Saturday, May 19, 2012

Vienna, Schnitzel and the Sacher Torte

I'm traveling again so I thought it would be a good time to write about my favorite European city, Vienna (Wein), Austria.  Of course it's not a large country so I often take the time to rent a car and see some of the most beautiful countryside in the world, often ending in Salzburg.  While in Austria I take in the many musical options made available by a country that prides itself on music.  And like any good tourist, I not only enjoy the famed boys choir, philharmonic and opera, but also the local foods.

One of my favorites is the schnitzel.  This is a traditional Austrian dish made with boneless meat pounded thin, coated in bread crumbs and fried. It is a popular part of Viennese cuisine and available through both Austria and Germany.  But take care when requesting it outside of Vienna as I was once told off quite handsomely when I asked for a restaurant with German food and then said 'you know, like Wienerschnitzel.'   This sent my concierge into a fit who informed me of the origins of the dish and how it was in fact, NOT German.  Ooops! 

In Austria, the dish called Wiener Schnitzel (Viennese schnitzel), is traditionally garnished with a slice of lemon and either potato salad or potatoes with parsley and butter.   Although the traditional Wiener Schnitzel is made of veal, it is now often available made with pork.  In Austria, by law it has to be called Wiener Schnitzel vom Schwein (vom Schwein meaning from pork) to differentiate it from the original. There are also regional versions of schnitzel, such as Salzburger schnitzel, which is stuffed with mushrooms, bacon, onions, and various other herbs.  I often make the veal and pork schnitzel at home, which is simple to do and reminds me of that lovely European capital.

Hotel Sacher, Vienna
In Vienna I always stay at the same hotel.  It's a classic property just behind the famed opera house and has been there since 1876 when Eduard Sacher opened his fine hotel.  If you're visiting, do as I do and ask for a suite on the front of the hotel as high up as possible overlooking the opera.  You won't be disappointed and will find it has all of the latest modern amenities.  Throughout its existence, the Hotel Sacher has been a popular meeting point for the aristocracy, politicians, business people and artists. Its guest book has been signed by celebrities such as the Prince of Monaco and his wife Princess Grace, Indira Gandhi, Queen Elisabeth II and John F. Kennedy.  Artists, such as Leonard Bernstein, Herbert von Karajan or Marcel Prawy have also been frequent guests.  They have many of the items on display at the hotel so take some time to stroll the hallways and enjoy the memorabilia. 
Vienna State Opera House
While there book your opera tickets and make a dinner reservation at the hotel's "Red Bar", which isn't a bar at all but a wonderful restaurant that serves dinner late night at the conclusion of the opera.  They usually have a pianist playing and a great menu that will top off what is sure to be a fine evening indeed.  I try to do this once every trip to Vienna.  But if you don't book ahead you won't get a table so as soon as you make your theater plans, contact the hotel and make the booking.  (The hotel has other great dining and bar options as well, and do enjoy those during your trip.)

The Red Bar at Hotel Sacher, Vienna
One of the other benefits at staying at Hotel Sacher is direct access to the Cafe Sacher, which is connected to the hotel and where tourists and locals line up for hours trying to get a table in the elegant cafe.  Mention your desire to take breakfast or an afternoon break directly to the hotel concierge and you will be escorted through the back route and get the next available seat in the Cafe.  Here you will experience the typical elegance of a days-gone-by Viennese coffee house and treat yourself to an original Sacher-Torte.

What is a 'Sacher-Torte' you ask?  The Original Sacher-Torte is probably the world’s most famous chocolate cake. The cake is actually fifty years older than the hotel. It was invented by a teenage Franz Sacher in 1832 at the request of Prince Wenzel von Metternich, where he was employed as a young chef.  The Prince charged him to make a special dessert for important guests and the result was the famous cake.  Sacher's eldest son Eduard carried on his father's culinary legacy, completing his own training in Vienna with the Royal and Imperial Pastry Chef at the Demel bakery and chocolatier, during which time he perfected his father's recipe and developed the torte into its current form. The cake was first served at the Demel and later at the Hotel Sacher, after it was opened by Eduard. Since then, the cake remains among the most famous of Vienna's culinary specialties.

To this day it is made only in Vienna and Salzburg, where you will find a newer Hotel Sacher Salzburg, which I  also highly recommended while in the birthplace of Mozart.  The basis is a chocolate cake, thinly coated by hand with best-quality apricot jam. The chocolate icing on top of it is the crowning glory. The Original Sacher-Torte tastes best with a portion of unsweetened whipped cream, complemented perfectly with a “Wiener Melange” (coffee with milk) while at the Sacher Café.

Kevin and I at the Schönbrunn Palace, 2005.
While you can easily walk most of the city center in Vienna, take the time to visit the suburban palaces like Schönbrunn.  If you have the time rent a car and drive the lovely countryside.  I like to stay in one of the castles while taking a circuitous route finally driving through the most spectacular southern Lake District before heading to Salzburg.

The Lake District from my travels in 2009.
If altneratively you starting your trip in Salzburg, you'll no doubt use Salzburg as your gateway to the lakes (again via rental car--skip the tour buses), where you will drive to Mondsee (Moon Lake) where Maria married Captain von Trapp in The Sound of Music.   Here I suggest you stroll along the lovely Marktplatz, a square filled with lively cafes.  Arrangements can be made to go sailing in the summer.  Remember though that summer is high tourist season in Salzburg so you may need extra time to travel further south to the summer resorts of the southeastern province of Carinthia where you can relax for a week or so before needing head on to that City of Music, Vienna.

Surely Vienna is the world’s music capital! More famous composers have lived here than in any other city – in Vienna, music is literally in the air: Waltzes and operettas have their home here, and the city’s concert halls and stages offer the whole range from classical to progressive sounds with end-to-end festivals the whole year through. Opera fans will meet international stars here and jazz lovers will find a pulsating jazz scene. Pop and rock concerts provide unforgettable live music experiences.  Combine this with some of my favorite unique shopping boutiques (located just behind the Hotel Sacher), world class museums, and the Spanish Riding School, and Vienna truly is my favorite European city and I'm sure it will become yours too!

Did I mention not to skip the hot dog stand? Yum
PS  If you're looking for a three-city tour consider taking the train from Prague, to Vienna, then on to Budapest.  A great three city roundup that Kevin and I very much enjoyed.

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