Austrian cuisine has been influenced by its neighbours Italy, Liechtenstein, Switzerland, Germany, The Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary and Slovenia. That’s a lot of neighbours for a relatively small country! Accordingly, each small region of Austria has differing cuisine, many of which are predominantly influenced by their closest international neighbour. Much traditional Austrian fare centres on meat: pork and meat are very popular, as is game, which can take the form of deer, wild boar, hare, pheasant, duck or partridge. Once all the choicest pieces of meat are gone, sausages are typically made, and take many different forms, from smoked, to raw, to cured, to blood varieties. Freshwater fish is served where large lakes allow fishing, and vegetables include the standard potato, asparagus, green beans and other assorted root vegetables that populate most of northern Europe. One of Austria’s greatest claims to culinary fame is the possible invention of croissant. Legend has it that a Viennese baker, working through the night, heard a noise under his shop, which turned out to be an invasion of the Turkish forces who were holding the city under siege. After alerting authorities, the tunnel was blown up and the invasion thwarted. The humble baker refused all other rewards, only asking that he might gain exclusive rights to bake crescent-shapes pastries, as the crescent is the symbol of Islam – and so, the croissant was born. I am a tad dubious of this story, however. Doesn’t it seem strange that you would celebrate victory over your opponents by recreating their symbol? Regardless, some Islamic fundamentalists refuse croissants to this day, so whether true or not, the story is taken seriously. Other than the croissant, Austria also claims an astounding number of remarkable musicians, scientists and philosophers throughout history, and perhaps their food might have contributed to this output? Mozart was apparently partial to liver dumplings with sauerkraut, and grand feasts and gluttony are featured in many of his operas, so perhaps there has been a pervasive culinary influence at work among the Austrian geniuses for centuries? Regardless, it’s a good excuse to eat its cuisine (as if I needed one!).
Tafelspitz literally means “tip of meat for the table” and consists of a large cut of meat boiled in a broth of vegetables. The cut of meat is called topside, top round or standing rump, depending on what part of the English-speaking world you come from, and is a cut from the top hind part of the cow. I boiled my tafelspitz for a few hours with chopped leek, celery, carrot, turnip, a browned half onion, bay leaves, salt and pepper, which created a delicious broth that is sometimes served alone or with some starchy inclusions prior to the main attraction. I didn’t include the broth in this meal, but keep your eyes peeled and it might turn up later! I accompanied my tafelspitz with a number of traditional sides, including roasted shoestring potatoes, carrots and turnips, asparagus, creamed spinach, and a horseradish and apple sauce. The latter was a wonderful surprise that I never would have thought of, but works wonderfully with beef. It’s very easy to make – I just stewed a couple of peeled apples until they were mushy, then mixed through some horseradish. I’ll definitely reuse that recipe – it’s far superior to either applesauce or horseradish alone in my humble opinion, and elevates beef to royal status. Speaking of which, tafelspitz may have risen in popularity after it became widely known that an Emperor of Austria from the late 1800s/early 1900s, Franz Joseph I, especially favoured the dish, and it was always sure to be included on his table. The (particularly vain?) emperor is rumoured to have favoured the dish because the meat is rendered so tender that he could eat it with only a fork, while the knife was left free to gaze at his reflection in. Anyone who wanted to express loyalty to their empire would be sure to eat tafelspitz regularly during this period in homage to their hirsute emperor. It was also apparently one of Sigmund Freud’s favourite meals, especially when he suffered from jaw cancer, and was the first recipe in the cookbook that he gifted his wife Martha after their wedding.
