Sunday, May 25, 2014

Day 1 in Vienna: a wonderful introduction to the city's delights

The Original Sacher-Torte has been delighting cake lovers since 1832.  The torte was invented in Vienna by Franz Sacher, an apprentice to the then-prince of Austria's personal chef.  180 years later, the torte continues to be made using the original recipe, and is served (fortunately, to a much wider audience) at the Sacher Hotel in Vienna.  Somehow I had been plodding along life, oblivious to this creation, until one fine day this past February when -- on a tea break in NYC -- I had my very first taste of the Sacher torte.

It was still cold here in NYC when I departed for Vienna, which was already enjoying its first days of spring.  Naturally, one of my very first stops in Vienna was to have the Original Sacher-Torte.  But first: a morning learning the history of the beautiful city and immersed in 19th century imperial life at the Hofburg Palace.  Afterwards I set off in search of Cafe Sacher (the cafe occupies the first floor of the Sacher Hotel).  

Not really believing I was finally there, I waltzed into the hotel and was seated at a table in a sun-drenched room of the cafe.  (Of all the cafes in Vienna I visited, I was sure a table would be hardest to come by at the Cafe Sacher, but I was proven wrong: I was immediately seated there but was met with considerable waits at other cafes.)  I had no need to consult the menu: I ordered a tea and the Original Sacher-Torte.  

Out came the tea set: a silver tray bearing a pot of tea, a cup, and saucer.  And the Sacher torte: it was exquisite!  Two layers of chocolate cake; in-between, a thin spread of apricot jam, with a hint of tartness; and atop it all, a rich chocolate ganache.  A generous dollop of unsweetened whipped cream fought for room on the plate.  Every forkful revealed one flavor and texture melding into the other.

After an hour spent savoring every morsel of the cake and people watching, I set out to find a heuriger.  A heuriger (it means "this year's wines") is a wine-tavern which -- along with wine from the current vintage -- serves a hearty spread of cold and hot foods.  From the center of town I hopped on the D tram and got off at the very last stop in the Viennese suburb of Nussdorf.  Not more than a block away is the Schobel-Auer Heuriger.  

As soon as I stepped through the gate I was struck by the charm of the place: an outdoor garden with wooden picnic-style benches and long tables and leafy trees that offered shade; and the tavern itself: rustic, warm and inviting.  Inside the tavern a woman behind a long display case helped me make my dinner selection: a kidney bean and corn salad heavy with vinegar, marinated roasted red peppers, potatoes cooked with yellow and green peppers, a roast pork, and some sheep's milk cheese.  To wash it all down I was served a mug of their Gruner Veltliner.  Sitting on the outdoor bench with the sun on my back, I feasted on my big meal.

I skipped dessert to save some room for one last treat in the city: the buchteln.  The buchteln is a yeast bun, a sweet roll made of yeast dough, served warm and typically filled with a jam and topped with powdered sugar.  I read that the best buchlten in Vienna are served at Cafe Hawelka.  

It was late by the time I arrived at Cafe Hawelka. Dark and smoky, with a moody atmosphere, the cafe exemplifies the Central European tradition of writer/artist coffeehouses.  A mismatch of comfortable, worn armchairs and sofas along with some upright chairs dot the room.  

The cafe has no menu but that was no matter: I placed my order and moments later a plate of five straight-out-of-the oven buns was set in front of me.  The buchteln were moist and chewy; the plum jam was tart; the powdered sugar sprinkling was generous.  In-between writing in my journal -- aided by the strategically placed lamps scattered across the room -- I dug into the buns.  What pure comfort!  

That was how I spent my first day in the beautiful city of Vienna. My only regret of the day?  I couldn't manage to eat all of the buchteln.