Grüner Veltliner and Other Austrian Wines

Some shameless self-promotion:  if the type of information contained in this post interests you at all, I’m going to be hosting a tasting of sparkling wines on Thursday, February 11, as part of Little Brick’s Home School series.

 

Three examples of Grüner Veltliner available from wine shops here in Edmonton.I’ve been meaning to write about Austrian wine for some time.  Years, actually: ever since I wrote this post on Heurigen, which are rural taverns that serve young wine and cider.

Last week the Elm wine group did a tasting of Grüner Veltliner, the national grape of Austria, so I thought I would finally put down some info on Austrian wine.

If you haven’t had Austrian wine before, you’re not a freak or a philistine: there isn’t a whole lot available in North America.  Austria produces almost as much wine as New Zealand[1], but in most generic liquor stores the Kiwis have an entire section, while you would be hard-pressed to find a bottle from Austria.  Boutique wine shops like Devine usually carry a handful.  It seems that the majority of Austria’s wine is consumed by Austrians.

Despite its relatively small amount of exports, the Austrian wine industry has garnered a lot of attention in recent years because of its commitment to both its regional identity and quality production.  The latter sounds like it should be a given, but within most wine-producing countries there are regions that make enormous quantities of mediocre or bad wine, creating surplus, driving down prices, and ultimately threatening the entire wine industry.[2]  The southern-most regions of France and Italy are infamous examples.  By contrast, almost all of the area under vine in Austria is devoted to quality wine production.  Austria also has some of the most stringent regulations for processing and labelling, though admittedly these were put into effect after a 1985 scandal that saw some producers adding diethylene glycol to improve the body of their wines.

It’s always tempting to lump Austria in with Germany, and while the two countries do share some grape varietals and labeling practices, Austrian wines have a lot more in common with those of Alsace than Germany.  They produce mainly dry whites, common varietals being Grüner Veltliner, Welschriesling, Riesling (almost always dry, unlike German examples), and Gewürztraminer (also dry, unlike Alsatian examples).  The most common red variety is Zweigelt, an Austrian native.  As in Germany, wines are sold under varietal name.

Austrian wine production occurs almost entirely in the east end of the country, in the lower regions away from the Alps of the west.  Most of the Austrian wines available to us in North American come from the province of Lower Austria (Niederösterreich), specifically parts of the Danube and its tributaries just upstream of Vienna: Wachau, Kremstal, Kamptal, and Traisental.  (The suffix “tal” indicates a valley.  The Kremstal is the valley around the town of Krems.  The Kamptal is the valley formed by the river Kamp.)  The most important of these is the Wachau.

Wachau.  The Wachau is a stretch of the Danube west of Vienna.  Much like the German Mosel, the best wines here are labelled by varietal as well as the vineyard or hill that produced the grapes.  Important hills include Loibenberg, Terrassen, and Kellerberg.  These may appear on labels either by themselves, or in conjunction with the name of the adjacent village (eg. Dürnsteiner Kellerberg refers to the hill Kellerberg by the town of Dürnstein).

The Wachau also has its own version of the German “predicate” labelling system, which classifies wines by pre-fermentation must weight, that is, sugar content.  The more concentrated the original must, the higher potential alcohol, and in theory the higher the quality of the wine.  So in Germany Rieslings are classified as Kabinett, Spätlese, Auslese, Beerenasulese, and Trockenbeerenauslese, in order of increasing must weight (and by extension increasing prestige and price-point…)

The Wachau sytem is much simpler, and uses final alcohol content instead of original must weight.  The lightest grade is Steinfeder (named for a type of frizzy grass) which is below 11.5% ABV.  Next is Federspiel (named for a bird) between 11.5 and 12.5%.  The highest quality wines are labelled Smaragd (a kind of small lizard native to the region) and are above 12.5% ABV.

A view of the Donau (Danube) from the ruined castle at Durnstein

 

Grüner Veltliner, the most commonly planted grape in Austria, has become a darling of the wine cogniscenti in recent years.  Here’s what rockstar sommelier Rajat Parr has to say about the varietal…

A robust white, it features some of the greenish flavors of Sauvignon Blanc and a hint of legumes, making it the perfect match for green vegetables like peas, asparagus, artichokes, and lettuces. (Secrets of the Sommeliers[3], page 208)

[Grüner Veltliner] has a beany, green, peppery character that nicely offsets asparagus… (ibid, page 115)

It’s ridiculous for me to try and contradict Rajat Parr, but I’ve never, ever picked up “green” aromas from Grüner (despite its name… which I think means “green grape from Valtellina”, but that refers to the colour of the fruit itself, not it’s aromas).  I’ve always struggled to pick up that smell, even in Sauvignon Blanc, so I should just keep my mouth closed.

