Tag Archives: food

“First ice cream of the year?”

6 Apr

I was walking home from the supermarket on this Friday evening. In front of me was what I took to be a little family group–mother on the left, a tow-headed boy about six years old in the middle, and father on the right. The boy was licking with great enthusiasm a large and delicious-looking ice cream cone. His mother watched with pride and pleasure and said, “Das erste Eis heuer?” (“First ice cream of the year?”)

The German-language students among you may think “‘Heuer’? What’s ‘heuer’?” “Heuer” is Austrian dialect for “dieses Jahr” or “this year”. That tiny scene made me happy–that I have learned the language to the level where I know that immediately and that I live in a country that still respects the seasons (at least in some things). It is possible to get ice cream at the supermarket in winter, but if you want ice cream parlor ice cream you have to wait. The traditional places are closed from October to March. (They used to be turned into fur coat stores in the winter, but now, it seems, even the Viennese are not buying enough fur coats to keep them in business.)

You can imagine under these circumstances that the first ice cream of the year becomes an event.

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Heringschmaus

10 Feb

“Heringschmaus” (one contributor to the online dictionary at leo.org suggested “herring delight” as a translation) is a traditional feast on Ash Wednesday. Now, if that sounds contradictory to you, then you are not alone. I come from the Protestant tradition, where there was certainly no feasting on Ash Wednesday. It was a day of great solemnity and deprivation, even though when I was a child we didn’t celebrate anything like Carnival so had nothing to recover from or make up for.

In the Austrian context–one of moderation in all things, even moderation–Heringschmaus makes sense, though. It goes along with the dearly held belief, in the meantime supported in some ways by medical studies, that eating “sour” things like pickles helps alleviate the symptoms of a (Mardi Gras) hangover. (The herring in this case is pickled and is eaten with pickled vegetables like beets and cabbage.) It also complies with the Catholic idea that eating fish is somehow penance (no meat).

What to do this year when Ash Wednesday coincides with Valentine’s Day? The Kurier is suggesting Heringschmaus by candlelight. Just thought I’d pass that tip along. 😉

BĂ€rlauch (wild garlic)

30 Mar

Spring arrived in Vienna suddenly the end of last week, after an unusually cold and snowy winter. The sun had barely been out for a day—and the snow was not entirely gone—when my friend Petra started talking about BĂ€rlauch. Petra and I may not be the most skilled or dedicated foragers in the Vienna Woods, but we do like the tender, bright green shoots of this form of wild garlic (botanical name: Allium ursinum) commonly found in and around Vienna.

What is it about BĂ€rlauch that brings out the residents of Vienna in great numbers? It is certainly easy plunder. It grows profusely and the pungent, completely distinctive scent leads you right to it. It is also versatile. Menus in Vienna feature cream of BĂ€rlauch soup, BĂ€rlauch risotto, BĂ€rlauch pesto, BĂ€rlauch sauce, BĂ€rlauch dumplings, and so on. (Imagine Bubba talking about shrimp in “Forrest Gump” and you won’t be far off). And it truly is a sign that spring has arrived. It appears early and grows quickly, and gives an extra purpose—if one needs it—to those early spring walks, preferably in the Pötzleinsdorfer Schlosspark or Lainzer Tiergarten (no dogs). It seems to have an enormous attraction for many demographic groups, but not all.

For older Viennese the gathering of their own food in general and particularly the picking of BĂ€rlauch—the smell is powerfully evocative—has grim associations and they usually don’t participate actively. They remember too vividly the years during and just after the Second World War when BĂ€rlauch and whatever else they could find in the woods was one of the few things standing between them and starvation or, at the very least, scurvy.

On the other end of the scale, some people have bought into the stories in the Austrian press over the last few years that say that BĂ€rlauch is out of culinary fashion. They no longer pick or eat it for that reason.

