Austria: 2,000 years of Hunting and Cooking

Arrow-straight conifers and little ground cover typify the European forest.
Arrow-straight conifers and little ground cover typify the European forest.

It is not surprising that great game cuisine is a tradition in Austria, as elegant and sophisticated hunting is as old as the country itself. In 1020, the Count of Klettgau shot a hawk on a hillside, and he enjoyed it so much, he gave the place the name “Hapsburg,” and the place named the dynasty that ruled a large part of Europe for a thousand years. One of those rulers in the 16th century, Emperor Charles V, once shot a heron at a very long distance at Groenendael, Belgium, and a statue still marks the spot today. Closer to our time, the last Emperor Franz Josef used to shoot with Tsar at his hunting castle in Styria, and the Russian ruler once bagged seventeen chamois in a single day while reportedly negotiating a crucial political treaty at the same time.

Where there is a great aristocratic tradition of hunting, there is, almost invariably, a great tradition for cooking game, and Austria is a brilliant example of this rule. Whether you go to one of the glittering Michelin-star restaurants of Vienna, or just one of the classic traditional inns in Styria or the Tirol, you will enjoy tried and true classic recipes for venison, wild boar or game birds.

One thinks Mozart and music when one thinks of Vienna, and perhaps of “kaffee und kûchen,” but this 2,000-year old court city rivals Paris for elegance and culinary tradition.

Chef Silvio Nickol
Chef Silvio Nickol

Michelin two-star chef Silvio Nickol’s signature eating house is a good place to start. The restaurant is housed in the marble walls of the former 19th century residence of the House of Coburg-Gotha, and in its grand ceremonial rooms, you can enjoy a carefully roasted loin of venison made in the French Rouennaise style, coated with a coarse and fragrant spice mixture of black pepper, juniper berries, caraway seeds, cloves, bay leaves, pimento and coriander, served with textures of pumpkin, some nice and sharp braised red cabbage, mushrooms, hazelnut crumble. The Rouennaise red wine sauce marries all these tastes with a light tannic-and-fruit harmony.

Nickol also serves venison in a more German version, as a stew (leg and shoulder) with pumpkin, cranberries and chestnuts, flavored with oregano, thyme, pepper and marigold.

Needless to say, you should enjoy your Austrian venison with Austrian wine. Very little of the great wine of that country make it over to our side of the Atlantic, so one should take advantage of being in Vienna to enjoy the great ones. Austrian veltliner is the natural offspring of the well-known German grape variety Traminer joined with a very local Austrian variety called St. Georgen found in the locale of that name in Austria’s Burgenland.

Good-Taste-Austria-FlaschenThere is really nothing like it for high level of elegance, fruit and bottle age–you will want a bottle that says “mit Prãdikat” which is the highest quality. Try the Julius Klein or the Prager Vinyards. The other great wines of Austria are white varietals like Riesling or Sauvignon, but the very special treat, if you can afford it, is Eiswein, the late harvest. Austria does this like nowhere else–the mountains make it possible to keep the grapes on the vine longer and with more sun–but the price is formidable.

Chef Nickol is rated one of the best in Europe, and another restaurant in Vienna that is now considered one of the ten best on the Continent is Steirereck. There you can sample a refined approach to wild boar with chef Heinz Reitbauer’s wild boar head in aspic with cloves and cinnamon with Tasmanian mountain pepper. He serves it with radicchio and buckwheat salad. This kind of recherché of the most adroit flavors with game is very, very special. I would pair this with a very delicate old white, to not overpower it, perhaps an Austrian Chardonnay from a very good house with bottle age–certainly the wine card at this Michelin star restaurant will provide a good choice.

Of course, you may not have access to this kind of recherché cuisine when you are hunting in Austria. There are some good basic local recipes that the truck stops use to cook up the deer that their clientele bring in. These recipes haven’t changed since medieval times, and there’s nothing to stop you from making them yourself at home: just watch how at Austrian chef Kurt Kosin’s studio.

Good-Taste-Austria-Spiegelsaal_gedecktAnother YouTube chef, Michael Tokarski from Salzburg, shows how they have prepared venison steaks in that city for the past 2,000 years. Here’s how: Just brown with cranberry sauce, shallots–but the technique is tricky so watch carefully.

Whether in Vienna, Salzburg, Graz or any major city, even the more ordinary class of hotel-restaurant offers game dishes at a fine level of culture. Most of the two- or three-star restaurants will have a game dish on the menu like pheasant breast wrapped in bacon with potato mousse.

Should you be able to spend time in the Austrian Tyrol, you will find an exception culture for cooking game. The Wild Game Ragout in the Tyrol is not something a great chef would prepare, but it is unequalled for ingredients and skill in preparation. Sometimes the savvy of the mountain people is worth everything you learn down in the valley.

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