Getting back to the original point of this post, for our Grüner Veltliner tasting we tried three examples.  Some quick notes follow.

F.X. Pichler 2007 Loibner Berg Smaragd Grüner Veltliner.  Pichler is one of the big family names in the Wachau.  The wine smelled exactly like an old pineapple, and had a viscous mouthfeel.  If the tasting had been blind I would have sworn it was a New World oaked Chardonnay.  It was almost unanimously the favourite of the three wines we tasted, until it was revealed that it was $49.99 at Wine and Beyond.  With that price tag it is not likely be purchased by anyone in the group.

The next day I happened to read this: “Because Wachau’s producers have the ability to push the ripeness envelope, they are tempted to overdo it, as is happening in Germany’s Rheingau.  A few well-known producers have fallen into this trap – F.X. Pichler and Hirtzberger to name two – and for the privilege of drinking their unbalanced wines, you pay a costly premium.  Stick to the better, more proportional wines of Prager, Altzinger, and Knoll.” (ibid, page 115)

Rabl 2014 Grüner Veltliner Langenlois.  This is an interesting one.  Basically no fruit on the nose.  Strong, frankly peculiar aromas that I described as rice cake, toast, and mock orange blossom.  (The tasting notes posted at the place of purchase said, “citrus notes with a dusting of stony mineral”. Go figure.)  It has a sharp, bright acidity, and the flavour of lemon pith.  Quite distinctive.  The Rabl was $21.99 at Devine.

Gritsch 2013 Steinterrassen Federspiel Grüner Veltliner.  The lightest of the bunch.  A nose of wet stone and red apple.  Medium, round, happy acidity.  Short finish.  $22.99 at Devine.

 

#ButtonSoupCellar is a series of posts about wines and spirits

 

Footnotes

  1. New Zealand and Austria are 17th and 16th, respectively on this list.
  2. The Oxford Companion to Wine says that surplus production is “the single greatest problem facing the world’s wine industry”.
  3. Secrets of the Sommeliers by Rajat Parr and Jordan MacKay.  Published by Ten Speed Press.

Liptauer

A pot of liptauer with chives.This is a tasty spread I often serve at Austrian cooking classes.

Liptauer is originally from Liptov, in Slovakia, formerly part of the Austro-Hungarian empire.  The dish became quite popular in Austria-proper, and is now considered a classic part of that country’s cuisine.

In Austria Liptauer is made with a soft, fresh cheese called Topfen.  Topf is the German word for pot, so Topfen can be translated as “pot cheese”.  It goes by the name Quark (pronounced “KVARK”) in many other parts of Europe.  Austrians will scoff, but the recipe below approximates Topfen by using a mixture of cream cheese and sour cream.

Besides cheese, the other essential ingredient in Liptauer is paprika, which is ubiquitous in several Eastern European cuisines.  The paprika that has been on your shelf for two years has no flavour and a russet colour.  Fresh paprika from quality-conscious merchants will have a much better flavour and a bright red colour, giving the Liptauer a friendly, salmon colour.

In Austria Liptauer is served with rye bread, as a snack, an appetizer, or Brettljause at a Heuriger (see this post on Heurigen).  This is not even remotely traditional, but I also use it as a spread on sandwiches.

 

Liptauer (an approximation…)

Ingredients

  • 510 g cream cheese
  • 120 g full fat sour cream
  • 50 mL sweet paprika
  • 1 tbsp caper, minced
  • 1/2 clove garlic, minced
  • 3 anchovy fillets, the tinned variety preserved in oil, minced
  • 1/2 a small shallot, minced
  • 1/2 tbsp smooth Dijon mustard
  • 1 tbsp parsley, minced
  • 1/2 tbsp cider vinegar
  • black pepper to taste
  • chive to garnish

Procedure

  1. Combine the cream cheese and sour cream in the bowl of a stand mixer.  Beat with the paddle attachment until very smooth, about 2 minutes on high speed, scraping down the sides of the bowl part way through.
  2. Add the remaining ingredients and beat until thoroughly combined.
  3. Taste and adjust seasoning as necessary.
  4. Serve with rye bread.  Liptauer is also good with radishes when they are in season.

