Austrian restaurants are proud to cook with local fare. It’s all about knowing your suppliers and helping your customers understand the difference.
Cooking is easy. You take the best ingredients and try not to spoil them, Austria’s legendary chef, Reinhard Gerer, would tell people. Obviously, it’s not that easy, but the message is clear: If you don’t start with good products, you won’t get good results.
Today this seems like just common sense. Not so in the 1990s, when Gerer offered seemingly simple dishes with “cheap” ingredients – like offal or pigs feet – in the noble setting of his fine-dining restaurant Korso. Many gourmets were outraged. How dare he charge more for a Beuschel (an Austrian ragout of small cut offal) than others did for a filet?
“That was before cooking shows became popular on TV,” Gerer recalls in a recent interview. “Most guests had no idea how much time it takes to make a really tasty Beuschel. They just thought about the price of the ingredients, but not what it takes to create something out of it.” The role of the chef was, and still is, to transform a great product into a tasty dish while preserving its distinctive character.
Nevertheless because of, or in spite of, his new approach to fine dining, Gerer became in 1993 the first Austrian chef to be awarded four toques by Gault Millau. Over the years, he passed his product-based philosophy on to many young chefs, who perfected their trade in Gerer’s kitchen at the great Korso.
Price, Value and Cost
One of Gerer’s protégés is Markus Höller, who today works as chef in the gourmet restaurant Artner auf der Wieden, where Gerer frequently stops by to visit his former acolyte. Both insist on the best ingredients, of course, but point out that quality and price don’t necessarily correlate. A personal connection to the source is often way more important. At Höller’s home on Lake Traunsee, a local fisherman showed him a small water bird that had gotten caught in one of his nets.
“He wanted to throw it away, as nobody he knew ever used it,” Höller recalls. “But I got curious and took it to my kitchen.” It was a very fatty Blässhuhn (Eurasian coot), so was quite a job to prepare. But the results were worth it. “It turned out to taste fantastic,” he gushes. “For me, this Blässhuhn really was a blessing; I love to cook with game from the region and also had something unique for my restaurant.”
The price for the Blässhuhn: zero. They were plentiful and nobody wanted them. But subjects like this lead sometimes to detours into economic theory. When you start considering the value of food, you also have to address the subject of prices.
Basically there are two models. One is supply-side, the other demand-side. The supply-side theory looks into the costs of production: what kind of infrastructure is required and how much time and effort have to be invested in order to produce a certain good. In order to produce beef, you have to acquire a calf, you have to have (buy, rent) a barn, buy (or grow) food, invest a lot of time to raise it, pay the vet while it’s growing and finally the butcher for slaughtering. And then bring the meat to the market, where you add a little margin in order to make a profit.
Demand-side theory holds that your cost of production is only a secondary consideration. The price depends on the willingness of prospective buyers to pay a certain sum. If they regard some parts of the cow as “better” than other parts, these parts will become more expensive. Each cow has only one filet and one tongue, so looked at through a supply-side lens, they are equally valuable. From the demand-side, however, one is a delicacy (“Edelteil”), the other dog food. Factory farming on an industrial scale has been one of the consequences of a profit-based market.
More recently, a nose-to-tail approach has become a morally coherent answer to that dilemma. But to convince consumers, you need cooks who are able to turn “lesser” parts into great dishes. That has been the role of great chefs since the modern idea of restaurants began in late 18th century France.
Respect and More
The most important thing is respect for the food. “There are no bad parts of an animal,” Gerer would tell his apprentices. There are only different parts that have different uses. The same holds for fruits and vegetables. “When a vegetable is fresh and ripe it demands respect,” says Gerer. “We should try to keep all the nutrition inside and combine it with something that honors its taste. Spices and seasonings should underline the basic taste, not hide it. This is the basis of cooking since the beginning of time.”
However, before the cooking comes the growing. Aside from a few edible plants that grow on their own (wild mushrooms, herbs), most of our food is produced in controlled agricultural settings. “Since the earliest days of agriculture, people have worked to increase the size of the harvest. Unfortunately this process has led to a loss of taste and the destruction of the soils,” explains Björn Thausig, who is a second generation organic farmer (Bio-Bauer) in Carinthia.
Since the development of synthetic fertilizers in the late 19th century yields have exploded. That led to mono-cultural production farming and, all too often, the destruction of the natural fertility of the soil. “We have to work with nature, not against it, because in the long run, we need naturemore than it needs us,” says Thausig, who is growing a wide variety of grains and crops, which he uses to bake bread and press oil. Last year he teamed up with other small producers and local innkeepers to form the “Markplatz Mittelkärnten.”
Such “holy alliances “ of gourmets, green activists and cooks who, for varying reasons, now support organic (bio) methods of production. This is particularly marked in Austria, which has the highest proportion of organic farmers and – consequently – the highest volume of organic food consumption per capita worldwide. As of 2017, there were 23,117 organic farmers in Austria, tilling 23.9 percent of agricultural land.
But for many chefs that is not enough. “Of course it is good to renounce synthetic fertilizers. But that alone does not produce good food,” Höller says. From an ecological point of view, regionality is often more important. “You can import apples with a bio label from California or China, which makes no sense at all.” As a chef, Höller wants to have personal contact with the farmers who grow his produce. Only then, he says, can he be sure how it has been grown or raised, “which puts me in a position to recommend them to my guests. When I know a producer face to face and see how he is working, I don’t need a label.”
