Sunday, 4 August 2013


I touched down later the same day, this time in Copenhagen. After a quick train journey from the airport to the centre of the city, I had a grumble at the fact that it wasn’t getting any cooler the further north I was going and lugged my bag to my hostel… which happened to be fronted by a café and have a room set aside for morning yoga.

I’d been prepared for the fact that Denmark was an expensive country to visit, somewhere on a par with Switzerland… but it felt even worse in comparison to Poland and the Czech Republic. Looking at the standard prices of the restaurants I passed, I thought it was going to take a bit of detective work to find a Danish meal for a reasonable price… so for my first dinner, I ended up heading to the supermarket. Nothing particularly interesting, but I bought some fishcakes to go with my salad in an effort to get into the spirit of being by the water.
I kept a beady eye out for places to eat while on a walking tour the following day and there was the odd menu board boasting a Danish flag, “traditional” dishes and prices that didn’t seem quite so horrendous. I headed back to one of these restaurants on the Kultorvet square… oddly enough, named Restaurant Kultorvet. It would have been cheaper to go there for lunch, and in fact quite a few places in Copenhagen do good lunch deals, but my dinner was also reasonably priced… for Copenhagen at least. I was in a fishy mood again and opted for salmon with potatoes and béarnaise sauce… which was nice enough, but very like something I’d eat at home. I wasn’t sure my quest for Danish food had got off to the best start.

The following day, I decided to sack in looking for local food and instead headed for Tivoli, the historic amusement park slap-bang in the middle of the city. I’d been dying to go on some rollercoasters the whole time I’d been travelling but, what with many theme parks being an expensive bus journey out of town, I’d held fire until getting to Copenhagen. To my surprise, though, I did happen to stumble across a bit of confectionary that’s quite popular in Scandinavia and the Netherlands while in the park; salted liquorice. It’s known to be a bit of an acquired taste, the salt adding a cutting, acerbic edge to a sweet that’s already a bit of a “love it or loath it” thing. I’m not sure what I was expecting. I like salted caramels a lot so maybe I was thinking that the salt would enhance the flavour and sweetness of the liquorice… but no, “biting” and “a bit vicious” are probably good ways to describe what you get from salted liquorice.
The following day was my last full one in Copenhagen and I decided to make a more concerted effort to have a Danish lunch. I’d found a few recommendations via the internet and, after walking around a few of the quieter streets in the city and discovering that a few of the restaurant proprietors were off on their holidays too, I was glad to find that Puk was open and serving.

Puk was a great little find. Copenhagen has had quite a few issues over the centuries with fire, with 2 devastating blazes in 1728 and 1795 that destroyed many of the buildings in the centre of the city, meaning that many of the buildings date from the late 1700s and early 1800s. Puk, however, is situated in one of the oldest remaining buildings in Copenhagen, which in 1539 was used as a Royal Brewery by King Christian III. And, a little like the Red Peacock in Prague, it has a saucy side to its history as the place where King Christian VII met up with his mistress. It also serves great, reasonably-priced, traditional Danish food. I went for Danish meatballs (frikadeller, which are simply fried rather than braised in a sauce) with potato salad and rye bread, which turned out to be a surprisingly apt dish for the beautiful summer’s day.
I did a last bit of sightseeing over the afternoon before deciding that I fancied something sweet to round off my day. On the walking tour a few days previously, one of the most famous department stores in Copenhagen, Magasin du Nord, had been pointed out to us… and we’d been told of a basement full of chocolate, so I thought this was worth a visit. And actually, I was pleasantly surprised to find that it was full of chocolate from Danish chocolatiers. One set of chocolates I sampled were a selection of chocolate “eggs” from Summerbird, a company that started by developing its own marzipan recipe in the 1980s before moving on to chocolate confections. My “eggs” featured the famous marzipan base, topped with different flavours of ganache or caramel, including a liquorice offering and, my personal favourite a blueberry and lemon ganache.

I also tried a bar produced by Copenhagen-based chocolatiers Simple Chocolate. Although they have a substantial range, the bars were the things that particularly caught my eye, with plenty of fruity, nutty and caramel combinations… and with some equally interesting names. I opted for a “Grainy Sue”, which is in fact “Made of homemade muesli based on organic oatmeal, spelt flakes, homemade caramel and peanuts, everything covered in dark 60% chocolate”. So, a supped-up, organic Snickers.
I was back to travelling by train on my way out of Copenhagen. Lunch was going to be a train affair so I nipped to a Copenhagen-based bakery called Emmerys that I’d heard good things about. They have a few cafes around the city and sell sandwiches, bread and plenty of sweet treats as well as coffees. I grabbed a sandwich but also spotted a snack pot of yoghurt, with cardamom biscuits for dunking. I couldn’t resist! These spiced biscuits, sometimes referred to as pebernødder, are more traditional around Christmas time but were just as good for dunking in yoghurt on a changeable summer’s day… yep, the rain had finally arrived!

I felt a little like I’d begun to flag on reaching Copenhagen. Travelling… and attempting to find descent local food everywhere… was starting to tire me out. I vowed to make a renewed effort at my next stop... and possibly fill in some of the gaps in my culinary exploration of Denmark.


Wednesday, 31 July 2013


It took a long and eventful train journey for me to reach my next stop, which happened to be Krakow. The train between Prague and Katowice went relatively smoothly but some incident involving the police made the stretch from Katowice to Krakow go a little slower than expected.

When I finally arrived, I was surprised to be spewed out of the station into a very large and very shiny shopping centre. Once out of the shopping centre and stumbling through the old town, I found myself doing exactly what I’d done in Prague; staring round in wonder going “I’m so glad I came”.
After finding my hostel, which was in a prime location just off the main square… even if it was above a slightly noisy nightclub… I didn’t have to walk far to find food. I had a niggling feeling that I might be succumbing to another tourist trap by finding a seat at one of the restaurants on the main square, but I was hungry, it was late and they were close. And again, it wasn’t hard to find somewhere serving traditional national cuisine, so I simply slumped at one of these places and ordered myself some pierogi.

