We boarded our train (without my new computer, bummer! Long story short, customs refused to release it to us because they thought it was a business expense rather than personal and that we were trying to evade the 27% sales tax, so Al and Joan will bring it in a month), in the afternoon and settled in for our three hour trip in our own compartment. From our air conditioned seats, we saw the beautiful country-sides of Hungary and Austria - bright fields of purple lavender and orangey-red poppies and neon green leafy crops. Windmills turned in the distance behind solar panel topped farmhouses.
We arrived at our new temporary home in Vienna, a 6 bedroom flat in a perfect area; two blocks from Naschmarkt, and a 15 minute walk from every other major site in the Old Town. Our flat mates, mostly college students, were warm and welcoming. We instantly felt comfortable there and especially appreciated when one of them told us, "You live here, so, you know, use whatever you need. This is your home."
Our first full day was jam packed with activities! We spent the morning wandering the city, listening to our trusty Rick Steves app, learning about the sites of the city like St. Stephen's Cathedral, Hofburg Palace, and Kohlmarkt, the famous pastry shop Demel. As we listened to Rick talk about how Demel used to provide cakes to the Imperial and Royal court (as denoted by the "k.k." on the building and menus), we decided we had to stop in for a taste. We hadn’t had lunch yet, and nothing says lunch like cake! Our first reaction: this place is busy! We toured the chocolate shop, being careful to not bump into any of the displays or any other tourists. Our second reaction: this place is pricey! Good thing we didn’t knock anything over! Then we turned our attention to the cake display and took in the many edible works of art. We settled on the chocolatey Annatorte and ordered from the counter downstairs. After being handed a little piece of paper with a number on it, we were instructed to take it to a table upstairs where the servers would bring us our cake. We walked through the restaurant, past the windowed kitchen where we watched pastry chefs decorating cakes, sifting flour, and cutting dough, and up the stairs to another crowded dining room. We were able to snag a table in the corner where we handed our seemingly cranky server our ticket. She brought us our gorgeous torte and we dug right in. The verdict: my mom's chocolate Bundt cake is WAY better, but I'm glad we took a moment to indulge in some sugary goodness! While the décor and cakes are pretty to look at, Demel left a little something to be desired - the attitude of the place seemed a bit…Parisian. It was a little stuffy. What I did love about the place, though, was watching all of the pastry chefs busy at work, and the history of these chefs providing all of the sweets for the Austrian royalty. Still hungry after sharing our cake, we set out to find sausages and ended up at Bitzinger, a weiner stand that wins best sausages in Vienna time and time again. Tightly gripping his sweet sausage, sheathed in a roll, Jake wandered to shady spot near the park to enjoy himself (hahahahahahaha I couldn’t resist this sentence!). I enjoyed my spicy sausage, also served in a hollowed out roll. (It's not as funny when it's about me.)
We finished our walking tour just in time to meet up with Rainer, a professor who is good friends with Jake's dad through the University of Florida. Rainer was born and raised in Vienna and is now conducting a study on food marketing trends when he isn't teaching. Rainer let us know that he was taking a couple of his students on a food tour of Vienna with his research partner and invited us to come along. An in depth look at food culture? Yes please!
At 3:30, under the surprisingly hot sun, we met Rainer, his research partner Mark, friend Gerald, and student Yhosemar, and set off through the Naschmarkt (Vienna's big open air market) to our first stop- a store selling preserves, balsamics, pestos, and other jarred goodies. This shop's focus was on locally sourced products from local farmers. It was interesting to hear Rainer and his group of researchers discuss this food trend and how it impacts the targeted demographic- people who would buy products here hold location in high importance, so they would be interested in shopping local, despite the higher price tag. This sounded familiar - people in San Francisco think this is very important (especially in San Francisco). I don't know, though, if it's because buying local is the trendy thing to do (and the products all come in low key jars or paper bags that look "rustic", also very trendy), or if it's because people actually care about supporting local farmers. We tasted apricot jam (it was incredibly delicious), berry and ginger jam, Apple vinegar, and a vinegar made from some local grape that I couldn't pronounce or even try to spell for you now. I would have taken a jar of that apricot jam if I didn't have to carry it around for the next several months.
