Österreich beyond the clichés
For a tv documentary about Austria I was offered the opportunity to discover the southernmost region Kärnten (Carinthia) beyond the clichés, an irresistible opportunity to go on a culinary discovery journey. We started of in Klagenfurt on a cosy local market where we immediately perceived the genuine and authentic atmosphere that perfectly fits the image we have of Austria; the lady of the house, perhaps not fully dressed in traditional clothing, but doing her groceries with a wicker basket to collect all the local produce required for a lovely dinner. The beautiful aroma’s were so inviting and I got seduced by a charming lady selling homemade jams; the combination of the flowery of the rose blossoms and the sweetness of the peach works really well. The interesting about Carinthia is that it borders both Italy and Slovenia, which results not only in Southern influences but also in a particular and mild climate, ideal for a large range of fruit, vegetables and mushrooms.
Next on our program was to meet Sissy Sonnleitner, a renowned TV cook and a former Michelin-starred chef, who would teach me two traditional dishes I would have to prepare all by myself in competition with her daughter… Even though her fame reaches throughout the whole of the country, Sissy’s modesty and generosity grace her and make her even greater.
The first dish was a roulade of charr with Gailtaler Speck, paprika and white Gailtaler maize and the desert, a Strukli, was a cooked strudel filled with sheep quark and served with Lavanttaler banana apple (Bananenapfel) and a elderberry compote. Strukli is the Slovenian word for strudel and reconfirms the influences described earlier.
It couldn’t get more regional as we went to get most of the ingredients ourselves at the source, having the privilege to meet the producers in person and to listen to their personal story. We could learn a lot from their respect for their produce and their natural way of working, it somehow reminds me of the Slow Food movement going on in Italy.
When we arrived at Spendel’s plantation it came as a complete surprise to me to hear about a banana apple, it is an apple variety originally from Massachusetts in the US and is also called American Mother. He cultivates and processes them into juice, wine and a 38% brandy, his greatest pride.
In line with the local convictions, we stayed at der Daberer, an ecological biohotel in Kötschach-Mauthen. Impressed by the tranquillity of the peaceful natural surroundings, but even more by the harmonious marriage of luxury and sustainability. They are convinced we should preserve the balance of nature and take no more then needed from it, a commitment I voluntarily engage to.
The kitchen of the hotel formed the setting for the cooking competition, a perfect occasion for me to prove to Sissy how good a teacher she was. As I only saw it once how to prepare the dishes and standing in front of the daughter of the master herself, the challenge was imposing and I could literally feel the pressure rising. With a mixed feeling of excitement and stress I curiously awaited the verdict of the jury, to see how it ended, you can click here. But either way, the most rewarding was to hear from Sissy that I upheld their tradition, apart from living this incredible experience itself. Which, this being said, is up to now one of the most unforgettable ones. And so I left Austria, with an intense feeling of satisfaction and a sincere and deep respect for their culture.
To read the complete story of how we've lived it on a day to day basis, I refer to the blog that was created for that sole purpose:
deoostenrijkers.wordpress.com (in Dutch)
Get into your kitchen and become a genuine Austrian cook, try out the dishes I prepared in Carinthia:
Mahlzeit! (used to express "enjoy your meal" in German; one could also say "Guten Appetit")
If you care to live the experience for yourself or you want to find out more about the farmers and their produce, Sissy, or the biohotel, have a look at the following links:
Austria's official tourism web page: www.austria.info
Carinthia's offical tourism web page: www.carinthia.at
Web page dedicated to Carinthia's gastronomy: www.genusslandkaernten.at (in German)
Sissy and Stefanie Sonnleitner's restaurant and hotel: www.sissy-sonnleitner.at (in German)
The biohotel where we stayed: www.biohotel-daberer.at