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Austrian Cuisine, a Cultural History

“You are what you eat” - there is a deeper meaning to this well-known saying. It seems to suggest that one can understand a country’s mentality from what people eat. What would Austria’s many regional specialities reveal about its inhabitants? Undoubtedly that they are epicures and love their native cuisine.

Wiener Schnitzel © Österreich Werbung  Eisenhut & Mayer
Wiener Schnitzel © Österreich Werbung Eisenhut & Mayer
Apricot Dumplings © Österreich Werbung  Eisenhut & Mayer
Apricot Dumplings © Österreich Werbung Eisenhut & Mayer
Linzer Torte ©  Österreich Werbung  Wolfgang Schardt
Linzer Torte © Österreich Werbung Wolfgang Schardt

Food is, after all, identity. It is an important part of our sense of belonging: to our families, cultural area and national unity. For the British the archetypical dish is fish and chips, for Americans it’s hamburgers, for the Japanese sushi, and for the Austrians it’s Wiener Schnitzel, of course.

And so it becomes clear that culinary specialities are national and regional landmarks. They reveal much about the soul of a country, about the openness to other cultures. Thus it can happen that an originally Chinese fruit (the apricot) is combined with a plant product from Southeast Asia (sugar) and a Bohemian method of preparation (the dumpling) to become the cultural icon of Austria’s picturesque Wachau Valley: the Marillenknödel (apricot dumpling).

Many of the dishes considered to be classic Austrian recipes today would never have seen the light of day without intercultural dialogue. The Austrians have always been true masters in the art of uniting a wide variety of cultural influences on a single plate. The Austrian menu reads like a stroll through the cultural history of Europe, like a journey into the past.

Take, for example, the famous Wiener Schnitzel. Its roots are to be found not in Vienna but in Venice. Italian chefs were frying meat in a breadcrumb wrapper as early as the sixteenth century, and before that the Jewish population of Constantinople did the same. According to legend, this form of fried meat was brought to Austria around 1857 by the Austrian field marshal Count Radetzky. Austrian chefs perfected the recipe during the late imperial age, making Wiener Schnitzel what it is today: an incomparable Austrian delicacy.

The Linzer Torte is another dish known far beyond the borders of Austria. It took its name from Linz, the Upper Austrian capital, and is unique in the fact that it was the world’s first cake recipe to appear in written form. The cake first became famous in 1822 when a baker from Franconia, Johann Konrad Vogel, began working for Katharina Kress, the widow of a Linz confectioner. And that was the beginning of a success story. Today, the Linzer Torte is just as well known abroad as the Sacher Torte and no less popular as a delicious city souvenir.

Although chocolate cake was not invented in Vienna, the legendary Sacher Torte was. Baked for the first time in 1832 by the clever baker’s apprentice Franz Sacher, the cake was impressive above all for its taste and design. But the person responsible for the Sacher Torte, which became the most famous of all chocolate cakes, was his son, Eduard Sacher. By the end of the nineteenth century he had made the Sacher Torte a household name nearly everywhere, thus launching its unparalleled success story.

In Vorarlberg, Austria's western-most province, a spicy, aromatic speciality is produced: Bergkäse (mountain cheese). Cheese originated in the Middle East, where the nutritional value of milk had become apparent as early as the Stone Age. The recipe developed in the high mountains of western Austria for purely practical reasons. Fresh milk was easily and cheaply available, and hard cheese kept for a very long time, making it possible to survive in high and inhospitable Alpine regions. We owe the wide variety of cheeses available today to the many different kinds of grass and herbs found on Alpine pastures.