Austrian Food Memories

Food always shows up in my memories I have realized. I am currently taking a cooking class at a local community college, and we were asked to write about our food memories. I noticed how many of my food memories are connected with growing up in Austria and the desire to find the same flavors and dishes again even when living abroad. Our instructor asked us to write about foods we hated but now love, special foods, and foods associated with the seasons.

Foods that I Hated but Now Love

I have noticed that most of my loves and hates in connection with food have stayed the same over the years; the only exception is foods that I first ate prepared differently from what they were meant to be.

For example, I have never really understood the excitement about fried chicken (and now I cannot believe I ever thought that). I did not really hate it, but if I had a choice, I would have eaten nearly anything else rather than fried chicken. I found the breading rather tasteless, rubbery, and greasy covering dry meat. That was when I ate the European version of fried chicken, which usually means a thick layer of breadcrumbs and panfrying/roasting in about half an inch of oil. Then, I had fried chicken in a U.S. military messhall and prepared by a chef who grew up in the South. It was a revelation – the chicken was moist and not greasy at all and the breading actually added to the taste. Now I love fried chicken – if it is prepared well (which for me so far means made by a chef who uses Southern recipes).

Another example is fries; the only American-style fries I knew from Europe were McDonald’s fries since McDonald’s was the only U.S. fast-food restaurant I have known. I actually liked those fries, but when I moved to California, everyone always mentioned how I had to try the fries at In-N-Out since they were so great. The first time I tried the fries, I thought they were too dry and too thick; I was not a fan, but people continued to tell me how good they were and always wanted to eat at In-N-Out instead of any other burger place. After a few more visits, my taste changed, and I actually started to like the fries. I have not eaten at a U.S. McDonald’s in years, and I am one of these annoying people now who always try to convince others that In-N-Out has the best fries.

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Fries and burgers at In-N-Out; photo by pointnshoot from Oakland, California, USA (via Wikimedia Commons)

 

Foods that Remind Me of Special Occasions

One dish that always reminds me of family dinners for Christmas or Easter is my grandmother’s stuffed veal breast. It is a traditional Austrian dish and pretty common, but it is a large piece of meat that is rather expensive, so we usually ate it only for special occasions. The boneless veal breast is cut open to create a pocket that is filled with a mixture of parsley and  old bread soaked in milk and white wine. The stuffed breast is sown shut and sitting in a liquid of wine and butter is then roasted in the oven for two hours and regularly moistened with the liquid. It is served with steamed cabbage, bread dumplings, and boiled potatoes that soak up the juice from the meat. Since the death of my grandmother, I have never eaten this dish again because I am nervous that it would not be as good as her version (she never shared her recipe) and that I would “ruin” my memory of the amazing taste.

 

Foods Associated with the Seasons

Since I grew up in Austria, many of associations are still made based on the weather and local ingredients there, which is very different from California with its much warmer weather. This has sometimes become frustrating to me since I cannot find the same foods and puzzling to friends, who become excited about pumpkin in fall for example, which as a vegetable has really no special memory or season associated with it for me.

Spring:

It can snow in mid-May in Austria, so I do not necessarily associate fresh vegetables and lettuce with spring. In fact, many of the greens that can be grown in California in February would not show up in Austria until April and even then most likely from a greenhouse. I am still amazed by what can be planted when here in Northern California. So when I think of spring, I think of special dishes associated with carnival, Lent, and Easter, large celebrations in spring. The dish associated with carnival is called Faschingskrapfen, a type of donut filled with apricot jam and powdered sugar.

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Faschingskrapfen – Photo by Wikimedia Commons/KarlGruber

Lent is connected with creamed spinach and a fried egg, the typical dinner for Maudy Thursday, which is focused on green foods.

Creamed Spinach

Creamed Spinach and Fried Eggs (photo by belu1004 on Pixabay)

Easter is associated with Osterzopf, which at first glance looks a lot like Challah bread but is much sweeter and a dessert by itself or a breakfast bread.

Osterzopf

Osterzopf – Photo by Capri23auto on Pixabay

Summer:

I associate summer with red currants, berries that grow like weeds but do not do well in the heat of the Sacramento Valley (I have tried growing them here). I remember there were weeks and weeks of summer where I would pick and de-stalk currants nearly every day. Most of the red currants were made into jam or thick juice to be mixed with sparkling water all through winter till the next summer. My favorite way to eat red currants is as a yellow sponge cake with a layer of the sweet-sour red berries topped with thick waves of meringue. The recipe does work with frozen berries, so I can recreate it with frozen red currants usually found at Russian supermarkets in Sacramento, but it does not taste quite as good as it would with fresh berries just picked from the backyard.