But for families with small children, for example, hunting for BĂ€rlauch is a pleasant way of tiring out the children in the fresh air that keeps everyone happily occupied and out of each other’s hair. People who have desk jobs get the chance to enjoy the immediate results of their labors for a change. Others use BĂ€rlauch to eke out food budgets—I have seen family groups going home with shopping bags full—as well as to add zing to their suppers. For me, finding, picking, cooking, and eating BĂ€rlauch is an experience I associate exclusively with Vienna and my life here. We took many family walks around Walden Pond when I was growing up. We never went home with anything to eat.

It is also something that anyone who picks it associates with early spring. There is a reason for this beyond the heady days of gathering the first shoots. BĂ€rlauch, once it has flowered, is said to resemble lily of the valley, which, as the German name Maiglöckchen suggests, appears in May—and is poisonous. Reports vary as to how poisonous it is, and a friend of mine is fond of saying that the only people who end up in hospital with lily of the valley poisoning are husbands whose wives picked and prepared the “BĂ€rlauch”. Nonetheless, no one really wants to risk it, and it is relatively easy to forego BĂ€rlauch as it gets older because the scent and flavor get more intense and become almost overwhelming.

For all of us who do pick, it seems to bring a special satisfaction. Yes, we save money on our grocery bills, add spice to our menus, and get some exercise in the fresh spring air into the bargain. But every spring when the season begins I wonder if this foraging isn’t perhaps also about returning to an earlier time when our ancestors worked physically harder with less security than most of us do today but also with less time pressure, without precise targets, and for something they could benefit from immediately. Wandering through the Vienna Woods basket or bag in hand, picking what is available until one has “enough”, then going home and preparing it for supper surely is filling some primal need.

(This piece was originally written in 2010 for submission to the now-defunct Vienna Review.)

Vanillekipferln

3 Dec

It’s that time of year again. The Kurier has printed a recipe for Vanillekipferln (an essential and quintessential Viennese Advent and Christmas cookie) with the comment that there are probably as many recipes as there are “Omas” (grandmothers). Here is their version this year. 

You will need:

250 gms of flour

210 gms  of (cold) butter

100 gms ground  almonds

70 gms of sugar

salt

4 – 5 tablespoons of powdered sugar

one packet of vanilla sugar.

(1) Mix the flour, almonds, sugar, and a pinch of salt. Cut the cold butter into pieces and knead it quickly into the flour mixture. Wrap the dough in foil and cool for at least 30 minutes.

(2) Cover a cookie sheet with parchment paper, turn the oven on to 180  degrees C. Knead the dough one more time. Cut about 1/3  off and put the rest back into a cool place.

(3) Shape the dough into a roll with a diameter of about 5 cm. Cut the roll into slices of about 1 cm each. Out of each slice roll the dough between the palms of your hands until it is 6 – 8 cm long. Bend the dough into a crescent shape and place on the cookie sheet. Bake the batch for about  15  minutes.

(4) Remove the cookie sheet from the oven, take off the cookies, and let them cool for a few minutes. Mix the powdered sugar with the vanilla sugar and turn the warm Kipferln carefully in the sugar mixture. Put the finished cookies on a plate to cool and then store for a few days in a tin before eating.

Local dialect, local food

7 Oct

These billboards have been up for a couple of weeks now. The word in quotation marks is local dialect for the veg they’re showing. The map in the upper righthand corner (that little red squiggle) shows in white where in Austria the item comes from, accompanied by the proud statement, “This is where I’m from”.

I wasn’t aware that Austrians needed advertising to eat their own, relatively locally-grown food. After all, we’re talking about a people who consistently eat butter, for example, from their own country–in contrast to the Brits, who, it seems, will eat any kind of butter (mostly Danish or Irish) but their own.

eat local food

Luxury hotels

5 Oct

There was a time I think, although I’m no expert, when luxury hotels advertised with products from foreign places. The trend seems to have reversed itself, at least in Austria. Suddenly there is Strassertaler honey and jam made by a local farmer (or more likely the farmer’s wife) out of their own “house plums” at the breakfast buffet.

Ascension

9 May

May is the month of many holidays, Austria still being a Catholic country. Today was Ascension, which means we still have Pentecost Monday and Corpus Christi to go. What to do on a holiday in May when the weather is perfect? I opted for lunch at the Palmenhaus in the Burggarten with a friend. A good choice.

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