As I said in my last post, my stomach was going to get no reprieve from the dumpling binge it suffered in Prague. Pierogi are a common dumpling in Poland but can almost be compared more closely to ravioli than the stuff I tried in the Czech Republic. The dough is a simple combination of flour, water and butter while the fillings are many and varied, including sauerkraut, cheese, potato, beef and some sweet varieties featuring seasonal fruits. The plate that I’d ordered, which turned out to be pretty enormous, was loaded with a mix of sauerkraut, cheese and beef pierogi, moistened up with a little beef dripping. Choosing a favourite between the cheese and beef versions would be difficult for me… but is probably a good indication that my body can’t take any more sauerkraut.
The following day, I found a “free” tour of the city to tag along with (these tours aren’t actually free but instead run on tips) and, after being introduced to the main landmarks and some other less well-known attractions, I asked the tour guide if she had any recommendations of where to buy cake. She did, and this is yet another one to add to my list of cream cakes from around Europe. She directed me to Michalscy Cukiernia, which sells the official Kremówkę Papieską. This is basically another cream slice, puff pastry sandwiching crème patissiere, but its sale is used to raise money for projects in Krakow relating to the previous Archbishop of the city, who of course later became Pope John Paul II.

What with another lunch of cream-based sustenance, I decided to sort myself out a light dinner at the hostel rather than going out. I bought some salad and managed to point my way towards the smoked sausage I wanted from the supermarket. And then, for a bready accompaniment, I bought something that I’d seen being sold on many a street corner around Krakow; obwarzanki krakowskie, or Krakow bagels. The way I understand the term “bagel”, the dense bread dough has to be boiled before baking, but these circles of twisted bread, generally topped with something like poppy seeds, sesame or sometimes cheese, are just baked… although the dough does through a long fermentation process before this happens. They lacked the chewiness of your generic bagel, but the twisting of the dough and long fermentation made for an interesting, spiralled crumb and a very tear-able chunk of bread.
Stumbling across Polish food around the streets of Krakow seemed to be quite easy but, with the help of the good old internet, I also found a few things in your average corner shop with a bit of trivia behind them. A Prince Polo bar is pretty much just a chocolate wafer, but it also happened to be the bestselling chocolate wafer during the communist era and has been produced since 1955. Not far from the Prince Polo bars, you’ll often spot bags of candies decorated with cows, called krowki. The name literally translates as “little cows” and they’re somewhere between a caramel and a toffee in flavour and texture. When fresh, they’re completely soft, “ductile” and can be pulled into a long strip, whereas over time the sugar crystalises on the outside while the middle stays soft. They’ve been around since the first half of 20th century when they were made by polish confectioner Feliks Pomorski. And they’re a little bit of the moreish side.

I paid a second visit to Michalscy Cukiernia to sample another speciality with the label “Krakowski” (i.e. from Krakow), this time sernik Krakowski. Sernik, that is, cheesecake, seems to be quite popular in Poland and this particular version is made with a ricotta-like cheese dotted with raisins and with a pastry-like base, all of which is baked. Some takes on this sernik have a pastry top as well but this one had a more simple decoration of lemon icing. Using a ricotta-like cheese makes this cake less smooth than other baked cheesecakes but it’s also far from flavourless.
An ingredient that’s particularly popular in Poland, and generally Eastern European baking, is poppy seeds and Michalscy Cukiernia also happened to sell something resembling a brioche with a twist of poppy seed paste inside, glazed with a complementary bit of lemon icing (pictured). These seeds are symbolic of “harvest and fertility” and so frequently get used in baking for special occasions. My twist was just for everyday but the crumb was a pleasing golden colour and fluffy without being insubstantial.

I’d made a few friends while in Krakow and so, on my last night there, rather than eating by myself, we checked out some recommendations from a guide book and headed out together for some more traditional Polish food. Restaurancja Pod Gruszka is in one of the buildings just off the main square, its high-ceilinged rooms decked out in impressive style with painted portraits on the walls, candlesticks on the tables and grand wooden chairs. We wondered if it would be a little out of our price range… but few places in Krakow are. While 2 of my new friends opted for impressive dumpling mixes, I couldn’t take more dumplings and instead went for potato pancakes served with a mushroom sauce.
Potato pancakes are popular throughout Eastern Europe and the Middle East. In Poland, they’ve historically been associated with the food of monasteries but the technique of pancake making was also used to make an appetising meal with a long shelf life out inferior crops. The pancakes this time weren’t quite like the one I’d had in Bratislava. The one there had been like a thick, fluffy crepe whereas the ones I got this time were even thicker and denser… maybe even more similar to a hash brown than a pancake. But that made for deliciously crunchy edge bits great for dunking in the contrastingly creamy mushroom sauce. I may have eaten rösti to death while in Switzerland but that didn’t put me off these delicious pancakes.

The following day, I had to leave early for the flight to my next stop. I packed up my stuff and trudged to the train station grudgingly, still with a load of zloty rattling round in my purse. After checking in and working my way through security, I wandered around the few shops near the gates and whittled away the last of my cash on drinks for the plane, earplugs and… what else, chocolate. Specifically, chocolate-coated prunes, which are a favourite in Poland… but that’s about as much I can tell you about them.
My time in Eastern Europe was very regrettably over. I’ve arrived in most places without too many expectations, Krakow being no exception, but it made a lasting impression. Poland, I will be back!


