I’m in a large yet intimate room that is at once theatre, stylish restaurant and professional kitchen. At the back, floor-to-ceiling windows bathe the tables, the chairs and the guests sitting in them in warm afternoon sunlight. At the front, the long, dark kitchen counter is topped with baskets of varying size, filled with some of the ingredients for today’s Austrian dishes.
In one of these baskets is piled some type of yellow fruit, each example with its own unique geography of scuffs and bulges and creases. They look… untamed. I flag down one of the chefs moving quickly and purposefully behind the counter to ask, “What are these?” Gregor Streun, a young man with an open, friendly face who also happens to be the number two chef behind the counter, tells me that the mysterious fruit are quince. He says that large parts of Austria are not under agriculture, and it’s in these places that quince and other wild fruits and vegetables thrive, and become ingredients in local cuisines.
In another of the large baskets a mountain of another ingredient that can be found in the wilds of Austria: chanterelle mushrooms, a soft and inviting yellow-brown against the dark weave of the basket. Apparently, wild chanterelles are only found in pristine natural environments, and finding them can be a real challenge. Chef Dieter Stamminger tells me that he remembers heading into the mountains with friends to go chanterelle-hunting in the autumn.
The chefs today are accomplished, dedicate denizens of the professional kitchen, and so every example of Austrian culinary arts they put together is just as pleasing to the eye as it is to the palate. And pleasing they are in both taste and texture; morsels of meticulously crafted balance, poise and pure enjoyment.
But within all these pleasing and obviously carefully considered flavour creations and artful presentation, I also feel hints of the home hearth; tasty touches of a mother’s table. Austria is a long, long way from Japan, but eating this home-inspired food sparks in me a certain warm nostalgia. It’s an effect I’ve noticed before, whenever I experience a dish that has been shaped by local ways of life and the collected wisdom of generations, and infused with love and nourishment and the desire to make the diner truly happy in the instant of eating.
Take, for example, many of the ingredients on the counter and the dishes themselves: sauerkraut and blood sausage; pork cheek stewed in Austrian beer; leftover bread and bacon transformed into a delicious dumpling; and ham, air-dried and then smoked to infuse it with the particular aromas of the wood, paired with jams made from wild fruit. Indeed these are all foods designed to fill the needs of surviving a hard winter, but flavour and satisfaction have not been relegated to the back seat – quite the opposite. We can taste and imagine the care, effort and ingenuity of ordinary people that has gone into crafting everything available even in the toughest times of the year into dishes that surprise and delight. There is a warmth and familiarity in that, and it makes me think that such food traditions must form a happy vein in Austrian culture.
The executive chef here is Salzburg native Gerhard Passruger, who has been cooking up a storm even as he’s explained every dish and drink that’s arrived before us. Closing in on the end of the meal, he starts buttering slices of bread and dabbing it with one of a selection of honeys – sunflower and linden tree flower and two kinds of honeydew honey, “forest” and “Christmas tree”. It’s a simple and tasty treat, and one that has connections with Gerhard’s past in Austria.
Some time later at a different table, Gerhard tells us that the Austrian mountains were virtually right outside his childhood home, and that he used to go hiking up the slopes with his father, an expert mountaineer. Come autumn, he’d spend whole days wild chanterelle-hunting, sometimes stopping at his uncle’s farm, where he’d snack on bread baked fresh by his aunt and dressed in butter and honey.
For every one of these columns, I’ve asked the people at the table the same deceptively simple question: If you could choose only one thing, what would you say you like most about your country? His answer: the mountains. Gerhard says that this might be because he’s from Salzburg, a city surrounded by mountains on almost every side, and because of all the days spent on mountain trails with his father. But then he’s given essentially the same answer as a group of fellow Austrians – people from quite different backgrounds and different parts of the country — I interviewed some months before during a lunch at the Austrian ambassador’s residence: mountains. I smile. It was the response I’d been waiting for, but I’m also a touch thrilled at what feels like a small discovery.
Gerhard’s career has taken him to some of the world’s most renowned cities; the glittering cosmopolitan hubs of London, Sydney, Hong Kong, Shanghai, and now Tokyo. But, when he visits home, one of the very first things he does is head into the mountains for a few days of solo hiking. Gerhard adds that being in that stunning wilderness, at the mercy of whatever mood the weather may be in, he cannot help but feel how small we really are.
“It’s beautiful,” he continues. “And I think that in that moment in that nature, because there is something in these mountains you cannot take away, you cannot compare to many places in the world. This is nature, that is so rough in itself. And because it is so inaccessible, it is still real nature. Because many places in the world that you go today, nature has become very dominated by men. In Austria it is partially so, but it will never be cultivated in a sense, because the mountains are rough, still today.”
I ask Carinthia native Arnold Ackerer the same “best thing about your country” question, and he sounds a similar note: “Accessibility to the nature.”
“You can do anything in a short range,” he goes on. “You step out of your home, you go skiing, you go mountain climbing, everything in the range of 30 minutes.” I’m impressed yet again with the consistent love and respect for nature I’ve heard from every Austrian I’ve asked this question.
And yet I’m reminded, Austria is crisscrossed by high mountains, dividing the country into smaller regions that have historically had their own distinct cultures and traditions. So, I ask, do Austrians identify more strongly with their region or the country as a whole? The question on identity prompts a laugh from Gerhard. He tells us that he’s often asked, “So, which part of Germany are you from?” And he’ll reply, “From a small province in the south, called ‘Austria’. And they go, ‘Oh, my God! I am so sorry.’” But, he goes on, “It is FINE. Honestly, I think once you live so long, so far away from home, it becomes so small.”
A person’s home region may be an easy go-to when it comes to questions of identity. But then people also place themselves on the human map based on shared ideas and philosophies. That’s what talking to the Austrians I’ve met has made me think. No matter how far from their home towns they live, for how many years, surrounded by values that may differ from their own, the Austrians I’ve met never forget their love, respect and powerful awareness of Austria’s natural grandeur. It’s an admirable trait.
I, too, was raised in a place where you can always see the mountains, which cover some 75 percent of Japan’s territory. And yet, listening to the Austrians speak of mountains and nature, I felt like I was being reawakened to a sense of values I had long kept closeted deep in my heart.
As I talk to Gerhard, it quickly becomes clear we share other ideas as well, especially when it comes to the meaning – and the opportunity – of food.
“Whenever I travel, food is beautiful,” he says. “Food is a very strong representation of their full culture. One of the first things you think about when you go to a country is cuisine. And you look forward to it and identify a country (by it). That’s why I think food is extremely important for any country.”
The Austrian food I’ve been lucky enough to try this time is rooted in what seems to me a historically deeply ingrained philosophical aspect of that country’s culture: respect for nature.
But then it’s not exclusively Austrian; nothing about food culture can be exclusively of one country as defined by the lines drawn on a map. One of the most meaningful aspects of our food cultures is that they are the products of so many thousands of years of human history and ways of life, unconfined by national borders and spreading like watercolours across the map, intermingling with neighbouring traditions to create new shades and hues.
Identity, philosophy, commonality. I feel that, by delving into the culture of our food, I have just arrived at the entrance to understanding all three.
Story by: Rika Sakai
English Text by: Robert Sakai-Irvine