The Alpine Christmas Table

2012 was a great year for extending my travel horizons. It was the year I discovered that Wales can be wonderful without being wet. It was the year I finally made it to beautiful Durham. It was the year I fell for the medieval charms of Maastricht and broke my previous record for putting up with Brussels (4 hours) – and even that dirty old city had some pleasant surprises. Several trips to gothic Edinburgh only left me wanting more while the grand imperial charms of Vienna elicited three blog entries from me and would have provided the highlight in any other year. Except that my encounter with South Tyrol scaled new heights literally and metaphorically.

This way to the Alps...
This way to the Alps…

I had planned to write 4 or 5 pieces on this action packed visit to my partner Carmen’s homeland but I just don’t seem to have much time nowadays and there’s so much to tell. I left a piece of my heart in South Tyrol (which is a worry because I’m off to San Francisco this year and I’m going to end up heartless at this rate) and that’s not just due to the mind blowing scenery…

View from the back garden!
View from Carmen’s back garden!

…the region is a foodie’s heaven, bringing together hearty Austrian style mountain food with exquisite fresh Italian cuisine. There is no reactionary food movement taking off here because people never stopped buying fresh local produce. Eating remains a family affair for the most part where meals are prepared from raw ingredients and there’s not a ready meal in sight. Which is why my Christmas present was such a joy to unwrap!

Südtirol hamper of joy
Südtirol hamper of joy

One seasonally damp and dark Derby evening was usurped by fresh Alpine snow tipped mountains and green pastures echoing to the sound of cowbells across the valley as I opened a hamper from the entirely wonderful H&H Südtirol online food shop! Stocked with the finest ingredients we set about preparing a Tyrolean festive feast. That’s to say she came up with a dozen recipes from the top of her head, and I followed instructions while appreciating some of the pure beers from the Forst brewery. It’s a partnership after all.

In the continental tradition we celebrated Christmas on December 24th with smoked trout, Russian salad and the opening of presents but with my parents visiting on the 25th we pulled together something a little different from Turkey and Christmas pud. Here’s what we cooked, to a streaming radio soundtrack provided by AlpenMelodie

Starter: Poached Salmon Roulade

We created a “pastry” mix by layering a mixture of eggs, spinach, a little semolina (1) and, baking until set (2), smoothing on a paste of poached salmon and ricotta (3) and rolling it up (4).

(1) Pastry Mix (1) Pastry Mix (2) Baked base (2) Baked base
(3) Apply paste (3) Apply paste (4) Roll it up (4) Roll it up

Slice, garnish and serve. This starter was – stunning.

A great starter
A great starter

Main Course: Sauerbraten with Serviettenknödel

With a traditional Xmas walk scheduled for the morning we wanted a main course that could be prepared partially in advance. I started it 10 days in advance by marinating 2kg of topside beef in red wine with herbs (Sauerbraten = “sour roast”). This was in fact upstaged by a decidedly Viennese Serviettenknödel which is a dumpling steamed within a napkin.


The primary constituent is diced dry bread but eggs, milk, crispy lardons, parsley and chives make this a proper moreish winter accompaniment to the beef. It all came together nicely.

More than just beef & dumplings
More than just beef & dumplings

Dessert: Apfelstrudel

Obviously in my household the savoury courses are merely a pre-amble to the main event – dessert. We have a shared love of puddings – Carmen’s family have a tradition of Alibi Starters (eg: soup) followed by “Sweet Mains” (such as gorgeous fluffy rice pudding). For the special day we made Apfelstrudel by mixing sliced apples with pine nuts, ground hazelnuts, cloves, cinnamon and a splash of rum, wrapping it all in filo pastry and then baking.

It looks more enticing when cooked - honest!
It looks more enticing when cooked – honest!

I had made a rather lovely Advocaat ice cream in advance, and it went well with the strudel. In fact so well that we scoffed it without taking any photos. But all in all our Tyrolean themed Christmas meal was a success and it made a refreshing change from the traditional English meal.

