Christmas in Vienna

By Ann McCarthy

Published on December 17, 2007

Even with rain spitting down on a nearly freezing evening, the Christmas market in the courtyard of Vienna's Schloss Schonbrunn, a former Hapsburg palace, is filled with shoppers. "I see the other crazies are out," Vienna native and my good friend Ernst Franz says to me. With us are his wife, Branka, and my brother Neil, whom I have dragged along on this trip in hopes of sparing us both a holiday at home, with our large and loving family asking a million questions about his recent divorce and my umpteenth breakup. The Schonbrunn market, one of several Christmas markets in Vienna—including the touristy but undeniably majestic-looking market in front of the Rathaus (city hall)—is Branka's favorite. "There's plenty of room. It's not, you know…," she says, lifting her shoulders to her ears, the international sign for "packed like sardines". We're checking out the stalls filled with antique ornaments and wooden figurines when I spot it: a big black pan full of chopped cabbage and pasta. This is krautfleckerln, the warm, comforting food I've been looking for, not only to drive the chill from my bones but to give me that remembered flavor of Vienna. "You have to taste this," I tell my brother, handing him a steaming, buttery plateful. "I used to live on this stuff."

I first came to Vienna ten years ago as a student interested in central European politics. Next door, in Germany, the Berlin wall had fallen. To the east and north, former Communist states—Hungary, the Czech Republic, Poland—were open to explore (although to the south, the former Yugoslavia was tearing itself apart). Vienna was smack in the middle of it all. In fact, it had once ruled it all; from 1282 until 1918, the city was the capital of the Hapsburg empire, which at its peak stretched from Spain to Russia and from Poland to the Adriatic Sea. For centuries the city has straddled East and West, the modern and the traditional, the aristocratic and the modest, and its history fascinated me. I was drawn to its beauty, too—to its Gothic spires, Baroque domes, and gilded architectural flourishes—and to the art and music and philosophy that the city fostered. The culinary landscape was something I would have to figure out once I got there. As it turned out, though, I had guidance.

I met Ernst Franz on the day I arrived. I was with my dad, who had been to Vienna before and was not the kind of man to let his only daughter fly off to Europe for the first time unescorted. He took me to dinner at a little restaurant he liked, called Daniel, where he introduced me to his friend Ernst—the restaurant's maitre d'hotel, a broad-shouldered young man with kind eyes and a thick brown mustache. Ernst remembered that my father had mentioned I'd be coming to Vienna, and he promised that he would keep an eye on me.

From that evening until I left several months later, Ernst and Branka looked after me. There were many dinners at their home with their two toddlers, phone calls to ask how I was getting along, and a glass of sekt (Austrian sparkling wine) on a summer day to bid me farewell. So, when Neil and I were planning our Christmas on the road, I could think of no place I wanted to be more than Vienna.

For many people, the flavor of Vienna means elegant cakes, like the city's beloved sachertorte, or a fancy pastry from the Demel bakery, or hearty meats like tafelspitz—boiled beef served with its vegetable-infused broth, creamed spinach, browned potatoes, and apple-horseradish and cream-chive sauces. I couldn't afford such extravagances then, but even my modest tastes of Vienna were memorable—and, like so much of Vienna's food, reflected the influences of the lands the city once ruled. With guidance from Ernst and Branka, I ate German-style sausages; roasted chestnuts on the way to class; and, at their house, crunchy backhendl (bread-crumbed fried chicken). Every now and then I'd splurge at a gasthaus, a combination pub and cafe, where I'd fuel up on semmelknodl (bread dumplings, a Czechoslovakian specialty) and goulash, a gift from Hungary. Vienna's most famous dish, wiener schnitzel (tender veal in bread crumbs), is actually a tweak on Italy's costoletta alla milanese, supposedly imported by an Austrian field marshal who was stationed in Italy in 1848. The real thing, served at places like Weibel's Wirtshaus, was often beyond my means, so I'd go to such hangouts as Schnitzelwirt to have tasty, inexpensive pork schnitzel.

At seven in the morning on Christmas Eve, Ernst (now a trainer with an insurance company) and I meet at the Naschmarkt, Vienna's oldest open-air market, to get fish for tonight. (The Franzes, like most Austrians, observe the Catholic tradition of eschewing meat on Christmas Eve.) Ernst buys two glistening wels (a kind of catfish) as well as silvery hecht (pike), and we head out.

At the Franzes' second-floor flat in a tidy, commercial neighborhood, a rosy-cheeked Branka greets me with an exuberant hug. She peers over my shoulder, looking for Neil. "Couldn't get him out of bed," I say with a shrug and follow her into their kitchen. It all looks so familiar: the warm, wood-paneled cabinets, the little wood-burning stove, the cozy U-shaped kitchen table. I remember sitting at that table, anxious because I couldn't understand half of what was being said and wanting desperately to be understood myself. My language ability hasn't improved much, but in ten years I've realized that the feeling can come through even if the grammar is all wrong.