Preßwurst

Presswurst at an Austrian Heuriger.Preßwurst, transliterated “presswurst” and pronounced “PRESS-voorst,” is Austrian headcheese.

Headcheese is a polarizing preparation with a terrible name, but I think borrowing a trick from Preßwurst can make headcheese much more palatable to North Americans.

Both dishes are made from pork head and trotter.  The meat is brine-cured so it is rosy pink, then simmered until tender. The meat is strained, shredded, and packed into a mold with some of the gelatin-rich cooking liquid, which firms into aspic when chilled.  Full details on the procedure can be found in this post.

The most important way in which Austrian Preßwurst differs from North American headcheese is that after being packed into the mold, a heavy weight is rested on the shredded meat and aspic.  This compacts the meat and forces excess aspic from the mold, making for a dense, cohesive texture.  Most North American’s objection (or revulsion) to headcheese is the jelly component.  When the terrine is pressed this way, there is no discernible jelly; the gelatin is simply an adhesive that binds the various elements together.

Besides changing the appearance and mouthfeel of the dish, the properly weighted Preßwurst is cohesive enough that it can be sliced very thin, like ham.

To replicate the Austrian version I use a commercial kitchen container called a 1/3 plastic insert as my mold.  Once the meat and aspic are packed inside I make a 3 kg weight by adding 3 L of cold water to a second plastic insert that rests on top of the first.  The terrine should be refrigerated for at least 24 hours, preferably 48 hours.

I realize now, looking at the photo below, that my mixture has a lot more fat than the true Austrian version above.

homemade_presswurst

 

Schmalzfleisch

Mixing cured meat and lard to make SchmalzfleischSchmalzfleisch is one of the staple Aufstriche (spreads) at an Austrian Heuriger.  If that sentence made absolutely no sense to you, read this post before proceeding.

Schmalzfleisch literally means “fat-meat”.  It is one of several dishes Austrians have developed to use up irregular scraps of cured meat, like the very end of a ham that can’t quite be passed through the meat slicer.

The process for making Schmalzfleisch is simple: pieces of cured meat are ground, then mixed with rendered lard to form a cohesive paste that can be spread on bread.  Traditionally cured meat and fat are the only two ingredients.  I like to add a touch of mustard for balancing acidity.

If you grew up in eastern Canada and spent any time in a church basement, you’re probably familiar with minced ham.  Schmalzfleisch is similar to minced ham, only it is bound with lard instead of mayonnaise.

 

Schmalzfleisch

Master Ratio – 3:1 ground cured meat, lard

Ingredients

  • 240 g leftover charcuterie (see Note below)
  • 80 g warm lard
  • 8 g mustard

Procedure

  1. Cube the charcuterie and grind once through a 1/4″ plate.  Transfer to the bowl of a stand mixer.
  2. Add the warm lard and mustard to the bowl and mix briefly with the paddle attachment, until the ingredients are combined and the ground charcuterie has formed a spread.
  3. Transfer to serving dish, garnish with chives.  Consume on light rye bread.

Note:  “Ham-type” charcuterie, ie. pork that has been brine-cured and cooked, works best.  A small amount of air-dried meat like salami can be used, but not more than 1/4 of the total weight.  Fresh (un-cured) cooked meat like pork chops and roast beef give the mixture a mushy texture and should be used sparingly.

Yield: 320 g schmalzfleisch

A ramekin of Schmalzfleisch

Schweinsbraten – The Ultimate Ham

Schweinsbraten literally means “roasted pork”.  If you order it in an Austrian restaurant, you will get a slice of greyish meat, usually but not always from the shoulder of the animal.  If you order it in an Austrian Heuriger, you will get something a bit different.

Thinly sliced SchweinsbratenAll the food at a Heuriger is served cold, and meat is typically cured.  Schweinsbraten at a Heuriger is cured, like ham.  What makes this particular ham so special is the cut of meat it is made from: the Schopf.

The Schopf extends forward from the loin of the pig, into the shoulder primal.  It has the same round cross-section as the loin, only it also has a very healthy amount of fat marbled throughout.  For more specifics on where exactly this cut of meat is on the animal, and how to remove it, see this post.

