In the previous post On Family Recipes and Giving Thanks I explained (in my own words) why certain foods became embedded within a country’s tradition, and said that I would give you a real example of this being the case. Well I like to try and keep my word when I can, so let’s get started!
Grab coffee/tea/wine/something stronger if it’s one of those days(!), take a seat at my dinner table and get comfy.
The example I’ll be using is Austria.
Because it has some of the richest culinary history in Europe
Although if you’re from England or further afield, you probably wouldn’t think it: whenever anyone says the words “rich culinary history”, you tend to think of France and Italy. We’re always told how the French really know how to cook, and the Michelin star ratings come from there and all the Big Celebrity Chefs are taught the French styles, so it must be the epitome of cuisine. And of course Italy – the bastardised recipes that make up a large part of our diets clearly mean that their cooking had a massive impact on us all – the pasta, the pizzas, the tomato-onion-garlic combination (which actually isn’t often used together in Italian cooking – too strong a blend; Italian cooking is much more subtle than you’d think as well!). Thus, in some ways, it’s certainly correct to think of France and Italy as places with some of the richest culinary history.
I must also confess that I am horribly biased too – my partner is Austrian, and I love him and his family very dearly. They do have damn good food there, but most of it remains “internal”, only really known by people who live there or have strong connections with the place. Austria is a somewhat introspective country, which I believe is the main reason you might not have heard of it as a culinary centre.
So let’s look at the local foods that clearly come from the land.
Wheat is massively prevalent in Austrian food
And, much like Germany, they have an immense array of breads, “noodles” (read: localised pasta) and dumplings as part of their dinners. They’re very creative with their dumplings – who’d have thought of making not just savoury dumplings to go into stews, like Serviettenknödel (white bread dumplings with parsley), but also sweet dumplings, such as Topfenknödel (quark dumplings, boiled and served with icing sugar and jam)? And let’s not forget the Great Winter Bake-Off – all the good women of Austria (and Germany, and probably the German speaking parts of Switzerland too) make biscuits and cookies for Christmas that everyone snacks on almost every day. In my partner’s family they make enough to last for several months, and in all kinds of shapes and flavours, and certain biscuits like Vanillekipferln (vanilla crescent-shaped biscuits – for once, the German word is better!) are a real favourite.
All the traditional meat dishes are from the land rather than the sea, since Austria is landlocked.
Fish dishes are exclusively river or lake fish dishes – Gebackener Karpfen (deep fried carp), Hechtnockerl (pike dumplings) and so on. I sometimes joke that the meat dishes are an exercise in determining how many ways you can cut up a cow or pig in order not to waste anything (a vegetarian’s or vegan’s nightmare, I’m sorry to say), but the reality is that it’s no different to the rest of Europe and old English cooking in this sense.
The effect of trade on Austrian cuisine is fascinating, because it brought French chefs to serve the aristocracy in Vienna, and with them came the fine dessert and techniques.
The result is that a large number of desserts are actually more French in style at first glance. The most important example of this really is the Sachertorte.
The Sachertorte was developed by a French Hapsburg patisserie chef for the 1815 Congress of Vienna following the Napoleonic Wars at Hotel Sacher. It is a dark chocolate sponge cake with an apricot jam filling and glaze, which is then covered by a dark chocolate glaze. I like to think of it as the ultimate “death by chocolate” cake, but here is the exquisite thing: when you have a slice of it, it’s not actually that sweet, which is unexpected. It feels like you’re eating a rather filling slice of chocolate with a slightly cakey texture, but the flavours are so finely balanced that it doesn’t taste too sweet or bitter. You also feel utterly satisfied once you’ve had it, and you probably won’t want any more chocolate for a week afterwards!
Now that is a very simplified history of the Sachertorte – it was the subject of a big patent lawsuit between the two most famous cafés of Vienna (Hotel Sacher and Café Demel) and is still under heavy intellectual property protection to this day. The point of this story is that, without the French influence, Vienna (and eventually Austria) wouldn’t have had such a cake that they could label as “traditional” and “a national treasure”.
