Vienna seduces you with its Habsburg grandeur and Secessionist curves and entices you stay with the city’s Gemütlichkeit. This is a feeling of joie de vivre coupled with a cosy, slow paced way of living that manages to bring both pleasure and a peace of mind. Gemütlichkeit can manifest in the simple Viennese pleasures, such as sipping a Viennese melange coffee between bites of a decadent cake in one of the city’s famous cafés. The Austrians know how to live, and the best way to experience this sensual side of Vienna’s life is through its cuisine and café culture.
I hopped on a train from Budapest for the day to the Austrian capital to join a food tour to learn about this sensual side of Viennese life – to get to know the city away from the monuments and through its food.
Tastes of Josefstadt
Outside the classic Café Hummel, we met our docent for Context Travel, Katerina, a food anthropologist with a keen passion for Viennese cuisine and the eating habits of its Habsburgs Emperors.
Away from the landmarks and the crowds of Vienna’s 1st District, Katerina whisked us away on a culinary journey through Vienna’s 8th District, an area that’s also known as Josefstadt. Accented by streets lined with a mixture of art nouveau buildings and elegant townhouses, it feels cosy and lived in. You’ll find independent coffee shops, patisseries, meat, and cheese shops all down Josefstäder Strasse and the sprouting side streets.
“This is your menu for the day,” she said, handing us a colourful card with a handwritten itinerary on the back listing the places we were scheduled to visit along with the delicacies we were going to try. Some names look familiar, others are completely new. Under the shade of the café’s entrance, she explains the nuances of Vienna and Austria’s culinary scene.
“The main difference between Austrian and Viennese dishes are the main pillars of their ingredients,” Katerina says, “On the one side, you have Austrian cuisine which focusses on pork and chicken dishes, on the other you have Viennese cuisine, which is very much about beef, like beef soup. There is a difference between Austrian cuisine and the Wiener Kuche.”
The records of Viennese cuisine dates back to the 18th century at least, with records of its dishes being featured in German language cookbooks along with travelogues dating back to the early 18th. Naturally, the power of the Habsburgs and their expanding empire also ushered in flavours and recipes from the Empire from countries such as Hungary, Bohemia, Italy and the Balkans. Vienna became a Central European melting pot of flavours that go beyond the Wiener Schnitzel.
However, it’s been over a century since the Austro-Hungarian Empire disbanded, and even Austria has seen the rise of new food movements and trends, from fusion cooking to sustainable ways of consuming food. As we wandered away from the old world of Café Hummel, Katerina took us into a small shop that offers a modern, eco-friendly and ethical vision for Vienna’s food culture.
Waste Free Food Consumption in Vienna
While food movements come and go, Katerina hopes this one gets to stay.
“This shop sells fresh food without packaging. The idea is to be more environmentally friendly, so people bring their own bags and containers, where they can buy pulses, vegetables, organics products and more here.”
The shop is small, with an array of bottled products, all of which can be cashed in for a returnable deposit and recycled, and boxes of fresh fruit and vegetables. In the back room though, there is a curious fridge with an unconventional use.
“This is a communal fridge,” the shop owner says, “when
people go on holiday and have left over food they don’t want to throw away, they can bring it here and people can just take what they want. It’s free for anyone, we get students or clients coming in to take this food so it doesn’t go to waste.”
There are 12 such fridges in Vienna.
Sitting outside the shop on its sidewalk tables, Katerina brings us some roasted pumpkin seed oil (kürbiskernöl), pumpkin seeds (kürbiskerne), and slow-baked, hand-formed Kaiser rolls (semmeln).
“This pumpkin seed oil comes from the southern part of the country, in Styria, and has to be pressed there. Even though it originated in Mexico, with pumpkins dating back to 10,000BC, it arrived in Austria in the 17th century. These pumpkin husks were crossbred here in Austria to create this strain of Styrian pumpkin, which has husk-less seeds. The seeds are washed, ground up with a bit of water, have salt added and are then roasted before being ground and pressed only once. The leftovers are recycled back as fertilisers or as animal feed.”
The dark green, nutty oil is rich and potent, especially when drizzled on the Kaiser rolls. It reminded me of the use of the pumpkin seeds and pumpkin seed oil I tried on my food tour in Ljubljana.
Styrian Fried Chicken
After our aperitif of pumpkin oil drizzled on Kaiser rolls, we returned to Café Hummel. This traditional Viennese Kaffe-Haus, which also has a restaurant specialising in Viennese cooking, serves up all the wonderful coffee concoctions you must try in Vienna, such as the Eispänner, a strong black coffee
topped with cream.