To make Schweinsbraten, the Schopf is brined like any other ham.  Once cured, it can be slow-roasted.  If the meat will be sliced thin and served cold, it only needs to be roasted to 65°C.  If you would like to slice the meat thicker and serve it like baked ham, it will need to be roasted or braised up to 80°C to tenderize.

Braised Schweinsbrated with Serviettenknödel and sauerkraut

I suggest this cut as a superior alternative to pork leg for making ham.  When I first started cutting pork I used most of the shoulder for sausages and other ground applications, reserving the leg for hams and roasts.  But the shoulder makes such amazing hams, braises, and roasts, that increasingly I am using lean leg meat in conjunction with fatback for sausage and ground.

Blunz’n – Austrian Blood Sausage

A healthy portion of Blunz'n at an Austrian heurigerWhen I first had Blunz’n at a tavern in Austria I had a very narrow idea of what blood sausage was.  Most of the blood sausage I had eaten before this moment I had made myself, following recipes in Ruhlman’s Charcuterie and the Au Pied de Cochon cookbook.  These versions are simply pork blood studded with cubes of pork fat and onion.  The Austrian Blunz’n before me was radically different: it was soft and moist, but closer in texture to a dumpling then boudin noir, and it was burgundy, not black.

Before I left Austria I got a Blunz’n recipe from one of my chaperones.  I read through the recipe and thought there must have been some kind of miscommunication, as the ingredients list include “cracklings” and “pig head”.

Since then I have done a bit of reading, and Blunz’n is actually one incarnation of a broad style of blood sausages, variously called pressack, boudin, and so on.  What is distinctive about this style is the inclusion of cooked meat and skin, usually from the head and trotters of the pig, that are ground or pulled and mixed into the sausage filling.  The meat adds flavour and texture, and the skin a healthy dose of gelatin that helps to bind the interior.  This is the “crackling” that was in my recipe that I found so confusing: not the crispy pig skin that North Americans are familiar with, but soft, poached pig skin.

While the meat and skin from the head are traditional, truthfully any fatty, slow-cooked meat can be used.  One of the best blood sausages I ever had was made from leftover corned beef and beef blood.

Some manner of starch is added to the meat and skin, the exact ingredients varying widely from region to region and from house to house.  Whole grains like barley and buckwheat are common.  I was told that in Hungary they use rice.  Where I was staying, in the grenzland between Lower Austria and Styria, they use stale bread.

Everything is combined and run through a grinder.  The nexus of protein and starch, a strange but comforting unity of meat and dumpling.

 

Blunz’n – Austrian Blood Sausage – The Skeleton of a Recipe

  • 1 part minced, sauteed onion
  • 1 part bread
  • 1 part pork stock or milk
  • 3 parts cooked, chilled meat and skin
  • 1 part pork blood
  • salt and spices to taste

General Procedure

  1. Soak the bread in the stock or milk.
  2. Combine the soaked bread, onion, meat and skin and grind through a 1/4″ plate.
  3. Stir in blood to achieve a mashed potato consistency.
  4. Stuff the mixture into a broad casing (2-3″ in diameter) and poach gently to an internal temperature about 72°C.
  5. Let chill overnight before cutting.

Homemade blunz'n, Austrian blood sausage

 

 

Leberkäse

Loaves of Leberkäse Leberkäse is an emulsified sausage mixture that is shaped into a block, baked, and sliced to order.  Picture hot dog filling, only instead of stuffed into casings it’s packed into a loaf pan.

Yes: a hot dog terrine.

For the record the name literally means “liver cheese,” but usually contains neither liver nor cheese.  There is, however, a preparation called Käseleberkäse, which is Leberkäse studded with cubes of cheese in the style of a Käsekrainer.

Where would you eat Leberkäse?  Austria and Bavaria, for starters.  More specifically sausage stands, beer gardens, grocery stores, and any other place that might hot-hold food for quick service.  The loaves are baked till they have a brown, crusty top, then kept under a heat lamp until ordered, at which time a half inch slab is sliced from the end.  Leberkäse is commonly served in a kaiser roll with mustard or mayonnaise.

I didn’t return from Austria with an authentic Leberkäse recipe, but the flavour and texture of the dish reminded me so much of North American hot dogs that I have developed my own formula from a standard hot dog recipe.  The main departure is that I substitute a small amount of the beef shortrib with pork shoulder, and add a healthy dose of sautéed onion to the mix.  And of course it’s baked as a loaf.

