Schnitzel, apfelstrudel and sweet knödel. Dishes of my childhood, thanks to family recipes harking back to Austro-Hungary. My maternal grandmother was born in Roudnice, a town on the left bank of the Elbe. She lived in Britain for most of her life, but lots of her dishes still divulged her roots: quark-pastry, liberal dustings of cinnamon and an incredible repertoire of Christmas biscuits – vanillekipferl, pariser stangen, pishinger….
Oddly, Austro-Hungarian cuisine has never really caught-on in Britain. The closest us Brits usually get is a styrofoam cup of Glühwein at a Christmas market. It’s a mystery. We’ve happily embraced the cuisine of France, Italy and Spain. Chicken Tikka Masala is now our national dish, and you can pick up a takeaway chow mein in most British towns. But what do we have against the cuisine of our Bohemian neighbours? Where’s the goulash, the kasnocken cheese dumplings, those beautiful little obložené chlebíčky open sandwiches?
The good news is that I’m not the only person asking these questions. Clearly there are others who are smitten with Austro-Hungarian dining too, and are keen to spread the love.
Early last year, Fisher’s opened at the top of Marylebone High Street. The restaurant channels the romanticism of old-world Vienna, and offers an impressive spread of poached fish, Würstchen, schnitzel and goulash. Nearby Boopshis also does a good line in ox tongue, spätzle & cheese and ‘Oma’s apple strudel. There’s also Kipferl (now a branch in Kensington as well as Islington), and street food vendors, Speckmobile and Fleischmob.
Alongside rumblings of interest in Austrian food, is an even more tremulous rumbling of interest in Austrian wine. So when I was invited to an Austrian Wine Tasting at The Institute of Directors, I jumped at the opportunity to pop along.
“There isn’t a place on earth where dense, opulent wines taste so nimble, and where fresh wines are so compact” explained the pamphlet which contained the list of wines available to taste.
I don’t usually cite press documents. But I do feel bad for The Austrian Wine Marketing Board. It must be a huge challenge trying to persuade people to broaden their association with Austrian wines beyond sticky-sweet Riesling or potent spiced-Glühwein. Persuading us to ditch images of fusty taverns, and lederhosen tightening round heavy, rosti-filled stomachs. The delicious wines I tasted conjured up images of Alpine foothills instead. Minerality from cold-clean streams, crisp mountain air, pastures filled with edelweiß – the whole Sound of Music stereotype.
It’s wines like Grüner Veltliner which are emerging as modern classics. Handily, Grüner Veltliner is named after the grape, and is also quite easy to pronounce, particularly when shortened to Gru-Vee by hipster vintners (it’s more than you can say for lots of Austrian grapes – try getting your tongue round Grauburgunder). One in three vines grown in Austria are now Grüner Veltliner. Particularly in an area called The Weinviertel, which is Austria’s most northern wine-growing regions, with the Manhartsberg mountain ridge in the west, and the Danube to the south.
Grüner Veltliner is usually fermented in stainless steel, so it doesn’t have any heady oakiness. It’s refreshing, and refined, and often described as having a cold-peppery-freshness. Interestingly, Grüner Veltliner is also renowned for its food-pairing abilities. It’s often recommended for drinking with asparagus, Brussel sprouts or sushi, which are three out of six, often-cited: ‘foods which don’t pair with wine’ (chocolate, blue cheese, asparagus, sushi, soy sauce & Brussel sprouts).
Wine maven Jancis Robinson describes Grüner Veltliner as having “a certain white pepper, dill, even gherkin character”, so what better way to enjoy it, than with a buffet lunch of the aforementioned obložené chlebíčky? After swilling and spitting my way through a fair few of the delicious Austrian wines, I piled my plate high with cheeses, meats, rye and gherkin and revelled in ‘embracing my roots’.
If you are interested in Grüner Veltliner, then Nick Dobson from Alpine Wines is aiming to become the biggest stockist in the UK.
Some more to try at home…
M Signature Grüner Veltliner 75cl, £6.99, Morrisons
Sainsburys Taste The Difference Grüner Veltliner, £7.50, Sainsburys
Schloss Maissau Weinviertel Grüner Veltliner, £9.50, The Wine Society
Grüner Veltliner 2014 Weingärten Weissenkirchen, Wachau, £9.99, Majestic
Waitrose own brand Grüner Veltliner, £9.99, Waitrose