Sunday, 28 July 2013


The next proper stop on my whirlwind tour of Europe was actually Prague… which required a slightly longer train journey from Vienna than the trip to Bratislava had. I wasn’t originally intending to go to Prague, which has a reputation in the UK as somewhere where 18 year olds go for a holiday to get very drunk on a small amount of money. When I stumbled off the train and began to walk through the city, however, I realised what a misconception this was. I pretty much fell in love with the place immediately. Bag dumped at the hostel, it was time to explore.

This of course meant searching out a few of the best places for cake for future reference. And when walking around Prague, there’s one rather touristy, showy cake that jumps out immediately at you. Not because it’s anything stunning to look at, but because you can see it baking on spits rotating over an open flame. Trdelnik is a yeasted cake that originated in Hungary but is now popular in the Czech Republic and Slovakia. The dough is rolled into strips, then wound round a pole before being placed over open flames and turned to give it an even bake. It’s sprinkled with sugar and sometimes chopped nuts, which form a crunchy, caramelised crust while the inner bit of the dough is still pale and soft. It’s a simple cake in flavour but fun to watch being baked.
Like Bratislava, the local food of the Czech Republic and Prague is easily available and proudly displayed in many of the eating establishments around the city. And again, there’s a lot of goulash and dumplings. But, in some ways, it’s also a little like Rome… and when I say that, I mean that there are quite a few tourist traps. It’s hard to pick out the places doing the home-cooked food from the reheated stuff, and even when it is home cooked and looks delicious, like the hams cooked on the Old Town Square, you can get scammed into buying a load of fat along with your meat, which is sold by weight. My first night in Prague, I had goulash (again, but with bread dumplings this time instead of potato pancake) and it was okay, but I’m fairly sure it was the reheated stuff.

The following night, I tried again with the restaurant food, this time acting on a recommendation from our tour guide and with someone I’d met on the tour. She’d recommended a restaurant and a dish so we headed to Kolkovna, which is actually a chain of 6 restaurants, with a few of the branches in Bratislava and Brno. The dish we tried was svickova na smetane, or sliced beef with dumplings, gravy and cranberry. What came was a beautifully roasted bit of beef, which had obviously been cooked for a long time to make it so meltingly tender, covered with a creamy and slightly sweet sauce, with complimenting splodges of fresh cream and cranberry jam. This proved to be a recommendation well worth acting on and the food from Kolkovna had also proved to be good quality without being expensive.
With our bellies almost full of beef (which happened to be served with bread dumpling, again), we decided we had just enough room for cake and acted on another recommendation… which also required a little detective work. We’d been told to look for a cake shop on Wenceslas square, near the end where the museum was… and it would be pink. We walked up in that direction but failed to find anything resembling what the tour guide had mentioned. We’d also picked up two other tour members by this time who’d overheard my conversation with the tour guide and gone to look for the cake shop themselves. We walked back down Wenceslas square, scouring ever little recess for a pink shop selling cake… but to no avail.

Our two fellow tour members left us in favour of a chain bakery that they could at least find, and we headed into a chocolate shop to stare at chocolate in place of cake. My bright friend decided to ask the ladies in the chocolate shop if they knew of somewhere nearby to buy cake… and they did! They told us that it was down one of the adjoining streets, in one of the shopping galleries. We followed their directions and, hey presto! We found it! Cukrarna Hajek was indeed decked out in pink (well, and white, but the pink stands out) and had an impressive display of sandwiches as well as cakes. It didn’t take me long to pick a Czech cake that I’d heard good things about called medovnik, a honey-flavoured cake layered with a caramel-like frosting, cream and sprinkled with cake crumbs and chopped nuts, the layering technique making the whole slice exceptionally moist. That’ll be one to find a recipe for when I get home.
I had reserved the following day, my last full one in Prague, for a cake hunt, interspersed with seeing a few landmarks that I’d not managed to walk past as yet. On my first bit of meandering through the streets, I happened across a small market… which mostly seemed to be selling stuff aimed at tourists, but I was drawn to one of the stands selling baked goods and bought a few mini koláč. These are circles of enriched bread dough filled with a dollop of fruity paste; I think mine were apple, fig and date with chopped nuts. I’d seen them in plenty of bakeries already and the mini versions were a good way to get to sample them. Apparently, they’re particularly popular in Prague but also certain parts of the USA… make of that what you will.
It turned out that another bakery recommendation from my tour guide the previous day sent me on a complete wild goose chase, leaving me with tired legs, a grumbling stomach and a grumpy demeanour by the middle of the afternoon. I sacked in walking back to the centre of Prague (it had taken me well over an hour to walk to the non-bakery in the first place) and did something that I very rarely do, which is catch the underground. Back near the Old town square, I headed for a café that I’d made a note of earlier in the day as potentially a good place to stop for cake. It also happens to be in a particularly interesting building.
Grand Café Orient can be found in the House of the Black Madonna (or, on sunny days, just in front of it with tables spilling out onto the pavement). This House is particularly known for its contribution to the cubist movement, not only in how it looks from the outside but also for its interiors, which feature cubist “furniture, pottery and glass”. The café was an original fixture of the building after it opened in the 1910s but closed in the 1920s when cubism fell out of fashion. The café reopened about 80 years later and currently serves a good range of hot drinks, light meals and, of course, cake.

I spotted something on the menu labelled as “traditional little Czech cake” and, as not much else on the menu except the medovnik looked particularly Czech, I picked this and waited to see what came. I’ve not been able to find out much else about “venecek”, which turned out to be a small rectangle of choux pastry filled with crème patissiere and topped with fondant icing. Most searches on google tend to turn up reviews of this cake back at Grand Café Orient so, if anyone would like to furnish me with more information about this cake, I’d be very grateful! But I suppose it’s another one to add to the list of “cream cakes” I’ve eaten while travelling Europe.
While keeping a beady eye out for cake, I’d also been looking for somewhere to go for my last Czech meal that night and, after spotting a signpost pointing to “home cooked Czech food” and wandering down a few very quiet back streets, I happened across U Cerveneho Pava, aka the Red Peacock. I headed back there for dinner and chose yet another dumpling dish, this time potato dumplings stuffed with smoked ham and served with braised cabbage. While I waited in the small, atmospherically-lit, wood-panelled restaurant, I got to read up on a little restaurant history.

