Hotel Meissl & Schadn

During the season of the great exhibitions in Vienna from late autumn to early spring, one often walks along the Kärntnerstraße which leads from Stephansdom to the museums. On the corner where you have to turn to the Albertina, an unusual mosaic running across the entire second floor of a building attracts your attention among the hypermodern façades of the elegant shopping street. The figures in the mosaic symbolize different peoples. If one carefully decyphers their identities, they add up to the ethnography of the five continents.

The central axis of the building is, of course, filled with allegories of Europe, with the coat of arms of Austria in the center, surrounded by a woman symbolizing the city of Vienna and an armored German knight. Above them, a man and a woman symbolize trade and industry, the vocations of Europe. From the characteristic peoples of Europe, we can see on the left a Frenchman with a revolutionary Frygian cap, and an Italian with a Doge’s hat, and on the right two hard-to-identify peoples – perhaps an ancient German and one of the lucky Eastern Europeans. At the top of the group rises the genius of Light, which floods all the other continents with the light from here.

On the left axis, the peoples of the New World are lying in happy idleness, a mixture of Indians and Gauchos. Beneath the window, a golden Mayan motif evokes the highest level of civilization they have ever achieved. The pose of the Indian woman evokes the river statues of the Donner Fountain in the neighboring Neumarkt, as well as Michelangelo’s Medici epitaphs. In a strange way, an Austrian Old Shatterhand also appears among them in wild western dress, who brings them the light of Europe and the flag of Austria on a white horse.

In terms of composition and motifs, the third axis to the right is the most exciting one, with the allegories of the peoples of the East. In the middle, between the two windows, opens a horseshoe-shaped Andalusian Moorish gate, through which a young black camel driver steps out, leading his camel on a bridle. To the left is an Indian couple, to the right an Arab one: the stereotypical attribute of the former is the incense, and of the latter, the seductive odalisk. Between the two couples, a Japanese lady in a kimono holds a Chinese vase, alluding to the Japonisme of the turn of the century. The background of the Indian couple includes a stylized Javanese pattern, of the Arabians a Persian rug.

And the most peculiar motif: to the right of the horseshoe-arched gate, above the window, there is a faravahar, the identity symbol of the Iranian Zoroastrians, an allegory of God with the extended wings. True, a little arbitrarily transformed: the usual blessing male figure is missing from the middle of it, and the two bird feet are reinterpreted as cobras. It seems that the artist had already seen the motif, but did not understand it, or considered it a freely variable oriental decorative element.

Where did a Viennese artist see the Zoroastrian symbol of God at the turn of the century? It might be surprising, but he had quite a few occasions to. As Encyclopaedia Iranica describes in detail, commercial and later diplomatic, military and cultural relations between Austria and Persia developed greatly during the 19th century. The Shah, struggling with the pliers of Russia and Britain, found an external ally in Austria, still a great power at the time. From here he asked for support and specialists for the modernization of Persian education and military technology, and there was a considerable Austro-Persian trade between the ports of Trieste and Trabzon. Shah Naser-al-Din, who was of the same age as Francis Joseph and who took the throne in the same year of 1848, also took part in the 1873 Vienna World’s Fair, and, after his Austrian visit in 1878, also in the 1891 Vienna Carpet Show, which had a special focus on the Persian carpet industry. A multitude of enthusiastic Austro-Hungarian Orientalists visited the monuments of Persia and published their experiences at home. And they did not overlook the exotic faravahar.

The faravahar in Persepolis, on the 5th-c BC palace of King Darius, on which many 19th-century Austro-Hungarian travelers left their carved signatures

What building could have been adorned with such magnificent mosaics? Nowadays, the ground floor houses a currency exchange, which would somehow justify the display of the peoples of the world, but upstairs there is a clothing store, which obviously would have been completely uninteresting to a significant part of the peoples depicted.

But nowadays, the rest of the building does not even look as it did in its heyday, at the turn of the century, when it was visited from its Kärtnerstraße side by all the peoples of the world, and from the Neuer Markt by the elite of Vienna. In fact, the block, built in 1894-1896 in the Romantic Neo-Gothic style, was the Hotel & Restaurant Meissl & Schadn. From Kärtnerstraße, one of Vienna’s most elegant hotels, whose guests are referenced in the mosaic of the façade made by Eduard Veith, the only element surviving from the building, which was bombed by the Americans and looted and set on fire by the Soviets. And from the Neuer Markt it was one of the best restaurants in the city, praised by contemporary authors as “Rindfleischparadies”.

