Viennese coffee culture – ‘conservative’ and ‘quirky’

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Of the traditional coffee houses there were a few standouts. The ‘grand dame’ would have to be Café Central, breathtaking with its marble columns, vaulted ceiling and chandeliers – and Strauss music amplifying the atmosphere. The piano player greeted us with a nod and ‘herr ober,’ the formally clad waiter– whizzed us to a table for two, whisked menus in front of us while whipping large, starched napkins onto our laps – all before we could draw a second breath. This art of ‘meeting and greeting’ had obviously been refined over decades and was a delight to experience. We enjoyed our schnitzel with white asparagus and potatoes along with a fine glass of local wine. And for dessert? Apfel Strudel (of course!) – with lashings of heavy cream.

No research of Viennese coffee houses would be complete without a visit to Café Sacher where there are tables and tables of well-dressed ladies and gents and more cakes than you could ever possibly imagine. It’s certainly touristy, with the merchandising and all, but we did enjoy our kleiner brauners and Sacher Tortes. I have to admit, I gave in to the merchandise. Back home now, I occasionally enjoy a latte in my cup with Hotel Sacher Wien written on the side.

At Café Demel, another of our favourites, you have the choice of a busy room on the lower level or a quieter one above. On the way up the stairs, there’s a little viewing platform where you get to see the pastry chefs at work. Apparently the reason Vienna has so many cakes and pastries is because all the different coffee houses vied with each other to produce the best. Recipes were kept as guarded secrets. Apparently, huge debate has been waged over who is the legal owner of the Sacher Torte recipe. Unable to be resolved even by legal means, both Café Sacher and Café Demel have both been allowed to use the Sacher symbol on their chocolate cakes.

Quite a way out of town is a place not to be missed. It’s the Gloriette, high up on the hill beyond the gardens of Schonbrunn Palace, a place where the royal family used to go to relax and enjoy the fabulous view over Vienna. The Sissi Cake, named after Empress Elisabeth (wife of Emperor Franz Josef 1), is a little kugelhopf-shaped cake covered in jam and ganache – with a candied violet on top. It’s a long, strenuous walk up the hill; so we earned the right to a Sissi cake by the time we got there.

Although most coffee houses in Vienna are refined, elegant establishments steeped in tradition, you will find ‘quirky’ among the ‘conservative’. There’s a garish statue of Leon Trotsky sitting at a table as you enter Café Central. Trotsky was known as a shy, inconspicuous man of little words and he visited every day to drink coffee and play a game of chess – while plotting the course of Russian history, it later became apparent.

Then there’s the Café Hawelka established by Leopold Hawelka in 1939 whose claim to fame is that nothing has changed since the day it opened. And it shows! The walls are lined with frayed and faded posters and loads of memorabilia. Regardless this bohemian style place is popular with locals and tourists alike.

You won’t be able to miss the lolly pink and dark brown of the 26 Aida cafes dotted around the city. Pink it is – for everything from walls to raspberry icing, menus and cake boxes. The staff are exclusively female and they all wear pink uniforms (socks included).

We went in search of the Kolschitsky statue. Kolschitsky is significant for two things. He is believed to have helped the Viennese army during a siege by Turkish invaders in 1683. With his knowledge of Arabic, he acted as a spy to bring crucial information to Vienna. In return for his efforts, it is said he only asked to be given the several sacks of coffee the Arabs left. At this stage coffee was unknown to the Viennese, who thought the coffee beans were camel dung. It is popularly believed that through Kolschitzky, who introduced locals to coffee drinking, that the Viennese coffee culture was born.

I also had my coffee cup ‘read’ – by Susannah who allegedly inherited the art from her gypsy grandmother. She began by grinding the beans I selected in a brass mill. They were put in an Ibrik with a little water and lots of sugar. Everything was boiled three times before being poured into a small cup for me to drink. Afterwards you put your saucer on the cup, flip the whole lot upside down and then wait. The residue has to dry on the sides of the cup before the reading can begin. A cat, a horse and a brand with a P or a B in it (She wasn’t sure which; but she was certainly on the right track.) There was more and it was a fascinating process. So if you spot a woman in a wild, black-lace frock and with a big red rose pinned to her chest, sitting in a corner of a café, go for it and have some fun.