Because the Red Peacock isn’t just any old restaurant, however non-descript and tucked away it is. This discreet position in Prague was probably to its advantage when it served the Prussian officers visiting the city during the 19th century as somewhere where they could find “the ‘female service’”. During its heyday it had such famous “patrons” as the man responsible for uniting Germany, Otto Von Bismarck, the Austrian heir to the throne, Ferdinand d’Este and composer Gustav Mahler. But today, it’s just a restaurant. And I have to say, it’s worth a visit for more than just the history because both the service and the food were excellent.
I only had a morning left in Prague to struggle round with my bags before catching a very long train, but I decided to act on a recommendation from a twitter friend and pay a visit to St Tropez, a French-style patisserie actually not far from Cukrarna Hajek. The display of confectionary was particularly sophisticated, with slices of well-executed and beautifully finished cakes, gateaux and generally rich-looking treats. Luckily for me, they also did petit fours.

I picked the “fique” (fig) and the “Jupiter”. The former was shaped like a fig but didn’t appear to actually have any fig in it, as inside there were a few layers of sponge with vanilla buttercream, the whole think covered with marzipan and shaped to look like a fig. It’s possible that there was an unknown ingredient in there that google translate couldn’t quite cope with so, if anyone knows what “prvorepublikovým” might refer to, please let me know! The Jupiter petit four was a little more self-explanatory, with layers of dried apricots, caramel, chocolate ganache and chopped nuts. Regardless of whether I knew what was in them or not, they were both pretty and delicious.
And that was it for Prague. I’d been so close to not visiting the city but ended up falling in love with it, although my stomach was beginning to protest against the dumplings by the time I left… and would get no reprieve at my next stop. Prague and the Czech Republic in general are high on my list of places to visit again in the future, as is the place I visited next; Poland.


Wednesday, 24 July 2013


This wasn’t the place I visited straight after Vienna; I actually visited Bratislava while still staying with Petra. The Slovakian and Austrian capitals are only about 35 miles apart, with good connections via bus, train and ferry. With a spare day in Vienna, I thought I’d hop across the border and see some more of Eastern Europe.

Every time I arrive in a new city, I walk round in a bit of a daze, taking in all the new sights and keeping a beady eye out for good places to eat or find cake. And it’s always interesting to see how easy it is to find local food. With many very touristy places, the food is either Americanised or Anglicised. With places that are touristy after a different fashion, you’ll find a Korean restaurant around every corner (I’m thinking Interlaken in Switzerland particularly for that one). But in others, traditional local food is proudly available in many restaurants and cafes. Bratislava is one of these places. I wonder whether it’s to do with national pride, or confidence that visitors to the country will find something that they like in the food, but it’s great to see and makes my blogging a lot easier.
I therefore didn’t have to do much legwork to find some typically Slovakian food and sat down to a meal of potato pancakes with veal goulash, or “telacie ragu v zemiakovej placke”. And bless, this beef stew cooked with paprika had a chilli sign next to it on the menu as a friendly warning.

Slovakian food shares much common ground with the cuisines of it’s current neighbours Austria, Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic and Ukraine… and if you look at their collective history, this isn’t surprising as at various points, Slovakia has been part of the Kingdom of Hungary, the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Czechoslovakia. Goulash is a dish typically associated with Hungary but it’s found throughout Eastern Europe and is popular in Slovakia.
This particular variety served with potato pancakes is sometimes referred to as gypsy pancakes. I love this sort of food; slow-cooked meat that melts in the mouth, an unctuous sauce with a bit of spice and a sizable portion of spongy carbs to soak up all the extra sauce. I gobbled it up with relish, undeterred by the little chilli on the menu.

This was pretty much the briefest trip I’d made to any country so far but Slovakia still made an impression on me over my short afternoon there. And it proved to be good preparation for my next port of call.
Except both the countries are landlocked… so no ports…

Never mind…


Did you guess from my last post where I was heading next? Well, if you didn’t… and if you did… I’ll tell you; Vienna!

Vienna had long been on my list of places to visit as it has a reputation as the patisserie capital of Europe. But through a bit of Chalet-style coincidence, Petra also happened to have just moved to the city, so I had a friend to stay with!

However, Petra was actually there to work so we didn’t spend every weekday hanging around, reminiscing about the Chalet. With me left to my own devices… well, let’s just say my cake consumption increased vastly when left in the patisserie capital of Europe unsupervised.

Of course, my first port of call was obvious and related to a court case… over a cake. In the first corner was Hotel Sacher. It was an ancestor of the hotel owners, a man called Franz Sacher, who had first made the famous Sachertorte while working in the kitchens of Prince von Metternich. In the second corner was Demel, a famous patisserie in Vienna that claimed they had been given the original cake recipe by Franz Sacher’s grandson when he went to work at Demel. After 7 years of battling it out in court, the case was settled out of court and Hotel Sacher won the rights to call its version of the cake “the original Sachertorte”.
You can now buy Sachertorte in pretty much any patisserie or café in Vienna, but I decided to try eating a bit of history by comparing the tortes offered by both Hotel Sacher and Demel. After failing to order it in German at Demel (but I did try!) and buying a very small, expensive cake from the Hotel Sacher shop, I headed to meet Petra for lunch. We sampled a little of each cake… and what a disappointment. While the Hotel Sacher version smelled glorious when I took it out of its box, neither cake managed to taste particularly chocolatey. They were more sweet than anything else, and both were pretty dry, the Hotel Sacher version only salvaged by the apricot jam sandwiched in the middle, although probably the drier cake of the two. And apparently, this “drying out” is something that has happened over the decades as the quality of the cake has deteriorated and become increasingly more touristy.

