Wednesday, 4 June 2014

These Are a Few of My Favourite Things

Our recent trip to Vienna gave us more than just the chance to drink lots of coffee and eat lots of cake - although we managed plenty of that, too - it was also the perfect opportunity to indulge in the local cuisine and sample plenty of pork, beef, cheese and local wines. As they say, it's a hard job, but someone's got to do it.

First up was the humble wurst, possibly the most democratic meat product in Vienna. The clientele of the city’s famous wurstelstands featuring everyone from opera goers, to drunken stags plus a few bewildered tourists for good measure.

The most famous stand, Bitzinger in Albertina Platz, was our first stop on the trip. If you’re having trouble finding it look for the luminous pink rabbit on the stand’s roof and the perennial queue snaking along the pavement. The position, just behind the Stadtoper, means the upper escahlons of society are often found gathered around in their black tie, with a frankfurter or two and champagne in hand after the evening’s performance.  

From my handy sausage guide, printed out before we came, we were able to order an couple of different tube steaks, plus two beers and manage to assist the English couple behind us who managed to be even less proficient than us with their Deutsch skills.

Straight out the hatch were a couple of icy beers, the first, and therefore the sweetest, of the trip. We also had a brace of frankfurters, served with plenty of punchy senf (mustard) and a big pile of freshly grated, eye-watering, kren (horseradish). 

Next was the highlight of our haul; Austria’s beloved kasekrainer or ‘pus stick’. While it may sound anything less than appetising this cheese studded sausage - hence the gory name – was delicious, featuring smoky, juicy meat and a sprightly snap to the skin. Alongside came dark rye bread, although carb lovers could have their snags stuffed in thick bread rolls, impaled on a spike first to make room for the sausage.

A few days later, after a cultured night at the Volksoper to watch Der Fledermaus, I had the opportunity to try one for myself at the Euro Platz Wurstelstand; a neon kiosk outside the Westbanhof Station that churns out hot sausages and cold bier long into the early hours.

Again I had the Kasekrainer, this time in a hot dog with ketchup and senf, and again it was masterful. Holding a large sausage that was spurting hot cheese felt faintly comical and rather rude, but didn't stop me demolishing every pissed mouthful while leaning over a bin to catch the errant drips of sauce; a very classy sight to behold. 

Pluchatta, a small chain of Viennese restaurants famed for their beef, was our destination for an alternative Sunday dinner. Here they serve the classic Tafelspitz - made from the standing round, or top rump – but also a variety of other cuts including aitchbone, shoulder, hind leg, ribs, tongue and calf's head.

Tafelspitz, literally meaning (beef) tip for the table, is a meal of boiled beef in broth, traditionally considered to be the national dish of Austria and a firm favourite of Franz Joseph I.

We ordered a portion of tafelspitz for two alongside a bottle of crisp Grüner Veltliner from their own vineyards. I'm a big fan of the 'green' wine, and while it may not seem like the classic choice for a beef dish, the notes of white pepper and spice paired very well with the delicate meat, which has a far less domineering presence than roasted or grilled beef.

First up was the broth; a bowlful of the most sublime stock and vegetables, ladled straight from the copper Tafelspitz pan and served with a choice of dumplings, noodles or, as we had, pancake strips. Hands down the best soup I have had for a long time, and served in a generous enough portion that I made it to three bowls before downing spoons to move onto the main event.

The meat, defying my expectations, was tender and full flavoured instead of the dried out sisal carpet I had feared. The veg cooked in the broth were sweet and retained a little bite, while the accompanying jug of apple with horseradish perked everything up and the creamy chive sauce calmed it all down again.

Beef marrowbones were attacked and the wobbly jelly smeared on rounds of toast before being liberally salted, and if that wasn't enough heart-stopping deliciousness, a mini copper pan of crisp potato rosti crowned the beefy blowout.

It wasn't an exaggeration to say I was stuffed. So much so I stopped mid-forkful, almost unheard of, and admitted defeat and sadly leaving behind those last scraps of crispy tuber and smears of allium-spiked sauce that comprise of some of the best mouthfuls. 

