A Demitasse of History
You can sometimes glean history from a country’s dishes. France, for example, has many familiar dishes named after aristocrats and cultural figures. America has recipes named for patriots, such as
Jefferson Davis pie and Robert E. Lee cake. However, these recipes are usually dishes from the culinary past and only show up in old cookbooks. (When was the last time you saw Tournedos Rossini on a menu?)
In Vienna, Budapest, and Prague, patriotism is kept alive through the old dishes and traditions. Desserts are named for composers, operas and operettas, politicians, emperors and empresses, princes and princesses, counts and countesses, generals, battles, bakers, chefs, canals, hoteliers, countries, states, towns, cities, and villages. It is impossible to really appreciate the desserts of the old Austro-Hungarian empire without understanding a little about its history. The boundaries of the Czech Republic, Austria, and Hungary may have changed many times, but the food remains a constant touchstone to the past. Also, a grasp of the history explains how recipes migrated back and forth among the three capitals, with Vienna dictating fashion. Of course, volumes have been written about the histories of these countries, so this is only a thumbnail sketch to help the baker put the desserts into historical context.
Before World War I, the Austro-Hungarian Empire reached out from Austria to include Bohemia, Moravia, Slovakia, Croatia, Slovenia, Bosnia, Dalmatia, Hungary, and parts of Italy, Romania, Russia, Poland, and the Ukraine. In all, there were over fifty-one million people with a dozen nationalities, sixteen languages, and countless dialects, all ruled by the Hapsburgs.
The first Hapsburg, Rudolf, was elected king of the Romans in 1273, beginning the family’s 640-year grip on central European politics. The Hapsburgs cultivated their influence through well-placed marriages, extending into Spain, which meant that for a short time they controlled parts of the New World as well as the Old. When Charles of Spain ceded Austria to his brother Ferdinand in 1521, the Hapsburg rule of central Europe was sealed.
The Hapsburgs were not just the ruling dynasty of Austria and the surrounding regions, but also emperors of the Holy Roman Empire, a mostly honorific title that was granted to the primary Catholic ruler of central Europe. Almost to a man (not to ignore Maria Theresia, one of the empire’s greatest rulers), the emperor took his role as his people’s religious leader very seriously. In 1806, when Napoleon’s power threatened to extinguish the Hapsburgs, Francis II renounced his title as Holy Roman Emperor and refashioned himself as Francis I, emperor of Austria.
Austria had very shaky relationships with Bohemia (now part of the Czech Republic) to the north and Hungary to the south. In 1526, the emperor Ferdinand was elected the king of Bohemia. When Rudolf II ascended the throne fifty years later, he made Prague the center of the Holy Roman Empire, which led to the construction of many buildings that give the city its present beauty. Clashes between the Catholics and Protestants led to the Thirty Years’ War of 1618-48. With a Catholic victory, Haps-burg influence over Prague was complete. In spite of occasional fits of nationalistic fervor, the Czechs would have to wait until 1918 for independence.
The Hapsburgs gained control over Hungary in 1686, mainly as a result of routing the Turks from Buda and Pest (it wasn’t until 1873 that the two towns were united with a third, Obuda, to create Budapest). From the outset, the Hungarians were not pleased to have new rulers, a situation that was to fester for almost three hundred years.
In 1814-15, after the fall of Napoleon, the Congress of Vienna was held to divide the spoils and redefine Europe’s national boundaries. Vienna, a city that always knew how to throw a party, was at its best, and many a diplomat returned home with memories of fabulous food, especially the desserts. The competition between the French and Viennese master bakers was fierce. The French representative to the congress, Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand, knew that votes could be won at the dining table. When his king, Louis XVIII, tried to give him guidance for the congress, Talleyrand snapped, “I need saucepans rather than instructions!”
Talleyrand knew whereof he spoke, as his personal chef for many years was none other than
Marie Antoine Carême, one of the greatest chefs who ever lived. In 1823, Carême became the chef to Prince Pál Antal Esterhazy, the Austrian ambassador in Paris, in whose service he directly influenced the cuisine of Vienna (and probably picked up a few tricks in the dessert department, too).
The Austrian representative to the congress was Klemens, Prince von Metternich, a politician both revered and reviled. Metternich continued to gather power after the congress concluded, implementing a police state complete with spies who eavesdropped on the public. Even though the middle class was exploding in number and expanding with affluence, they were kept out of politics. They chose to stay home, where they spent their money to cultivate cultured lives. The era was eventually called the Biedermeier period after a smug character in a newspaper column. The art of the baker blossomed, both at home and in the professional sphere. The concurrent Industrial Revolution improved the quality of both sugar and flour and lowered their prices, making fine desserts available to the masses. Improved transportation kept a steady supply of coffee coming into the three capital cities.
But the undercurrent of dissatisfaction with Metternich’s iron hand exploded in 1848. Rebels ousted Metternich, and the feeble-minded emperor Ferdinand would have to go. He was persuaded to abdicate, turning the throne over to his eighteen-year-old nephew, Franz Joseph. Ferdinand shuffled off to Prague, where he lived in exile until 1875.
With the Hapsburgs seemingly weakened, a Hungarian revolution against the monarchy took place, but the Austrian army smothered the revolt. By 1867, a confederacy between the countries was formed, and the empire became officially known as Austria-Hungary, personified by Franz Joseph, who was crowned king of Hungary.
When Franz Joseph came to power, his reaction to the revolutionary chaos was to establish autocracy. His lavish court was an opulent facade, for the emperor was austere and cold. Nonetheless, the convoluted etiquette of his court was so complex that a new phrase had to be invented to describe it. Everything regarding Hungary alone was called “K,” for
Königlich (royal). Matters pertaining to Austria were called “K.K.” for Kaiserlich-Königlich (imperial-royal). When a designation was shared by both entities, it was called “K.u.K.” for Kaiserlich und Königlich (meaning both imperial and royal). Keeping face was everything. When Franz Joseph’s thirty-year-old son and his eighteen-year-old-mistress died mysteriously at Mayerling (all facts point to a murder-suicide, but as the Hapsburgs destroyed all physical evidence, questions remain), the cracks of the aged Empire began to show.
Franz Joseph’s rule, Vienna became an enormous metropolis, jammed with emigrants from the surrounding areas. The women of Bohemia, in particular, became sought after as cooks for upper-class households. They brought with them many of their country’s humble dishes, and Bohemian sweet noodles, dumplings, and yeast breads became favorites of the rich as well as the peasantry. Coffeehouses became a refuge from intolerably crowded housing, giving people from all walks of life a place to sit down and warm up.
In 1914, the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the Hapsburg throne, sparked the beginning of World War I. When the war was over, the old emperor was dead, and the last Haps-burg, Charles, was forced to abdicate to make way for the first Austrian republic. The old Austro-Hungarian Empire was systematically dismantled, breaking up the empire into the nations of Austria, Hungary, Poland, Yugoslavia, and Czechoslovakia. Of course, recent history has divided up some of these nations even more.