At the age of eleven I discovered that there was life beyond the frozen food aisle and that potatoes did not need to be eaten at every meal.
At eleven I went to Austria and a whole new world of food opened up to me which was to totally change the way I viewed food.
My parents scrimped and saved enough money to allow me to go on a cultural exchange to Austria through the Anglo Austrian Society. My exchange friend was called Hanni and she lived in a village in the Tyrolean alps with her parents and younger sister. The family was to become very special to me over the years following my trip and I enjoyed many wonderful stays with them. I was treated as one of the family.
Hanni’s lovely mum, Maria, was a stay at home mum but also let out bed and breakfast rooms in their pretty flower bedecked home. During my stays I met people from Germany and Sweden who were guests in the house. Maria was an excellent cook and made all our meals from scratch. I can’t remember her ever going shopping. Of course must have done, but her groceries would have been purchased from the small shops in the village. There was definitely no Iceland stores or a Fine Fare supermarket. Much of the food came from close to home. The rabbits in the cellar were not pets! There was a family farm just up the road and Hanni and I would every day walk bare footed there with a churn to collect milk straight from the cow. Maria often went foraging on the mountains for mushrooms and berries and she made her own elderflower cordial. I drank it mixed with sparkling water by the pint. Who needs Corona pop when you can have delicious homemade elderflower spritzer!
Breakfast was kaiser rolls with sliced almkase cheese, sausage and pate. Eating savoury food for breakfast that wasn’t bacon and eggs was a revelation and I couldn’t get enough of it. Nor could I get enough of the fresh coffee that was brewed in an electric coffee machine. I was used to cups of milky Nescafe with two spoons of sugar. At eleven years old I became a caffeine addict, drinking cup after cup of black, sugarless coffee. It was a wonder that I wasn’t bouncing off of the walls! Coffee was always drank again at four o’clock. If the weather was hot, we drank iced coffee with a big dollop of schlagsahne, in other words, delicious whipped cream. Cream was always served with homemade cake. Traybakes made with apricots, apples or mountain berries was a favourite as were kugelhopfs, poppyseed mohnkuchen, topfentorte and of course not forgetting apple strudel. If it was a special occasion there would be a Sacher torte. Maria’s version was so much better than the dry, overpriced slice that I ate years later in Vienna. We also ate piles of homemade doughnuts or krapfen as they are called in Austria. I once ate ten apricot filled krapfen and still had room for supper later!
Images Strudel and Schnizel, journy, CNN, Living on cookies, A luxury travel blog
Lunch was the main meal of the day. Hanni’s father was a postman and was always home for lunch so it was a proper family affair. We sat on benches around the table. Paprika was used in many dishes. I had never eaten anything with herbs or spices in before and I loved the extra dimension that they gave to food. There was nothing bland about the food I ate in Austria. Salads were eaten straight from a communal bowl which seemed odd initially but became the norm. My favourite salad was thinly sliced cucumber in a yogurt and dill dressing. The yogurt was home made and the taste of natural yogurt was alien to me. I was used to artificially flavoured pots of Ski yogurt. Ocassionally we were given bowls of it with jam to stir in as a treat. We did eat potatoes with our lunch, but boiled potatoes would be served with parsley butter and chips were skinny and not like my mum’s chunkier versions. Quite often though we had dumplings, or knodel, flavoured with caraway and made with stale kaiser rolls. Nothing ever went to waste!
I got a real liking for dumplings, both sweet and savoury. It surprises me that one of my favourite meals was a bowl of clear soup with leberknodel, dumplings made with minced liver. My experience of liver until then was the tough as old boots pigs liver kind that we were forced to eat at school complete with tubes! Sweet dumplings were often filled with plums or apricots. Mmm….yummy!
For supper, slices of bread flavoured with caraway were served on well scrubbed wooden platters with a pair of frankfurters, maybe a bratwurst or a slice of warm leberkase and always with a pool of sweet senf. Sometimes we had a fried egg but not often. My favourite supper dish was Tiroler Grostl, a fry up of pork, bacon, potatoes and onions flavoured with a sprinkling of caraway seeds and topped with a fried egg. It’s a dish that I’ve tried to recreate many times since but have never got quite right.
Apart from splashing out on fake tan cream that turned my face orange, I spent a good part of my £15 spending money on chocolate bought from the little shop at the end of the road. It sold huge bars of Milka chocolate which tasted different than Dairy Milk and at that time I thought better. I’ve eaten it since and was really disappointed. I also treated myself to packs of Manner wafers that you could buy in different flavours.
Like my parents, my Austrian parents (and that’s how I saw them ) didn’t drink wine or beer but they did drink schnapps and it was often given as a cure all alternative medicine. Homemade, it was lethal stuff but I was given a small glass if I had a headache, toothache, felt queasy or got wet in a down pour. So not only did I aquire a caffeine addiction, I probably became alcohol dependent too. I tell you though, it does the trick, although in later years I got really, really drunk on the stuff and a schnapps hangover is the mother of all hangovers!
That holiday marked a turning point. In my teens meals from further afield became more popular. You could buy long spaghetti wrapped in blue paper. Mum would make a bolognese sauce of sorts but without garlic or herbs. After eating my first pizza in a Park Street pizzeria in Bristol, mum made pizzas from a boxed mix which were a right faff and were ditched once frozen pizzas appeared on the scene. Rice was sometimes served up as savoury element to a meal instead of only eating it as a pudding. However, it usually came out of a packet. Good old Batchelors Savoury Rice! We aquired an electric coffee maker in 70’s orange to go with our orange kitchen.
I discovered that I loved cooking at school. I got kicked out of needlework for cheating which suited me as I hated the subject, and focused on doing home economics at O level and then A level. Mum didn’t complain when I cooked our teas, and my Dad definitely never did.
And then at 18 I moved to London. My food journey took another turn and I discovered a whole new world of amazing food!
Those memories from Austria are still very fresh in my mind and the thought of liver dumplings still make me smile!