The stairs down to the loos are covered in pictures of the various slebs who visited over the years, and the Ewing took great delight at identifying them, while marveling at the variety of chunky knitwear on display. It would seem most guests had visited in the depths of mid-winter, or were very hot.

Monday saw us taking a stroll through the Stadtpark, on route to brunch at Meirei.  Meirei - dairy in German, so named as it occupies a former dairy site - is the less formal café/restaurant found below Vienna’s Michelin starred Steirereck.

Despite the posh venue, the service was probably the most indifferent and least polished of our whole trip. While our greeting was rather gruff the waiters were friendly, but, despite having so many of them, two dishes were forgotten and attention was lax. Thankfully the food more than made up for it, and proved good value, too

The place is, unsurprisingly, known for its dairy products; the faint hum of cheese is unmistakable as you walk in, past the loo doors covered in with a painted Gorgonzola mural, and past the cabinets groaning with a huge variety of  Käse to get to the seating area below.

Many of the tables face out to the Stadtpark, a rather lovely view that on this weekday morning had the added entertainment of seeing local schoolchildren on their cross country run. ‘Oh look, that’s you.’ Commented the Ewing as one puce-faced straggler ambled past, and I couldn't disagree with her. Luckily the days of jogging to the woods for a fag and returning an hour later smelling of Polo mints are over and I happily stretched out in the sunshine to enjoy my first melange of the day.

Coffee drank we moved on the main event. Meirei offers a range of breakfast sets, of which dishes can be ordered separately, alongside an al la carte menu. The Ewing had the Meirei set, while I had the marinated salmon, the kugelhopf (which never materialised, but I later notice we had been charged for) and an Austrian cheese assortment.

My marinated salmon was vast; I had, rather greedily, requested the large portion fearing Michelin equals minute, but the best part of a whole fish tuned up on my plate. It was delicate and lovely, fresh with spring herbs and served alongside slices of crisp, toasted rye bread for a textual contrast.

The cheese platter was, again, hugely generous and came with some very handy names and descriptions, a neat touch, if it was all in German. The waitress informed me to eat clockwise, from 6 o’clock, to start with the mildest and work up to the most pungent. 

Favourites were the soft goat, which married well with a little fruit compote when spread on the rye bread, and the strongest cheese, which had the beginnings of blue mould and a pleasing metallic flavour. As well as the Austrian select, you can order plates of Tyrolean cheese, French and German cheeses or just a cheese 'surprise’. You are also welcome to go to the counter and pick your own from the vast selection.

The Meirei set came on a tiered stand and started with Marion’s (fabulous) granola with yoghurt, kaffir lime and blackcurrant. Then there was a fluffy omelette stuffed with three cheeses, and a further plate of three Austrian cheeses, different to mine and feature a lovely, slightly ‘fizzy’ Emmenthal style hard cheese. 

After stopping to loosen a few buttons there came a heap of the marinated salmon, this time served with a delicate cylinder of milk jelly stuffed with a herb cream. Finally was a cheese strudel, more like a baked pudding, with musky elderberry compote alongside. They say breakfast sets you up for the day, but good luck to anyone trying to get much done after a breakfast of those proportions.

For ‘pudding’ I went back to the milk menu and ordered the warm milk with a frozen bitter chocolate pop, flavoured with ginger. This, when stirred into the warm liquid, made a wonderfully spicy rich drink and provided a rather nice piece of theatre; the Ewing got to lick the lolly stick, so she was quite happy, too.

What would a trip to Vienna be without a Wiener Schnitzel, although here they are mostly served with potato salad and Kopfsalat (lettuce with a sweet vinaigrette) rather than the noodles in Maria Rainer's famous song.

The most famous schnitzel in town is served at Figlmueller, with the original Wollzeile branch being opened behind St Stephan's Cathedral in 1905. Here the only schnitzel available is pork, not the authentic veal, although veal is available from their bigger Backerstrasse branch, where we had our late dinner reservation.