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Red Currants – Photo by danigeza on Pixabay

 

Fall:

Fall is connected with roasted chestnuts and new red wine – a combination that is particularly popular in Northern Italy and in the Austrian state of Tyrol (see a previous blog posting). In the US, most people think of pumpkin when they think fall – as seen with the excited social media postings about pumpkin flavors being offered again at Starbucks and other places, but I am not used to the pumpkin obsession. For me, pumpkins are associated with a dark pumpkin seed oil available and used all year long and roasted pumpkin seeds on breads and as snacks, also eaten throughout the year.

Starbucks Pumpkin Meme

Starbucks Pumpkin Meme Found on the Site Your Tango

 

As a child, I associated fall with hiking through forests to collect mushrooms, especially mushrooms of the Boletus family such as Bay Bolete and Penny Bun. I learned early on as a five-year old how to identify the edible mushrooms from the poisonous ones, how to cut them correctly, so they would grow back next year, and how to clean them. Fresh mushrooms would be made into a thick sauce that was a meal by itself with bread or bread dumplings. We also dried pounds and pounds of them to be used in soups and sauces throughout the year.

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Mushroom from the Boletus Family – Photo by czu_czu_PL on Pixabay

 

Winter:

Winter is closely connected with gingerbread and a variety of cookies that are made only around Christmas time, but usually so many pounds are made and received as gifts that we ate Christmas cookies till long into January. Many of the cookie dough recipes include nuts such as almonds, hazelnuts, or walnuts. One famous Austrian cookie is the Vanillekipferl, shaped like a crescent moon (see a great recipe here). Another popular recipe is cinnamon stars (see a recipe here). All the cookies seem much less sweet than American desserts and a lot drier; an American chewy chocolate-chip cookie seems undercooked to me for example, but my American husband compares Austrian cookies to wood chips or bread, and the possibility for Austrian cookies to stay fresh in an air-tight container in a cool place for weeks is not a good sign for him.

Vanillekipferl

Vanillekipferl – Photo by Blueeyes on Pixabay

 

Reflecting on foods has shown me how closely all of my especially favorite memories are connected with foods. One of the main reasons why I have become interested in cooking and taking cooking courses is because I want to recreate flavors that are connected with special memories, places, and people . Since I have moved around quite a lot in my life, I have learned that it is often futile to try to find a restaurant or bakery that offers these flavors from my past, so it just seems easier to learn how to create them myself instead of looking for someone else who might be able to do this.

PS: When I am around food, I seem to be more focused on eating than taking photos, so many of the photos in this posting are from Pixabay, a site with free, high-quality images. Thank you to all the artists who make their work available for free (and also take much better pictures than I can).

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New Year’s Resolution

With the beginning of 2017, of course I also thought about New Year’s resolutions as so many others do, and getting fit is always pretty high on any list of resolutions. But I know myself well enough to know that these resolutions have a a tendency to fizzle out before too long, so I see no sense in getting stuck with a long-term, pricey membership contract with a gym. Indeed, plenty of memes and articles have made the rounds on social media based on the same idea in the last few days; one that in particular spoke to me was a fake offer for one to two training sessions and four photos of the new member working out on social media. Here is another meme that entertained me:

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Meme found on Tumbler

I have avoided the temptation to sign up for a gym so far, but I could not resist an original vinyl record of Jane Fonda’s 1981 workout record in a local thrift-store ( and with a two-dollar price tag also much cheaper than a gym membership). I mean – it is Jane Fonda, THE original workout maven! The VHS tape that followed and was based on her book and this record is the top selling VHS tape of all time according to several online sites. The record has a cheesy 8os sound track so that alone makes it entertaining; and the cover design is hilarious. I do not think even the thrift-store sold a pair of those 80s legwarmers and the high-cut leotard with matching belt.

Jane Fona Record

Album Cover of Jane Fonda’s 1981 Workout Record

Even if I stop the workout regime based on the record in a few weeks (which is very likely based on previous new year’s resolutions), I still have the entertainment factor, so I call this a good buy. If you are interested in the original video workout, browse YouTube (see example here).

The record is also an important piece of Americana, artifacts related to the cultural heritage of the U.S. It might not seem worthy of this label to some, but when I think 80s and U.S., Jane Fonda and aerobics always come to mind.

