Book Review: Tante Hertha’s Viennese Kitchen, by Monica Meehan and Maria von Baich
Modern chefs will marvel at the finesse of Tante Hertha’s collection of hearty dishes, tender dumplings and sweet treats
The Savoury Secrets of True Viennese Serviettenknödel
Before I had ever been to Europe, I was served a Viennese meal by a Viennese friend in California. It was Wiener Schnitzel with Austrian-style potato salad and sour white wine. Followed by Palatschinken with apricot jam. I was young, and geography and history were still fuzzy in my mind. So I didn’t really know anything about Vienna. But my tongue learned quickly.
Soon, that same friend had convinced me that Vienna was the centre of the music world, and so I set off to study there, a vague city of dreams whose schnitzel was already in my repertoire of taste sensations.
Over the years, the flavour of Vienna has become the flavour of home. Nonetheless, I never had a Viennese mother, so I never learned its recipes while hanging onto her apron strings, so to speak. Luckily, I have finally been bequeathed a Viennese aunt: Tante Hertha’s Viennese Kitchen. It’s the cookbook I have long needed.
The authors are two Canadian women of Austrian-Slovenian heritage, mother and daughter. And they really did have an Aunt Hertha from Vienna who, when she died, left behind a pale but still-legible hand-written cookbook. It was a link to the Vienna of their family’s past, and to a woman who was more than "just another beautiful and faded name".
Aunt (Tante) Hertha was born in 1889, a member of an Austrian aristocratic family with its seat in a castle in today’s Slovenia. After the First World War, the collapse of the Habsburg Empire, and the dissolution of the aristocracy, Hertha, who never married, found a profession as a photographer, opening a studio on the Graben in Vienna’s 1st District. She supported her mother and shared an apartment with her on the Rotenturmstrasse. She was "a modern, independent woman, single, unafraid, adventurous, glamorous, original".
Until the end of the 1960s, her top floor apartment was also the site of her busy kitchen. And the place where she invited guests for lunch at 12:30: "Unwavering punctuality was expected." When I read this, I realised that I could remember when shops in Vienna were closed from noon to three so that shopkeepers could go home for lunch.
And I, too, have been invited for a punctual meal. In my early years here, rugs were pounded in the courtyards on Friday afternoon, and the schnitzels were pounded on Sunday morning – rhythmical whacks that portended the delicious meal to come. Then, right on time, lunch was served. It started invariably with a soup that had one of three things floating in it: strips of Palatschinken crêpes, semolina dumplings, or liver dumplings. And yes, all of them are in Tanta Hertha’s cookbook.
Tanta Hertha’s Viennese Kitchen is one of those handsome cookbooks that can also serve as coffee table books. Mouth-watering photos of food and elegant scenes of Vienna, heavy paper and old Viennese printing fonts make it pleasant to leaf through. And if you use it, you might be cautious about the grease spots in the kitchen.
But use it I will. Certainly, because it has finally taught me the secret of Serviettenknödel, dumplings steamed in a napkin. This kind of dumpling was a revelation when I arrived in Vienna. They are soft and dry, chewy and delicious. But how to prepare them had always remained a mystery. Now I know: They are made of cubed day-old rolls that are soaked in egg and milk. Add some parsley and salt, and speck, if you don’t mind fatted pork.
And then the secret: The mass of bread cubes is rolled up in a cloth napkin that is tied gently at the corners and hung on a long wooden spoon. And then the "parcel" is lowered into boiling water and left to simmer for an hour.
In a world of microwaves and food processors in the kitchen, and noodles in a cup and kebabs on the street corners, what a return to the simple life! Slow, honest, and very straightforward, for people who still own cloth napkins.
But I’ve left the best for last. Half of the cookbook is devoted to sweets: cookies and biscuits, desserts, cakes, tortes, puddings and jams. Here especially, the recipes are attached to names, the family chronicle really finding its way to the wide circle of aunts, cousins and friends who "shared their favourite recipes and made them timeless".
The favoured time of year for much of this avid baking has always been around Christmas. From Vanillakipferln to Spanischer Wind to Tante Fränzchen’s Lebkuchen (vanilla shortbread crescents to meringues to gingerbread), the season is begging to be celebrated with this cookbook.
Why buy plastic ornaments? Place a short piece of cotton thread in your meringues, bake them at low heat for a couple of hours, and leave them to dry in the oven overnight. Then, carefully and slowly, hang them on the tree. "Like beautiful drops of snow", both they and Tante Hertha may be just the thing to inspire your holidays.
Tante Hertha’s Viennese Kitchen:
A Book of Family Recipes
by Monica Meehan and Maria von Baich
New Holland Publishers (2011)
Shakespeare & Company Booksellers
1., Sterngasse 2, (01) 535 5053