Dinner is served
Dinner is served

The only major departure from the Tyrolean theme was Christmas Crackers. Can you believe that the rest of Europe doesn’t do this?! Odd people…

Of course, Christmas isn’t just about eating. It’s also a time for giving. We extended our festive theme by making a selection of Austro/Tyrolean food goodies as family gifts. Hmmm, that’s more food isn’t it…

In previous years I made Cantuccini, Florentines and Lebkuchen for my family. This year we made a superior Lebkuchen inspired by the remarkable culinary skills of Carmen’s grandmother. These may look run of the mill but there’s some magic going on.

...magic ingredients...
…magic ingredients…

We made them a couple of weeks in advance and stored them in airtight containers with apple quarters. The magic in this process is that the lebkuchen absorb the apple essence and stay moist. Then we brushed on icing made using lemon juice rather than water. This is transformational – try it and you will never use water again.

Next we made traditional Vanillekipferl (Almond Crescents). These are simple enough for the most part. We made a sweet dough consisting of more almonds than flour…

Puffin crushed nuts
Puffin crushed nuts

…but there are a couple of surprisingly tricky techniques to master. First you need to persuade your puffin to crush the almonds to the right size (not too large but not a powder) and then you need to roll out the dough into 10cm lengths and twist them into horseshoes without any breakage. Once baked you apply a dusting of icing sugar.

Done...Done… ...and dusted…and dusted

Spitzbuben (translation: Cheeky Boys) are a firm festive family favourite according to Carmen and they are eagerly consumed beyond the Tyrol region in Bavaria, Switzerland and (curiously) Derby. They may loosely resemble Jammy Dodgers but biscuit architecture aside there is no comparison. JDs are cheap mass-produced nonsense while Cheeky Boys are hand made with quality ingredients and no small degree of love.

A sweet biscuit dough is rolled flat and then cut into an equal number of solid circular bases and decorative perforated covers using a special tool.

Not cheeky yetNot cheeky yet Getting a bit cheekyGetting a bit cheeky
Once baked a thin layer of high quality warm jam (ie: with a high fruit content) is applied to the base and the cover is placed on top. Ooh, cheeky!Ooh, cheeky!
We are the cheeky boys!We are the cheeky boys! The Cheeky Boys and Almond Crescents will happily keep for weeks. Except of course, they won’t.

I could quite happily live off these wonderful treats. Yes, I’m sure. That would be fine right? Actually it wouldn’t. Controversial new research suggests that a daily consumption of biscuits alone does not provide all of the nutrients required in a balanced diet. The good news is that the final treat that we made would suitably address this nutritional imbalance.

C'est une pan au chocolateC’est une pan au chocolate An almond in every biteAn almond in every bite

Rhumkugeln sounds better than Chocolate Truffles but they are the same thing. The occasional use of a bain marie in my house is always a welcome sign that something indulgent is in the making. In this instance a mix of melted dark and light chocolate is augmented with toasted hazelnuts and icing sugar. Once cooled we used teaspoons to create little balls of chocolaty goodness and rolled half in icing sugar and half in cocoa powder.

The hills are alive with the sound of grunting
The hills are alive with the sound of grunting

For that final touch of regional authenticity we asked an alpine pig to individually wrap them in foil, crêpe paper and mini bun-cases. If you are doing this at home just remember to ensure that your pig doesn’t eat too many truffles.

Goodnight Vienna

You are in the lobby of Vienna airport. Do you head for Departures or queue for a taxi into the city? It’s the sort of hypothetical question that iconic resident Alexander Schrödinger might have moved onto if he had ever progressed beyond the classic (but frankly less weighty) feline survival paradox. It’s also the question I poked a stick at in my last blog before getting distracted for weeks by modern life.

I’m reasonably well travelled, within Europe at least, and each destination leaves an impression. It seems that there is a general trend for places to gravitate towards bland uniformity, but in the face of globalisation the question I find myself asking is “could I live here?” – language aside. I haven’t visited many places with a strong tick in the “Yes” box but here is a snapshot view of the city and it’s people, broken down into the most important considerations.


As somebody sitting in the “live to eat” camp this is an important factor. Let’s get something straight – the Viennese appreciate good quality wholesome food. They want to eat fresh produce and you simply don’t see anybody stuffing their face with crisps in the street.