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Christmas Decorations and Workout Record

So here is to a great year ahead; may you stick to you resolutions or at least be entertained by your pursuit of your goals.

Thanksgiving Alfresco and “Stray” Aliens in California

Another November in Northern California, and another reminder how amazing the weather is here. While I see postings about European Christmas markets opening up and about snow angels in the northern parts of the US, I am able to have Thanksgiving dinner outside. Sure, we are not quite as lucky as those in Southern California and still need a jacket once the shadows get longer and the sun sets, but it is still unfathomable to me that I can actually sit outside for hours and be comfortable at the end of November.

Oranges

Abundance: Under an Orange Tree

Tee by the Fire

Tea by the Fire Pit

 

Even though I do not have a close connection to Thanksgiving since I did not grow up with this tradition, I have become rather fond of this holiday by now; what is there not to like when it is mostly about giving thanks and of course food – and more food – and then even more food.

Turkey on BBQ

Turkey on the BBQ

Pie Buffet

Pie Buffet: Banana, Pecan, Blueberry, Apple, and Pumpkin (under the Glass)

Even though some dishes are traditional and expected at Thanksgiving, most families also seem to include at least one dish connected to their ancestors; American Italians, for example, seem to serve ravioli, and our Thanksgiving dinner included sauerkraut and Polish sausages.

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Sauerkraut and Polish Sausages

As a foreigner/alien without a large family nearby, I have been invited for several years now by American friends that lay out one of the largest spread for the dinner (made from scratch). All I need to do is show up, bring appetite, and take leftovers home (and I don’t even need to bring any boxes for the leftovers). I jokingly observed that I have been taken in like a stray kitten, and like with any stray cat, once fed, I am hard to get rid off and come back again and again.

 

Over the years as I moved from country to country and continent to continent, I have often been invited to share holiday traditions and meals with locals. Thank you to all those who take in those “stray” aliens without family nearby during holidays.

 

Celebrating Beer in Bavaria

When states or counties put on exhibitions or fairs showcasing themselves, they usually focus on important historical events, natural sights, or maybe important figures. But Bavaria’s current state exhibition is about beer – of course. After all, beer was named Bavaria’s fifth element already in 1752 by Bavarian Chancellor Kreittmayr. Since beer brewing is historically closely connected with monasteries in Central Europe, it also makes sense that this exhibition is hosted in the Abbey in Aldersbach in southeast Bavaria.

The exhibition offers much – plenty of historical background on the production and cultural impact of beer, beer facts, interactive displays, curiosities connected to beer, a large beer tent with special exhibition beers and live bands, a tour through a modern brewery, and the art of the historical abbey buildings. We spent a whole afternoon at the exhibit and would have stayed longer had it not closed at six (the beer tent often stays open longer, but was closed early on the day we visited to prepare for a special event).

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Typical Interior of a Bavarian Pub (Photo from Pixbay – artist Stux)

Like many others, I have always connected Bavaria with beer, but many historical details highlighted by the exhibit were new to me while others were “oldies but goodies.” Of course, displays mention the Reinheitsgebot (“purity order”) from 1516 that limits ingredients used in beer brewing to water, barley, and hops, but I did not know that until the 16th century wine was more popular in Bavaria than beer. Beer started to become a more popular choice because less wine was produced following cold summers and the destruction of vineyards during wars. In 1784, Bavaria wall already called the “beer country” in travel notes.

Wall of Beer Steins

Wall of Beer Steins

 

Currently, about a half of all German breweries are located in Bavaria, where in 1900 the average annual consumption of beer per person was 250 liters or 66 US gallons. This number has decreased to about 145 liters (38 gallons) per person per year in Bavaria, which is still higher than anywhere else in Germany. In comparison, the average number for 2012 in the US was 27.6 gallon according to USA Today. Bavaria used to be the land of the breweries with 4,777 different breweries in 1905. This number sank to 1,566 breweries in 1960 and 616 breweries in 2014.

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Number of Breweries in Bavaria over the Years

 

The exhibition includes a display of typical pub games as well as other artifacts connected with the Wirtshaus (pub), such as a beer mat from 1900. According to the displays, beer mats used to be made out of hair felt and are thus still called beer felts, “Bierfilzl;” paper beer mats were introduced in 1890.