For meals at home I slice slabs from the baked, chilled loaf, then sear them on a griddle and eat them on a crusty kaisersemmel.  Think fried baloney sandwiches.

leberkaese_plate.JPG

 

Leberkäse

Ingredient Percent (%) for 5 kg (g)  
beef shortrib 66.7 3335
pork shoulder 33.3 1665
kosher salt 1.20 60
curing salt 0.578 29
water 20.0 1000
mustard powder 0.711 36
paprika 0.489 24
coriander 0.222 11
garlic, minced 1.422 71
black pepper 0.178 9
corn syrup 2.400 120
sautéed onion 10.0 500

Procedure

  1. Combine the beef, pork, kosher salt, curing salt, and water.  Mix briefly, then cover tightly and let stand in the fridge for 48 hours.
  2. Add the remaining ingredients.  Chill thoroughly and grind through a 1/4″ plate.  (See this post for details on grinding technique.  Properly chilling the meat is especially important for emulsified sausages such as Leberkase.)
  3. Chill thoroughly and grind through a 1/4″ plate for a second time.
  4. Chill thoroughly and blitz in a food processor in small batches until mixture is a uniform paste.
  5. Line loaf pans with parchment.  Bring a pot of water to the boil.
  6. Pack the meat paste into the loaf pans.  Cover with foil.  Cook in a water bath until an internal temperature of 150°F is reached.

Potato Salad

The potato salad I grew up on was “creamy”,[1] that is, dressed with mayonnaise.  While I remember that dish fondly, I now make a very different type of potato salad, one closer to those I ate in Austria.

The single biggest challenge in making potato salad is having well-cooked potatoes that still hold their shape, and the most important factor in this regard is the variety of potato used.  It must be a waxy, yellow-fleshed variety.  North American varieties like Yukon Gold are okay, but there are some European varieties, like Linzer Delikatess, that are quite simply made for German potato salad.  They have the proper smooth, creamy mouthfeel, and a roughly cylindrical shape that means they slice into very consistent rounds.  Seed potatoes of this type are available from Eagle Creek Seed Potatoes.

Peeling potatoes German-style

True Kartoffelsalat using Linzer Delikatess Potatoes.  To make the real deal German/Austrian potato salad, you must simmer the potatoes whole, in their jackets, until tender.  Remove the tubers from the water, and while they are still warm use a paring knife to remove the skin (see picture at left), which should come away easily and cleanly.  Slice the potatoes into rounds.

At this point the potatoes are still warm, and they should be immediately mixed with a bit of finely diced onion and dressing.  Most traditional dressings are made from cider vinegar, sugar, mustard, and vegetable oil.

Really Good Potato Salad using Yukon Gold Potatoes.  The more common North American yellow potatoes are girthy and don’t lend themselves to quick peeling and slicing.  I prefer to cube the raw potatoes and simmer them very gently until tender, then let them cool before tossing with the dressing and garnishes.  As the potatoes cool, they firm up by a process called starch retrogradation, so they hold their shape very well.

It takes quite a bit of salt to properly season a potato salad.  I flavour my salad with a bit of onion, both red and green, and some of the honey mustard dressing described here.  To really make the salad pop it should then be garnished liberally with dill, or chive blossoms, or something else striking and flavourful.

It’s incredible to me how many folks scorn potato salad because of memories of the bland mayo-dressed version.  This punchy incarnation will cure them of their mistrust.

A bowl of potato salad, with lots of chives

 

Potato Salad

Ingredients

  • 2 kg Yukon gold, or other creamy, yellow-fleshed potatoes, skin on, scrubbed, cut into 3/4″ cubes
  • 1 1/2 cups honey mustard dressing
  • 100 g red onion, fine dice
  • 60 g chopped green onion
  • 10 g fresh dill
  • 14 g kosher salt
  • 1 g coarsely ground black pepper

Procedure

  1. Cover the potatoes with cold water in a large pot.  Bring to a boil and simmer very gently until the potatoes are cooked.  Do not overcook the potatoes!
  2. Drain the potatoes and let cool.
  3. Combine all ingredients and let stand one hour.  Taste and adjust salt and vinegar as necessary.

 

1. A common misnomer for for dishes with mayonnaise in them.  Mayo is cream-free.  Actually, it’s entirely dairy-free…

The Hunter’s Cabin

Or: Manly Pursuits in the Austrian Alps

 

A stream in the hills of Lower AustriaOf the handful of places I worked in Austria, Looshaus, near Kreuzberg, was my favourite. Looshaus is a restaurant and hotel with maybe twelve rooms in the mountainous borderland between Lower Austria and Styria.

