When in Vienna

In the most liveable city in the world, go on a food trail laden with culinary inventions and supremacy

Vienna. Yes, it is the world’s most liveable city. But look what’s on the plate. It is the only capital city in the world to produce significant quantities of wine within its city limits. It has more ice parlours than most European cities. The French croissant can trace its ancestry to Vienna. The Pez was invented here.

But the Austrian capital is not eating out of history. Chefs and entrepreneurs are blending tradition with innovation and creating a new culinary menu. One day in Vienna, during the Vienna Story Stage event, I met New Age Viennese doing old and new things. Blending. Creating. Growing. Farming. Cooking. Old things and new.

Snail meal: Heard of snail meal? Did you read it as snail mail? No, snail meal. A seven-course snail meal. Guftakt. Gabelbissen. Prinz Eisenherz. Lammbock. Smashing pumpkins. Wiener Schnecken Selektion. Subholzraspler. Thank god for the pumpkins. The Smashing Pumpkins. The rest I cannot pronounce. All I know is this is the seven-course snail that Andreas Gugumuck serves. He knows all about snails — he is Austria’s only snail farmer with 3,00,000 snails growing in his farm. Gugumuck can talk in detail about the 1 gram snail caviar, the 20% snail meat in the snail sausage, the snail gunk that erases wrinkles, how snails have babies, and how much they love carrots. And the snail think tank that he has created. Yes, chew on that!

Mushroom in coffee grounds: Coffee is an essential in Vienna. A lot of coffee; so much coffee that every day, 50 tonnes of ground coffee goes into the bin from espresso machines and coffee-makers. Florian Hofer and Manuel Bornbaum decided to use the coffee waste to grow mushrooms. The two students of agriculture emptied their pockets, rented a basement, bought the coffee grounds and grew oyster mushrooms in black polybags. A zero-waste project where oyster mushroom is cultivated in a rather unusual way — using coffee grounds as soil. There is no burden on the overburdened planet — they even use an electric delivery bike to collect coffee grounds from cafes and homes for the elderly, and delivering the harvested oyster mushrooms.

Old-fashioned Vinegar Brewery:

Erwin Gegenbauer is called the Willy Wonka of vinegar. Before you step into his vinegar brewery, borrow an extra ear. For he tells countless stories, of how, at the age of 14, he left an opened bottle of fine wine in his room for a couple of days. The wine had become vinegar. Years later, chucking the ancestral business of pickled gherkins and sauerkraut, he began making vinegar — 70 sorts of vinegar and myriad varieties of oil, coffee, and juices.

Calling himself ‘the world’s smallest vinegar producer’, Gegenbauer does everything the old-fashioned way. He is one of the few vinegar-makers in Europe to still use the Schutzenbach method of fermentation, which was invented in Germany in 1820. Gegenbauer’s farm, complete with vinegar brewery, oil mill and chicken coop, is right in the heart of the city. People come here to learn about vinegar and meet the charming Viennese who tells a million stories.

Austria’s most creative chef: Gault Millau Chef of the Year. Trophée Gourmet’s Austria’s Most Creative Chef. Two Michelin stars and Guide Michelin (2018) Bib Gourmand. And loads of purist, straightforward cuisine. That is Konstantin Filippou, one of the most celebrated chefs of Austria. Think goodness and creativity on the plate. Organic egg with cuttlefish and pork belly. Duck royale with red prawn and batter pearls. Field thistle with meadow baby portobello and Périgord truffle. Standing in Vienna’s Odeon Theatre with fresh greens in a wooden bowl, Filippou talked of the importance of ‘language’. If I did not know he was a chef, I’d think of him as a poet. He talks not of pentameters, but of the language of the ‘cuisine’ — his being a mix of Austrian and Mediterranean borrowed from a Greek father and an Austrian mother. Farm-to- table drives him, and ‘being a vinegar in the crowd that still thinks of the virtues of honey’ is his mantra.

In the ‘World’s Best Restaurant’ list: Meeting Chef Heinz Reitbauer is not easy. He is a busy chef. Finding a table in Steirereck Restaurant is near-impossible. One cannot walk and ask for a table for two. Bookings are made weeks in advance. The restaurant carries a reputation — 2 Michelin stars, 4 Gault-Millau toques, and ranks 10th in the World’s Best Restaurants list. I flipped through the lunch menu: wild boar’s head with ‘Purple Haze’ carrots, pineapple, tardivo radicchio & buckwheat; Viennese wedding soup (beef consommé with traditional condiments); Rosa Bianca (aubergine with vanilla, peppers & ice-crystal salad); poppy-seed noodles; sunflower-seed souffle; and char with beeswax, yellow carrot, pollen and sour cream.

So focussed is this chef on local produce, Austrian recipes and seasonal food that he never follows food fads. He creates one. Like, beeswax, the liquid gold. “There are so many things you can do with beeswax, but what I like about it the most is that you can reuse the wax several times and return it to the beekeeper who will recycle it. No waste. Isn’t that wonderful?” Sure. It is.

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When in Vienna

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