Fresh please!
Fresh please!

They aren’t going to put up with much of the chain-driven dross inflicted upon the British public. Nowhere is this more evident than in the bakeries where even the most indulgent of snacks is produced to be consumed that day, then binned if not sold by closing time. They don’t pump preservatives into the breads and pastries in order to extend shelf life.

Choices choices...
Choices choices…

Furthermore they use a wide range of interesting flours and grains to make for a better tasting and healthier experience. I’m now a big fan of Stroek which, despite being a local chain is still superior to most independent bakeries in the UK.

Move over Greggs
A Master Stroek

The shame is that most tourists will never get to try any of the everyday bakeries here because they are drawn inexorably to the undeniably beautiful displays in the over-priced big-name outlets (Demel, Sacher, etc).

Food as art
Food as art

But man cannot live on bakery goods alone. At least not for long. Well, it wouldn’t be pretty. Man should get himself down to a nice restaurant for something like this…

Worth the calories!
Worth the calories!

OK, this savoury dumpling is arguably life shortening but oh so wonderful. It’s an Austrian speciality and the outdoor courtyard ambience of Restaurant Mill added another dimension to its consumption. My starter of Wild Garlic Soup was the stuff of dreams. Great smile-inducing food in a beautiful setting. Though for belly-laugh levels of culinary entertainment may I recommend Villa Aurora. Visual pranks abound from the moment the entry sign claims to herald a Coffee House – Restaurant – Beer Garden – Ice Rink. The night garden is curiously decked out with sofas and a vertical lamp…

Dining under the stars
Dining room under the stars

… while you have the option to dine in a two man greenhouse (so small that the waiter has to pass your food in through the window) or a fishing boat, stranded improbably on a hill in a land-locked country.

A long wait until high tide...
A long wait until high tide…

The food is no joke however and traditional dishes like kaiserschmarrn are a real treat to share in the candle light.

There is always room for pudding
There is always room for pudding

Austrians love beer. There are many breweries here in the capital and in just a few days I visited several of them without really trying, including Fisher Brau, 7-Stern, Kolar and Steigel. Think of superior Bavarian beer and you are in the right ballpark.

Fischer Brau
Fischer Brau

I could go on and on about the beer but that would be a British thing to do. More notable is the Viennese coffee house culture and their reputation for serving a good coffee is not without merit. It’s not just the coffee itself but the whole experience. The following picture sums up what to expect – tray service with a side-biscuit and always a glass of water to cleanse the palette.

A fine tradition
A fine tradition

The global coffee chains would have you think that coffee is served in a paper bucket but the Viennese believe that quality surpasses quantity. I’m with them. Furthermore there remains a proliferation of successful independent coffee houses while the large chains are barely in evidence outside the touristy first district.


In general terms I must applaud the locals for their good taste when it comes to what they eat and drink. Clearly they have their heads screwed on. Perhaps one reason for this affinity is the seemingly ageing population. My perception might be skewed but there seems to be a larger than average elderly population. This might explain the rather traditional and conservative outlook that permeates every day life here.

Take dress sense – the people you see on the street are classy and never trashy. This may not be a fashion mecca but you don’t generally see too much skin (certainly no tattoos) or crippling high heels. Vienna remains a place where a hat remains a stylish way to keep your head warm rather than a “fashion” statement for the look-at-me generation.

A man around town
A man around town

It has to be said that the senior citizens here do have something of a reputation for misery and intolerance. They aren’t likely to smile in public and won’t think twice about admonishing a stranger if they decide some social more has been transgressed. I’m hesitant to be critical at this point as it’s my aim to behave likewise at this age.

Bah humbug!
Bah humbug!

In the central First District the rules are different, as the people on the streets are more likely to be tourists. You wouldn’t judge London based on Buckingham Palace or Ireland based on Dublin.

A big welcome
A big welcome

But there’s a welcome regardless and people have got time to help if asked.

Its a fair cop
Its a fair cop

When my German failed me from time to time (ie: the times I tried to speak German) the locals were generally friendly and keen to respond in English.

