One of the greatest attractions of a visit to Vienna is the chance to observe and take part in its famously leisurely way of life. In this most cultured of cities, there is no greater expression of the Austrian love of the good life — and no better way to appreciate it — than to sample the famous Viennese cuisine.
An Emperor’s Favourite and A Fast Food Favourite
Unlike some of the more ostentatious cuisines of the Continent, the stars of Viennese cuisine are famously simple and hearty, as exemplified by the national dish, Tafelspitz. Best known for being Emperor Franz Josef’s favourite dish, Tafelspitz is, at its most basic, boiled beef. In the hands of a true Viennese chef however, this simple meal is transformed into a surprisingly refined and elegant dish, worthy of an emperor’s table.
The tafelspitz is also a prime example of a curious characteristic of Viennese cuisine: its inextricable link with the mighty Austro-Hungarian Empire which preceded modern-day Austria. One of the most lasting legacies of that mighty empire has been the many culinary influences it absorbed from the many cultures it came into contact with. In fact, many of the city’s most famous dishes had foreign origins, as the cuisines of the Hungarians, Italians and Czechs influenced (or in some cases, introduced new dished into) Vienna’s traditional native cuisine. Over time however, these dishes were so adapted to the Austrian tastebuds that nowadays, few people would associate the tafelspitz with Italy, the apple strudel with Turkey, or the wiener schnitzel with Milan.
Though the Tafelspitz is the national dish of Austria, it is nowhere near as famous as the WienerSchnitzel, a dish in which tenderized meat, flour, breadcrumbs and eggs combine to create one of the country’s most popular dishes. Once served solely for special occasions (in the 18th century, gold dust was sometimes mixed in the batter for that extra touch of decadence and festivity), it has since become the Austrian equivalent of the British fish and chips or the American hamburger. There is even a fast food chain dedicated to this dish!
The Pinnacle of Austrian Cuisine
Despite the immense popularity of the Wiener Schnitzel however, the absolute pinnacle of Viennese cuisine is undoubtedly its magnificent pastries. Most commonly eaten during Jause, the traditional afternoon coffee break, these sweet, heavenly confections of delight are some of the world’s most popular desserts, reproduced in varying degrees of success by restaurants and parlours from Hong Kong to Los Angeles.
The most commonly eaten Viennese pastry is most probably the hearty Apfelstrudel, or apple strudel. This famous dish’s golden crust is traditionally so thin that the cook should be able to read a newspaper through the strudel dough, and its warm, gooey contents are heavy enough for the pastry to be a main course in itself. The Apfelstrudel is not the only member of the strudel family to make it big: Topfenstrudel and its cousin Milchrahmstrudel, both milk and cream based desserts, are also fairly well known culinary delights.
Another less famous dish (but equally well-loved by the Viennese) is Knodel, a supposedly simple dish which combines fruits, dough made from potatoes and cheese, melted butter, bread-crumbs and poppy-seeds into a symphony for the taste buds. Knodels are a wonderful example of the Viennese approach to pastries: just the right amount of sugar, without being cloyingly sweet or overpowering the other flavours, and voila! – a dish that’s surprisingly light yet always delightful.
And no article about Viennese cuisine would be complete without at least a mention of Sachertorte, possibly the most highly contested dish in the culinary world for being the subject of a nine-year long court case between the Hotel Sacher and the pastry shop Demel to decide who should have the right to call their product the ‘Original’ Sachertorte. This dense, fluffy chocolate cake, adorned only with a thin layer of apricot jam and dark chocolate icing, is so famous it regularly makes it into the top ten ‘Must Do’ activities on most tourist itineraries and is regularly featured on cooking shows around the world, though the actual recipe is a closely-guarded secret. Incidentally, the Demel’s version of the Sachertorte differs in that the layer of apricot jam is placed in the middle of the cake rather than beneath the chocolate cover and though Sachertorte aficionados regularly dispute over which is the better cake, the best way to decide for yourself is to taste both!