The next stop: Zotter Chocolates! Zotter's focus is on fair trade and organic ingredients. This family run operation is one of the only "bean-to-bar" chocolate manufacturers in the world, and they visit each of the small cocoa farms from where they source their beans. Their secondary focus is creativity- not only are the many flavors outrageous (like duo wine, amaretto marzipan, and apples with carrots and ginger), the labels look like comics; each one designed by artist Andrea H. Gratze. Jake and I were overwhelmed by our options, but we settled on a dark chocolate bar filled with red wine ganache. Needless to say, it didn't last long!
For our third stop, we headed to Henzls Ernte, a little herb shop owned and operated by Gertrude Henzl. Every morning, she heads into the forest to forage for herbs, seeds, berries, and greens that she takes back to her shop to dry, grind, and turn into salts, powders, decorative sugared flowers of cakes, vinegars, juices, and salad mixes. Clearly the focus on her shop was on knowing exactly where your food comes from, and eating healthy. She particularly cared about how her products are used- she doesn't like people who use her ingredients to make smoothies because she picks every bud, leaf, and flower herself. Each piece has its own flavor, and she thinks it's a waste of her work to throw them all in mass to a blender. I couldn't help but think she should move her business to Berkeley.
By the time we were done learning about foraging for flowers, we were hungry. It was time for ice cream! Rainer said he was taking us to the best ice cream shop in Vienna, Eissalon Tuchlauben. Rainer underestimated this ice cream because it's the BEST ice cream either of us have ever had. OH MY GOSH IT'S SO GOOD! I don't know what we were supposed to learn about food trends in this place, I was too distracted by the delectable cone in my hand to pay attention. All I know is that it's made from whipped cream. I devoured my scoops of chocolate and macaron, and Jake inhaled his scoops of cookies and chocolate. The shop happens to be across the street from a high end lingerie store, so ladies, we must ask ourselves - would you rather look awesome in that sparkly get up, or eat the ice cream? Sorry Jake, ice cream wins.
For our final stop, we popped into Babette's, a spice shop that's decorated like an old apothecary shop, the focus being on spices as medicine (like making tea from dried hibiscus flowers to lower blood pressure). The store also had lots of cookbooks for sale, highlighting healthy foods of many different cultures. We poked around the store, opened drawers full of colorful and exotic spices, and tried to read recipes from books written in German. Unfortunately we arrived a little bit late and they closed minutes after we arrived, so we were not able to fully explore the café in the back. But now I know where to find rare spices the next time I'm whipping up an exotic feast in Vienna!
We all reflected on our experience from the 5 hours prior and agreed- the ice cream was the best part. Jake and I loved learning about all of these off-the-beaten-path places, and especially enjoyed spending time with this fascinating group of people! We said our goodbyes as Babette's locked the doors behind us and made our way back to our apartment. We kept it easy for dinner and grabbed some incredible noodles at the place below our apartment, Ra'mien. (Side note - I cannot WAIT for the food in South East Asia!)
While we didn't do much during the next day (we got Jake some new hiking shoes- woohoo shopping!), we had an incredible adventure that night with Rainer, his son Benjamin, and Kelli, Benjamin's girlfriend. Rainer was taking us all to a heuriger, a sort of Viennese wine bar at a winery. What's so awesome about the heuriger is that it only serves wine from its own vineyards, and only serves fresh food supplied by local farmers. Because Austria imposes high taxes on restaurants to serve hot food, the heuriger only serves cold food. Jake and I were really excited to experience this unique dining setting with the jovial and energetic professor and the kids!