There was something else too – something from a memory. People here seem to have time to stop and talk. The modern phenomena of scowling faces marching head down and focussed towards who knows what, oblivious to their environs, has yet to make it here. Could this be related to the prevalence of local businesses that line the city streets? Imagine working where you live, shopping where you live, knowing your neighbours? That no longer happens in suburban Britain but here outside the heart of Vienna it feels like this is still a way of life. For now at least.

Take this simple sighting of a coffee grinder in the foyer of a local supermarket…

Easing the daily grind
Easing the daily grind

This is remarkable for at least two reasons. (1) The supermarket freely offers a facility for customers to grind their own coffee beans after purchasing them. (2) It’s not locked down. A business promoting the principles of civility and trust. When did you last see that in your home town?

The community spirit doesn’t stop there. The local transport system is superb – integrated, reliable, efficient and cheap.

As easy as A to B

How did we ever fall so far behind in the UK? Privatisation? The consequences of such a good public transport system include fewer cars on the street, less pollution and more time spent alongside your fellow man as opposed to solo journeys in sealed metal boxes.

Viennese society is geared up for sociable co-existence and the locals respond to this environment accordingly.

One for all
One for all

One of the aspects I particularly like about city life here is that you can go for a beer of a coffee on your own without any stigma, and that applies for women as well as men. Indeed many regular coffee house customers will go for a quiet drink on their own but within a shared environment where they can watch proceedings from their table. People understand this unwritten social contract, none more so than the waiters who know all the rules.

All for one
All for one
The airport dilemma

Departure gate or taxi rank? That was the question posed and I think don’t think there’s a simple answer. On one hand I love the civility of this place, the standards it aspires to and the values shared by its people. A few days here only goes to expose so many failings back home. On the other hand I’m used to a slightly more outward looking environment. For a capital city there’s not the cultural diversity I’m used to nor the internet connectivity one takes for granted at home. It’s almost like some grand old village on a massive scale with this rich history that still sets the tone for modern living. I wonder how long it will be before the bubble bursts.

An eternal fountain?
An eternal fountain?

So for now it’s Goodbye Vienna but I want to return before too long. If I get nostalgic I’ll just watch a DVD of The Third Man with cake in one hand and beer in the other.

A matter of life and death

”In order to understand a society you must find out how the people live, eat and die.” That’s a quote by … well, me, although somebody else might have got there first. In my previous blog I took you on an unlikely tour of Vienna and in this instalment I’m heading south east to the 11th district Simmering to explore the altogether weightier issues of life, death and lunch.

A lot of people live in Vienna and it turns out they need somewhere to live. In a city boasting such a wealth of grand period buildings it takes a trip out on the U-Bahn to “escape” this period drama – except that the newer buildings I have come to see are no less dramatic.

Many towns are burdened by a contaminated and run-down industrial hinterland and at the centre you will commonly find some unsightly gasworks buildings. It’s no different here except that the four brick gas tanks constructed in the last gasp of the 19th century survived the bulldozers only to be reborn a thoroughly modern urban complex.

Life in the round
Life in the round

Collectively known as “Gasometer” each of the four towers was re-purposed by a different architect a century after its creation. Today almost 2000 people live in modern gasometer apartments and while the purpose-built U-Bahn stop makes this an ideal commuter village there’s a real community here and Gasometer is a destination in itself.

Fuel for thought
Fuel for thought

Offices, shops and a cinema contribute to a unique community. Kevin McCloud would have something to say about this regeneration project.

Nobody light a match...
Nobody light a match…

Perhaps most remarkable of all there is a 3000 capacity concert hall within Gasometer B. I didn’t get to go in but a walk of fame set into the walkway above catalogued famous names such as Alice Cooper, Slade, Boney M, Suzi Quattro, Deep Purple and of course Racey…


The people here know how to live.

They also know how to die. The vast acreage of Vienna’s famous central cemetery – it is served by 18 bus stops – is impressive for more than just its size. The Zentralfriedhof as it is called locally provides a final resting place to 3.3 million people – a statistic that hints towards the size of the population but also reflects the unpopularity of cremation here.

We're all DOOMED!
We’re all DOOMED!