I didn’t know this at the time, but the building itself is a fairly famous little piece of architecture.   It was designed by Adolf Loos, an Austro-Hungarian architect who worked in the first part of the last century.  His most famous buildings are the American Bar in Vienna, a short walk from Stephansplatz, and the Goldman and Salatsch building, on Michaelerplatz, also in Vienna.  In 1930 he designed an alpine home for Paul Khuner, the Viennese food manufacturer.  “Looshaus” serves as a colloquial name for a few of his buildings, including the Goldman and Salatsch building in Vienna, and the Khuner villa near Kreuzberg.

The Looshaus near Kreuzberg has changed hands a few times since Khuner, and is now owned by the Steiner siblings, Norbert and Hanni.  Hanni is the chef, and her food could not be any more indicative of the region.  She cooks classic Austrian dishes like liver dumpling soup, goulash with spatzle, and schnitzel with redcurrants.  She uses lamb and ewe’s-milk cheese from Kreuzberg.  The bar serves beer from nearby Payerbach, and a wine made just for them in Carnuntum, down the Danube from Vienna.  I happened to be cooking there in May, and there were two items that especially reflected the season: Spargel (asparagus) and Maiboc (May deer).  While the Canadian hunting season doesn’t open until fall, in Austria young deer, roughly the size of lambs, are hunted from May 1 on.  Hanni’s husband, Adolf, or Adi for short, is a hunter, and routinely brought Maiboc into the kitchen.

I worked at Looshaus with another Edmonton culinary student named James.  One afternoon Hanni invited us to accompany Adi to the hunter’s cabin, where he needed to cut up a deer he had killed earlier in the week.  The three of us sidled into his tiny SUV and skidded down the road.  Adi spoke less English than I did German, and I spoke almost no German, so the ride to the cabin was silent.  Perhaps James made a comment about the local flora as we zipped by the alpine pastureland.

I didn’t really understand this until we got there, but the cabin was a communally-owned and -operated facility for the local hunters to hang and cut the deer and goats they pull from the nearby woods and meadows.  It was built into the side of a small but steep hill.  The lower level was made of stone, painted white, while the upper level was classic Austrian mountain architecture, and made of wood.  We walked through a large door in the lower story, into a small, immaculate meat-cutting room with bright tile walls, a stainless steel workbench, and knives and handsaws hung on hooks.  It had an impressive, clinical look about it.  There was a small door on the opposite wall that led to the drip cooler, where the gutted animals hang for a few days to cool down and age.  Adi dragged a small deer, hung by one foreleg on a track, into the meat-cutting room.

If I remember correctly, the Maiboc still had its hide on.  Adi was able to skin it in maybe two minutes, then he dropped the deer onto the workbench, and began boning out the carcass.  The shoulder and leg were for goulash.  The loin we would later serve raw at the restaurant, as carpaccio, with herbs and currant jelly.  Occasionally Adi would throw a bone into a tub and say, “For the foxes.”  He deftly removed the tenderloin, cradled the slender piece of meat in his large hands, and said, “For the hunter.”  Unfortunately I never got to see how he prepared it.

A considerate host, Adi let both James and I try our hands at boning.  I remember after Adi had done one of the shoulders, he handed me the knife and gestured at the other shoulder.  The shoulder blade is my least favourite bone to remove, but I tried, and thought I did all right.  Adi slid the shoulder he had cleaned next to mine, which by comparison was laughably haggard.

After the deer had been broken, and the meat stored in the cooler, we followed Adi to the upper level of the cabin and sat at a heavy table.  I don’t think two rooms built on top of one another could be more different.  While the lower floor was cold and surgical, the upper floor was a caricature of the Austrian alps.  Everything was made of heavy wood: the floors, the walls, the ceiling, the seat under our asses and the table under our elbows.  Every square foot of the wall was covered in the mounted skulls of young deer and goats.  There were shelves cluttered with Catholic miscellany: crucifixes, rosaries, statues of the Virgin.  Adi produced three slender cigars that were twisted around each other like gnarled wood.  He unwound them and distributed them.  Then after some rummaging he popped the swing-caps off of three bottles of Raxbrau, a local lager.

