Travel: Discover Austria

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The hills are alive with culinary treasures

Special to the Monitor


This is the first in a two-part series on Austria. Part two will appear in the Oct. 18 edition of Diversions.

The act of toasting in Austria is a custom with its own set of rules. As a visitor to this land of sophistication and unassuming elegance, it’s important to know the correct protocol.

First, make eye contact with each and every person at the table, loosely hold the wine glass by the stem and solidly clink on a slight diagonal plane to achieve the ideal ring. And, remember to never cross paths with someone else’s toast, as this would be considered rude.

Following these guidelines is trickier than one might imagine – particularly the aspect of eye contact. Austrians believe it’s essential to acknowledge everyone individually, as it gives special meaning to the toast. It’s all about making a personal connection. Know that you’ll get plenty of practice, as it’s common to toast multiple times during the course of a social gathering.

There’s so much to love about Austria, from its imperial grandeur and famed cultural attractions to its fabled Alpine peaks and pristine natural settings. This is a country that embodies the great European traditions with a rich and colorful history that has been well preserved over the years. It’s also a destination that boasts a noted culinary scene, with internationally acclaimed restaurants, innovative chefs and farm-to-table traditions that have age-old roots.

Austrians take great pride in the preparation and presentation of food, and dining is an experience to be savored one bite at a time. Meals present an opportunity to socialize, as well as to appreciate the act of eating good food in a convivial ambiance. This holds true, even when it comes to “grabbing coffee,” a concept that is foreign to most Austrians, who rarely rush their java time. For them, coffee means life. This perspective is responsible for the well-established coffeehouse culture that reigns supreme here. Its origins date back to the 17th century when only men were allowed inside the hallowed coffee salons.

In Vienna, the coffeehouse is a veritable institution that has achieved World Heritage status. Such places are welcome oases, ranging from formal establishments steeped in tradition to cozy cafes and tiny espresso bars.
Visitors can spend days checking out the coffeehouses in Vienna. Each has its own unique character. For a neo-Renaissance style decor with beautiful frescos, there’s Gerstner, across from the Opera House.

If visitors want to drink a cup of joe where Trotsky, Lenin and Freud are purported to have done, they should make a beeline for Central Café. And if they wish to enjoy having an afternoon pick-me-up in a place that bears the distinguished title of being a Purveyor to the Imperial and Royal Court, then Demel’s in the Old City is a must. This popular café is also famous for its scrumptious pastries and sweets that they can observe being made in the glassed-in kitchens. The wait staff are formal in manner and attire here, but they allow diners to get up and leisurely peruse the cakes to make a selection. Know, however, that white tablecloths come at a cost if you’re not ordering a meal!

Visitors will be tempted to accompany their coffee with a Viennese pastry. Vienna has a long and delicious tradition of patisseries and a trip to the capitol would not be complete without sampling some of these delectable goodies. Each café you enter has an eye-popping display of cakes that are hard to resist.

I experienced that “kid in a candy shop” feeling as I ogled these masterful creations. Apple strudel is the most widely known dessert outside of Austria and is typically on every visitor’s bucket food list. There’s also the famed sachertorte, the iconic cake invented for the royal family in 1832 that consists of two layers of chocolate sponge with a thin layer of apricot jam between them, then covered in chocolate ganache. The legendary Hotel Sacher, behind the Opera House, is said to prepare this cake according to a secret recipe dating back to 1832.

There’s even a day to celebrate this dessert, National Sachertorte Day, where it’s assumed that all Austrians spend the day partaking in their chocolatey national heritage. The Mozart-torte is another popular sweet, which was named after the renowned Austrian classical composer. It’s a concoction of chocolate, pistachio and marzipan, and often topped with a small chocolate disc displaying Mozart’s face. My favorite pastry, though, is mohnzelten. It’s less refined than strudel, consisting of a sweet poppy seed paste encased in a potato pastry.

