Or: Manly Pursuits in the Austrian Alps
Of 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.
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.