Just then, Ernst Jr., now 16, and Willi, 15, stumble in sleepily. Branka grabs a catfish head and holds it in front of her face. "Morgen [Morning]," she says in a deep voice, moving the mouth of the fish like a puppet's. The boys roll their eyes, but Branka erupts with laughter. As they sip fruit tea and eat kipferln (croissants), Branka chops carrots and celery root for tonight's catfish soup. She tells me how she learned to cook. "My parents brought us to Vienna from Croatia when I was six. They opened a gasthaus a few years later, and by the time I was ten I was working in the kitchen with my mother. I worked there every day after school until I started studying to be a nurse." Branka is now the head nurse in an emergency room, and she explains that Ernst's first restaurant job was at the gasthaus as well, shortly after they got married, when she was 18 and he was 20. "We met at a costume party. He was a dog and I was a cat," she tells me and bursts into laughter again. She pours the vegetables into a stockpot, along with water and a shockingly large scoop of paprika. The fish head and tail go in last. "The head is for my father; he loves it. We have to leave him alone at the table to eat it. It's so disgusting. He slurps on the fish eyes."

After the soup has simmered for a while, she takes it off the stove. "Come with me," she says, nodding at pans of prepared catfish. I pick them up and follow her (and the soup) into what I believe is their bedroom, except there's a roasted pig in a box on a desk, and the floor is covered with bowls of Croatian black bean salad, potato salad garnished with mache, and containers of Christmas cookies. During the holidays, there's no room in the refrigerator, so their chilly bedroom has become the pantry. The pig will be eaten after midnight—a Croatian tradition.

Ernst and the boys go off to pick out a Christmas tree and to pick up my now well-rested brother. Branka's family starts to arrive: her brother Ivan and his wife, Lily, with their children, Tim and Srinka. After quick introductions, the children vanish into the boys' room to watch TV while we start in on the tree. We fasten candles to branches (an obvious fire hazard that has me a bit concerned) and take turns climbing the ladder to string pearls and hang ornaments.

At about 6 p.m., we all bundle up and go to mass. It's surprisingly informal: no coats and ties or fancy dresses (my childhood Christmas mass usually involved thick tights and some form of velvet skirt). One thing is familiar, though—the cousins whisper and laugh all through the service. Neil spots them too and smiles at me.

We are back home moments before Branka's parents, Nada and Rudolf Kos, arrive. Having lit the candles on the tree, Ernst invites us all to the living room with the ringing of a little bell. After a brief musical interlude by Ernst Jr. on the piano and Srinka on the flute—this is Vienna, after all—gifts start to fly. New York Rangers sweatshirts go over big with the boys. A print by my favorite Viennese artist, Friedensreich Hundertwasser, is a particularly touching gift from Ernst and Branka for me. Neil gets assorted schnapps; Ernst, a good Kentucky bourbon.

Eventually we make our way to the table (after blowing out the candles on the tree, much to my relief). Branka ladles out her paprika-spiked soup, now filled with moist flakes of catfish. The center of the table is laden with fried catfish, roasted catfish with parsley and garlic, and roasted pike, as well as a huge smoked carp, compliments of Ivan and Lily. We pile our plates full and add roasted potatoes, green salad and potato salad, both drizzled with pumpkin seed oil, and black bean salad. Ernst, who is passionate about wine, pours us glasses of bright young gruner veltliner and riesling from Freie Weingartner Wachau.

Once we've cleared away the remnants of fish and potatoes and salads, Branka sets an enormous platter of cookies on the table. She's made about 15 different kinds, including lebkuchen (gingerbread cookies), crumbly vanillekipferln, and the fruitcakelike bischofsbrot. With the cookies comes the schnapps. Ivan keeps filling my glass whenever I empty it. At 1:10, Christmas Eve being over, it's time for roast pig. Branka fixes a platter of sliced pork, grated horseradish, and beets for all of us to snack on. Eventually Neil and I head for the hotel, our arms full of presents and cookies, feeling fine.

Around 11 a.m., a bit worse for wear, Neil and I go off to have a festive, reassuring Christmas Day dinner at Altwienerhof, a 75-year-old restaurant and inn run by the Kellner family, which Ernst has recommended. Our waiter talks us through the Christtag (Christmas Day) menu and then asks us about wine. Ignoring the pained, hungover look on my brother's face, I let him choose some Austrian vintages for us. The meal begins with goose pate and sekt, followed by smoked salmon and creamy white potato soup, both paired with Hirtzberger riesling. After that comes roasted pike perch with pureed peas and purple potatoes, accompanied by Pichler gruner veltliner.

Knowing that we have come especially for the menu's piece de resistance, roast goose, Klaus, the Kellners' son, invites me into the kitchen to see the bird in all its glory before it is carved. It lies burnished on its platter, surrounded by spiced red cabbage, buttery glazed chestnuts, potato dumplings, and roasted apples stuffed with rum-soaked raisins. Back at the table, our plates arrive, loaded with dark, rich goose meat and all the trimmings. I have been given a large slice of breast meat and a leg. A glass of deep red Arachon TFXT (a blend made jointly by winemakers Pichler, Tement, and Szemes) arrives, which helps. Eventually Mrs. Kellner comes to clear our plates and looks sternly at the amount of food still in front of me. "You are not used to all this food, ja? In Austria, this is a normal portion." Looking across the table at Neil, I realize that, first, despite the fact that he looks like he's going to pass out on his plate, he seems weirdly happy—and, second, we couldn't have made a better decision than to come to Vienna this year.

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