Category Archives: Food

The Great Mozart Ball Taste Test

Anyone who has been to Vienna has been confronted with the ubiquitous Mozart Balls. Sold in souvenir shops, the grocery store, and even museum gift shops, Mozartkugeln, as they are known in German, are round(ish) lumps of marzipan with a chocolate coating, wrapped in gold foil with an image of Mozart. At first glance it would seem that there is simply the single, universal Mozart Ball, but ’tis not so. In fact there are as many variations on these Kugeln (Kugel just means ball or sphere) as there are chocolatiers in Austria. So we decided to settle for once and for all: which is the best of the Mozart Balls?

Four little Mozarts, all in a row: Mirabell, Heindl, Reber, Hofbauer.
Four little Mozarts, all in a row: Mirabell, Heindl, Reber, Hofbauer.

I set out to assemble as complete a collection of Mozart Balls as possible. After trips through several waltz-playing souvenir shops and one Billa I wound up with products from four chocolatiers, displayed here from left to right: Mirabell, Heindl, Reber, and Hofbauer.

You, being an astute observer, will have already noticed that only one of these is, in fact, a ball. That’s the Mirabell, on the left. The others are really more Mozart Lumps. But that’s an even more problematic concept than Mozart Balls, so let’s just stick with the standard terminology, shall we?

And anyway, these things come in all kinds of shapes. As a bonus, I picked up a Mozarttaler (“Taler” is an old-timey word for a coin), and its counterpart, the Sissitaler, named for the Empress Elisabeth, who is an inexplicable obsession around here.

A Tale of Two Talers: Sissi and Mozart are BFFs
A Tale of Two Talers: Sissi and Mozart are BFFs

In the interests of scientific accuracy and also hilarity, I asked for a second opinion in this taste test. Please enter my spouse, respondent S below, who does not ordinarily eat sweets and specifically hates marzipan. Watching her choke this stuff down at 7:30 am was marital good times! So, shall we begin?

Here are the contenders, in the same order as above, cut in half so you can see their guts:

Denuded and deconstructed, a view inside the Mozart ball.
Denuded and deconstructed, a view inside the Mozart ball. They are, again, Mirabell, Heindl, Reber, Hofbauer, and we will taste them in that order.

Mozart Ball #1 (Mirabell):

Me: There is a strong flavor of marzipan and the marzipan itself is very smooth, which I like, but the chocolate on the outside is weird — it’s kind of gummy and has a funny flavor. I think they added something to it to make it wrap around the marzipan, and whatever that something is, it is not so pleasant.

S: Gar nicht so schlecht. Schmeckt sehr nougatmässig. Translation: Actually not so bad. Tastes kind of nougaty.

Mozart Ball #2 (Heindl):

Me: Mixes marzipan with a kind of semi-sweet chocolate cake that a bit overpowers it. Chocolate shell is sweeter than the Mirabell one, but has a better consistency. For me it’s too chocolatey.

S: Marzipan ist sehr grob, und schmeckt wie Marzipan, was ich nicht mag. Schokolade ist irgendwie nicht so überzeugend. Translation: The marzipan is coarse and tastes like marzipan, which I don’t like. The chocolate is not very impressive.

Mozart Ball # 3 (Reber):

Me: Has a chocolate gouache ball in the center and a powerful flavor of liqueur. Really very marzipany. Also very boozy. The center totally overpowers the chocolate coating. It seems hitting a good filling/coating balance is the key to the Mozart Ball. That said, I like marzipan, so it’s ok.

S: Ich finde die verschiedenen Geschmacksrichtungen überlagern sich, und die Konsistenz ist auch nicht so überzeugend. Wenn man jede Schicht allein schmeckt ist es nicht so schlimm. Translation: I find the various flavor elements interfere with each other, and the consistency is not so great. If one tastes each layer alone it’s not so bad. Also I am beginning to feel sick, and think I may vomit. (That last bit was said off the record, but whatever.)

Mozart Ball #4 (Hofbauer):

Me: Veeeeery sweet. Just so one note, the marzipan has very little almond flavor, but the chocolate stuff in the center doesn’t have a lot of taste either. It’s like a sugar ball.

S: Schmeckt nicht gut. Translation: Yuck.

 BONUS: The Taler Tasting

They are stamped like communion wafers with the image of the flesh.
They are stamped like communion wafers with the image of the flesh. Sissi left, Mozart right.

Taler #1: Mozarttaler

Me: I love it! Sweet, creamy milk chocolate with just the right amount of marzipan — soft and sweet — it’s like a Viennese Milky Way!

S: Very smooth. Dissolves on your tongue. Doesn’t taste like much. (She forgot to speak German. She always forgets to speak German. This is why my German sucks.)