For an excellent introduction to the culinary scene in Vienna, opt to join a walking and tasting tour with guide extraordinaire, Bianca Gusenbauer. Tourists can visit the Naschmarkt, a popular open-air marketplace with a range of food stalls, cafes and wine bars. Stop for lunch at Umar, where fresh fish is the specialty, typically carp, either fried or char-grilled. Do as the Austrians and say, “mahlzeit,” or “blessed mealtime,” before commencing to eat.
Afterwards, head to Zotter, a bean-to-bar, organic, fair trade chocolate company with interesting concoctions like chocolate with blue poppy seeds, vinegar with chocolate and even pork fat with, yes – chocolate!

Nearby, find vendors selling Mountain cheese, which has been aged in a tunnel in the mountains from six to 24 months. Wash everything down with Sturm, a partially fermented, sweet wine that’s only available in harvest season. Drink it pure or add sparkling water to it. Many discover it goes down way too easily!

Viennese cuisine has its roots in Austria’s neighboring countries, which is really not surprising given that Vienna was the heart of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy for centuries. Influences from Hungary, Italy, the Czech Republic and the Balkans are responsible for numerous famous Viennese specialties such as Wiener Schnitzel and Goulash, which are staples on most menus throughout Austria.

Clear beef broths with semolina dumplings or finely sliced savory pancakes are common starters, though in fall, pumpkin soup is very popular. And then there are sausages, which are often eaten as fast food at one of the countless sausage stands in the city. The U.S. equivalent of a hotdog in this part of the world is the Frankfurter, typically served with sweet or spicy mustard. For something different, try the Käsekrainer, a pork sausage stuffed with cheese. Save room for dessert and order the Kaiserschmarren.

These shredded, doughy pancakes, sprinkled with powdered sugar and served warm with a fruity compote, are heavenly. Amusingly, the translation for this dish’s name is “Emperor’s crap!”

Though meat is standard on most menus, vegetarians need not despair, as the number of vegetarian restaurants is growing in Vienna. The piece de resistance is Tian. It’s the only Michelin star vegetarian establishment in Austria. Executive Chef Paul Ivić is an artist when it comes to crafting innovative dishes with fresh, seasonal ingredients. His multi-course meals are a celebration of the senses.

My taste buds exploded with new flavors and textures from a bowl of roasted oyster mushrooms with leek oil and natural puffed rice to a pumpkin apple salad with cardamon, and a cauliflower cream, poached egg yolk, pesto and edamame creation. Dining here is the ultimate experience and it’s worth every penny…or euro in this case.

As you eat your way through Vienna, walk off some of those torte-induced calories by visiting the city’s many cultural attractions, including its grand palaces, world-renown museums, amazing art collections and more. Journey back to the days of the Habsburg Empire and submerge yourself into the lifestyle of the royalty.

History is omnipresent and it’s easy to imagine princes and princesses in horse drawn carriages dominating the cobblestone streets of the Old City. Head to the Imperial Chapel for Sunday Mass to hear the angelic voices of the Viennese Choir Boys, an enduring symbol of Austria for over 500 years. Or attend a performance at the prestigious Spanish Riding School.

It’s the only institution in the world which has practiced for nearly 450 years and continues to cultivate classical equitation in the Renaissance tradition of the Haute Ecole, based on the natural movements of the horse. The school uses Lipizzaners, Europe’s oldest cultural horse breed with their origin dating back to 1580.

Performances are held in the Winter Riding School, an austere 18th century hall. All riders wear the traditional uniform of brown tailcoats, white buckskin breeches, white suede gloves, black top riding boots and two-cornered hats. The program, which is accompanied by classical music, is a mix of challenging movements and jumps, displaying the prowess of both riders and horses.

If you go  

Websites to visit:
• austria.info
• vienna.info
• visitgraz.com
• salzburg.info

If you stay:
In Vienna - Hotel Altstadt: altstadt.at/en
In Graz - Hotel Wiesler: hotelwiesler.com
In Salzburg - Hotel Gmachl: gmachl.com