Beer Mat

Beer Mat/Coaster Made out of Hair Felt from 1900

 

Memorable curiosities connected with beer are a display of motorized beer crates that are raced on race ways, a game of wearing “beer goggles” that create the visual impact of being over the driving limit, and a competition of carrying 27 beer-filled liter steins, which add up to 63 kilos (nearly 139 pounds) and were once carried by one waiter at the Munich Oktoberfest. Even Bavaria, the female personification of the state of Bavaria, is depicted carrying only 12 beer steins on posters and beer mats throughout the exhibition, so I decided it was not worth my wait at the display to even try carrying that many beer steins.

Motorized Beer Crate

Motorized Beer Crate

 

Carry Beersteims

How many full beer steins can you carry?

 

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Beer in the Fest Tent – The glass depicts Bavaria, the female personification of the state of Bavaria

The large beer tent with live music, Bavarian culinary specialties, and specially brewed exhibition beers as well as two additional on-site pubs encouraged us to make a day out of the exhibition and we enjoyed lunch but the tent was closed later on to prepare for a special evening event.

 

A nice break from all the information about and tastings of beer is a stroll through the monastery grounds (founded in 1136) and a visit to its pink Baroque church Maria Himmelfahrt with its bejeweled skeletons of saints, which are pretty common in the Alpine region and completely fascinated me (more about the bejeweled saints in this posting). I was in awe by the amount of precious stones, pearls, and gold covering the bones and amused by some of the body positions that are much more creative than just lying on the back and looking up the ceiling.

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Room Inside the Monastery as Part of the Exhibit

 

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Reclining Bejeweled Saint in the Church Maria Himmelfahrt

 

If you are in the south-eastern part of Bavaria and are somewhat interested in beer, I highly recommend this exhibition that is open daily from 9AM till 6PM until 30 October 2016. Check the exhibition’s website for entrance fees, special events, and directions: http://www.landesausstellung-bier.de/

 

PS: All data is from the displays in the exhibition or from the official website.

Getting Ready for Easter: Shops in Florence

More Eggs in Windows

Window Display in a Interior Design Shop in Florence

It has been obvious for days that Easter is nearly upon us here in Florence: the churches offer more religious ceremonies, the streets are clogged with more and more tourists, and Easter merchandise has dominated the stores. It is impossible to avoid Easter or not notice it in this town. In the States, Easter nearly passes me by with just a few chocolate bunnies and sugary Peeps in the stores.

Here, I am fascinated by the large and colorful Easter chocolate eggs that also usually contain a surprise inside. The shiny foil or colorful fabric wrappings shimmer in the shop windows and in the supermarket aisles. It seems that Easter eggs should not be a realistic egg-size but the bigger the better. Most of the ones I have seen are ten inches taller or even more. The surprises inside can vary from more chocolate truffles to toys and even jewelry.

 

Eggs definitely dominate more than chickens or bunnies here in the Easter food and decor. If it is not in egg shape, the food seems to have to be in dove-shape. “La Colomba” is a dove-shaped sponge cake  (with a lot of imagination I can see a flying dove, but without the name I would have guessed a misshapen four-leave clover). The cakes come with candied orange peel or chocolate or cream filling or no filling  at all.

Surprisingly, I have not seen any lambs or lamb-shaped cakes, which I am used to from Austria. The cakes also come packed with bottles of sweet spumante/sparkling wine, so I am assuming the cake is paired with alcohol and not only with coffee and tea as I would have assumed. The “dove-cake” is very similar in texture and taste to the Italian Christmas cake, panettone or pandoro.

Pigeon Cake

“Dove Cake” with Sweet Spumante Seems to Be a Good Combination

Stores are decorated with spring flowers; Italians have switched from dark blue, black, or green downjackets to light blue, white, and pink short-sleeved downjackets;  I can hear the clop-clop of the hooves of horses pulling tourists in carriages through my street – it is clear that Easter is just around the corner. If you are celebrating Easter, I hope you have a wonderful holiday.

Unexpected Parade on a Saturday Afternoon in Florence

Today was supposed to be a lazy Saturday afternoon with no clear plans for me in Florence – just a day to do some laundry, food shopping, and maybe a walk while the weather was holding. But then I started to hear drums and trumpets outside my window on the Piazza Santa Croce, and a quick look outside showed a large group of musicians and flag bearers in Renaissance costumes and a large gaggle of tourists already swarming the piazza to take pictures and shoot videos. This is what is great about Florence: something exciting and visually stunning is always around the corner even if you do not expect it.