Dear God, what is oozing out of that thing on the left??
Dear God, what is oozing out of that thing on the left?? Sissi Sauce???

Taler #2: Sissitaler

Me: YUCK!! Who put jam inside this thing? It’s oozing with apricot jam! I hate apricots. And I really hate surprise jam! There should never, ever be surprise jam in one’s food.

S, having been asked once again to speak German: Hat es Alkohol darinnen? Schmeckt wie Alkohol. Dass mit den Marillen — ekelhaft. Translation: Is there alcohol in this? It tastes like alcohol. And that thing with the apricots — disgusting.

Final Rankings:

Me: Mozarttaler for the win. Then Reber, Heindl, Mirabell, Hofbauer, in that order.

S: Mirabell, Heindl, Reber, Hofbauer. No taler, please.

There you have it — a user’s guide to Mozart Balls. Shop with care, friends.

Posted in Culture, Food, Regan Writing | 10 Comments

The Corner Store

Around the corner from our house, in the Lasallestrasse near the Vorgartenstrasse U-Bahn station, one finds a little shop that is so very Vienna. What kind of shop? An umbrella shop, that’s what. A sign over the door says, “Umbrellas.”

Umbrellas Sold Here

What’s so special about an umbrella shop? Squint your eyes and examine the objects in the window. You will see that this little store doesn’t just sell umbrellas—indeed no. It also sells toys:

Umbrellas And MORE!This is one of those esoteric little Viennese stores that have been around forever, and where the owner offers a selection of whatever the hell he wants for the occasional neighborhood client who stops in. In this case, the owner, who is very happy to chat, told us that he’s been selling umbrellas in this shop for over 50 years. (This was surely the family business.) He makes and repairs umbrellas of all colors and styles.

I have to say that the idea of repairing an umbrella — rather than throwing it away and getting a new one —had literally never occurred to me.
I have to say that the idea of repairing an umbrella — rather than throwing it away and getting a new one —had literally never occurred to me.

Once upon a time, he probably did a lively business. Vienna, with its wild weather, is deadly for umbrellas; the wind just flips them inside-out without warning. A previous generation was likely investing often in umbrella repair. I am guessing that with the advent of cheap umbrellas from China he turned to selling toys on the side. Of course, it is also possible that he just sells toys because he likes them. One supposes this because he is also selling honey.

Yes. He sells umbrellas. Toys. And honey.

The honey he produces himself, as he is also a beekeeper with some fields along the Danube somewhere. He has wildflower and sunflower and lavender honey.

This honey is home-grown and delicious. Austria has incredible honey.
This honey is home-grown and delicious. Austria has incredible honey. Honey is also basically the only homeopathic curative to which I give serious credence.

I love honey. I collect honey, jar upon jar, every possible flavor. Austria is honey heaven. I don’t know why, but there is just a lot of beekeeping going on in this country—you can get amazing honey in all the local markets. But honey and umbrellas and toys? That is unusual.

I love these crazy little Viennese stores that sell whatever they please with no regard for whether there’s a customer base. No market testing, no social media marketing, no special offers or landing pages or cross promotions or any of that shit. Just toys, handmade umbrellas, and homemade honey.

Needless to say, the owner of this charming but impractical business is going into Pension (retirement) in January. God knows what horror will take his place (cell phone shop?). Head to Lasallestrasse to get your umbrella fixed and your honey stockpiled while you still can.

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A Tale of Two Sauces

When I come to Vienna, there are two things I always bring with me: a pound of brown sugar, and a bottle of sriracha sauce. The brown sugar is because they have none here, and if you try to bake without it you wind up with some pretty strange results. It is possible to make your own, of course, by mixing white sugar and molasses. But they don’t have molasses here, either. To get molasses you need to go to an international grocery, and by the time you’ve made that effort, you don’t feel like baking anymore. So I pack a pound of sugar in my suitcase and figure that’s a free pound I have for gifts on the return trip to the US.

The sriracha is a somewhat more complicated matter. They actually do have sriracha here, lots of it, in all the Asian grocery stores and some non-Asian ones as well. Go out for fast food noodles and they’re likely to have a bottle of it on the counter. It is, however, subtly different from the familiar kind you get in America. Here, take a look:

Do not be fooled. Just because they are both winged birds with short tempers does NOT mean that they taste the same.
Do not be fooled. Just because they are both large birds with short tempers does NOT mean that they taste the same.

The bottle on the left is American sriracha, hand-imported from California by me. The bottle on the right is Viennese sriracha, of the sort you get everywhere here. The American has a rooster; the Viennese has a goose. The American is more orange in color; the Viennese a rustier red. The Viennese is a little thicker and less squirtable (squirtability being essential for those of us who spritz the stuff all over our pizza). And the American also tastes roughly 100,000x better than the Viennese.

