Questions about Austrian Food

 by Tom Lee

My trip to Georgia involved a 12-hour layover in Vienna.  It was the first time I’d been to Austria, so I dragged my jetlagged body out into the city and did some stereotypically touristy things.  The experience was obviously short, I wasn’t in much of a state to make thoughtful observations, and I’m sure that many of the people reading this are very familiar with Austrian food (I figure this may not be the case with Georgian food, which is how I’m justifying holding forth on a cuisine I’ve barely been exposed to at all).

Still, I left with two questions about the food. Maybe some of you guys can answer them.

First: Tafelspitz.  I had some, and it was pretty good.  But how the hell does a boiled beef dish produce a result that tender?  I still feel traumatized by the times I foolishly ordered bollito misto in Italy.  There must be some trick to boiling meat with such a pleasant result.  If you can fill me in, please do so in comments.  And cc your local Italian consulate.

Second: Sachertorte.  I tweeted a request for Vienna recommendations as I perused the menu at the cafe where I ate the tafelspitz, and not one but two of my colleagues demanded that I eat sachertorte.  Well, I wasn’t really in the mood for dessert, and it didn’t seem to be on the menu.  Oh well.  I idly looked it up on Wikipedia as I waited for my food. Chocolate cake, 19th century, a queen of some sort, and the classic apocryphal/archetypal story of an apprentice chef forced to improvise when his master takes ill, only to accidentally produce an instant classic.  Right.  Well, maybe next time.

But as I left the cafe and rounded the corner I came across its birthplace, the actual Hotel Sacher, and I realized that fate was demanding that I try a piece.  So I did.  And not to be a grouch, but I didn’t really see the appeal. It mostly seemed like the sort of dry, not-very-chocolatey chocolate cake that I can easily imagine 19th century humans venerating, living as they did in the days before the delicious fudgifying compounds and other chemical wonders that make our chocolate cakes so brownie-like.

The one distinctive thing about it was the icing, which was chocolatey but had a big hit of lemon in it — I’m a sucker for chocolate and citrus, so this was not a bad start (though I prefer orange for this application).  But the icing was unpleasantly granular in texture, like the sugar in it was bursting out of solution.  Honestly, the thing on that plate that most impressed me was the delicious and tastefully mildly-sweetened dollop of whipped cream.

So help me out.  I know this thing’s an institution.  People I respect seem to love it.  But I just didn’t get it.  Maybe I’m missing something.

8 responses to “Questions about Austrian Food

  1. well, the point of tafelspitz is to choose the right cut of beef (tafelspitz, indeed :-)) … and than simmer it gently, very gently …

  2. Joe Pastry has a whole series on the Sacher Torte. Here I’ve linked the section last December: http://joepastry.com/index.php?m=200912

    About halfway down (from 12/15/09) he discusses the dryness issue. Neat reading. Enjoy!

  3. I, too, was totally unimpressed by my visit to the Hotel Sacher to try its famous cake. The cake kind of works as a vehicle for the whipped cream, but it’s nothing to write home about.

  4. Tafelspitz is prime rib. It’s the most tender cut of beef there is. I don’t know but I wouldn’t bet bollito misto is anything so nice.

  5. Aha! Alright, so it sounds like my ignorance of beef cuts explains the tafelspitz mystery.

    Thanks for the link, Leigh — I think I’m now prepared to stick to my guns and say that sachertorte just isn’t that good by modern standards. And, incidentally, the pro-sacher correspondent at that linked entry is kidding themselves if they think the whipped cream isn’t sweetened. It’s admittedly very mild, but totally unsweetened whipped cream is incredibly bland. A little bit of sugar is necessary.

  6. Of course it’s ludicrously easy to get boiled beef to be tender, even (especially!) the tough cuts. You just have to remember that “boiled” means “simmered”. (Wikipedia identifies the cut used in Tafelspitz as tri-tip, which is not prime rib.)

    Here’s how you get your “boiled”-actually-simmered beef to be tender: you … simmer it … for a long time. No boiling! Except at the very beginning, but not for long!

  7. Naturally, a competently prepared bollito misto will also feature tender meats. As will a successful pot-au-feu.

    It’s not a matter of the cuts, except insofar as stereotypically the cuts that do well in slow low-temperature moisture-enhanced cooking methods are the tough ones. Yer short/back ribs, oxtails, shanks, cheeks, breasts (as in brisket, not as in udders), etc.

  8. very informative post to read.

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