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Parade in front of the Basilica di Santa Croce

Once I joined the group of onlookers on the piazza, I figured out that RAI – Italy’s National Broadcasting Company – was shooting a segment about Florence’s Calcio Storico, also called Historical Soccer (see previous post for more details). The games in summer usually start with a parade of musicians and more in Renaissance costume through town. The matches take place on the Piazza Santa Croce, and one of the calcio teams was actually on hand for the filming as well today. The white team from the Santo Spirito neighborhood of Florence was posing for the TV crew and tourists (especially groups of young women) on the steps leading up to the Basilica di Santa Croce.

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The White Team from Santo Spirito

Parade Members

Participants of the Parade Posing in front of the Basilica di Santa Croce

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Flags Thrown into the Air during a Performance

Since filming always takes a while and different shots need to be set up, the participants spent minutes at a time just standing around and unintentionally acting as perfect photo opportunities for tourists. Since this event was unannounced as far as I could figure out, the crowd was still relatively thin, and I had a chance to take plenty of close-ups that I would not be able to take during a parade before a match.

I loved the colorful costumes and flags in front of the white facade of the basilica, and the drums and cheers of the group still followed me as I crossed the river for a walk into the hills overlooking the city center.

Santa Croce

Basilica di Santa Croce and Renaissance Parade

Calcio Storico in Florence: Historical Soccer

Over the last few days, workers had transformed the Piazza Santa Croce and covered it with a deep layer of sand surrounded by haystacks and fencing. Even though it was in the middle of February, a match of Calcio Storico, “Historical Soccer”, was planned. Italians really are not too bothered by dates and punctuality; supposedly, these famous games usually take place in June only but for some reason that I still have not figured out, a game was surprisingly scheduled in February. Since I would not be here anymore in June and did not expect  to be able to watch a game, I was happy about this change in schedule.

Calcio Storico is also called Calcio Fiorentino and was created in the 16th century. It is a mixture of rugby, American football, wrestling, and to some degree soccer. Both hands and feet can be used to pass the ball, but it actually did not remind me much of soccer but much more of rugby. The goal is to score a point by getting the ball into the narrow goal that runs the width of each end of the playing field. A team consists of 27 players and there are no substitutions, so any injured players just means fewer players on that team. A half point can be scored if the opposing team tries to score a goal but kicks the ball over the goal. The game lasts 50 minutes with no halftime or break. In addition, tackling players even if they do not have the ball is perfectly acceptable and actually good strategy it seems.

The game I watched was played by the Bianchi (Whites) of the Santo Spirito neighborhood of Florence and the Verdi (Greens) of the San Giovanni neighborhood. The Verdi won by 5 points (or 6 points – I cannot remember) to 2.5 points, so yes, the Green Team tried a to kick a goal and missed the net.

Here is what amused me during the game and/or here is what I learned: The players are blessed inside the Basilica di Santa Croce before the game starts (this reminded me a lot of the prayers in the locker rooms that are always shown in Hollywood sport movies).

The uniforms of the referees at the Calcio Storico are even more ridiculous than the “zebra uniforms” of the American Football umpires and Footlocker employees.

Line Judge

Outfit of the Line Judge at the Calcio – And here I thought the “zebra uniforms” of the referees in American Football were hilarious.

The best defense seems to be to just tackle the best players of the other team and sit or lie on them. Seriously, this seems to be allowed and practiced. Even if the play is whistled dead, these interlocked pairs are still fighting for dominance.

There are no personal penalties; it seems normal to walk past an opponent and hit him on the back of the head with one’s elbow if the opponent is not paying attention; this can also happen away from the ball and does not trigger any penalties. I am not even sure there are penalties – just a ball out of play is called it seemed to me.

Calcio 9

The players wear odd Renaissance-style puffy pants and regular T-shirts that also seem to be of very poor quality since many of the T-shirts get torn a few minutes into the game. It seems like no shirts at all would make more sense and is preferred by the players.

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Calcio Player

All the music played before and after the game is Renaissance-style music – no hip new top-of-the-chart hits for this game.

I am wondering what costumes any cheerleaders would wear – if they had cheerleaders.

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Calcio Players after the Game

The game is pretty entertaining to watch and easy to figure out especially if you are familiar with rugby and/or American Football rules. The 50-minute game passes quickly since there are no timeouts. If you are in Florence during the time Calcio is on the calendar (or even if there is a surprise unscheduled match),  I hope you have a chance to check it out.