I’m not sure what it is. There’s kind of raw spice flavor to the goose sauce that I don’t care for; it tastes like a slightly different pepper variety; it’s also not got that perfect sriracha balance of sweet with hot; and it doesn’t have as much vinegary goodness. Whatever the mix that’s used for the rooster sauce, it accepts no imitators. But unfortunately, the rooster is seriously hard to find here.

My solution to this has been to bring a gigantic bottle with me every time I come from the US. (Note the scale of the rooster bottle in comparison to the already large-size goose bottle.) I’ve also conducted a search of most of the Asian stores in Vienna, in the Naschmarkt and wherever else I encounter one (there’s one in the second district, for instance, that I’ve searched several times). I finally came across one, lone, jumbo-sized rooster bottle nested amidst a sea of geese at this store, on the Rechte Wienzeile by the Naschmarkt:

I tracked down a bottle of rooster sauce in this store, on the Rechte Wienzeile by the Naschmarkt. It was the last bottle they had in stock. I bought it even though I still have some at home. I am that worried about getting my hands on this stuff here.
I tracked down a bottle of rooster sauce in this store, on the Rechte Wienzeile by the Naschmarkt. It was the last bottle they had in stock. I bought it even though I still have some at home. I am that worried about getting my hands on this stuff here.

If you’re visiting Vienna, remember, it’s BYOS(auce). And, rooster, not goose.

Posted in Culture, Food, Regan Writing | Tagged | 7 Comments

Believe It Or Not, I Was Given No Incentives to Write This Post

Vienna can be a very expensive city, which is why the spouse and I were happy to learn about delinski.at. I’m sharing this link with you, my readers, as a PSA, because I am too dumb to have obtained any favors in exchange for laying my excellent reputation on the line in support of this company. Delinski is a website that lets you book tables at well-known Viennese restaurants and, for a 5 euro per-booking fee, get 30% off your total bill—including drinks. (The site is in German, but easy to navigate even if your Deutsch is, like mine, erratic.) The restaurants are sorted by district and include some of the best in town, and there are usually reasonable reservation times available. We’ve done this twice now with fabulous results, each time eating both well and affordably in restaurants that under ordinary circumstances might be considered a splurge. Hello, date night!

Concrete example:  Saturday night we went to Nasch, which is the restaurant located in the Hilton on the Ringstrasse. The restaurant concept is Viennese tapas, which was why I chose it over some of the better-known options, because I really wanted to know what that would be like. And what it was like was fun! The restaurant itself was fairly small, which I prefer:

Nasch

The menu, on the other hand, was enormous—this is only one of its several pages (though not all pages had this many offerings). Choosing what to eat was an intense and at times quite funny marital negotiation:

How can two people ever agree on 10 things from this menu? It will strengthen your relationship.
How can two people ever agree on 10 things from this menu? It will strengthen your relationship.

Here are the cold plates that arrived — pepper ham (all the meat and cheese, as far as I noticed, was Austrian) and salmon lachs with little potato rösti and zucchini:

Salmon and ham at Nasch
Austria’s finest Fleisch and Fisch.

And then came a plethora of hot dishes, including a Bärlauch gnocchi gratin sort of thing, and paprika chicken, and a plate of these meatloafish patties that the Austrians call Butterschnitzel with the express purpose of confusing Americans who only know of the regular kind of schnitzel, and also some lovely ravioli with walnut butter. Oh, and lamb. Here, see for yourself:

This is not all that came -- oh, no -- this is merely one stage of the flotilla of little plates that arrived at our table.
This is not all that came — oh, no — this is merely one stage of the flotilla of little plates that arrived at our table.

Sadly, the lamb wasn’t great, but it was the only thing that wasn’t, which is a solid hit rate. They had good wines by the glass and mixed a tasty cocktail, and both were, again, 30% off. For two people, with aperitifs and wine as well as ordering something like ten dishes, we dined for 75 euros, including Trinkgeld. I give that a nicht schlecht!

One note: we do try to tip on what the original bill would have been so as not to take our discount out on the servers.

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A Sachertorte in Paris

Last weekend, we went to visit my parents, who are spending the month in Paris. I hadn’t been to Paris in nearly 20 years, but was surprised by how recognizable it was — which I suppose should not be a surprise in a city that is thousands of years old, but one does often have the sense that there’s a kind of sameness that’s beginning to make itself felt across the European capitals. Go anywhere and it feels a little like everywhere else.

So I was reassured by how much Paris still felt like Paris. As a gift to my parents (who so generously hosted us for the weekend — ohmygoodnessthefood!) we brought a Sachertorte, Vienna’s famous delicacy. The Sachertorte, for those who don’t know, is a chocolate multi-tiered cake with chocolate ganache on the outside, served by the Hotel Sacher, which is directly behind the Vienna Opera. The recipe is proprietary, and so while there are many tortes in Vienna sold as “Sacher Art” (Sacher-style), only one is the “original.” It is therefore sold by the Sacher at multiple locations in special wooden boxes and costs an ungodly fortune.