In fact, the restaurant of Meissl & Schadn offered no less than twenty-four beef dishes with ten different garnishes, all following centuries-old Viennese recipes. It was a privilege to dine here that only Vienna’s elite could enjoy. It is no coincidence that on October 16, 1916 the socialist Friedrich Adler shot dead Prime Minister Count Karl Stürgkh at the dining table of the Groser Speisesaal here in protest against the war. (Count Stürgkh also signed Franz Joseph’s edict To my Peoples). The assassination made both Count Stürgkh and Adler a martyr – the former, in his death, and the latter, during his lifetime – and it further enhanced the reputation of the restaurant. So much that the really high-caliber authors – Karl Kraus, Egon Erwin Kisch, Maximilian Harden – only then devoted articles to the restaurants, in which, in addition to issues of political justice, they also wrote about the other virtues of the dining table. But they were all surpassed by Joseph Wechsberg, whose recollection of Meissl & Schadn’s Tafelspitz is both an anthem to Viennese cuisine and to the disappeared old Vienna.

Joseph Wechsberg, like so many who made the imperial city great, came from the provinces, of a Moravian Jewish family. After studying in Vienna and Paris, he became a journalist in Prague. The Czech government sent him to America in 1938 – just in time – to promote the Czech position on the Sudetenland. From there, he only returned in 1943 as a U.S. Army correspondent. From then on, he wrote only in English, promoting to the American public the disappeared Europe in which he grew up. In his book Blue Trout and Black Truffles: Peregrinations of an Epicure, an apotheosis of European cuisine, published in 1954, he devotes a separate chapter to the beef menu of the former Meissl & Schadn.

“The Hofrat’s Tafelspitz

Few Americans think of boiled beef as the gastronomic treat it is known for in central Europe. In Vienna there was a restaurant that was held in high esteem by local epicures for its boiled beef – twenty-four different varieties of it, to be exact.

The restaurant was Meissl & Schadn, an eating-place of international reputation, and the boiled beef specialties of the house were called Tafelspitz, Tafeldeckel, Rieddeckel, Beinfleisch, Rippenfleisch, Kavalierspitz, Kruspelspitz, Hieferschwanzl, Schulterschwanzl, Schulterscherzl, Mageres Meisel (or Mäuserl), Fettes Meisel, Zwerchried, Mittleres Kügerl, Dünnes Kügerl, Dickes Kügerl, Bröselfleisch, Ausgelöstes, Brustkern, Brustfleisch, Weisses Scherzl, Schwarzes Scherzl, Zapfen, and Ortschwanzl.

The terminology was bound to stump anybody who had not spent the first half of his adult life within the city limits of Vienna. It was concise and ambiguous at the same time; even Viennese patriarchs did not always agree exactly where the Weisses Scherzl ended and the Ortschwanzl began. Fellow Austrians from the dark, Alpine hinterlands of Salzburg and Tyrol rarely knew the fine points of distinction between, say, Tafelspitz, Schwarzes Scherzl and Hieferschwanzl – all referred to in America as brisket or plate of beef – or between the various Kügerls. Old-time Viennese butchers with the steady hand of distinguished brain surgeons were able to dissect the carcass of a steer into thirty-two different cuts, and four qualities, of meat. Among the first-quality cuts were not only tenderloin, porterhouse, sirloin, and prime rib of beef, as elsewhere, but also five cuts used exclusively for boiling: two Scherzls, two Schwanzls, and Tafelspitz. Unlike in present-day America, where a steer is cut up in a less complicated, altogether different manner, in Vienna only the very best beef was good enough to be boiled.

