Saturday, May 2, 2015

Taboos in Austria

“Are there any cultural taboos in Austria?” Raquel asks.

“Don’t get too drunk on the street.” “But that’s the Austrian way!” Our hosts, my cousin Anna and her husband Mateus laugh amongst themselves and Raquel and I nod to each other, happy to be travelling in a country less obsessed with manners than our year in Japan.

Our waiter brings a bottle of sparkling rose wine and pours everyone a glass.

The wine smells amazing, floral and light. I go to take a sip but Mateus gasps, “Wait! we have to brost!” Ah, of course. I had heard of this but forgotten. The first drink of the evening must always be toasted. Not a taboo, perse, but good manners. So I clinked glasses with Mateus, then Raquel then Anna and her friend while Raquel went the opposite direction.

“DON’T DO THAT!” Anna hissed. “Do you want ugly children?”

What? Of course not, no! I want curly-headed angels! What did we do wrong?

Anna explained, “In Austria, never cross arms when toasting, and always look people straight in the eye when saying brost.”

To not follow this invokes the gods of poor manners and of course curses one with hideous offspring. Yikes. So much for no taboos.

In reality there’s plenty of taboos. The Viennese are proudly unreligious, or at least the ones we met were, and to bring up this most contentious of subjects risks disaster. On Sundays, everything closes. The grocery stores, the shops, everything’s shuttered except the Turkish kebab stands. We, mistakenly, remarked on this Christian tradition, only to be rebuked.

“The businesses just always give the workers a day off!”

Yeah, they do that in Japan too, but it’s usually a Tuesday or Wednesday because they’re slower business days.


Got it. Point taken. Let’s talk about something else.

I think every culture has a right and wrong way to do things, and Austria is no different. Vienna is interesting, because there’s also a proper way to disregard the rules. We went to an amazing ice-cream spot, Tichy’s, an icecream parlor so good Vienna named a street after the owner. My cousin Karl swore it was only for the locals, and if this is indeed true, every Viennese most know of it, for there was a thick crowd. Karl said not to worry, the line moved quickly, all we had to do was queue up, and we’d have our icecream in no time.

Ten minutes later and I’m hemmed in but what feels like a thousand people. I’ve been separated from my wife by a teenage couple fondling eachother and a ten year boy who was given a fistful of cash and shoved between us by his overbearing mother. This is not as simple as waiting in line. This is war. And Raquel and are losing. Somehow Karl and his girlfriend Ranya are already at the counter. We pass our money over the crowd of people still ahead of us, and make our escape.

“I didn’t think you’d beat me,” Ranya says to Karl as they hand us our icecream safely out of the crushing throng of people.

“You never know at Tichy’s!” he says with a wink. No kidding. Its chaos there, yet the Viennese see it as sport.

Same on the trains, to wait for someone to offer you a seat is to stand the entire train ride. People wait nicely at the station, but when those pneumatic doors open, all bets are off. You got luggage? That’s your problem. A kid with you? Standing’s good for the little bastards. But, once seated, not even little old ladies look at you. You’ve earned that seat, and no one’s going to guilt you into standing.

After ten days in Vienna, Raquel summed up the climate quite nicely,

 “There’s a clean order to everything, but everyone cuts in line.”

So go there, taste the sweets, eat the meat, and remember to always, always cut in line.

If you enjoyed this post there's more! In Austria you can explore coffee or delicious meats. Perhaps you'd rather  meet the people of Greece or witness terror in Japan!

Monday, April 27, 2015

Meat in Austria

The sound of crisp, freshly fallen bacon under foot. The playful shadows of the bratwurst branches. The glisten of a thin ham leaf, daring you to climb the breaded Weiner schnitzel tree trunk ever higher. The ham forest is the dream of Austria, to visit here and not embrace it, will leave you hungry.

Leave your vegetarianism at the border. It’s true you could survive off of coffee and sweets, but to deny yourself meat while in Austria makes about as much sense as not visiting the cathedrals. Both are magnificent, ubiquitous, culturally significant, and more fun than preachy vegetarians or atheists.   

Noble ham, why do the poets do not praise thee?
Is it because when they eat their mind gets lazy?
My first taste of meat in Austria came from simple ham. My cousin insisted we get it for breakfast. After a year in japan, I thought that ham for breakfast sounded absurd and gluttonous, but my taste buds disagreed. The first bite of salty, cured perfection brought tears to my eyes. I ate and wept and generally prayed to the Pig Gods for making their flesh so delicious.

And that was just the start of my meat-venture.

Late last Friday night, the rave taking place in a courtyard between two art museums was just winding down. Through twisty streets and hidden staircases we stumbled until we arrived at a dance club inside the emperor’s former stable that served sausages in its hallowed halls.

I sauntered up to the counter ordered a käsekrainer and waited for the guy behind the counter to serve me between his fierce dance moves. Käsekrainer is a sausage stuffed with cheese, and is even better than it sounds. I smeared the juicy meat in mustard, put it on a thick slice of rye bread, and piled fresh horseradish on top.

Perfection, or so I thought until the next day.

 leberkäse, pulled pork, and beer
For that was when I ate leberkäse which translates to liver cheese, though is neither. It is bits of leftover pork and beef mixed together and baked until it has a crunchy crust. I had it cut into a thick slab and served on rye bread with mustard. My cousin insists it’s a man’s food. If this is indeed the case then I am as manly as they come, for that first bite of leberkäse completed me. Its texture is similar to bologna, but with a crunchy crust. The piece I had was studded with pumpkin seeds, and the nutty bite punctuated the smoky richness of the meat wonderfully. Surely there could be no better!

Yet again, I was mistaken.

A buschenschank is where every meat-venture through Austria must end. It’s a small farm or vineyard that only serves house-made food and booze. This means that your bretteljause—a cutting board overflowing with cured meats, fresh cheeses, and hard sausage—is always cold, and can only be consumed with house made wine and schnapps.

I insist you consume the wine and schnapps, for I did not, and I suffered mightily because of the bratelfett. Bratelfett is a mound of rendered fat that is best eaten on bread with a slice of ham and a pile of fresh horse radish. It is rich. It is wonderful. It’s like eating butter made of bacon. I loved it. And hence, I should have drunk the schnapps. For I had only wine, so I awoke the next morning clutching my chest at the pork fat that had congealed inside of my arteries.

There is a treatement: gurktaler apfenkrauter, an herbed liquor that tastes like dandelion whiskey, which, while not necessarily a bad thing, is not the most pleasant way to start a morning. I survived, but many beers were needed to sustain the digestion.

So, come to Austria, explore the ham forest, but be sure to keep a flask of schnapps handy, in case you climb to the most succulent branches of Austrian cuisine.

The dreaded yet delicious bratelfett

If you enjoyed this post, there's more! Check out coffee culture or taboos in Austria. Or keep eating farther east with food from Japan.