Unlike British Graveyards (I’ve already written about one or two – what’s wrong with me?) the Austrians don’t shovel over the last spade of dirt and then let trails of ivy consume the burial site. Here the memorials of loved ones are more likely to be kept fresh and honoured. Florists thrive in this neighbourhood as those left behind (or perhaps those who are forgetful) can pay somebody else to remember their loved ones for them.

Say it with flowers
Say it with flowers

Floral tributes aren’t just administered remotely. Many visitors come to pay last respects in person and with a couple of dozen burials every day this is still a living cemetery. The appeal of Zentralfriedhof as a tourist draw becomes apparent as soon as you enter via the main entrance and spot the ubiquitous horse-drawn cart.

Brother-in-law of the uncle of one of the four horsemen of the apocalypse
Brother-in-law of the uncle of one of the four horsemen of the apocalypse

The fag-toting horseman certainly looks the part, like some brother-in-law of the uncle of one of the four horsemen of the apocalypse. The domed art nouveau Karl-Borromäus Church proves well worth a visit. This Monday it is eerily quiet and as we sit awhile on the pews a ghostly melodic incantation drifts through the stone floors from some subterranean chamber, perhaps the crypt … or beyond

...voices from beyond...
…voices from beyond…

Candles are lit in the side chamber and mercifully today there is no corpse on display. Besides this building is best appreciated by the living. It has a beautiful ceiling and you know the recently departed just aren’t going to get into the spirit and appreciate this sort of thing.

Good heavens!
Heavens above!

All of this of course is a side-show to the main event. The reason most of the tourists decide to venture out of District 1 and into this headstone metropolis is but a semiquaver away. A cacophony of composers lie buried in close formation – Beethoven, Strauss, Schubert, Strauss, Brahms and Falco. There’s also a monument to Mozart who is buried elsewhere but here in spirit I’m sure.

Safely beyond the reach of Simon Cowell

One of the defining characteristics of the cemetery is the demographic variety of incumbents. The graveyard is split into sections specifically for Catholics, Protestants, Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, etc, etc. It would be hasty and shallow to merely ogle memorials to the composers and leave without exploring some of these dedicated areas. But the old feet are a bit jaded. And we are hungry! If only there was somewhere to eat this far out of town…

Schloss Concordia is a café / restaurant situated on the Simmeringer Hauptstraße a headstones throw from the cemetery. The quirky nature of this eatery can be readily explained by the fact that it is under the same ownership as the barking mad Villa Aurora restaurant situated at the other end of the city.

Would sir care for any wine or water?
Would sir care for any wine or water?

On the approach a massive statue of Jesus welcomes you and I’m hoping it’s not another of these bread and fish events. The café has seemingly established itself on the former site of a stone mason’s yard. This may explain the unfinished (or unpaid for) headstones we came across in the back yard, if not the presence of Jesus Himself.

Echoes of Fred and Ginger
Echoes of Fred and Ginger

Inside it’s a different affair. The classy but dated interior carries the echoes of a former existence, perhaps as some happening ballroom or maybe it served as a summer-house for the Habsburg imperial set. Now it serves a legendary schnitzel and with the obligatory side order of ambience it attracts a mixed clientele. Locals, students and a few tourists dine here plus, today, a fully decked out “trolley dolly” en-route to her shift at the airport a few stops out. I wonder where one flies to from Vienna. Or, more precisely, why?

In my third and final account of Vienna I will attempt to prove that this is a worthy question…

Vienna Calling

It is only after we disembark flight BA0706 from Heathrow to Vienna and spot the German language airport signage it actually hits home that I really know precious little about my destination. Normally I would rigorously research my travels but since my partner spent 10 years living here on and off I haven’t lifted an investigative finger. It therefore dawns upon me that
(a) I have never been so ignorant about a travel destination,
(b) I’m very lucky to be getting an insiders guide to the city, and
(c) I better not irritate her because if she dumps me and makes a run for it I’m up the Danube without a paddle.

So what does a tourist do in Vienna? According to google the big draws include…

…except none of these will feature in the 4 food centric days we will be spending here prior to our journey south west up into the alps – more of this to come. In my first two Viennese blogs I’m going to poke a stick at some of the places we visited and then I want to try to describe the softer side of the city, its people and (inevitably) what they spend their time eating and drinking.