You had to be a butcher, a veterinarian, or a Meissl & Schadn habitué of long standing to know the exact characteristics of these Gustostückerln. Many Viennese had been born in the Austro-Hungarian monachy’s provinces of Upper Austria, Serbia, Slovakia, South Tyrol, Bohemia, or Moravia. (Even today certain pages of the Vienna telephone directory contain as many Czech-sounding names as the Prague directory.) These ex-provincials were eager to obliterate their un-Viennese past; they tried to veneer their arrivisme; they wanted to be more Viennese than the people born and brought up there. One way to show one’s Bodenständigkeit was to display a scholarly knowledge of the technical terms for boiled beef. It was almost like the coded parlance of an exclusive club. In Vienna a person who couldn’t talk learnedly about at least a dozen different cuts of boiled beef, didn’t belong, no matter how much money he’d made, or whether the Kaiser had awarded him the title of Hofrat (court councilor) or Kommerzialrat.

The guests of Meissl & Schadn were thoroughly familiar with the physical build of a steer and knew the exact anatomical location of Kügerls, Scherzls, and Schwanzls. At Meissl & Schadn, precision was the keynote. You didn’t merely order “boiled beef” – you wouldn’t step into Tiffany’s and ask for “a stone” – but made it quite clear exactly what you wanted. If you happened to be a habitué of the house, you didn’t have to order, for they would know what you wanted. A Meissl & Schadn habitué never changed his favorite cut of boiled beef.

The restaurant was part of the famous Hotel Meissl & Schadn on Hoher Markt, which was popular with incognito potentates for its discreet, highly personalized service. The chambermaids looked like abesses and knew the idisyncrasies of every guest. If a man came to Meissl & Schadn who hadn’t been there for ten years, he might find a small, hard pillow under his head because the abbess hadn’t forgotten that he liked to sleep hard.

There were two restaurants, the Schwemme on the ground floor – a plebeian place with lower prices and checkered tablecloths – and the de-luxe Restaurant on the second floor, with high prices and snow-white damask tablecloths. The upper regions were under the command of the great Heinrich, who was already a venerable octogenarian when I first saw him in the late twenties.

* * *

He was a massive, corpulent man with the pink cheeks of a healthy baby and the wisdom of a Biblical patriarch. His hands and jowls were sagging and he had serious trouble keeping his eyes open. He never budged from his command post near the door, from where he could overlook all tables, like an admiral on the bridge of his flagship surveying the units of his fleet. Few people in Vienna had ever seen an admiral in the flesh, but everybody agreed that Heinrich looked more an admiral than many a real one. Once in a while his pulse would stop beating and his eyelids would droop, and he would remain suspended between life and death, but the défilé of the waiters carrying silver plates with various cuts of boiled beef never failed to revive him.

Heinrich had spent his life in the faithful service of emperors, kings, archdukes, Hofräte, artists, and generals, bowing to them, kissing the hands of their ladies, or wives. His bent back had taken on the curvature of the rainbow, reflecting the fine nuances of his reverence, from the impersonal half-bow, with which he would dispose of the nouveaux riches, to the affectionate deep-bow, which was reserved for his old habitués, impoverished court councilors, and aristocrats living from the sale of one painting to the next.

Between Heinrich and his habitués there ruled a highly civilized, strictly regulated protocol. Upon entering the restaurant the guest would be greeted by Heinrich – or, rather, by Heinrich’s bent back expressing the exact degree of respect in which the guest was held. The depth of Heinrich’s bow depended upon the guest’s social standing, his taste for, and his knowledge of, boiled beef, and his seniority. It took a man from twenty-five to thirty years to earn the full deep-bow. Such people were greeted by “Meine Verehrung, küss die Hand”, which was breathed rather than whispered, and never spoken; Heinrich wasn’t able to speak any more.

The guest would be taken to his table by one of Heinrich’s captains. Each guest always had the same table and the same waiter. There was mutual respect between waiter and guest; when either one died, the other would go to his funeral. The waiter would hold the chair for the guest; he would wait until the guest was comfortably seated. One of Heinrich’s axioms was that “a man doesn’t enjoy his beef unless he sits well.”

When the guest was seted, the waiter would stand in front of him, waiting for the guest’s order. That was a mere formality, since the waiter knew what the guest wanted. The guest would nod to the waiter; the waiter, in turn, would nod to the commis; and the commis would depart for the kitchen.