But by far the most interesting influence historically on Austrian cuisine is the effect of imperialism and the spoils of war.
In my previous blog post I talked about how coffee became more widespread as a result of the Austro-Turkish Wars, but Austria had been the seat of an empire before then. The Holy Roman Empire was founded in 962 and ending in 1806 during the Napoleonic Wars and spanned from Eastern France to Austria and the Czech Republic to the West, from central Italy in the South to Denmark in the North. Under the Holy Roman Empire, the Hapsburg Family governed Austria, Hungary and further east into Croatia and Slovenia. This wide spanning empire encompassed a lot of different peoples under one banner, and this had a dramatic effect on what is now considered to be traditional Austrian food.
For example: when someone talks about beef goulash, you automatically think of Hungary and its tomato-rich, soupy goulashes. Austria also considers beef goulash to be a traditional dish (Rindsgulasch), however they would actually call the Hungarian version a “Gulaschsuppe”, a goulash soup, because the Austrian beef goulash is very thick, much more like a stew but with very little liquid left in it when it’s done properly. There are numerous types of goulash traditional to Austria, including veal goulash (Kalbsgulasch), potato goulash (Kartoffelgulasch/Erdäpfelgulasch), and mushroom goulash (Schwammerlgulasch) being among the ones my partner grew up with. There is in fact a restaurant in Vienna called the Gulaschmuseum, which serves only goulash, but in its many different forms, including a rather devilish “chocolate goulash” dessert.
Don’t worry, it doesn’t contain garlic, paprika, marjoram or caraway seeds (often referred to as “the goulash spices” in older recipe books, in much the same way as in older French recipe books they just refer to “the bouquet garni”, meaning bay leaves, parsley and thyme in a tied muslin cloth to be added to the pot and taken out after a certain time or before serving).
In order to help assimilate the new cultures into the Holy Roman Empire and eventually the Hapsburg/Austro-Hungarian Empire, recipes traditional to that region became part of the network and were titled to reflect that region – such as the Tiroler Gröstle, Esterhazybraten and so on.
The Tirol region is one of the most interesting places because it’s a region that has both Austrians and Italians living there, and the traditional dishes reflect that.
Two examples: first, what we would know as tortellini is actually also similar to stuffed pasta in Carinthia (Kärntner Kasnudeln).
Second, consider Italian gnocchi – little potato dumplings that are often served with savoury sauces such as sage and butter. In Austria, instead of having them savoury, they would rather eat them sweet – with icing sugar and poppy seeds (Möhnnudeln).
This kind of thing is quite common, where Austrians would take something that is usually savoury and make them sweet – traditionally they have a sweeter tooth than other nations. It’s partly because lunch is the main meal of the day and they would rather have a smaller dinner, but something sweet instead as a little treat before going to bed – therefore you have pancake-type dishes like Panatschinken, Kaiserschmarren and the Topfenknödel mentioned back near the start of this. It’s also partly because Empress Sisi (Empress Elisabeth) had a sweet tooth and, in order to maintain her 18inch waist, she chose to not eat much, so when she did eat, she wanted it to be sweet foods, and this set something of a fashion amongst the few who did like her (like most royals, she wasn’t as popular as the current nostalgia would let you believe except in Hungary – despite not being Hungarian herself, she had a strong affinity for the country which was reflected back at her by her people). It should be noted that after her assassination, doctors performing her autopsy discovered she would have died anyway from years of severe self-inflicted malnutrition.
So, this has hopefully given you a flavour of some traditional Austrian foods and some reasons why they came to be. If you go deep into the history of any peoples (not so much “nation” since territorial boundary lines have changed too many times) you’ll see how these common themes affected national dishes – what naturally exists, what is brought in by trade, and what an empire can bring.