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It's pointless to argue whether a Viennese dish is of Hungarian, Czech, Austrian, Slovenian, or even Serbian origin. Personally, we've always been more interested in taste. Our palates respond well to Wienerküche (Viennese cooking), a centuries-old blend of foreign recipes and homespun concoctions. Viennese cooking tends to be rich and heavy, with little regard for cholesterol levels.

From Wiener Schnitzel to Sachertorte

Of course everyone knows Wiener schnitzel, the breaded veal cutlet that has achieved popularity worldwide. The most authentic local recipes call for the schnitzel to be fried in lard, but everyone agrees on one point: The schnitzel should have the golden-brown color of a Stradivarius violin.

Another renowned meat specialty is boiled beef, or tafelspitz, said to reflect "the soul of the empire." This was Emperor Franz Joseph's favorite dish. For the best, try it at Hotel Sacher; if you're on a budget, then order tafelspitz at a beisl, cousin of the French bistro.

Roast goose is served on festive occasions, such as Christmas, but at any time of the year you can order eine gute fettgans (a good fat goose). After such a rich dinner, you might want to relax over some strong coffee, followed by schnapps.

For a taste of Hungary, order a goulash. Goulashes (stews of beef or pork with paprika) can be prepared in many different ways. The local version, Wiener gulasch, is lighter on the paprika than most Hungarian versions. And don't forget gulyassuppe (a Hungarian goulash soup), which can be a meal in itself.

Viennese pastry is probably the best in the world, both rich and varied. The familiar strudel comes in many forms; apfelstrudel (apple) is the most popular, but you can also order cherry and other flavors. Viennese cakes defy description -- look for gugelhupf, wuchteln, and mohnbeugerl. Many of the torten are made with ground hazelnuts or almonds in the place of flour. You can put whipped cream on everything. Don't miss rehruken, a chocolate "saddle of venison" cake that's studded with almonds.

Even if you're not addicted to sweets, there's a gustatory experience you mustn't miss: the Viennese Sachertorte. Many gourmets claim to have the authentic, original recipe for this "king of tortes," a rich chocolate cake with a layer of apricot jam. Master pastry baker Franz Sacher created the Sachertorte for Prince von Metternich in 1832, and it is still available in the Hotel Sacher. Outstanding imitations can be found throughout Vienna.

Coffee

Although it might sound heretical, Turkey is credited with establishing the famous Viennese coffeehouse. Legend holds that Turks retreating from the siege of Vienna abandoned several sacks of coffee, which, when brewed by the victorious Viennese, established the Austrian passion for coffee for all time. The first kaffeehaus was established in Vienna in 1683.

In Vienna, Jause is a 4pm coffee-and-pastry ritual that is practiced daily in the city's coffeehouses. You can order your coffee a number of different ways -- everything from verkehrt (almost milk pale) to mocca (ebony black). Note that in Vienna, only strangers ask for einen kaffee (a coffee). If you do, you'll be asked what kind you want. Your safest choice is a large or small brauner -- coffee with milk. Kaffee mit schlagobers (with whipped cream) is perfect for those with a sweet tooth. You can even order doppelschlag (double whipped cream).

Beer, Wine & Liqueurs

Vienna imposes few restrictions on the sale of alcohol, so except in alcohol-free places, you should be able to order beer or wine with your meal -- even if it's 9am. Many Viennese have their first strong drink in the morning, preferring beer over coffee to get them going.

In general, Austrian wines are served when new, and most are consumed where they're produced. We prefer the white wine to the red. More than 99% of all Austrian wine is produced in vineyards in eastern Austria, principally Vienna, Lower Austria, Styria, and Burgenland. The most famous Austrian wine, Gumpoldskirchen, which is sold all over Vienna, comes from Lower Austria, the country's largest wine producer. At the heart of the Baden wine district of Sudbahnstrecke is the village of Gumpoldskirchen, which gives the wine its name. This white wine is heady, rich, and slightly sweet.

Located in an outer district of Vienna, Klosterneuburg, an ancient abbey on the right bank of the Danube, produces the finest white wine in Austria. Monks have made Klosterneuburger at this monastery for centuries. The Wachau district, west of Vienna, also produces some fine delicate wines, including Loibner Kaiserwein and Duernsteiner Katzensprung, which are fragrant and fruity.

By far the best red wine -- on this there is little disagreement -- is Vöslauer from Vöslau. It's strong but not quite as powerful as Gumpoldskirchen and Klosterneuburger. From Styria comes Austria's best-known rosé, Schilcher, which is slightly dry, fruity, and sparkling.

