Austrian Food: An empire on your plate
Travel writer Pam Mandel takes a bite out of Austria’s bread (and cheese and cake) to tell the tale of this gastronomically inclined country.
Austria is often mistaken as a meat-and-potatoes region, a sort of “cabbage belt” territory where the food is stodgy, brown and smothered in lumpy gravy. While it’s certainly possible to find a cheap cut of meat plated with boiled spuds and some overcooked green vegetable, there’s no reason to settle for that, none at all. Austria was a great empire once, with influence that reached south into Italy, west to France and south to the Adriatic Sea. Historically tumultuous relations with the Ottoman Empire to the east brought further refinements like pistachios and a wider variety of spices to the Austrian plate. The Austrians had fusion cuisine before it was called “fusion.” As for farm-to-table, the country has a long history of both environmentally sound farming and farm-based restaurants and guest houses.
Austria has produced a handful of celebrity chefs — Peter Grunauer and Wolfgang Puck are probably the best known — but Austrian cuisine hasn’t had its day like French or Italian food has. Don’t let that dissuade you, foodie traveller. The back road “gasthaus,” the big city café, even the cafeteria at the rest stop gas station serves up some of Europe’s finest food. For three meals a day, plus an over-the-top coffee break in the afternoon, Austrian food will do more than fuel your mountain hikes or cultural explorations, it will change your ideas about eating well.
Bread and cheese
You’ll find bread and cheese at both ends of your day, often accompanied by a plate of charcuterie (fancy cold cuts), maybe some sliced tomatoes, hardboiled eggs, a little fruit. If all this sounds a little pedestrian, don’t be fooled, the Austrians do not mess around with bread: it is real food. You’ll find sour loaves made with spelt, brown rolls crusted with sunflower or pumpkin seeds, the classic Kaiser roll and the kipferl, a crescent-shaped white flour roll that the Austrians swear is the source of the croissant. Cheeses run from your more mild Alpine grass-fed Emmentaler-style hard cheeses to a pungent Steierkase that’s similar to a dry blue cheese. If you’re doing a farm stay, the eggs, cheese and butter may be from right on site.
Cake, cake, and more cake
It’s probably no coincidence that the Austrian princess Marie Antoinette was credited with the words “Let them eat cake.” Researchers say that, no, she wasn’t so cruel as to say those words and in fact, wanted more for her people, but the attribution is tough to break, especially when the Austrians own cake with such authority. The famous Sachertorte is the signature treat at the elegant (if touristy) Hotel Sacher, but there is so much more. Chocolate cake wrapped in hazelnut marzipan. Layers and layers of ladyfinger biscuits smothered in cream. Berries suspended in tart jelly atop chocolate mousse and a layer of sponge cake. One of Vienna’s finest bakers has a café in the Vienna airport now so your final purchase before boarding your homeward bound flight can be a punschkrapfen — rum-soaked white cake coated in pink sugar frosting. Gluten free? This is no excuse for starting your diet, many of Austria’s finest pastries are made with almond or hazelnut flour.
Austrians are traditionally great hunters and handy with game — rabbit, duck, elk, boar. Carnivores will have plenty to sink their incisors into. Little country inns will have elk stew on their menu, or a roast that arrives with a mountain of sautéed onions. You’ll find sausage stands shoulder to shoulder with shawarma booths on streetcar platforms, and it will be hard to decide which one smells more appetizing. There’s schnitzel — it comes in veal, pork, chicken, and turkey — and the Austrians like to claim they invented the cordon bleu (breaded chicken wrapped around prosciutto wrapped around cheese).
But vegetarians won’t go hungry either — the pastry chef’s skill extends to savory sheep cheese or spinach strudel. Also easy to find: giant bread dumplings in a bowl of wild-mushroom-and-cream sauce. There’s no shortage of excellent pasta and pizza, either straight up Italian or Austrian influenced and renamed in German so you don’t call those little ricotta pockets browned in butter “ravioli.” They’re “tascherl,” and they’re Austrian, probably from Tirol, which is close to the Italian border.
You’ll need to wash that down with…
The Wachau, Austria’s wine region, is famous for its green wines and light whites. If it’s not patio season, you can order your Riesling under urban Vienna in wine cellars that have been in continuous use for 500 years. There are endless varieties of schnapps — go ahead and claim it’s for digestive purposes — made from pine cones collected at the right altitude at the right time of year, or from the flowers of the elder tree, or from apples and apricots and whatever fruit is in season. Of course there’s beer, refreshing summer pilsners on tap or richer malts; sometimes you’ll see well-turned-out older ladies nursing a seidel — about half a pint — while they gossip with friends over lunch.
And that’s just for starters
It’s a good thing Austrian society is so committed to exercise and the outdoors, burning off all this delicious food is as much a part of the lifestyle there as consuming it. You’ll see sturdy old women riding bicycles, you’ll share hiking trails with wiry old men. You’ll all be heading to the same place, the table. “Mahlzeit,” they will say, “enjoy your meal.” And you will.
G Adventures runs a number of departures in Austria encompassing a wide range of departure dates and activities to cater for different tastes. We’re thrilled at the prospect of showing you this big blue planet of ours — check out our small group trips here.
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