After Petra finished work, we paid a quick visit to the Naschmarkt, Vienna’s most famous market. Around 120 stalls fill a slim stretch of land near the Karlsplatz U Bahn station, offering a massive range of food. In contrast to the Viktualienmarkt, a lot of the food here was not traditional Viennese food; this is the sort of place you go if you want a vast amount of choice, to find South East Asian shops alongside stalls selling Mediterranean food and every other cuisine in between. It was interesting to pass through but didn’t quite grab me as much some of the other markets I’d visited… so I just bought fruit.

But we hadn’t done with being foodies for the day and so we popped into the local supermarket to pick up something for dinner back at the flat. And, as we walked through the centre of the city on our way home, Petra pointed out a chocolate associated with one of Vienna’s most famous past residents. The Mozartkugeln (do you need me to tell you who the resident was… really?) can be bought all over the city and are pretty touristy. They actually originated in Salzburg, created by Paul Fürst, and I can now confirm that you can also buy them in Prague and Krakow, among other cities. The ones you can still buy from Fürst are handmade and known as the “original” chocolates, but a company called Mirabell also mass produces the “genuine” chocolates, and these are the ones available in Vienna. The centre is green marzipan, covered with a layer of dark praline cream, a layer of light marzipan cream and then a layer of dark chocolate. The Mirabell versions were nice enough but I’d love to try the handmade versions from Fürst one day.

When we’d made it home via a shop selling these chocolates, it was time for some proper food, in the form the most filling, probably most unhealthy sausage you will ever encounter. That would be the käsekrainer… which I think Petra may have recommended because it’s got associations with Slovenia, “käse” being the German for cheese and Krain being a region in Slovenia. What’s cheese got to do with a sausage, I hear you say? Well, not only is this sausage fairly chunky and loaded with pork meat, but it’s also rammed with a good quantity of oozing cheese. These sausages are pretty damn tasty… pork and oozing cheese would go down well with most meat-eaters… but my word, they’re filling. We didn’t finish all the sausages we’d cooked so they got chopped up for a pasta “salad” for lunch the following day.

After the disappointment of the Sachertorte, you may wonder why I went back to Demel the following day but the other patisserie on show had looked impressive. That, and it seems that, after the court case, Demel and several other patisseries in Vienna decided to create a title torte of their own. Demel does such a Demeltorte so, out of curiosity, I decided to give one a go. It came in the form of a little circular cake covered in milk chocolate and sprinkled with candied violets and inside… it was a massive contrast from the Sacher; moist, light, with a toffee-coloured crumb, dotted with chocolate and topped with a thin spreading of milk-chocolate ganache. Delicious!

Demel hadn’t disappointed with its own torte. And, as I’d spotted another patisserie that did its own torte, I thought, what the heck, my body can take a little more chocolate. And a little more even than that, because I’d spotted another torte that I wanted to try and my body can take a stupid amount of chocolate/cake before telling me to curl up in a ball and sleep off all the sugar.
The patisserie in question is called Gerstner. It’s been open in Vienna since 1847 and, like Demel, it still carries the label of a “K und K”, or “kaiserlich und königlich”, meaning it was a supplier of the royal and imperial Habsburgs during the 19th and early 20th century. It’s easy to find as it’s on the main shopping street in Vienna, Kärntner Straẞe. And the cakes are actually slightly cheaper than at Demel, and massively cheaper than the stuff from Hotel Sacher. I went for the Gerstnertorte (pictured) and something called a mohntorte, which is made with poppy seeds.

This name-carrying torte was another that I enjoyed far much than the Sachertorte, but with it’s layers of light chocolate sponge and masses of boozy chocolate ganache, it was always going to be delicious and moist. The mohntorte was interesting to try because poppy seeds are a common ingredient in Eastern European countries and, in this case, were used to replace a lot of the flour in the cake, giving it an interesting texture without making it dense, although not adding a hell of a lot of flavour. It was topped with a light, chocolate buttercream and was fairly enjoyable, though didn’t feel as much of a decadent treat as the Gerstnertorte.
 Petra had to go back to Slovenia for the weekend and so I was left to occupy myself for a while. Lunch out was a bit more lonely but on Saturday I made my way to a beisl to find some schnitzel. An Austrian beisl is a little like a traditional English pub, when said pub actually serves local food, is decked out mostly in wood and has a blackboard displaying the days specials. I visited Reinthaler’s beisl, just off Graben on Dorotheergaẞe.

I went in search of schnitzel. Wiener schnitzel, a dish synonymous with Vienna, is a cutlet of veal pounded thin, covered in breadcrumbs and fried… which you probably knew because you find this dish all over the Western world, but I thought I’d tell you anyway. When the dish arrived in Vienna is a bit of a mystery. There are theories that it was brought to the city with a Field Marshal from Milan around the 1850s but it seems that the dish could be found in the area much earlier than this. If you’re not feeling particularly flush, you can have pork schnitzel instead, which is much cheaper than the veal variety, and this is what I had. Much cheaper, but with much the same result. Tummy full and happy, I got distracted by yet more chocolate.
What I’d spotted was another bit of fairly touristy chocolate called edles nusskrokant, which translates into English as “noble nut brittle”. What it actually is is a large milk chocolate disc with an exceptionally crunchy milk chocolate praline filling. And my particular one was “noble” because the wrapper featured a picture of Empress Elizabeth of Austria, also known as Sissi, the wife of nineteenth century monarch and Emperor Franz Joseph I. She wasn’t a significant political figure but she became a bit of an historical icon, obsessed with her appearance, a notorious dieter but also a massive fan of chocolate. It’s therefore rather fitting that her image is now used on chocolate wrappers.