When he moved to Vienna last year, Höller brought some specialties from the Traunsee region with him – particularly fish and game. However, rather soon Höller realized, that Vienna too has its temptations in the wild. He got to know the forager Johannes Gadenberger who spends hours in the Wienerwald hunting wild herbs, berries and mushrooms. “It is amazing what treasures are hidden in nature, even close to a big city like Vienna,” Höller says. “I use them mostly raw as a dressing or to enhance the flavors of a salad. And it’s a nice story to tell to guests.” Of course, you have to know what to look for, “otherwise you just see shades of green.” And you might end up with, say, Lilly of the Valley (a poisonous woodland flower) instead of Austria’s beloved Bärlauch (wild garlic) – with disastrous consequences.
The Choice to go Local
Langenlebarn is located on the shores of the Danube just a few miles upstream from Vienna, which is home to Josef Floh – one of the first and most influential ambassadors for a “regional,” rather than purely, “traditional,” cuisine. “One of the great assets of living in Central Europe is that we have distinctive seasons with distinctive tastes,” which he describes as “a driving force for my creativity.”
A Wiener Schnitzel cooked with imported meat is not really a regional dish, whereas a Saibling-Sashimi may well fall in that category. Both dishes are served in Gastwirtschaft Floh – one is a traditional take on regional produce, the other a more creative, modern one. Five years ago, Floh declared he would cook only with ingredients grown within a radius of 66 kilometers. “I had to draw the line somewhere and 66 is a lucky number!” Over the years he had to adjust the radius a little bit, as he wanted to include tomatoes from Erich Stekovich, who was 80.99 kilometers away. But the point was the same. He cherished local fare and decided to go one hundred percent local, which turned out to be not all that easy.
Starting with fewer than ten suppliers, today a decade later he has more than seventy, whom he visits regularly in his eco-friendly electric car. (“It’s all of a piece,” he says.) And like Höller, it’s about having a personal relationship with the producers. “I put a lot of trust in them and promote their products to our guests.” Geographically, the closest producer is Karl Friedrich, who breeds Mangalica pigs (just 1,010 meters away), the farthest are Schremser Bier (91.80km) and the Auer family in Arbesbach, which breeds organic lambs (89.10km).
After enjoying a meal at the restaurant, many regulars visit the Floh-Markt to restock their home supplies. The Floh-Markt is a play on the Austria name for a flea market, but in a way the opposite: Here it’s all local specialties and nothing is secondhand. Some are prepared directly by theproducers (oils, beer, juices, sausages, etc.), others are conserved. To use local oils, say from Manufaktur Hagenthaler, instead of imported olive oil, was easy. “The tricky part was to make it through the winter,” he says, “as from November till May not much is grown in our neighborhood.” The solution was to preserve fruits and vegetables with traditional techniques, like blanching or stewing, filling some 5,000 jars a year.
Regional not National
One of the country’s lushest agricultural regions is south of Vienna in Burgenland. The youngest of all the federal states, Burgenland was formed out of part of the former Imperial province of Deutsch Westungarn and assigned to the new rump state of Austria after the Great War. But the geography of this Pannonian Plain makes sense even when the politics don’t, and in spite of 40 years’ division by the Iron Curtain – which even cut off the lower end of the Neusiedlersee (Lake Neusiedl) – the shared climate and soils have sustained a regional cuisine that transcends borders.
The two most outstanding restaurants on the western shore of the lake are Gut Purbach and Taubenkobel. Both focus on regional products from both sides of the border.
“Fish don’t have passports,” declares Max Stiegl from Gut Purbach. However, there are differences between a typical Hálászle and a traditional Neusiedlersee Fischsuppe. Among other things, the Hungarian version is spicier. The way Stiegl cooks it, it’s more on the elegant side – with Pannonian saffron, which adds aromas and color. Gut Purbach is also famous for meat dishes – the 13-course offal menu is prepared once a month and has a fanatic following. Another rare delicacy is young goat meat that comes from Stiegl’s own breed on the hills of the Leithagebirge.
“To some people it sounds strange, that I can raise animals with such care and then kill and cook them,” comments Stiegl. “But to me this goes together; it is the cycle of life.” A few kilometers to the north is the famous Taubenkobel, where restauranteur Barbara Eselböck and her husband, chef Alain Weissgerber, run one of the most prestigious restaurants in Austria. But while the guests come from far away, most of the food does not. “The closer you are to your suppliers, the better,” Weissgerber says. “The feedback, you can give a grower is important for him to maintain, and even improve, the quality.” This is particularly true for products that need time to mature, like the cheeses Taubenkobel gets from the Biohof Reumann in Antau.
Most Taubenkobel suppliers are from the Austrian side of the border, only the foie gras always comes from Hungary. However, neither Weissgerber nor Stiegl restrict themselves strictly to Austrian products. “For me, that approach would be way too nationalistic.” says Weissgerber. “I have a simple rule. The further away something is grown, the more special it has to be – and I have to have a personal relation to it.”
To be able to know where one’s food comes from has become the exception in much of the world, as more and more food is offered as “convenience products” on supermarket shelves. Even if these products carry labels like “bio,” or phantasy descriptions such as “sustainable” or “naturally produced,” it is almost impossible to be sure where all the ingredients came from and how they were produced.
But with ambitious chefs as a link between local farmers and consumers, we know we can enjoy food that is good-quality and truly fresh – and from farmers nearby.