Central Vienna
Many visitors never leave the central first district and indeed many locals rarely visit it. This may be a large city (population c.2 million) but the historic Innere Stadt is comfortably sized and rich in attraction. There don’t appear to be any unremarkable buildings here.

Vienna University of bearded thinkers
Vienna University of bearded thinkers

Take the palatial university – founded in 1365 it has spawned 15 nobel prize winners and mentored countless luminaries, such as Sigmund Freud, Gustav Mahler and Pope Pius III. It’s all a far cry from my academic experiences at Sheffield Polytechnic (as was) with its drab 60’s buildings, although I did get to meet alumnus Nick Park whose Wallace & Grommit legacy must surely outscore that of Vienna’s Schrödinger & his cat.

But make no mistake this is tourist territory, as is soon apparent…


The churches are beautiful and yet struggle for attention within the grand architectural landscape that looms over you from every angle. The archetypal six storey apartment buildings that form the basis of residential living appear to have been built with an emphasis on form over function. Intricate stonework and ceilings high enough to bear chandeliers yet devoid of central heating or electric lifts.

St Peters Church
St Peters Church

Not far away we come across the imperial greenhouse which, being of Habsburg origins, is predictably magnificent. Today the gardens have gone but there is a butterfly house and a rather lovely café.

Meanwhile there’s a festival on outside the town hall to mark the 40th anniversary of the Styria region.

All together now - "Knie up Mutter Braun"
All together now – “Knie up Mutter Braun”

The folk band were enjoyably ridiculous although this gentleman seemed to be taking them seriously.

Taking it Styriasly
Taking it Styriasly

To the outsider it just looks like an excuse to drink beer and eat wurst. Nothing wrong with that of course.

The Wienfluß flows beneath central Vienna except you wouldn’t know it. The Naschmarkt (translation “nibble market”) is a mile long local market that has been open for business for 300 years and it sits atop the river concealing it from view.

erhalten Sie Ihr Fruit und Veg hier
erhalten Sie Ihr “Fruit und Veg” hier

Today it caters for locals and tourists. A large section is dedicated to food stalls and regional produce features strongly, including massive asparagus heads, wild garlic and globe artichokes. One regular here is the farmer selling his home made sauerkraut from wooden barrels.

Roll out the barrel of sauerkraut
Roll out the barrel of sauerkraut…

About one third of the site is occupied by a Turkish market selling bric-a-brac (translation “junk”) as opposed to food.

...down at the old Bull and Bush
…down at the old Bull and Bush

This is more than a market however as there’s something of a café scene emerging which attracts locals at the weekend. We grab Saturday morning breakfast at the Naschmarkt Deli which features a DJ inside. Fortunately there’s heating and relative tranquillity outside.

Donau Canal
Formerly a branch of the Danube prior to an acrimonious split the “Donaukanal” borders the first district and isolates the 2nd and 20th districts into an inner-city island. To call it beautiful would be an exaggeration but it’s a popular highway for joggers and cyclists, plus there’s a kiosk where you can buy tins of horse meat.

It's a tough city for horses
Tough city for horses

Less controversially it is the setting for an innocuous looking music club called Jazzland that has played host to many greats, including the late great Joe Zawinul of Weather Report fame. What do you mean who?! Oh do get with it…


This modern concrete eyesore may be kinder on the ears than the eyes but mere yards away stands Vienna’s oldest church. St Ruperts is certainly over 800 and possibly over 1200 years old. Either way it looks ancient and refreshingly modest in scale and finish when compared to its Viennese peers.

Old St Ruperts church
St Rupert

Once inside you feel transported back to the middle ages. It’s totally silent and to call the interior sparse would be an understatement. It all serves to amplify the powerful stained glass windows. Apparently the oldest glass windows in St Ruperts date back to the 14th century. No ball games then.

Everyone knows his name
Everyone knows his name

And here endeth today’s sermon. I have no idea if there’s any moral to the story. In my next blog I’ll be finding out how people live and die in Vienna. ‘Wiederschauen!