Then we sat.  I think I’ve already mentioned that Adi didn’t speak English, and we hardly spoke German.

James and I were giddy, though slightly embarrassed, because we were still wearing our pajama-like kitchen clothes: large, double-breasted white jackets and large, houndstooth slacks.

Eventually the ice broke.  Actually it’s amazing how much information can be exchanged when two parties mutually understand only a few dozen words.  Adi and Hanni had no children.  He loved hunting (obviously) and making sausages.  He had once gone on an elk hunting trip to Norway.  He rides a motorcycle, and had recently gone on a motorcycle tour of California and Nevada.

Every so often we couldn’t find the right words to convey our meaning, and suddenly we were smoking and sipping beer again, and the room was quiet.  To break one such silence I started talking to James to the exclusion of Adi, and somehow the conversation led to schnapps.  I don’t think the final hiss of the word “schnapps” had left my mouth before Adi jerked and replied, “Schnapps?  You want Schnapps?”

I looked at James.  It was two in the afternoon.

“Ja, bitte.”

Adi stood and reached for a shelf above James’ head.  He plucked a clear glass bottle with a long, slender neck, and a wide, shallow body.  In the body, there was a ripe pear, submerged in clear liquid, Birnenschnapps.  Three shot glasses appeared.

I would describe Austrian hospitality as indefatigable.  And I would say that James and I were both at points in our lives where we were incapable of refusing alcohol.  This was the first time during the trip that I found myself in that dangerous cycle.  It certainly wasn’t the last.

The first ounce of schnapps was still hot on my tongue when Adi asked, “Another?”

It was three minutes past two in the afternoon.

“Yes,” James replied immediately.

I have only two memories of the rest of our time in the hunter’s cabin.  The first is asking Adi where to find die Toiletten.  He somehow conveyed to me that they were outside, on the far side of the building.  I walked out, up the steep hillside through waist-high alpine grasses and flowers.  I walked back and forth along the outside wall, looking for a washroom sign.  After maybe five minutes I realized that I was meant to urinate in the meadow.

The second memory is that at some point in the afternoon two other hunters came to the cabin, both wearing the traditional felt hats, feathered, with pointed brims.  One was an old man, named ‘Sep, short for Joseph.  He had a long but well-kept grey beard, and a plaid shirt.

In the late afternoon we drove back to Looshaus.  I shuffled into the kitchen.  Hanni looked at me and instantly asked, “You had Schnapps?”  I must have smiled like an idiot because she turned to Adi and asked the same, in German.  Adi shrugged.

Thankfully our shift was coming to an end, and James and I only had to fake sobriety for maybe twenty minutes.

Beef Liver Dumplings

Liver!For me, the most shocking part of buying a side of beef was how much liver we got.

A lot.  I like liver more than most, and I thought it was too much.

If you have to get through a lot of liver, there’s no better way than to just sear it in a pan and tuck in.  When the distinct, glandular texture of liver wearies the palate, there are liver dumplings.

This was a staple when I was in Austria.  Lunch always consisted of soup, meat, and dessert, and the soup often contained some manner of offal.  Most notable were the soft, bready liver dumplings the size of a toddler’s fist, floating in beef broth.

The biggest problem with liver dumplings is their grey colour.  Since the dumplings are simmered, they don’t develop any appetizing golden-brown shades.  This can be alleviated somewhat by quickly and aggressively searing the liver before using it in the following recipe.

 

Beef Liver Dumplings

Ingredients

  • 10 oz beef liver (actually calf’s liver would be preferable…)
  • 4 oz unsalted butter
  • 2 oz onions, finely chopped
  • 10 oz worth of day-old rolls, cubed
  • 3 oz whole milk
  • 4 oz bread crumbs
  • 2 eggs
  • salt to taste
  • pepper to taste
  • parsley to taste

Procedure

  1. Soak the rolls in the milk.
  2. Sear the beef liver over high heat so that it develops a brown crust, but the interior is still rare.
  3. Let the pan cool slightly.  Add the butter.  Once the butter is foaming, sauté the onions.
  4. Combine the soak rolls and the beef liver.  Grind the mixture through a 1/4″ plate.
  5. Combine the ground mixture, the onions, and all remaining ingredients.
  6. Shape into round dumplings about 2 1/2″ across.
  7. Poach until the centre is cooked, about 25 minutes.
Serve in flavourful beef stock, garnished with chives:

Liver dumpling in beef broth