I was so full of cake and chocolate towards the end of my visit to Vienna that you would have thought any more of either would have made me pop. And yet, when I visited Schönbrunn Palace, the out of town residence of the Habsburgs, I stumbled across a strudel demonstration with a sample of this famous pie included and thought “why not?”
The pastry chef doing the demo was not only well-practised at making and stretching out the thin, translucent pastry, which she did with expert movements and speed, but she also did the whole commentary in both German and English. The mind boggles! The secrets behind constructing a strudel by placing the thin pastry on a floured sheet, loading on the filling and using the sheet to both roll the strudel and lift it onto the baking tray were demonstrated as if they were easy… although, with the number of demonstrations they do at Schönbrunn, they’ve probably had a fair amount of practice. At the end of the demonstration, there was the opportunity to buy handy, pre-prepared filling from the shop and to pick up a leaflet with the number of the “strudel hotline”.

I had a brief reunion with Petra on Sunday night before having to catch another train in the morning, packed off with a sandwich lunch, rammed full of Slovenian ham that Petra had brought back with her. It had been great to see my Chalet friend again, and to discover the grandeur and all things chocolate and pastry in Vienna. I’d be back to a hostel for my next location but had plenty more grandeur and filling food to look forward to…

The Hairy Bikers’ Big Book of Baking, Si King and Dave Myers, Orion Books, 2012

Sunday, 21 July 2013


I left Crete in the long-winded way that I had arrived; via Heraklion, via Athens, via Milan… and eventually, after a very long wait at the Milano Centrale ticket office, I managed to get myself on a train to Munich.

As with quite a few of the places that I’ve visited so far, Germany is a countries that I’ve never set foot in but I arrived with a sense of excitement and anticipation, ready to eat plenty of sausages, sauerkraut and apple strudel. I did this, eventually, but my spirits were dampened when I spent my first night in the hostel hacking my way into a tin of haggis with a table knife… long story…
Still, I did my best to start the following day with the previous nights stressed tucked away to the back of my mind. After an enjoyable day touring the town, discovering the landmarks, stumbling across a practising orchestra and stumbling even more when I happened across the Slacklining World Championship 2013. I got slightly waylaid… for 3 hours… watching the slacklining and, by the time I left, I was ravenous. I’d found a recommendation online for somewhere to eat and, after realising google maps had no idea where the place was, I worked it out for myself and got one of the few seats left outside Nürnberger Bratwurst Glöckl am Dom.

This place seemed popular with Germans as well as tourists and I ended up sharing my table (which had a great view of the cathedral) with a German couple who’d simply gone there to have a few of Munich’s famous beers. I opted for food instead and ordered a quintessential German dish from the waitress (who happened to be dressed in traditional Bavarian dress); sausages and sauerkraut. This particular joint is well known for its sausages, thus the name including a mention of Bratwurst, and I ordered the simplest bratwurst, grilled over an open wood fire and rustically served on a metal platter. The sausages were slightly blackened around the edges but juicy and slightly herby inside, while the sauerkraut was delicately flavoured with caraway seeds. And, after a little advice in stilted English/German with my table neighbours, I discovered that the sausages went rather nicely with the sweet mustard in a condiments jar on the table.
However, I clearly need some lessons in ordering food in Germany because, on attempting to get the attention of the waitress to order some dessert, I got the most laboured sigh and the dirtiest look I think I’ve ever received in an eating establishment. My apple strudel arrived eventually and, as nice as the layered mass of pastry and lightly-spiced apples were, the whole experience had been soured slightly by my ratty service.

With yet another “it’ll be better tomorrow”, I headed back to the hostel and, after a run in the morning and a Cretan-style breakfast of yoghurt and fruit , I headed back out into Munich to attempt to find a Bavarian speciality known as schmalznudel. This is, essentially, a Bavarian doughnut, ring-like in shape but with a thin film of dough still stretched across the “hole” in the middle. I found it, and several other tempting-looking bread/pastry offerings, at Schmalznudel on Pralat-Zistl-Strasse (… and I’d have been a bit disappointed if I hadn’t managed to find it at a café with that name…) and sat down to a second breakfast of doughnut and black tea. The simplest version of this snack comes without frosting or filling of any kind but, fresh from the fryer, the dough is light, airy, warm and with just a slight sweetness from the dough itself, all indications of a very well-made and well-fermented bread dough rather than a batter. They probably won’t catch on in a lot of places but, as a bread fanatic, I preferred this simple, unadorned doughnut to the frosting-smothered variety.
This little café wasn’t far from the most important market in the city and, after a few hours sightseeing to tide me over until lunch, I returned to the area to see what the Viktualienmarkt had to offer. This market was established in 1807 when it outgrew the main square in Munich and eventually became known as “Viktualienmarkt”, that is, Victuals Market. It’s gone from its’ original incarnation as a farmers market to something more akin, as the website describes it, to an outdoor deli with stalls also selling fresh produce. Nearby, there is also a market building called the Schrannenhalle. The original construction on this site was opened in 1853 but, after it was partly destroyed by fire in 1932, it wasn’t until later in the 20th century that it was rebuilt and reopened in 2005… and again in 2011.

