On November 10th, 2011 the UNESCO classified Viennese cafés as masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity. These Wiener Kaffeehäuser, the true temple of delightfully outdated lifestyle, have been described as places “where time and space are consumed, but where the only item on the check is the coffee”. A spacio-temporal rift there lets us contemplate the ordinary and the extraordinary in a European metropolis whose elegance is intact.
How many cafés are there in Vienna? Does anyone really know? Apparently, more than a thousand and a few of them put great effort into bringing back to life Imperial Vienna splendor. The ghosts of Freud, Schnitzler, Zweig, Lenin, Trotsky, Hofmannsthal, even Hitler and so many others, haunt these places.
Coffee runs in the veins of the inhabitants of Vienna, since they shed it to defend the gateway to the Occidental World that was Vienna against the Ottomans, in 1683. The legend says that, when the troops of the Sublime Porte retreated, bags full of that grain were found and coffee was made, as Venitians had already been doing for several years. People also say that a Turkish spy for the Imperial court introduced in the Austrian capital.
In any case, cooks and chefs quickly learnt how to accommodate it for the gourmets’ delicate palates in this Baroque era. Mixed with sugar, milk or alcohol, Viennese coffees have been making heads spin for more than three centuries now.
Sitting down in the afternoon with this comforting beverage, and a small pastry for the food lovers, is a tradition, a custom, almost a second nature that is very enjoyable. It is somewhat known in Eastern France, but I notice it even more when I go to Luxemburg or Germany. Central Europe has almost elevated it to a religion.
In the middle of the Industrial Revolution, people go the café to enjoy some human, and also actual, warmth. It has nothing in common with the Italian coffeeshops where customers gulp down their espresso in a second. In Austria, even though the sound level is the same, people sit down, read, discuss, observe, meet and part, for hours. The spirit of the place is still the same as under the imperial rule, which Stefan Zweig described in this way: “It was the golden age of security. Everything in our Austrian monarchy seemed designed to last.” To last… Going to a Viennese cafés is indeed a question of time.
The coffee is served the Oriental way, with a glass of water. There is no point in ordering a simple “coffee” – it is an understandable, but paradoxically, it doesn’t exist in the Kaffeehäuser.
There is a wide variety of choices: ask for a “Melange”, a Viennese traditional beverage, that is always different depending the place you go, but usually consists of a simple or double dose of mild coffee, with milk foam and chocolate shavings. You can either let the foam and the coffee mix, or add some warm milk and whipped cream – the recipes vary. It is perfect with an Apfelstrudel.
The Kaisermelange, the “mix of the Emperor”, is a bit heavier: you’ll get an egg yolk whipped with cream and the foam will be added to the coffee, with honey, cognac or brandy.
A Franziskaner? Just replace the milk foam of the Melange with some whipped cream. The Kapuziner? It gave its name to the Italian Cappuccino: a few drops of milk to give it the color of a Capuchin friar’s habit, candied chestnut…
The Einspänner is not to be overlooked either: it is traditionally a double mocha with a huge amount of cold Chantilly cream: like the coach drivers of old (Einspänner), warm your hands by holding this long glass of coffee. You have to leave? Then stir the whipped cream into the coffee, it’ll cool down and you’ll be able to drink it quickly.
The Maria Theresa is a drink for the big occasions. A long mocha and a drop of Cointreau, with whipped cream or Chantilly cream and orange peels. The list of all the caffeinated subtleties has no end and is evidence of a still lively way of life.
The Café Landtmann is a stronghold of this age-old tradition and the various delicious possibilities are spread out in the menu with no moderation. Try to spot the Viennese specialties among the Irish, Turkish coffees and lattes. Here, the little bean from Arabia Felix is consumed in several international and sophisticated nuances, under the familiar shadow of the Burgtheater, “more than just a theater” according to Stefan Zweig…
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