A taste of Vienna

From succulent meats to hearty stews to decadent desserts, the Austrian capital has everything a foodie could ever ask for, writes Neeta Lal

Vienna

It’s a touch of the Alps, a healthy portion of Hungary, Bohemia, Moravia, Northern Italy, a dash of Croatia and Galicia, a bit of Yiddish, a little Bavarian, all rounded off with inspiration from Styria and Slovenia.”

Well-known Austrian food critic Florian Holzer’s words about Austrian cuisine could well describe the scrumptious food of its capital city, Vienna. A beguiling combination of traditions from across the former Austro-Hungarian empire, as well as a local culinary scene that rivals those of Paris or London, Vienna is a compelling spot for travelling gastronomes.

From schnitzel (breaded and pan-fried veal/chicken/pork) to moist cakes, sausages to hearty stews, piquant salads to juicy wines and gooey desserts, Vienna offers a sizzling gastronomic landscape. Needless to say, the imperial city took my taste buds places they’d never been.
Ditto, the needle of my weighing scale, which hovered perilously close to several kgs more after my week-long sojourn!

Time for a cup of coffee

Anyway, it’s pointless obsessing over one’s waistline in this foodie city. Ergo, I prepared enthusiastically for my first taste of Viennese gastronomy at one of the city’s landmark venues — Café Frauenheuber — where Mozart created mellifluous music. This is where I sample melange (akin to a cappuccino) coffee, a Viennese classic. The brew is perky and froth-topped, served the traditional way — on a silver tray with a small glass of water and the signature spoon on top of that. 

As I scanned the cafe’s menu, I came across dramatic coffee monikers like the franziskaner (Franciscan monk, coffee topped with whipped cream); Mozart (a double espresso served with a big mound of whip cream and a small glass of sherry), kaisermelange (made with eggs), and a dozen other local variations.

My local guide informed me that since the 18th century, a Viennese kaffehaus has remained an integral part of the city’s cultural and culinary life. So much so that Viennese coffeehouse culture was officially added to the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage list in 2011.

Though Vienna is peppered with over 800 coffee houses today, each one has its own personality and interesting tales revolve celebrities who frequented it, be it Sigmund Freud, Egon Schiele, Leon Trotsky, Gustav Klimt
Johann Strauss, Mozart or Beethoven.

Viennese restaurants offer an interesting sneak peek into the country’s culture. I visit Meirerei in Stadtpark in the heart of the city for a quintessentially Austrian lunch. In their original avatar, Meirerei were dairy farms that supplied milk to the local population. In continuation of this rustic tradition, milk bars mushroomed throughout the city in parks and gained immense popularity among locals during the 20th century.

However, during their construction, to regulate the course of the Wienfluss river through Stadtpark, the architects built a pavilion-shaped Meierei in 1903. Today, the venue houses Steirereck, a reputed eatery with two Michelin stars to its name and 10th place on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list. It also pays homage to milk bars with a wall of white milk bottles and a menu showcasing 120 varieties of cheeses!

From an expansive menu, I opt for goulash (a Hungarian import) and wiener schnitzel, Austria’s national dish. The flavour-charged goulash appealed greatly to my Asian palate, seasoned as the hearty beef stew was with piquant tomatoes, onion, paprika with semmelknödel (dumplings) floating in it.

Up next was the schnitzel. Crafted from a thin cutlet of veal that was breaded and then pan-fried in butter or lard, it was simple yet delicious. Though it was fried in lard, it was remarkably light, enveloped in a golden-brown crust. It was garnished with lemon and fresh parsley with a potato salad on the side providing a nice burst of umami.

Sweet treats in Vienna
Sweet treats in Vienna

How sweet!

Though I don’t have a sweet tooth, I visited the highly recommended Imperial Bakery at Café Residenz for a taste of Vienna’s best-known dessert — the apfelstrudel. The dish became popular around Eastern Europe under the influence of the Habsburg empire. Sold in bakeries, cafes and restaurants around Vienna, this is a refreshing counterpoint to the denser American apple pie.

Located inside the country’s number one attraction — Schonbrunn Palace — the bakery hosts a popular ‘Strudel Show’ twice daily where a witty chef rustles up the strudel creating a pastry so thin I could see through it! “Strudel is typically made with a light, crisp pastry dough that’s stretched and thinned, filled with apples, sugar, raisins, lemon, rum, cinnamon, and cloves,” she elaborated while pounding the dough to make it translucent. Garnished with breadcrumbs mixed with nuts and dusted with powdered sugar, the sweetmeat can also be filled with other fruits, including berries and apricots, she told us as we watched her cook the classic while savouring coffee and strudel served at the show.

Snack time

The sausage is to Vienna what the hamburger is to America — the country’s favourite snack. Simple yet bursting with flavour, Austrian sausages are traditionally made from both beef and pork and encased in sheeps’ intestine. Served with sharp mustard, they are paired with potato salad, radishes, spring asparagus, and other fresh vegetables.

To try this yummy treat, I went with my local guide Ilse Heigworth to a wurstel stand. These cheap sausage kiosks are a Viennese institution. Scattered around the city, they offer a variety of delicious sausages like the bosna, cheese-filled bratwurst (nicely sliced into bite-sized discs) or the spicy currywurst. Bitzinger Sausage Stand, widely held as city’s best, especially enjoys cult status and this is where we stopped for our fill of hot sausages served with rye bread and mustard that comes in suss (mild) or scharf (fiercely hot). We carry our wurstel to the nearby escalators to the top of the Albertina terrace and enjoy it with a panoramic view of the city.  

On the last day of my trip, I visit Vienna’s famous food market — Naschmarket. The colourful bazaar offers a slice of local life with shopkeepers, artisanal farmers and producers from over 40 nations hawking everything from fresh fruit to vegetables to herbs, spices, cheese, sausage, seafood, vinegar, apparel and footwear. The atmosphere is so thick it can be sliced with a knife. The sounds, sights and smells are tantalising with vendors hollering and inviting you for free tastings. Israeli, Irani, Egyptian and Turkish cafes selling succulent kebabs, shakshuka, falafel, and other yummy treats add to the market’s atmospherics.

And as I strolled through the market, the place struck me as the perfect symbol of a beautiful and pluralistic city that has embraced foreign cultures and its people to create a multi-hued and vibrant food tapestry of its own.

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