Sunday, 25 May 2014

Kaffee und Kuchen

Just as the Brits down tools for tea and cake at 4 o'clock, the Austrians hold dear their afternoon ritual of Kaffee und Kuchen. In fact, you can visit one of Vienna's magnificent coffee houses pretty much the whole clock around; from a breakfast of Viennoiseries and a melange, to afternoon piano recitals, to late night debates over a fiaker (coffee with a good dose of rum) or two.

The Viennese love of caffeine started when the invading Turks were chased from the city in 1673, reportedly leaving sacks of beans at the city gates. The first wave of coffee houses were opened in the wake of this discovery, and they quickly became places to think as well as drink; many of the venues can list an illustrious list of writers, philosophers, actors and musicians amongst their past and present clientele, and it is still quite acceptable to while away a whole afternoon over a kleiner brauner and a paper attached to a wooden stick.

Our first experience of this treasured ritual was a late night coffee at Cafe Hawelka, just off Stephansplatz. Despite being found in the touristy Inner Stadt, the Cafe has retained its Bohemian charm; being a former meeting place for Henry and Arthur Miller, Warhol and the Fantastic Realist school of Viennese painting after the war. 

Inside is dark and cosy and perfectly preserved against the ravages of the Modern World outside. The walls are thickly papered with a patchwork of art posters, nicotine stained lace curtains hang at the window, and dark red velvet drapes cover the doors and coffee is sipped at chipped marble tables while sat on comfy battered armchairs. 

It helps to have a smattering of schoolboy German if drinking here, as there is no menu and the few options available are chalked up on a small blackboard, but the real reason we visited, as it seems do most the other clientele, is to sample their famed butchteln, or plum jam filled Bavarian yeast balls.

These were originally cooked each evening by founder Leonard Hawelka's wife, Josefine, and the tradition continues today where they are available in the Cafe after 10 o'clock.

They are worth the trip; hot from the kitchen; each Butcheln is puffy and light, cradling its tangy jam filling and finished off with a dusting of icing sugar. They may be one of the best things I ate during our whole visit.

Alongside we drank a melange, Austria's answer to the cappuccino, and an Einspanner, or double espresso in a glass that is sipped through a raft of cold whipped cream which kept my heart racing long into the early hours of Sunday morning. 

At 18 Euros, this is hardly a cheap snack, but if I lived here I could think of nothing better than to return each evening to debate, contemplate, soak up a sense of history and, most of all, to get powdered sugar all over my chin.

A stunningly sunny Sunday morning sees us hitting Cafe Dreschler for a spot of breakfast. Recently redesigned by Terrance Conran this is is of the Town's funkiest joints and also keeps the longest hours - closing for just one hour a day for cleaning - making it a perfect stop for both night owls and early risers.

We managed to get a coveted spot on the pavement, overlooking the Naschmarkt, until I remember I don't really like the sun, have forgotten to bring a hat and have neglected to put on any suncream....

The Ewing soon came to the rescue with her Ambre Solaire and a scarf, which I artfully draped across my head, a la Lawrence of Arabia, much to the delight of the two small boys eating breakfast inside, who kept looking out and dissolving into fits of giggles.

Although ovum remain my nemesis, even I had to concede the Ewing's eggs and ham were pretty picture perfect. Crispy slices of meat, runny yolks with nutty rye bread for dipping, and the obligatory smattering of chives made this a winning start to the day.

I started with ham and fresh horseradish on a buttered roll with pickles and tomato. The perfect continental assemblage with a nice, sinus-clearing, boost from the grated root sprinkled on top. 

To follow was a sugar encrusted kipferl. The kipferl being a plainer ancestor of the more famous croissant - the latter was purportedly invented by an Austrian in Paris, hence Viennoiseries or 'things of Vienna'. Like a crescent-shaped brioche it was buttery, light and rather good, especially when dunked into my kleiner brauner (small black coffee with  a little jug of cream on the side).

For anyone who isn't a mad dog or Englishman, the interior is classy and cool with a long marble bar and comfy round leather booths. In the evenings, rather than the traditional polite piano recitals, DJs often play, making this one of the liveliest spots in the City for a coffee, the goulash is also reportedly rather good.

A few hours later, after a visit to the Secession and a trip up the Stephansdom to build up an appetite, we were ready for another cake stop. This time our destination is Cafe Sacher, home of the Original eponymous chocolate cake (or perhaps it's Cafe Demel, with whom Eduard Sacher also worked at while in Vienna, and who's torte carry the Eduard-Sacher-Tort insignia).

Either which way, I wasn't too excited about the prospect of my cake - but, of course, wanting to try it anyway - not being a huge apricot jam fan and finding the Sachertorte I've tried previously managing to combine both too dry sponge and too sweet icing.