The Viktualienmarkt is fun to walk around and a good place to find a reasonably sized meal or beer, so I coordinated my visit for lunchtime and had a gander at what was available before settling down for more sausages. As with many markets, there were a lot of repeat stalls; absolutely masses of butchers, plenty of bakery and cheese stalls, several with fresh fruit and veg, a corner dedicated to fish, stalls of Mediterranean food, several places devoted to mushrooms and truffles, and a few places selling many, many different types of honey. Oh, and places doing hot food, and masses and masses of Bavarian beer. Schrannenhalle in contrast was more like a massive indoor deli, a bit more on the expensive and refined side, with a whole, very purple floor in the basement dedicated to Germany’s most famous chocolate brand, Milka. The two markets together could keep a foodie like me occupied for quite a while but preferred the outdoor market as more vibrant and less polished.
I therefore returned to the Viktualienmarkt for my lunch and found a place that was serving currywurst. This fast food dish is pretty famous as a favourite of people from Berlin but you’ll find it all over Germany and, frankly, I don’t know why you don’t find it in the UK. It’s simply chopped up sausages smothered in curry sauce… surely that would go down an absolute storm with people stumbling out of pubs and clubs at 5 in the morning all across Great Britain?! And I have to say that it’s pretty enjoyable without being drunk as well… even if I can’t spin this particular bit of the blog out into a refined comment on German culinary traditions…

But the next place I went to does have a bit of culinary history. Dallmayr is a food department store on a par with the likes of Harrods and possibly dates back all the way to the 17th century when a store was opened by Christian Reitter; the name Dallmayr came with the next owner. The store then passed through the hands of Anton Randlkofer and, after his death, to his wife, who ran the store very successfully and took it into its golden age. It gained royal patronage around 1900 when Emperor Wilhelm II of Germany became a frequent customer and the store of got awarded the title of Königlich Bayerischer Hoflieferant, that is, Purveyor to the Royal Bavarian Court”.

If you go to the main store today, which is still in Munich, you’ll see the plaques either side of the door that still bear testament to this and, on walking in, you’ll wonder why there’s a fountain amongst all the food counters. These counters are filled with expensive varieties of a lot of the stuff you’ll find at Viktualienmarkt, so I mostly glanced at everything and passed it by. But if you fancy paying Dallmayr a visit, they are very well known for their coffee. Me not being on coffee, I tried some chocolates… which were ok, but not anything particularly special.
I paid a last visit to Viktualienmarkt the day that I left Munich and went for a very research-based method of picking what I wanted for my last lot of food from Bavaria. Did it look good? Yep? Had I ever heard of it before? No? Ok, so I bought one. I’ve not been able to find out any more information about the punschknodel and bobbes mit marzipan that I tried, but I can try to describe them.

The punschknodel (pictured) was essentially a massive ball of cake crumbs (not chocolate, but heading that direction in colour), soaked in something alcoholic and covered in flaked almonds, masses of fondant icing and a little sprinkling of what looking like chopped pistachio nuts. And bobbes mit marzipan? Well, the centre was marzipan, combined with a bit of dried fruit and covered in something resembling crumble. Neither of these were exactly pieces of refined patisserie but they were good, solid… stodgy… sugary … but satisfying chunks of cake.

It was time for me to move on again, but my next stop wasn’t going to be such a contrast as going from Crete to Munich. I’d be in a different country, but where they also spoke German. And there would be plenty more sausages on offer. But I’d also be heading to the European capital of patisserie…

Sunday, 14 July 2013


After my very short visits to Venice and Slovenia, it was time for a much longer visit to my friend Adrianna who lives on the Greek island of Crete. It took a fair amount travelling to get there; Ankaran to Trieste by Petra’s car, Trieste to Milan by train, Milan to Athens by air, Athens to Heraklion by night ferry (… never… again...) and finally a bus from Heraklion to Agios Nikolaos.

After this mammoth journey, I mostly just needed sleep. But when I finished my siesta, Adrianna’s mum, Maria, sorted me out with some lunch, a plate stacked high with her homemade chicken stew, tzatziki, chips and soaked paximadi (dried barley bread). It was an excellent way to start my visit.

When Adrianna got home from work, it was time for a tour of her home town Agios Nikolaos and for her to tell me the list of things that I needed to eat while on Crete. Her tour included a nice survey of eateries and bakeries and at Adrianna’s favourite, we picked up some baklava. I was ashamed as a historian not to know that Greece and Turkey had had such a close relationship. The Ottoman Turks occupied Crete from 1669 officially until 1913, much later than mainland Greece, and so Cretan and Turkish cultures share a lot of culinary traditions. Baklava, that is, very thin layers of pastry, separated with or wrapping up chopped nuts and doused in sweet syrup or honey, is one of them. We sampled the traditional version and, as nothing can escape the chocolate treatment, we tried one adorned with a swirl of ganache.

The nap earlier turned out to be useful for more than just recovering from the ferry journey, as Cretans eat their dinner late… much later than my stomach is used to. My feast of a lunch and baklava sampling tided me over until Adrianna finished work at 10.30 and it was just a short walk to her favourite joint for a Greek late-night favourite; souvlaki. Now, I’d been referring to small chunks of meat on wooden skewers, separated with the odd bit of veg and cooked on a grill or over a BBQ, as kebabs. I’ve been told I’m wrong. The slabs of stacked meat on revolving skewers where the meat is shaved off are kebabs, but the small skewers of meat are known as souvlaki. Stick it with pita bread and the Greeks refer to it as gyros. We just went for the simple chicken souvlaki… served with a much bigger portion of French fries than we could quite manage.

I was very relaxed about what time I got up the following day but I was in a position to be, as my activity for the morning had already been organised and would be taking place in Adrianna’s family kitchen. Maria wanted to show me how to make kserotigana, a Cretan sweet generally made for celebrations like weddings. The dough consists of wheat flour, orange juice, lemon juice, salt and the local tipple, raki, kneaded together into a smooth dough. Don’t ask me the quantity of flour; Adrianna’s mum did it by eye and feel. And we only made a “small” quantity of dough… which looked like a lot to me, but, when making these treats for all the guests of a wedding, Maria said they could be working on these pastries for a whole day.

Once the dough was ready (and Maria approved of my kneading skills), we cracked out the pasta machine and started rolling the pastry. As it got thinner and thinner, Adrianna’s mum started to fold the pastry which incorporated little pockets of air. After it had had enough folds (and again, this was done by eye and feel, not to a specific number of “turns” like with puff pastry), we cut the silk-like pastry in a similar way to pasta, some in little bows when Maria was feeling “lazy” in her words, or into long strips like tagliatelle.