We arrived at Rainer's apartment at 7:30, just as the day was starting to cool off to a nice 75*. We met Beni and Kelli, two really nice kids (ok they're like 24), and headed out for our adventure. Rainer and his wife live in the 9th district, near the Lichtenstein Palace. Before getting in the car, Rainer showed us around the grounds of the palace, where he actually used to live! Growing up, his family lived in an apartment on the grounds of the palace and his father did business with the prince of Lichtenstein. Rainer pointed out his sister's old bedroom window and showed us around the gorgeous garden in the back of the palace. He also told us a little bit of history of the property - during WW2, when the Soviets were storming Vienna, the butler went out to the gates of the palace with a note for the soviet general. The note stated something to the effect of "This palace does not belong to Austria, this land belongs to Lichtenstein. Please leave us alone, your war is not with us." The general took the note, threw it on the ground, and decided that the palace would be his headquarters. And so it was. Rainer pointed out the big beautiful sycamores that lined the property , "You see these trees, these trees could tell you some stories. They saw all of World War 2." I never really thought about it like that. I took a moment to look around and think about who stood where I was standing and looked at the same trees I was looking at. Buildings can change, they can be remodeled, retrofitted, bulldozed completely; the areas surrounding historical sites will transform with the times. But the trees (assuming they aren't cut down to make way for new industrial expansion), generally stay the same. The trees are what I can share with someone from 100 years ago. I probably sound like a raging hippie, but for some reason that idea struck me. There is a lot of history in the trees.
After our 2-3 km hike through the vineyards, we finally reached our destination, Heuriger Sirbu. We walked down a path to a patio behind a small house. The patio was full of picnic tables and lanterns, some tables beneath trellised vines, others beneath the night sky. The view was perfect - rolling hills of vines and city lights of a Viennese suburb below. We took a table on the end and let our hosts take control. "What do you like to eat and drink?" asked Rainer. "Everything! We want to eat and drink what you eat and drink!" Soon we had quite a spread in front of us - three spreads (wild garlic cream, cheese and paprika, and pork fat with peppers), white asparagus salad, potato salad, thick bacon, zucchini fritters with yogurt, cured ham, and sliced cheeses including emmentaler, something smoked, and something covered in herbs and hay, schintzel, a basket of rye bread, a liter carafe of Riesling, and a pitcher of sparkling water.
I don’t know the names of half of what we ate, all I know is that it was all delicious! After a quick explanation of how Viennese people drink white wine (fill your glass half way with wine, and the rest with sparkling water), we dug in to our picnic style dinner. We made quick work of everything, especially the dry Riesling, and got more of it all, this time trying a liter of Gruner Veltliner. While I enjoyed mixing the Riesling with the fizzy water to make a spritzer, I enjoyed the Gruner too much to dilute it. I loved the dry acidity of this bright white grape. I told Rainer that I've never heard of anyone mixing their wine with sparkling water and that I was fascinated by method. He, full of interesting information, explained where it came from - the ancient Greeks stated that the brilliant and cultured people could drink wine all night long without ever getting drunk, and this was their trick. "The French hate us for doing it, but we like it." he stated. I liked it too; it was quite refreshing! What a cool experience to have; to eat and drink like the locals do, to understand their culinary customs, to share a meal laughing and chatting with friends under a perfect sky until late into the warm night. It was a perfect evening! At 11:30 we walked back to the car, this time taking the road, and reached it in no time at all, making us laugh even more about our roundabout hike we took to reach the heuriger hours earlier.
Rainer, Beni, and Kelli dropped us off at the metro station and we said our goodbyes. We are so grateful for the memorable experience that Rainer gave us, and so happy to meet Beni and Kelli. The night was so lovely, the first warm night we'd had (I didn’t even bring a sweater to dinner!), we decided to skip the metro and walk back. We moseyed along the canal and through the streets of the old town, stopping at Rathaus (city hall) and the Hofburg Palace for some night photography, noticing how many people were out and about enjoying the night. At 12:30am on a Wednesday night (ok technically Thursday morning), the city was very much alive! Bars were packed, the parks were loaded with people listening to music and drinking beer, it felt like a weekend. Was Vienna always like this on summer nights? Perhaps the holiday on Thursday had a little to do with it - no one had to work on Thursday for Corpus Christi. In any case, we loved the energy of this great city as we made our way home.
