Wednesday, 15 August 2007

Österreich ist besser

My Austrian friends, both faithful arbiters of good taste and good tastes, assure me that the food and drink of their country is unfairly overlooked. It’s certainly true that Austria flies beneath the gastronomic radar. A mention of it rarely evokes more than beer, schnitzel, or perhaps tafelspitz, the legendary boiled beef dish once served in 24 variations at Vienna's MeisslSchadn.* (But how many people have actually eaten tafelspitz?) Relatively few of its products are exported, even to other European countries (particularly fresh items like fruit, mushrooms, or game), and only a handful of restaurants in major cities serve either classical or more modern Austrian cuisine. The country is starting to become, like Portugal, or odd corners of Spain,a destination for low-key wine tourism, though it would seem years off from revealing its secrets to the masses.

Recently, over a carafe of Blauer Zweigelt, a lean, spicy red from Donauland, I started to assemble a list of the Austrian products I’ve enjoyed over the years:

-No less than 10 varieties of the highest-quality Darjeeling, each carefully labeled and placed in a protective wooden case. Today, I’m devoted to Mariage Freres like everyone else, but my appreciation for serious tea started here.

-Another protective wooden case, revealed to contain an entire Sachertorte, from the renowned Hotel Sacher, no less. Moist, dense and not too sweet, this was the most sophisticated birthday cake I’ve ever eaten.

-Intensely flavourful apricot jam, another birthday present, tasting more like itself than I could have imagined possible.

-Gruner Vetliner. Juxtaposing big aromas and flavours with a bracing, mineral finish, this is wine that it not only food-friendly but a pleasure to drink.

-The hot chocolate mit schlag at London’s The Wolesley, where both the drinks and the atmosphere are, I have been assured, a reasonable approximation of those enjoyed at the grand cafes on Vienna’s Ringstrasse.

-Elderflower syrup produced by d’Arbo, which makes a glass of sparkling water taste fresher, sweeter and cleaner. Add some vodka for an equally sparkling summer apero.

With a new budget airline flying from Paris to Vienna, and (I hope) an open invitation to stay in Salzburg, I’m hoping to fill in the gaps, starting, perhaps, with the tafelspitz.

* Mark Kurlansky's edited volume, Choice Cuts: A Miscellany of Food Writing, is worth buying solely for Joseph Wechsberg's essay on tafelspitz.

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