Some olive oil was on the stove heating up and, when hot enough, it was time to start the production line. The bows went in as they were until the trapped air bubbled up and the pastry went crisp, but the long strips were draped into the oil to start cooking before being scrolled around a fork. Once cooked (until crisp, but without much colour), the pastries were drained before being soaked in orange-infused honey and sprinkled with cinnamon and sesame seeds. When fresh, the pastries are so light and crisp (a word that I feel I’m overusing here, but it’s very apt); I’d never had anything quite like them before. But they can also be left in the syrup and keep very well for long periods, by which point they are chewier but deliciously sweet and sticky from all that syrup.

Maria continued to keep me well fed throughout my stay and Adrianna’s family, including her aunt and grandma, also frequently sent traditional Cretan food in my direction whenever they had something going spare that they thought I needed to try. Without much effort on my part, I got to sample tourlou/briam (an “every vegetable” stew, on this particular occasion made with okra, marrow, tomato and potatoes from the family garden), stuffed courgette with egg lemon sauce (the stuffing included a mix of minced beef and rice), yemista (tomato stuffed with rice, probably in this case flavoured with a type of celery leaf… we didn’t quite manage to work out how it would be described in English) and pastitsio (a Greek and Mediterranean take on the pasta bake; tubular pasta in a beef ragout, topped with béchamel and cheese). And that was without even having to step outside the house.

When Adrianna and I did step out of the house, she carried on giving me a tour of her favourite places to eat in Agios Nikolaos. There was one occasion when we decided to deviate from strictly Greek cuisine, but Adrianna had convinced me that I had to try the best pizza in town, at a joint run by a family friend. The one we opted to share gave the pizza a Greek twist with plenty of feta and sliced tomato, and rivalled any Italian pizza well with its flavoursome base, crisp in the middle but folded over at the crust so as not to cheat you of bread.

Adrianna is working incredibly hard while at home for her university “holidays” and, what with babysitting until 3 and working over the evenings, I had to occupy myself for some of the day. Still, she’d provided me with plenty of recommendations and one morning I popped to one of the bakeries she’d pointed out to sample an Easter Cretan pastry called kalitsounia.

The pastry, which includes olive oil rather than butter… you’ll see a lot of the former and not a lot of the latter in Crete… is rolled thin, wrapped around the filling and baked until crisp but not very coloured. And the filling is made from a local cheese called myzithra (made with either sheep or goats’ milk, or a combination of the two), a soft and mild cheese similar to ricotta, mixed with just a little sugar, cinnamon, something zesty and a little egg to make the filling set. The taste and texture of this little morsel was somewhere between a baked cheesecake and an English custard… although, when I chatted to Adrianna about it, she thought it might not have been as fresh as possible.

I wanted to say thank you to Adrianna and her family for letting me stay at their home and looking after me so well and, while at her favourite bakery, Adrianna had let slip about a favourite family dessert. It was also 35˚C outside and this dessert included ice cream. It was a must.

The conventional version of ekmek kataifi is made with 3 layers; pastry, crème patissiere and whipped cream. Ice cream ekmek keeps the 3 layers but with a chillier twist. The bottom layer on both is the kataifi, an angel hair-like pastry (actually made by pouring thin streams of batter onto a hot, spinning wheel) that lines the bottom of the dish and is soaked in butter and citrus-infused sugar syrup. After a sprinkling of chopped nuts in our particular version (we thought we found almonds and walnuts) and a thick middle layer of vanilla ice cream, it was finished with a crown of Italian meringue. Although it was an absolute pain to get out of the dish, once slightly acclimatised it was a great way to cool down; slightly chewy, syrupy base, crunchy nuts, smooth vanilla ice cream and fluffy meringue.

With just a few evenings left to cram in all the food Adrianna had wanted me to try, it was time to get serious and head out for mezze. If you’ve never had mezze, think tapas, Greek or Middle Eastern style. Adrianna’s friend joined us at one of their favourite eating joints (there was a bit of debate; it was a favourite for gyros, but would the mezze be as good?!) and, after much debate (snails had been on my “must try” list, apparently, but they were ruled out with a vote of 2 to 1), the final line-up was sorted.

The food filtered its way to the table as soon as it was ready. We first started hacking into dakos, that is, dried bread topped with smooshed tomatoes, olive oil, feta and oregano that all filters down into the bread, making it moist and flavoursome. A flood of dishes then arrived, including: dolmadakia (stuffed courgette flowers, in this case rather sticky in the middle and flavoured with dill); feta saganaki (fried feta… it was a difficult choice between this and a baked variety with tomatoes, oil and seasoning… but the word “fried” won us over); calamari (battered and fried squid rings, popular in Crete as in many other Mediterranean countries); soutzoukakia (“spicy” meatballs) and tyrokafteri (a spiced soft cheese). We made a good dent in most of the food and absolutely demolished 2 portions of the calamari before rolling back up the hill in the direction of Adrianna’s house, slightly giddy and very full.

The last day I spent in Agios Nikolaos, it was almost as if things had come full circle. Every bakery we’d been in, Adrianna had been on the lookout for chocolate-coated baklava and we finally found some, along with chocolate-coated kataifi, in the bakery where I’d bought the kalitsounia. I’m not sure Adrianna will be recommending that bakery in future though… the kataifi seemed to have been bulked out with desiccated coconut and the baklava apparently wasn’t nearly syrupy enough.
My time on Crete had to come to an end eventually and, when it did, I was packed off back to the ferry with a tub of rabbit stew for lunch, a little bottle of Cretan olive oil and some herbs from the family garden. Staying with Adrianna and her family had really stood out from my travels so far… because nothing feels quite like meeting up with a friend every afternoon and having a mum look after you.
I was pretty much at the halfway point in my journey. Hot countries done, it was time to head north.