But rather than coffee, we were here to eat. And Katerina offered us a choice between a Viennese Goulash, a thick paprika spiced beef stew that’s not to be confused with the Hungarian namesake, which is more of a soup, or the Backhendl, a local fried chicken dish. We chose the chicken. A generous portion of golden chicken served up with a potato salad, which we drizzled with pumpkin oil, a slice of lemon to squeeze over the chicken for a bit of tartness that paired perfectly with the lingonberry jam, a condiment that surprisingly goes well with the chicken. While today, this dish has a rustic, comfort food feel, in the 19th century, during the
Biedermeier period, it once represented wealth and was a popular dish among the bourgeoisie.
The secret ingredient for this particular dish is the use of the Styrian chicken, a special breed of poultry that delivers meat that is especially succulent and tender. The tender meat goes well with the crunchy, delicately seasoned batter, made from the crumbs used in the classic Wiener Schnitzel.
This pairs especially well with a glass of Wiener Gemischter Satz, a local wine. One of the many interesting facts about Vienna is that it’s one of the few cities in the world that has its own vineyards that are used for wine production. The Wiener Gemischter Satz is a wine that’s made from three varieties of grapes from the same vineyard that are pressed together. One variety must make up at least 50% and the third portion at least 10%, the most common trinity are the grapes: Grüner Vertliner, Welschriesling and Pinot Blanc.
When pressed together, this combination gives you a balanced wine where its the tartness and hint of sweetness makes it a refreshing white that goes well with the Backhendl.
A Taste of Vienna’s Street Food
Before the dessert, Katerina wanted to take us to a local deli where we could try some local charcuterie.
“I normally take people to a cheese shop I love here,” she says, “But a lot of these private, small businesses close in August.” But she has a very tasty plan B up her sleeve.
The deli specialised mostly in meat cuts and dishes, but also sold artisanal pickles and various cold dishes, such as mayonnaise based salads and pickles, however, it’s the leberkäse that we came for. Despite the name sounding like liver and cheese, in Austria, it has nothing to do with either. It’s a pork-based cook meat that comes in the shape of a meatloaf but reminds me of a warm frankfurter sausage in taste and texture.
“It’s a typical local streetfood,” Katerina tells us, “You can really only find it in Austria and maybe in parts of Germany and Switzerland. It’s the perfect streetfood, but don’t even think of putting ketchup on it!”
Vienna’s Sweet Things
When we think of Viennese cuisine, most people think of schnitzel, cakes, and coffee. It’s no secret that the Viennese have a sweet tooth, and in our final high-class confectionery, a bright café backing onto a garden where booking is mandatory, we got to try a selection of special cakes. Cakes, macarons and various colourful confectioneries lie displayed in the window of the entrance, tempting guests in with the aroma of coffee perfumes the space.
Katerina tells us the history of the three strands that make up the Viennese coffee and confectionery scene today. Once, sugar was so expensive that it was only used in pharmacies to make certain medicines palatable. In fact, it was such a status of wealth that the Habsburgs presented sugar sculptures centerpieces at their balls, which were torn apart by revelers at the end of the night, who stuffed the
prized sugar into their hidden pockets. Since pharmacies had access to sugar, they were also the first confectioners. Bakers, on the other hand were allowed to make pastry initially, but only without sugar (unless for dusting), while confectioners were not allowed to use flour. On the side, Vienna’s cafes, until much later, were men only establishment, while women frequented places known for their sweets. Over the centuries, confectionary, pastries and coffee culture blended together to form a unique part of Vienna’s life, and in Oberlaa Kurkonditerie, traces of this history still shows up in one of the cakes we tried.
“Linzer torte is one of the oldest surviving cake recipes in the world,” Katerina says as we take a bite into the velvety, chocolate cake made with only a sparse amount of flour, “Until 17 years ago, the recipe was traced back to 1696, but since then they fund a cookbook once belonging to the Countess of Verona in a monastery that dates back to 1653 that features the recipe.”
Rounding out the tour with a cake, and an optional Wiener Melange, a strong, milky Viennese coffee, Katerina presented us with a small gift bag of traditional Austrian snacks to take home, from mustard to poppy seed biscuits, so we could continue our Austrian journey even at home.
This is my account of Context Travel’s Vienna Food Tour. If you’re interested in more, you can read about a similar tour I did with Context Travel in Budapest “Authentic Flavors of Jewish Budapest, with Taste Hungary” tour, where part 1 of the tour took us through the history of Budapest’s Jewish Quarter and the Jewish Community, where part 2 was a traditional Jewish dinner.