IF you think Austrian cakes are just about Viennoiserie (which, frankly, can be pretty boring), you haven’t been to some of the country’s great old coffee houses, particularly in Salzburg or Innsbruck – Esterhazyschnitt, Cremeschnitte, Kaisertorte, Linzertorte, Nusstorte … the litany of names is as mellifluous as the cakes are delicious.
We spent a few days in Salzburg, dodging snow and winter rain, dashing between Christmas markets and cafes, churches with their traditional crib scenes and cafes, shops and … you get the picture.
We’ve visited Innsbruck at Christmas several times, loving the market in Maria Theresien Strasse in front of the famous Golden Roof, but this was the first time we had stayed in Salzburg in the winter.
The city where Mozart was born, the capital of the all-powerful Prince Archbishops, the setting for The Sound of Music, home of several world-famous music festivals, Salzburg is chocolate-box beautiful, with its exquisite baroque buildings and narrow medieval streets, and the great churches, many dating back to the 10th or 11th centuries, but updated and “improved” by successive ambitious archbishops.
Fans of the wedding scene in The Sound of Music will struggle to find the aisle up which Maria walks to marry Captain von Trapp because the film-makers cleverly fused several of Salzburg’s churches, as well as the historic St Michael’s Church in Mondsee.
We did the Sound of Music tour many years ago with the children, so this year’s short trip was an indulgent birthday treat to relax with music and wonderful food.
Every country has its culinary personality, and some can claim to have world-class cuisine – obviously France and Italy are at the top of anyone’s list. But Austrian deserves to be better known and more widely recognised. It is lighter and much more interesting than German food (which has improved hugely in recent years, but is still meat-heavy). The Austrians have many traditional soups, from the light broth with finely sliced pancakes (Frittatensuppe) to the ski-slope favourite, Gulaschsuppe, and the utterly delicious Garlic Soup. I have struggled for years to find a recipe that recreates the extraordinary complexity of this soup, and at last I have one (see below).
Game is on most menus – wild boar casseroles and sophisticated and traditional dishes with local venison. And in the areas of mountains and lakes you find a good choice of fresh fish.
But it is the cakes that take the top prize – as lovers of proper English cream teas, we know about cakes, and the etiquette and traditions that are part of the fun. It’s the same in Austria – well, of course it’s different, but there are traditions that are still preserved in some of the best cafes and coffee houses, and long may they continue.
We have always loved Cafe Tomaselli in Salzburg’s Alter Markt. It is probably the oldest cafe in the city, dating from 1700, and it preserves the traditions with style. On a cold day, you go in through a succession of doors and heavy curtains that hold in the heat. You take your seat at a table (if you can find one), after hanging your coat and hat on one of the hat and coat stands. If your German is good enough, take a paper from the stand. Order your coffee – there’s a wide choice, all excellent – or hot chocolate (absolutely nothing like the overly sweet stuff you find in the international chains of coffee shops) or tea.
The cakes are displayed under glass, but are carried round by waitresses. You select your cake and you pay the waitress. It is a separate transaction. (You can always tell the tourists by their bafflement at this system. Sadly, some cafes have adopted a more conventional model – Innsbruck’s magnificent Cafe Katzung is now just another chrome and glass modern cafe and you pay for your cakes and coffee at the same time.)
At Tomaselli’s over the various days, we had Creme Schnitt, Nusstorte, Esterhazy Schnitt and Apfelstrudel (nobody makes strudel like the Austrians!) and a light lunch of ham and omelettes.
Round the corner in the Brodgasse is Cafe Furst, where the now ubiquitous Mozartkugel (round chocolate balls filled with marzipan) were first made. Best known internationally for its red silver foil wrapper embellished with a portrait of Mozart, the Furst original has a blue and silver wrapper. Our cakes at Cafe Furst were a peerless Esterhazy Schnitt and a Linzertorte.
On a snowy day, we took the bus from Salzburg to Bad Ischl, past the lakes – Fuschlsee and Wolfgangsee, with the pretty town of St Wolfgang, which is home not only to the White Horse Inn of operetta fame but to the church with the Michael Pacher altar which is one of the masterpieces of the late Middle Ages.
Bad Ischl itself is a spa town on the river Ischl. It was a favourite of the last Austrian Hungarian emperor. He was not, according to Stefan Zweig (the journalist and author who lived in Salzburg for many years), a man given to the arts and culture, but he had a fine taste in cakes! This is celebrated in the best possible way in the Kaisertorte, a marvel of chocolate ganache on a crisp base, that is one of the great creations of the town’s Cafe Zauner.
Founded in 1832, Cafe Zauner may be in a small town that is not on regular tourist itineraries, but it has an international reputation, not least for its unique Zaunerstollen, a mixture of crumbled wafers, nougat, hazelnuts and chocolate, encased in a smooth chocolate coating, and formed in special ribbed tins. It has been made since 1905 and makes a special Christmas present for chocolate lovers around the world.
Of course, food like this is a treat, a special occasion indulgence, and not for every day – but if you can’t have a treat at Christmas, when can you?
Austrian garlic soup
Serves two as a light lunch, four as a starter
10 big cloves of garlic, peeled and crushed
1/4 cup of flour
3/4 cup of milk
3 tbs butter
2-3 cups of hot chicken stock
2 tbs chopped parsley
l/2 tsp salt
Freshly ground black pepper
Melt the butter in a large saucepan on a medium heat. Put the garlic in, stir constantly for about five minutes – don’t let it burn. Whisk in the flour to form a thick paste. Slowly beat in the milk, a little at a time. Stir well and then add the stock.
2 slices of white or multigrain bread, cubed
1/2 tsp salt
1 tbs olive oil
Heat the oven to 350F/180C. Line a baking tin with parchment or greaseproof paper and spread the cubes of bread evenly. Sprinkle over the salt and olive oil Bake for 5-10 minutes, or until the croutons are golden and crisp.
Pour the soup into warm bowls, sprinkle with freshly chopped parsley, and then scatter the croutons on top.
Pictured: Nusstorte at Cafe Tomaselli; Linzertorte and Cremeschnitte at Cafe Furst; Kaisertorte at Cafe Zauner; the exterior of Cafe Zauner; the magnificent 17th century tiled stove and a view through the Archbishop’s state rooms in the Hohensalzburg Fortress; part of the nativity scene, a centuries-old Austrian tradition, in St Peter’s Church; seasonal delights in the windows of the 350-year old Brazwanger delicatessen in Getreidegasse; Austrian garlic soup.