“Tiroler” refers to the Western State of Tyrol, known for hosting spectacular Alpine hiking and skiing adventures, while “gröstl” is a general term for what we would call in English “a good old fry up”. Similar to the American concept of hash or British bubble and squeak, gröstl’s original purpose is to use up leftovers, often from a roast, by refrying them in a saucepan. I was delighted to learn that the practical Austrians even have a special word for recipes that use up leftovers: “restessen”. Although I am in favour of restessen of all varieties, I was particularly excited for gröstl because nothing can reinvent leftovers like a little bit of oil and a hot saucepan! There are different varieties of Austrian gröstl, including “blunzengrostl” meaning “blood pudding gröstl”, “wurstgröstl” (sausage gröstl) and herrengröstl (veal gröstl) . Tiroler gröstl, the most famous gröstl, can be made by frying up some onions, thick pieces of bacon and sometimes mushrooms, then adding in chopped pieces of leftover beef or pork roast along with roasted or boiled potatoes, seasoned with caraway, marjoram and parsley. As if that didn’t sound like quite enough cholesterol yet, this concoction is usually topped with a fried egg. I regret to tell you that I have never been skiing, and, to be honest, the sport itself has never appealed to me greatly. However, if there were a large plate of tiroler gröstl waiting for me in a cosy warm cabin at the bottom of a mountain, I suspect I would learn to ski remarkably quickly.
Wiener schnitzel, erdäpfelsalat and kopfsalat
The first thing that needs to be cleared up about Austrian schnitzel, is that, despite the line from The Sound of Music “cream-coloured ponies and crisp apple strudel, doorbells and sleigh bells and schnitzel with noodles”, schnitzel is never, ever, ever served with noodles. All clear? All right. On with the blog. Many sources describe the discussions surrounding the origin of Wiener schnitzel as “vigorously debated”. Key world powers vie for the honour of being the first to have had the genius idea to coat flattened meat in breadcrumbs and then fry it. The Spanish Moors were purportedly doing it in the middle ages, while Jewish inhabitants of Constantinople had a similar dish in the 12th century. There are also vague assertions that the dish has French origins, although not many specific stories that I can find. Then there is the legend that an Austrian Field Marshal brought the dish back from Italy in 1857, where a similar dish exists, called cotoletta alla Milanese. This story was scandalously debunked in the 1970s by a truth-seeking historian, who found nothing to evidence the tale. This in conjunction with records of Austrian recipes for breaded meat from as far back as the 1700s means that perhaps the truth of the matter is lost to time. Regardless of the origin, “Wiener” translates to “Viennese”, as in “from Vienna”, the capital city of Austria, so that sounds like it’s Austrian enough for my purposes! To make Wiener schnitzel, a fillet of veal is flattened, then coated in seasoned plain flour, beaten egg, and finally bread crumbs. An important step is to press the bread crumbs into the meat, which creates a lighter, fluffier coating. The schnitzel is then pan fried in fat until golden and crispy. I served my schnitzel with a few traditional accompaniments, including erdäpfelsalat, which translates to “earth-apple (potato) salad” and is a warm potato salad flavoured with white wine vinegar, chicken stock, olive oil, mustard, red onion, black pepper and chives. I also made kopfsalat, which is a lettuce salad with a sweet vinaigrette dressing, and redcurrant jelly, which is tangy, sweet and goes well with a squeeze of lemon. Schnitzel is now popular all over the world, and has been a trusty inclusion on Australian pub and cafe menus for all of my living memory – a particular favourite with children. It’s no wonder – how can crumbed and fried meat be anything but delicious?
That’s right! The suspense is finally over. Now you’re finally going to find out what happened to the beef broth from the tafelspitz! I used it to make the entirely separate dish of frittatensuppe, which first involves making palatschinken, which are very eggy pancakes with a milk and flour base. These pancakes are then rolled up and sliced into thin strips, after which they are no longer palatschinken, but now frittaten. They are then placed in the broth, which is usually beef, but can also be vegetable or chicken, and served with parsley or chives. Very simple. I only realised after I’d made it that frittatensuppe is actually a version of noodle soup. Surely, then, it must be a restorative remedy for common colds and ailments? It seems that the combination of starchy solids floating in a nutritious broth has been tested by time and space and emerged victorious across all cultures.