The torte turned out rather pleasant surprise. The cake being dense but moist with it's zingy fruit layer and gooey chocolate icing, which wasn't quite bitter enough but looked flawlessly glossy in the afternoon sunshine, topped with its distinctive chocolate roundels.

Alongside we ordered two fiaker coffees, named after the horse-pulled carriages on the streets of Vienna. Usually these comprise of an Einspanner with a glass of rum, but here at Sacher you get a grosser Schwartzer (large black coffee) with a flute of kirsch (cherry brandy). Just enough caffeine and booze to propel us to the nearby Stadpark to enjoy couple of cold beer chasers on the grass before dinner.

We woke the following morning, again, to unbroken blue skies; the perfect weather to enjoy the splendours of the Schonbrunn Palace, or at least it would be if you didn't wilt in anything above 18c, like this lobster-hued Gaelic-gened English girl.

After walking up to the Gloriette - formally usued as Franz Joseph's breakfast room - for a picnic lunch by the water while looking down across the Viennese skyline, we walked back down to take a tour of the great Palace itself. 

With 1,441 rooms, and the Ewing's inglorious track record at taking an age to walk around every museum and gallery we visit, I doubted we get out before nightfall. Thankfully the inside has been divided into more manageable chunks, and while the Ewing still dawdled far behind everyone else, we managed to see all the important bits - including the mirrored room Mozart first played in - and get out in time for coffee and pastries

Our destination, found to the the front of the palace, is Cafe Residenz, whose cellars house the Imperial Bakery. Here you can watch the hourly 'strudel show', where the newspaper thin pastry is rolled and stuffed by hand, before getting to sample  slices of the freshly baked desert straight from the oven.

On such a sweltering day the idea of being stuck underground, near an industrial bread oven, were less than appealing, and so we elected to sit out in the gardens behind the cafe to enjoy our melange and a piece of the famed pastry.

Strudel, pardon the phrase, really is one of my favourite things. I remember my Mum making it for her famed dinner parties back in the 80s - where everyone ate half raw lamb, crunchy green beans and pungent French cheese (and pretended to like it) all washed down with huge amounts of red wine and brandy. Pudding was always profiteroles, lemon posset, or, my absolute favourite, apple strudel, rich with cinnamon and wrapped in crispy filo pastry. If I was lucky, a piece would be waiting for me in the fridge the next morning, but sadly I haven't had it for many years.

Here, it didn't disappoint. While not much like my Mother's, which was crisper and thinner, this was pretty exemplary. Piles of thinly sliced apples layered with buttery, cinnamon-spiked breadcrumbs and all encased in crisp on top, slightly soggy underneath pastry (my favourite).

Thankfully the tradition of good cake and coffee has made it down the Danube, too and Budapest's Cafe Gerbaud, an imposing Gr├╝nderzeit building dating back to 1870, remains one of Mittleeuropa's most famous coffeehouses. Specialising in range of hand made ice creams, cakes and pastries, and just a five minute walk from our apartment, we headed straight there for an afternoon pick-me-up after arriving on the train from Vienna.

Dobos Sundae, based on the famous Hungarian Dobos Torte, a layered sponge cake filled with buttercream and topped with  caramel. This featured scoops of their own Dobos cake, 2 scoops chocolate and vanilla ice cream, vanilla foam, caramel wafers, whipped cream, popping candy and crowned with a full sized chocolate macaron.

This was as close to frozen desert perfection as I could have hoped. With cake, ice cream, chocolate and cream involved, it would be pretty hard to go wrong, but it exceeded the sum of its parts and I alternated between mouthfuls of this and sips of my glass of cold rose, until my sugar levels teetered on the precipice of a diabetic coma. Luckily I had the Ewing to help me finish the last remnants in the glass, I was so stuffed I even let her eat my macaron.

The Ewing also had her own, majestic, Gerbeaud Sundae to contend with - layers of walnut sponge with chocolate, walnut and apricot ice-creams, apricot foam, chocolate sauce, crispy walnut linzer cookie, whipped cream and crowned with a mini slice of Gerbeaud cake. 

I'm not usually the biggest fan of apricot, but here the stone fruit added a sharp edge which went very nicely with the bitter walnuts and dark chocolate. Needless to say the Ewing was in her element.

They also do a takeaway cake service - 50% off if you order more than two slices - including the rather intriguing 'Salty-Peanuts Apricot' and a Marzipan and Bailey’s Bavarois, and there's a ice cream stand, for cup and and cones on the go, just to the right of the cafe.

'Let's face it, a nice creamy chocolate cake does a lot for a lot of people; it does for me.'
 - Audrey Hepburn

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