For our last day in Vienna, we took ourselves on another mini food tour, starting with Viennese coffee. Across the street from our apartment was a hipster coffee shop called Phil (no, my SF friends, not Philz), decorated with weird light fixtures and full of old books for sale, including a giant edition (about 18 inches tall) of The Hobbit. I asked the server what the best example of Viennese coffee was - she recommended a Melange, basically a cappuccino. I had done a little bit of research before popping in to the trendy spot, and told her that I learned that many typical Viennese coffees had whipped cream in them (which I was pretty excited about). She dropped her eyes and said, sadly, that they did not have whipped cream, that other "standard" coffee shops in Vienna had whipped cream, but they did everything with steamed milk and foam. Ok fine, I wouldn't get my whipped cream creation (put it on the list of things to try when we come back to Vienna someday, so I ordered a Melange. I must say, it was a darn good cappuccino! Strong espresso that was bold without being bitter, the milk held the froth of the foam…I really enjoyed it! And since it was my 2nd big hit of caffeine for the day, I was amped. Time to go find ice cream!! C'mon, let's go! Let's goooooooo!
We were pretty darn sure that the ice cream from Eissalon Tuchlauben was truly the best ice cream we've ever had, and we needed to confirm that it was, indeed, the best ice cream in Vienna. So, on Thursday we ate 6 scoops of ice cream, each, in the name of science. From Eis Greissler, a shop recommended by our hosts and by many websites, we each got 2 scoops - almond and chocolate for me. I'll go ahead and say that the almond flavor is definitely one of my favorites (add it to my growing list along with cinnamon from Italy and macaron from Tuchlauben the other day). While the flavors were fantastic, the texture was mediocre. No, the texture was just bad - it was really icey, like there was too much water in the ingredients and it froze. It was good, but we were thrilled that we were planning on getting Tuchlauben later. And boy, did we indulge! Four scoops each (no cones, we do have some self-control). I couldn't resist getting the chocolate and macaron like I had the other day, and added walnut and some sort of brandied cherry in vanilla (or something like that, I don't really know) to the cup as well. The texture was just as amazing as it was the other day - I just kept thinking of one of favorite quotes from Despicable Me, "It's so fluffy I'm gonna die!" Of course, the character who squealed those words was talking about a fluffy stuffed unicorn toy, and I'm talking about ice cream. Whatever. IT IS SO GOOD.
We had hoped to have one more unique culinary experience in Vienna before leaving, enjoying tiny finger sandwiches and itty bitty beers at Trzesniewski. As one who loves to go to tea and loves finger sandwiches, I was super excited to try a whole plateful of different spreads on breads and substitute a American Girl doll sized beer for tea. Unfortunately, though, it was a holiday (what the heck is Corpus Christi anyway? Europe sure has a lot of holidays), and most stores and restaurants were closed, including our sandwich shop (something that is so strange to us, because holidays are major shopping and dining days in the US). Bummer - add that to the list too! I guess I can't be too sad, though, we had 6 scoops of ice cream for lunch instead. Tired from our sugar overload, we called it a day and went back to the apartment. Jake napped while I sat down to write this post.
For dinner, we took a chance on the holiday and walked to a nearby brewery, 7Sternbrau, keeping our fingers crossed that it would be open. And it was! (Great story Hansel.) We enjoyed our last dinner in Austria in the back room of the brewery, looking out onto the packed patio of drinkers, eaters, and smokers, and chowed down on sausages with sauerkraut and mustard, cucumber salad, and a big skillet of cheesy gnocchi with chicken and pork. Since we were in a brewery, we had to try to local beers - a half liter of weiss beer for each of us (of course), and a .3 liter of a hemp lager to split (it was too odd not to get a taste). The smell of the hemp beer made me feel like I was back in SF wandering through the park! 7Sternbrau was exactly what we wanted - delicious local fare, where lots of locals hung out! I definitely recommend it to you if you coming through and in the mood for some low key bar food! On our way out the door I noticed the greatest machine ever - a beer vending machine! The machine was stocked with bottles of the brewery's beers, all cold and ready for you to take with you! Had there been a bottle opener next to the machine, we would have taken one to go to enjoy on the short walk back (if there is an open container law in Vienna, they sure don't enforce it!). We couldn't find an opener, and we were stuffed from our day, so we passed on one final beer (See? We do have self-control!)
Vienna was a wonderful surprise - we didn't know what to expect other than an expensive city with beautiful buildings. We discovered a fantastic food scene, got to learn a lot about local culinary delights, take in the local beer and wine culture, and spent time with kind and fun-loving people. And, bonus, it really wasn't that expensive! Yippee! Vienna earned a top spot on our list of favorites!