Because many Viennese visiting the heurigen outside the city didn't want to get too drunk, they started diluting the new wine with club soda or mineral water. Thus the spritzer was born. The mix is best with a very dry wine.

In all except the most deluxe restaurants, it's possible to order a carafe of wine, offener Wein, which will be much less expensive than a bottle.

Austrian beers are relatively inexpensive and quite good, and they're sold throughout Vienna. Vienna is home to what we believe is the finest beer in the region, Schwechater. Gösser, produced in Styria, is one of the most favored brews and comes in both light and dark. Adambräu, another native beer, is also sold in Vienna's bars and taverns, along with some lighter, Bavarian-type beers such as Weizengold and Kaiser. For those who prefer the taste without the alcohol, Null Komma Josef is a local alcohol-free beer.

Two of the most famous and favored liqueurs among Austrians are slivovitz (a plum brandy that originated in Croatia) and barack (made from apricots). Imported whisky and bourbon are likely to be lethal in price. When you're in Vienna, it's a good rule of thumb to drink the "spirit of the land."

The most festive drink is Bowle (pronounced bole), which is often served at parties. It was first made for us by the great Austrian chanteuse Greta Keller, and we've been devotees ever since. She preferred the lethal method of soaking berries and sliced peaches overnight in brandy, adding three bottles of dry white wine, and letting it stand for another 2 to 3 hours. Before serving, she'd pour a bottle of champagne over it. In her words, "You can drink it as a cocktail, during and after dinner, and on . . . and on . . . and on!"

The Heurigen -- In 1784, Joseph II decreed that each vintner in the suburbs of Vienna could sell his own wine right on his doorstep. A tradition was born that continues today. Heurig means "new wine" or, more literally, "of this year."

The heurigen, or wine taverns, lie on the outskirts of Vienna, mainly in Grinzing. In summer, in fair weather, much of the drinking takes place in vine-covered gardens. In some old-fashioned places, on a nippy night, you'll find a crackling fire in a flower-bordered ceramic stove. There's likely to be a Gypsy violinist, an accordionist, or perhaps a zither player entertaining with Viennese songs. Most heurigen are rustic, with wooden benches and tables, and it's perfectly acceptable to bring your own snacks. But today, many are restaurants, serving buffets of meats, cheeses, breads, and vegetables. Beware: The wine is surprisingly potent, in spite of its innocent taste.

The Legendary Sachertorte

In a city fabled for its desserts, the Sachertorte has emerged as the most famous. At a party thrown for Prince Klemens von Metternich in 1832, Franz Sacher first concocted and served the confection. It was an instant success, and news of the torte spread throughout the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Back then, everyone wanted the recipe, but it was a closely guarded secret.

In 1876, Sacher's son, Eduard, launched the Hotel Sacher. Eduard's cigar-smoking wife, Frau Anna, transformed the place into a favorite haunt of Austrian aristocrats, who drank wine and devoured Sachertortes into the wee hours. Memory of the pastry faded during the world wars, but in 1951, the Sachertorte returned to the hotel's kitchen and reclaimed the renown it enjoyed in the 19th century. Today almost every pastry shop in Vienna sells the Sachertorte, and some confectioneries ship it around the world.

Like all celebrities, the Sachertorte has been the subject of a lawsuit. A 25-year legal battle over the exclusive right to the name "Original Sachertorte" was waged between the Hotel Sacher and the patisserie Demel. In 1965, an Austrian court ruled in favor of the Hotel Sacher.

After endless samplings of the torte from both the Demel and the Hotel Sacher, only the most exacting connoisseur can tell the difference -- if there is any. Here, with permission of the Hotel Sacher, is its recipe for Sachertorte:

Cake:

  • 1/2 cup butter, softened
  • 1/2 cup confectioners' sugar
  • 1 tsp. vanilla
  • 6 eggs (separated)
  • 5 oz. dark chocolate (melted)
  • 1/2 cup granulated sugar
  • 1 cup flour
  • Apricot jam (as desired)

Combine butter, confectioners' sugar, and vanilla, and mix well. Add egg yolks and beat. Mix in chocolate. Whip the egg whites until stiff, and add to the mixture along with the granulated sugar. Stir with a wooden spoon. Add flour, then place in a mold. Bake at 350°F for 15 minutes with the oven door ajar, then for 1 hour more with the door shut. Turn out of the mold and allow to cool for 20 minutes. Coat with warm apricot jam.

Icing:

  • 4/5 cup confectioners' sugar
  • 1/2 cup water
  • 6 oz. chocolate

Heat sugar and water for 5 to 6 minutes, add melted chocolate, and stir with a wooden spoon until the mixture is moderately thick. Layer the cake with the icing (1/4 in.) and allow to cool.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.