In the kitchen with Viennese history
The Monday night cooking club in the Kochlounge, an events space in Vienna's 4th district. (Kochlounge)
In the basement of the Café Residenz in Vienna’s Schönbrunn Palace, there is a bakery. Every hour, a professional pastry chef enters the display kitchen to demonstrate how to make the most Austrian of dishes – the apple strudel. The flaky dessert is a key part of Vienna’s food and drink heritage, and the 20-minute demonstration is just one example of the city’s culinary story being told outside of restaurant walls.
Unchanged by palace bakers for 300 years, the strudel recipe is precise. The ingredients of the filling are measured out in strict ratios, and there are no short cuts. The raisins, for example, have to be soaked in rum for at least 24 hours.
There is also an element of theatrics to the creation process. The dough stretching is like folding bedsheets – the chef pulls it across his body using his fists and elbows until it is flexible and elastic. The key test, he said, is being able to read through it if it were put on top a magazine or brochure.
As an experience, watching a Schönbrunn Palace strudel being made neatly encapsulates the backstory of Viennese culinary tradition. The palace was the home of the Habsburg dynasty which, from Vienna, ruled vast swathes of Europe between 1452 and 1918. Through clever intermarriage and conquest, the Habsburgs ruled as far afield as modern day Ukraine, Montenegro, Spain and the Netherlands. The strudel was originally introduced to the Balkan region by the invading Turks, who brought over a version of baklava, and got passed on to Vienna when the Balkan territories were reclaimed.
Vienna’s tradition for fine chocolate can be traced back to the Habsburg Empire too. Cocoa flooded into Europe from the Americas through Habsburg-ruled Spain, and artisan chocolates became a desirable luxury in Vienna. Numerous stores sell them, but Xocolatl Manufaktur in Vienna’s central first district runs three- to four-hour workshops sporadically through the year, showing how they are made. In the hands of chocolatier Thomas Scheiblhofer, high-quality chocolate is turned into beautifully presented truffles.
The Wiener schnitzel, another dish inextricably linked with Vienna, is another import – the breaded veal cutlets originated in Milan, which was part of the Austrian Empire in the 19th Century. At a relaxed Monday night cooking club in the Kochlounge, an events space in the 4th district, novices can learn the art of what is now considered a working class staple. But that distinction has not always been there. Alfred Weber, who runs the Kochlounge, said the schnitzel originally became popular because wealthy people liked to impress by serving golden-coloured food.
The relaxed three-to five-hour workshop begins with a tour of the Naschmarkt – Vienna’s huge, central food market – to buy the ingredients. Then the group heads back to the Kochlounge to cook a dish that sometimes seems like a workout. The veal has to be hammered flat, dunked in butterschmalz – a clarified butter – and dragged through flour and breadcrumbs before being pan-fried. It creates a wonderful mess.
After a few rounds in the kitchen, embark on an adventure through the maze of tunnels at the Schlumberger Cellars, arguably Austria’s best known wine label. It was set up in 1842 by Austrian Robert Schlumberger, who worked in the vineyards of France’s Champagne region before falling in love with an Austrian girl and deciding to bring the techniques he had learned back to home to Vienna.
The numerous grape varieties are grown elsewhere in Austria, but maturation of the sparkling wines takes place in the dark 2.3km network of stone and brick tunnels that run under the northern 19th district. On a 50-minute tour, it becomes clear that geography is a key factor in the Schlumberger story. The cellars are right next to the River Danube – the perfect strategic position for shipping bottles into and then around the Austrian Empire once the wine was ready.
Around 140,000 bottles are in the cellars at any one time, all being carefully monitored by riddlers – people who turn each bottle an eighth of a circle every few days, and gradually increase the angle it is stored at over a period of six to eight weeks. It is all part of a three-and-a-half year vine to glass process that mimics the process of how sparkling wines are made in the Champagne region, and the results can be tasted in a sampling session at the end of the tour.