Rick Stein really has the most wonderful job and I am deeply envious of his recent trips. Not so long ago he was travelling between two of my favourite places, Venice and Istanbul, and now he’s jumping on planes and heading off for long weekends in fabulous cities (one of the things I like doing best) where, of course, amazing food can be found (also a prerequisite for me for any choice of destination). Well, actually, maybe not quite such amazing food in Berlin. Rick made a whole programme a few years back trying to convert people to German food – his family having originally come from Germany – but I don’t think anyone, not even Rick, is going to convince me I like sauerkraut and sausages and great hunks of boiled pork. Though the Germans are great at cakes so there is a mitigating factor to their cuisine.
In this latest series on BBC2, Rick takes off to Bordeaux, Reykjavik, Berlin, Vienna and Bologna (and there are five more episodes to come later in the year). Tonight’s was the 4th episode. I’ve watched them all and have loved them. Tonight’s however was of particular interest because Rick was heading to Vienna. Having wanted to go to Vienna for ages, I at last have a ticket to go there at the beginning of July – for a long weekend! My daughter is going to Vienna for work and suggested we had a weekend together before her conference starts so I couldn’t wait to see Rick’s tips for making the most of this city in just a weekend’s stay.
Of course, there’s a great similarity between the German cuisine (that I’ve just been quite rude about) and the food of Austria. But Austria’s food is more cosmopolitan, I think, from the days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire which brought influences from Italy, Hungary, Bohemia and Serbia. And anyway, don’t you just have to love a city that’s brought us both Sachertorte and Apple Strudel.
One of Vienna’s most famous dishes is Wiener Schnitzel – veal escalopes beaten out, coated in flour, egg and breadcrumbs and fried. Well, if that sounds very like the Pollo alla Milanese I cooked for the blog recently, then I was surprised to learn on Rick’s programme that the famous schnitzel was a recipe that originally came from Italy – so not really Austrian at all! Except perhaps that the Austrians usually make it with veal rather than chicken.
Rick went into some of Vienna’s most famous and popular restaurants and bakeries to watch the experts at work. There was a wonderful boiled beef dish – Tafelspitz – that is eaten in three stages: the broth, then the bone marrow and finally the slice of beef with horseradish and apples. We watched a woman make traditional stuffed cabbage leaves. And he went to Meixners, said to be Vienna’s most famous restaurant, for goulash. Rick mentioned the dish’s popularity in UK in the 70s and 80s and I remembered how it was a dish I frequently made for dinner parties. But to see this version – and Rick’s own back in his own kitchen – made me realise I’d never got it quite right so maybe I’ll have to have a retro moment on the blog soon.
Then, of course, there were the cakes. Oh my gosh! Viennese cakes! At Cemel – Vienna’s most famous pastry shop, Rick told us – we saw apple strudel being made and huge sheets of the thinnest pastry being thrown and stretched like (as Rick pointed out) two women throwing sheets across a bed. Back in his Cornish kitchen, Rick gave us his version and it’s something I can’t wait to try. But then there was the Sachertorte. I’ve made this famous chocolate cake but have been longing to eat it in Vienna to know how it really should taste. So that’s top of my list of foodie things to do when I get to the city in July! Rick gave us the story of a chef developing the recipe at Cemel but then leaving and opening his own place – now Hotel Sacher – and the great dispute that followed. Whose recipe was it? Maybe I have to try them both!
Rick was very enthusiastic about the local white wine, visiting the vineyards on the edge of the city where we learned that different grapes were grown and mixed together bringing their own particular identity to the final wine.
Vienna is well known for its café culture and visiting some of its wonderful coffee houses will also be at the top of my list (my lovely daughter has said I can make The List – though of course there will be consultation too!). Rick was clearly delighted by this relaxed attitude to living, sitting in a beautiful coffee house with a coffee and paper and spending as much of the day there as you fancy. They also carry a strong history of intellectual debate and gatherings for Vienna is the city of writers, philosophers, musicians and artists: Freud, Klimt, Trotsky, Wagner and many others went there. Bertolt Brecht described Vienna as ‘a small city built around a few coffee houses’. Rick noted its ‘smallness’ too; how easy it was to get round it and this seems ideal for a long weekend break.
What I love about Rick Stein’s programmes is that although there is an essential base of seeking out great local food, he’s also interested in the history and culture of the places he visits. He goes to see Klimt’s famous paintings at the Belvedere. He visits the house where Mozart composed The Marriage of Figaro (which Rick tells us is perhaps his favourite opera); he also tells us the composer had moved to another house when he wrote his Requiem (which provided some background music at this point) at a time when he knew he was dying. Rick’s style is the interested traveller; he looks, searches, observes and enjoys everything in just the way we’d want to. He’s as relaxed as the Viennese coffee houses he sits in, has a nice sense of humour, and that’s all part of what makes it great to watch him.
I was excited at the prospect of my trip to Vienna but after watching Rick Stein’s programme tonight, I’m even more excited and pleased to now have some background and ideas for what we might do – and where we should eat!