While there are other Austrian biesl classics available on the menu, the fried breaded meat is the real draw. The pork schnitzel is cut from the tenderloin and batted out until wafer thin. From here it is covered in flour and egg before being dredge in 'imperial' breadcrumbs made from Austrian emperor rolls before the giant schnitzels are pan, never deep, fried, in three pans of various temperature oils - hottest first to crisp the outside, then at two lower temperatures to finish cooking the meat. Serious stuff.

We ordered one of both the pork and the veal to share along with a bottle of their Grüner Veltliner, again from their own vineyards on the edge of the city. The Figlmueller schnitzel was as impressively huge as they had promised, the edges falling over the sides of the full sized dinner plate. The veal came as two, slightly more modest, cutlets but was still a vast portion of fried meat to contend with. Sides were a house potato salad and green salad with pumpkin oil to share. Both salads came, rather strangely, heaped up on top of each other in the same bowl, but tasted pretty good nevertheless. 

Again, as with the Tafelspitz, this failed to confound my expectations. Instead of ropy meat and soggy breadcrumbs came an ethereally light dish of succulent porkiness with a crisp exterior and soft and juicy within. The veal had more flavour, but a slightly tougher chew, which the Ewing preferred, while I liked the pork. I say take a friend and order both.

Afterwards, the waiters who were serving us and who were quite the characters, suggested a glass of apricot schnapps ‘to help digestion’. Feeling this was rather sage advice after a surfeit of fried protein we ordered a couple of glasses. I’m not sure it helped with the packing later that evening, but it certainly went down well, so much so we bought a bottle the following day for our trip to Hungary.

While chomping our way through all the Austrian classics was all very well and good, we still made plenty of time for my favourite foodie haunt when abroad; the supermarket.

The supermarkets in Vienna were pretty good, especially the Merkure at Europlatz with its deli counter laden with glossy pretzel rolls and alpine meats and cheeses. One big surprise, however, was the Supermarket U3 in the Westbanhof Metro station, between lines U6 and U3

The first time we went in was late on a Saturday evening, munchies hour. The place was packed and almost everyone in there was clutching handfuls of crisps and chocolate and cola, squinting under strip-lighting. With barely a millimetre to squeeze by the slaw-jawed clientele, I at first dismissed it as an overpriced and claustrophobic commuter trap. It was only as I started to notice the sheer variety of produce on display that I realised whey this Aladdin’s cave was so popular.

There were ketchup and mayo flavoured potato sticks, Screamin’ Dill Pickle Pringles, paprika biscuits shaped like kangaroos, enough dried fruit and nuts to fuel a trip up Everest and those joyous peanut flavoured corn puffs you only ever see on holiday. Going further down there was shelves of soda, juices and beers and every variety of Almueddler, the famous Alpine soft drink, which surely also wins the campest can award.

There’s a whole section dedicated to American imports including Capt’n crunch, Goobers peanut butter, Cheez Balls and Betty Crocker cake batter; and a huge section of native chocolates, from Mozartwurflen – marzipan and nougat stuffed chocolate balls - to Manner cream wafers, the famous hazelnut snack still made in Vienna, to chocolate covered bananas and coconut rum balls. Everything you never thought you needed and more.

My favourite section was the gummi sweets; rows of Haribo and Trolli candies shaped as everything from Smurfs and pandas to worms and dummies. The Haribo here are made in Germany, and have the stiffer chew I’m partial to. Other people may not be as nerdish in their chewy sweet devotion, but there are plenty of varieties unavailable in the UK - strawberry Primavera, lemon Happy Cola, soft Goldbären and cola sticks among others – to keep sweet geeks happy.

Needless to say it became our favourite place to stop on a night out, usually to grab a few cans of Ottkringer Helles beer (thoughtfully in their 3 for 2) and a bag or two of spicy potato puffs for me and chocolate truffles for the Ewing, alongside bottles of local apricot juice and cartons of chocolate milk for the morning after. 

It might seem strange, and rather sad, to recommend this as a foodie highlight in a city full of great culinary tradition, but if you're the kind of person that marvels at the sheer variety of pretzel shapes or types of spicy cheese spread there are in this world, you could do a lot worse than pop in and itch that random Pop Tart craving at one o'clock in the morning (yes, they are open 24 hours) if you’re passing by.

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