In Vienna, stories often have a sweet plot. Take this one, for instance. The protagonist: Franz Sacher, 16, a teenage apprentice. The setting: An ornate palace. The occasion: A meeting of the rich and mighty. The year: 1832. That fateful day, Prince Wenzel von Metternich’s honour was at stake. He had ordered the creation of a special dessert for the visiting dignitaries, but his prized court chef had been taken ill. Sacher was given the task of creating something unique for the prince’s guests. Despite all apprehension, he rose to the occasion — Sacher created a dense chocolate cake with a thin layer of apricot jam coated in dark chocolate icing on all sides and served it with unsweetened whipped cream. That day, 185 years ago, Sacher created Vienna’s most famous cake, so famous that it also has a day dedicated to it — December 5 is National Sachertorte Day.
In the historic Hotel Imperial, however, I was looking for another torte. The Imperial Torte — an almond-y, marzipan and chocolate torte. Built in 1863, there is nothing ordinary about the Imperial which has been the fave snooze-place of Madonna and Michael Jackson, the Kennedys and the Clintons, Rolling Stones. Rabindranath Tagore checked in here in1926 and Indira Gandhi made it her home during her two official visits to Austria. It was also here that Adolf Hitler worked as a day labourer during his youth in Vienna and later spent a night in 1938 as Herr Hitler. I left history in a soup bowl and dug into the torte instead.
After the Imperial torte melted in my mouth, my sweet tooth got caught in German umlauts where ä sounds like the ‘e’ in melon, ö sounds like the ‘i’ in girl, and ü sounds like the ‘u’ in dude. In Cafe Landtmann, where Sigmund Freud was a regular, I picked the patisserie menu and pointed at photographs to the server. If you think I am daft, just try saying topfenstrudel, cremeschnitte, nussbeugerl, schwarzwalder, schokomousse in one long breath. I was so busted by the umlauts that I forgot to order what Freud, a regular, and Paul McCartney, an occasional, did. Instead, I stuck to a croissant which began life as an Austrian kipferl, which means crescent in German. Bakers in Vienna made kipferl to commemorate Austria’s victory over the Ottoman Turks in 1683, their shape based on the crescents seen on the uniform of the enemy. In 1770, when Marie Antoinette of Austria married King Louis XVI of France, she introduced her favourite pastry to France. The French made a few changes and called it a croissant.
In Vienna, I was learning food etiquette and also a bit of its history. Never ask for sauce for the weiner schnitzel, Austria’s national dish. It is near-blasphemy. Never think of pez candy as European. It is an Austrian invention. Designed to look like a lighter, the famous pez dispenser was invented in 1949. Smoking was prohibited at that time, so the pez slogan was “No Smoking–PEZing Allowed.” If you order kaiserschmarrn and get torn pancake on a plate, do not bluster. Kaiserschmarrn means “emperor’s mess” and Emperor Franz Josef loved the torn fluffy pancakes served with jam and powdered sugar.
Armed with these nuggets, I bumped into a colossal milk bottle in the colossal Stadtpark, walked past a wall full of milk bottles and then got plastered with the addled aroma of 120 varieties of cheese. I survived the dairy onslaught for a meal at Steirereck, Vienna’s two Michelin-starred, four Gault-Milau-toqued restaurant headed by Chef Heinz Reitbauer. The restaurant puffs about being Vienna’s best and the 10th best in the World’s Best Restaurants list. I flipped through the lunch menu: wild boar’s head with ‘Purple Haze’ carrots, pineapple, tardivo radicchio and buckwheat; Viennese wedding soup (beef consommé with traditional condiments); rosa bianca (aubergine with vanilla, peppers and ice-crystal salad); poppy seed noodles; sunflower seed souffle; and char with beeswax, yellow carrot, pollen and sour cream. Beeswax? I raised my eyebrows. I was assured that’s liquid gold for chef Reitbauer, who serves art on a plate.
At Steirereck, dishes get arty. To add music to my coffee, I stood outside Pasqualatihaus, the fourth floor house of composer Ludwig van Beethoven and started counting eins, zwei, drei, vier, fünf…sechzig. Every morning, Beethoven counted 60 coffee beans for his morning cuppa. I am no Beethoven. I can never even hope to compose the Ninth Symphony. But, in Vienna, I counted 60 beans and made coffee, quite like Beethoven’s.
La Dolce Vita
Layered cake with curd filling
Pastry filled with curd
Sweet rolls made of yeast dough, filled with jam or curd and baked in a large pan so that they stick together.
A dairy-fruit drink developed in Austria in the late 1970s.
Made only in Hotel Imperial, this torte consists of layers of almond, topped with marzipan and chocolate.
Crescent-shaped vanilla cookies
Marble bundt cake
Chopped up fluffy pancakes served with apple sauce and loads of icing sugar on top.