A little over four years ago I wrote my first blog article. In a victory for quantity over quality I concluded my 149th publication last month with a review of my Cleveland Way experience and thoughts have since turned to an appropriate subject for my 150th blog. Since my return from Yorkshire there have been no adventures. I seem to have spent a lot of time pre-occupied with domestic affairs and I’m not inspired to write about the re-felting of my shed roof despite the fact that two of my heroes – John Shuttleworth and Arnold Rimmer – would approve of this.
Instead I’m going to bow to the seasons and write about one of the ways in which I have tried to put to good use the glut of fine fruit harvested this autumn. My own plum tree may have remained fallow this year but thanks to several donations I have made plum slice, plum and port jam, baked plums with star anise and latterly the Viennese Plum Cake described below. You can never have too many plums…
Instant yeast sachet
100g granulated sugar
175ml full fat milk
350g strong white flour
1 large egg, separated into yolk and white
60g salted butter
Plum jam (optional)
1) Wash and quarter the plums, removing the stones. Then get the yeast started by dissolving a teaspoon of sugar in warm water, adding the yeast.
And leaving awhile to froth up.
2) Zest the lemon. I use a zester which is another of those kitchen gadgets rarely used but priceless when you need it. There are few smells more evocative than that of freshly zested lemon.
3) Warm the milk slightly and add to the yeast. Put the flour, sugar, lemon zest, egg yolk into a bowl.
4) Gradually pour the yeast liquid into the flour bowl and mix well will with a wooden spoon. Keep working the mix with the spoon – it should develop into a doughy consistency that doesn’t stick too much to the bowl sides. Add a little more flour if the mix is too wet. Cover the dough with a tea-towel and leave to rise in a warm place for an hour or so.
5) Line a baking tray (approx 35 x 25cm) with baking paper. For some geeky reason I always enjoy this bit. I flip the tray upside down, place the paper over the base, fold over the edges and then use scissors to snip each corner. Now work approx three quarters of the risen dough into the tin.
6) Now – optionally – heat up some plum jam and brush it generously over the doughy base. I think it’s better this way but then I do have plenty of plum jam kicking around. Next arrange the plum segments on top of the base. At this point it should all start to make sense!
7) Next another fun step – create a dough lattice. Roll the remaining dough into a long string around 1.5cm in thickness. Lay it over the plums into a lattice. You could be more creative if you wish and lay it into spirals or perhaps reproduce a Matisse pencil portrait, but nobody loves a smart arse. Brush the exposed dough with the egg white and leave the tray somewhere warm for another 20 or so minutes of rising again.
8) Heat the oven to 190 degrees and bake for around 35 minutes. As with all baking keep an eye on proceedings and be prepared to alter the temperature or cooking time depending on progress. My cake was perfectly cooked albeit a little darker than I would have liked on top. Once cooked shake some icing sugar over and leave to cool.
9) Slice the cake, make a cup of tea and invite the vicar or for authenticity serve to an Austrian pfarrer with a cup of fresh coffee and a glass of tap water on the side. Close your eyes, bite into the zwetschkengermfleck and dream of Café Drechsler. A suitable way to mark my 150th blog I think!
This recipe was originally billed as a cake and while I may have modestly tweaked it the outcome was more bread-like in my opinion. This is not a criticism – the proof of the pudding is in the eating after all and the sight and taste of this simple cake/bread takes me back to Vienna. I have vowed to return one day but until then there’s always Viennese cookery from the comfort of my kitchen.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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…
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…
… 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.
The food is no joke however and traditional dishes like kaiserschmarrn are a real treat to share in the candle light.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
But there’s a welcome regardless and people have got time to help if asked.
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…
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
”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.
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.
Offices, shops and a cinema contribute to a unique community. Kevin McCloud would have something to say about this regeneration project.
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.
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.
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.
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 …
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
The folk band were enjoyably ridiculous although this gentleman seemed to be taking them seriously.
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.
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.
About one third of the site is occupied by a Turkish market selling bric-a-brac (translation “junk”) as opposed to food.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!