Once our Vienna Sachertorte got to Paris it turned out that it, like my spouse, had never actually seen the city before. So we took it on a little tour, starting at the Institut du Monde Arabe:

Sacher was excited to see the Institut du Monde Arabe, where torte-shaped windows abound.
Sacher was excited to see the Institut du Monde Arabe, where Jean Nouvel created his famous torte-shaped windows.

From the Institut, we made our way toward the Seine, where we sighted an important landmark in the distance, and made it our goal:

Turns out tortes love flying buttresses too.
Turns out tortes love flying buttresses too.

Though it was Sunday, a few booksellers were already opening, and we looked for a book for the plane:

Searching for "The Chocolate Torte of Nôtre Dame"
Searching for “The Chocolate Torte of Nôtre Dame”

Further delays thanks to a compelling menu and abundant spring sunshine:

What's in a Viennese breakfast in Paris? Surely not...torte??
What’s in a Viennese breakfast in Paris? Surely not…torte??

And then suddenly, there we were:

Geschaft! Have you never noticed how a torte and a rose window resemble each other in shape and beauty? You have now.
Geschafft! Have you never noticed how a torte and a rose window resemble each other in shape and beauty? You have now.

We waited until the torte was safely in the possession of my parents to buy chocolates to take back to Vienna. We didn’t want to hurt its feelings.

Posted in Adventures, Food, Regan Writing | 5 Comments

Austrian Markets, Promised Land of Cheese and Bacon

Vienna is divided into 23 Bezirke, or districts. And originally each Bezirk had a market, or more than one. The markets were the identity of the district — they sold different kinds of goods, and were gathering places for the (often culturally and ethnically defined) communities that surrounded them. They were important in the city’s transition from agrarian to modern, and they still bear the stamp of the districts they serve as well as of Austria’s food production more broadly. And, of course, they are vanishing. Today, most districts have a market, but these markets are diminished in size and offerings, pushed out of existence by the ubiquitous Billa supermarkets. Increasingly, they offer boutique goods — jars of jams, say — or pastries — in addition to, or in gradual replacement of, the more traditional produce.

So, we are on a mission to visit all of the markets, one by one, before they’re either gone or so radically gentrified as to be unrecognizable. In other posts, I’ll introduce you to some of our favorites — for instance, the Kutschkermarkt in the 18th district (by the way, one goal of this blog, as we’re getting to know each other, is also to get to know the districts — every single one of them, bit by bit. A bit like Colbert’s Better Know a District, but with more German and fewer politicians). But this weekend, we went to the Viktor-Adler Markt, in the seldom-visited 10th district. It was a pretty great market from the point of view of produce — unlike the more boutiquey markets, people here were seriously getting their Saturday shop on (N.B. Austrian grocery stores are all closed on Sunday; if you want to eat before Monday mid-day, you better shop on Saturday). Here’s the scene:

IMG_0174

 

As you can see, it was grey.  And raining.  And in an inadvertent reflection of the day’s conditions, I managed to take a photo of a bunch of empty crates rather than the produce bounty beyond. Here, let me try again to capture the mood, if not the beauty of the veg:

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As usual, I had no umbrella, and, let’s be honest, I wanted to go home. And then I saw it. The Promised Land. The Promised Land of Cheese and Speck. I speak, of course, of the cheesemonger. Cheese from the mountains, cheese from the goats (sometimes even the goats who live on the mountains):

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There’s a cheese literally coated in shards of hay, called Haycheese (Heukäse. German is a very literal language):

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There was cheese in a shade of green so terrifyingly bright that it demanded explanation (it’s made with basil). (It does stand out a bit, doesn’t it?):

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When people think cheese, they usually think France.  But Austria has incredible cheeses.  They are semi-hard cheeses, not unlike what Americans think of as Swiss cheese, or maybe between Swiss and Cheddar, but with a much rounder flavor.  They melt well, go well in sandwiches, and, for all their apparent physical similarities, have an incredible variety of flavors.  And that’s before people start mixing them with additional ingredients! Like Bärlauch (that’s wild garlic):

IMG_0182

This is just an introductory post, of course, while I figure out the platform and how to insert images, etc. So all of this is just a prelude to the eventual sequel, in which I dive into the many, many, MANY kinds of speck, a selection of which were being sold at the neighboring window:

IMG_0181

Spicy Speck!!  You know we bought some of that.

This post is also a yet more distant prelude to the even further sequel in which I explain at great length Austria’s totally contradictory relationship with horses, and why we never, EVER buy meat from this guy:

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