ShutterstockBy Christine Potter
Visitors to Austria, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland – four nations in the geographic heart of Europe – don’t come just for the cuisine. They come to see the historical and cultural treasures and to explore new destinations. But local food and drink can be as much of an adventure (for taste buds at least) as hiking through unfamiliar hills.
These lands share a passion for traditional foods, beer and wine but in the former Communist countries a taste for new and interesting cuisine has grown exponentially.
An Appetite In Austria
When in Austria think pastries. (Yes, this is where Schnitzel originated and there are plenty of delicious savoury dishes, but pastries rule.)
Among my favourite memories of Vienna – which include the amazing Art Deco architecture – is the taste of Imperial Torte, a chocolate gateau created for Emperor Franz-Josef in 1874. It’s served today at Café Central in Palais Ferstel, a marble-columned, mid-19th-century building with a past as grand as its present. Even older is Linzertorte, a 350-year-old recipe using hazelnuts and blackcurrant jam. And oh, those confections at Damel’s, whose windows are always adorned with life-size tableaux rendered in marzipan.
Austrian Tourist OfficeWine sipping is fun at a Viennese “heurige” where only local wines from the current year are served, along with hearty food. You can find yourself seated with complete strangers at a long harvest table and it doesn’t take long for rigid Austrian politeness to disappear into gales of giggling and friendly hugs. (Genuine heuriger taverns are marked with a bunch of pine branches and “Ausg’steckt.”)
Austrian wine boasts a long history. In the Roman ruins of Carnuntum (Lower Austria) evidence exists of vineyards planted 2,000 years ago. You can sample Rubin Carnuntum wines as part of the Carnuntum Experience with Wine & Dine evenings on vineyard estates.
The valleys along the Danube are well known for their grapes and the Langenlois area alone boasts some 700 growers. Visitors can learn more about the local varieties at Loisium World of Wine Experience, where sound-and-light shows are held in cellars dating back 900 years.
Tinou Bao/FlickrHungry In Hungary
While Hungary and the Czech Republic were once part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and therefore influenced by Austrian cuisine, their dishes have their own unique flavours.
In Hungary, the food is a melting pot of ancient Asiatic, Germanic, Italian and Slavic elements along with original Magyar dishes.
Meat is prominent and often cooked over an open fire – goulash (Hungarians invented it), “porkoit” (stew) and fisherman’s soup to name three. Hungarians love their soup in oodles of varieties including rich vegetable concoctions that please vegetarians. Hot paprika is the staple seasoning. If you’re a fan of foie gras, you’re in the world’s second-largest producing country. It’s a big part of traditional cuisine, as is sausage made from pork and spiced with paprika.
A national sweet tooth results in sugary delicacies like “chimney cake” (kurtoskalacs) served at Christmas, or classic “somloi galuska,” a chocolate filled sponge cake.
When in Hungary you’re bound to taste the sweetish wine from Tokaji, one of the country’s best-known wine regions. Tokaj grapes are even named in the national anthem.
Palinka is the ubiquitous fruit-based aqua-vite used before the meal as an aperitif or afterwards as a digestive. But don’t clink glasses. That’s considered offensive. Cheers! (In Hungarian “egeszsegetekre.” Just too hard to pronounce unless you’re a linguist!)
Alexander Baxevanis/FlickrPeckish In Poland
Dumplings or knodel (a spelling found in different forms in different countries) are found all over the Heart of Europe. They appear in soups and stews, as a savoury stand-alone dish and as dessert with fruit fillings. Other delicious desserts include “sernik” (cheesecake) and apple tarts.
Perogies (as Polish as Polish cuisine can get) are enjoyed internationally but they’re never quite as tasty as when eaten in Poland. An annual Perogy Festival in Krakow (this year is the 11th) runs five days from mid-August and showcases the humble potato dumpling in its many guises. (Even chocolate and strawberry filled.) It draws thousands to the Small Market Square for tastings, fairs and arts performances.
Some of the best country dishes can be found in agrotourism farms. About 10,000 are spread throughout the country, ranging from one-star (most basic) to four (the highest standard). Bread baked in burdock leaves, home made cheese, trout from the stream and milk straight from the cow are some of the tastes you might expect, but check that the farm offers meals before you book. Hosts are usually eager to talk about local attractions and will often organize excursions such as river rafting, bird watching, or cycling.
Favourite drinks are pivo (beer) and vodka, both made in Poland. Beer brewing in Poland is recorded as far back as the 900s, when King Boleslaw I was dubbed “The Beer Drinker.” Poland’s version of aqua-vite is “nalewki,” a fruit or spice based liqueur reaching 45 per cent proof. And one of the most traditional drinks is mead, known as “miod pitny” or “drinkable honey.”
Ravenous In The Czech Republic
The Czech Republic is renowned for its beer (my personal favourite is Gambrinus – light or dark – which also is the country’s best selling brand) and it goes really well with Czech food, which, like its Polish and Hungarian cousins, tends to be on the heavy side.
Gulash – that rich beef stew that appears all over the Heart of Europe – is tastiest (i.e. spicier) in Hungary but many prefer the milder flavours of the CR. Order it with knedliky (dumplings) on the side. (Knedliky is the favourite side dish for many gravy-laden dishes. They sop up the liquids and taste good.)
One delicious gulash variation, said to be a favourite of former president Vaclav Havel, is “Svickova na metana” – roasted beef in a carrot-sweetened cream sauce, topped with a dollop of whipped cream and cranberries.
Sausages abound throughout the Heart countries and in the CR you can add to your culinary adventures with “utopence,” a slightly sour, rather fatty pickled sausage topped with pickled onions. You definitely need a beer with this one.
Cheese and beer combine in “pivni syr,” literally “beer cheese.” The cheese is marinated in ale until it is semi-soft and is often served on dark sourdough bread, topped with chopped onions.
Also popular is “halusky,” little noodles known as spaetzle in Austria and shared throughout Bohemia. It’s a filling, inexpensive Eastern European alternative to pasta.
And everywhere in the CR you’ll find “rohliky” – banana shaped bread rolls served at breakfast, lunch and dinner and found stuffed with sausage on Prague street corners.