, I mouthed. Welcome to Vienna, he said.
Judging from the goulash and the carelessly prepared Kaiserschmarren—a sloppy rendition of a sloppy dish, if you will—I suspect you don’t go to Café Central to eat. You go for the ghosts of all the turn-of-the-century artists, intellectuals and men of history who had sat here for comfort, inspiration or a good old fight (Schnitzler, Freud and van Hoffmansthal were regulars, so were Lenin, Trotsky and Hitler), for the interior—fin de siècle decadent from head to toe—and for a dose of that famous Viennese hospitality, ie. snooty service, to set you straight for the rest of your stay. Welcome to Vienna.
Brandstatte 9, 1010, Vienna
Tel. +43 1 5337215
The 110-year old Café Korb wears its age with grace—there is not an ounce of pretense about it, and instead of Gustav Klimt you get Dieter Roth and Arnulf Rainer on the walls. At lunch time, the room seems the domain of solo diners—ladies, mainly, tucking daintily into their salads —but outside is where the real bustle is, with regulars and tourists enjoying their coffee, or wine, and watch the world go by.
The art lounge downstairs has become a hub for contemporary artists with a real edge—and just as well, for I can’t imagine Elfriede Jelinek, apparently a regular, giving her seal of approval on anything else.
Resnicekgasse 10, 1090, Vienna
Tel. +43 3179140
We would never have found this cosy, genial beisl in the 9th district if we hadn’t visited K’s old friend from the World Bank, who lived around the corner. Zum Reznicek serves up the cuisine of Old Vienna, both noble (tafelspitz et al) and proletarian (innards, mainly) and has reputedly excelled at it for years.
When asked about the duck, apparently the house specialty, the lady owner shook her head and said, “You should have ordered in advance.” But November is Martini Goose month, and it is around the corner.
No matter—turned out October did just fine as we tucked into what must be the most exquisite pumpkin soup (kurbissuppe) in memory, spruced up by a few drops of pumpkin seed oil and red wine balsamico—it was creamy, sweet and tangy; haute and hearty at once.
Feeling magnanimous, I went for the Wiener schnitzel and was promptly disappointed—though not too much. It was still a solid dish, the schnitzels tender and generous even though the batter was no match for Plachutta, and for the first time in my life I was assailed by the temptation to gorge on meat until I passed out.
K, who had an epic hankering for proper Austrian knodel (beef liver balls) ordered the deer ragout with potato knodel and was also a little unhappy with his dish. (But the deer ragout was lovely, and did more than compensate. The potato salad, bratkartoffeln, spaetzle and red cabbage lived up to their rustic roots, as do, by reputation, fried brain with eggs and the more offal-driven dishes such as the salonbeuschel, chopped calf’s liver and heart served with creamy caper sauce.
The big-hearted, tavern-like hospitality (helps if you know the owners) capped off what was perhaps one of my most memorable evenings in Vienna.