The commis’s order to the cooks had the highly personal flavor that distinguished all transactions at Meissl & Schadn. It would be “The Schulterscherzl for General D.” or “Count H. is waiting for his Kavalierspitz.” This implied a high degree of finickiness on the part of the habitué, who wouldn’t be satisfied with so narrow a definition as the Kavalierspitz; his refined plate demanded that he gets his private, very special part of a Kavalierspitz.

After a suitable interval the commis would bring in the meat on a massive, covered silver plate. Some people would have a consommé before the meat; clear consommé was the only preceeding dish Heinrich approved of. The commis was followed by the piccolo, an eight-year-old gnome wearing a tiny tuxedo and a toy bow tie. The piccolo’s job was to serve the garniture: grated horseardish, prepared with vinegar (Essigkren), with apple sauce (Apfelkren), or with whipped cream (Oberskren); mustard, pickles, boiled potatoes, boiled cabbage, spinach, or anything else the guest wanted with the meat.

An elaborate ritual would ensue. The waiter had been standing motionless, watching his subordinates as they put the various plates on a small serving-table next to the guest’s table. Now the waiter would step forward, lift the cover off the silver plate, and perform the “presentation” of the meat. This was another mere motion, since the guest’s enthusiastic approval was a foregone conclusion. The waiter would serve the meat on a hot plate, place it on the table in front of the guest, make a step back, and glance at Heinrich. Then the guest, in turn, would glance at Heinrich.

There followed a minute heavy with suspense. From his command post Heinrich would review the table, with a short, sweeping glance taking in the meat, the garniture, the accessories, the setting, the position of chair and table. It was hard to understand how he managed to see anything through the narrow slit of his almost closed eyelids; but see he did. He would give a slight nod of approval to the waiter, and to the guest. Only then would a genuine habitué start to eat.

* * *

Words of ordinary prose have generally been held inadequate to express the delights of boiled beef at Meissl & Schadn. Many Austrian poets were moved to rhymed praise while they regaled themselves on a well-night perfect Hieferschwanzl. But poets, especially Austrian poets, are rarely given to tenacity of purpose, and somehow the poets didn’t bother to write down their poems after leaving the restaurant. Richard Strauss, an ardent devotee of the Beinfleisch, often considered writing a tone poem about his favorite dish, but after he finished his ballet Schlagobers (Whipped Cream), he thought that another major composition devoted to an Austrian food speccialty might be misinterpreted by posterity and resented by his admirers in Germany, who, like most Germans, disliked Vienna. Strauss, not unaware of his considerable German royalties, dropped the project.

“Too bad he did,” a Viennese music-critic and Strauss-admirer said not long ago. “A tone poem on Beinfleisch might have surpassed even the transcendental beauty of Death and Transfiguration.

* * *

There was a reason for the excellence of the beef served at Meissl & Schadn. The restaurant owned herds of cattle that were kept inside a large sugar refinery in a village north of Vienna. There the steers were fed on molasses and sugar-beet mash, which gave their meat its extraordinary marble texture, taste, tenderness, and juice. The animals were slaughtered just at the right time, and the meat was kept in the refrigerators from one to two weeks.

In Vienna, in those days, boiled beef was not a dish; it was a way of life. Citizens of the Danube capital, venturing into hostile, foreign lands where boiled beef was simply boiled beef, would take Viennese cookbooks along that contained the anatomical diagram of a steer, with numbered partitions and subdivisions indicating the Gustostückerln. This was a wise precaution. Even in German-speaking lands the technical expressions denoting various cuts of beef differ from land to land. Vienna’s Tafelspitz (brisket), for instance, is called Tafelstück by the Germans and Huft by the German-speaking Swiss. A Viennese Beinfleisch is called Zwerchried in Germany and plat-de-côte among the Swiss.

* * *

Vienna’s boiled-beef-eaters are vehement chauvinists. They don’t recognize the American New England dinner, the French pot-au-feu, or the petite marmite.

“The meat of the petite marmite is cooked in an earthenware stock-pot,” a Tafelspitz scholar explained to me. “And the necks and wings of fowl are added. Incredible!” He shuddered slightly.

The Viennese experts take a dim view of boeuf saignant à la ficelle, rare beef with a string, a great French dish. A piece of fillet is tightly wrapped around with a string, roasted quickly in a very hot oven, and dipped for sixty seconds – not for fift-eight or sixty-two, but for sixty – in boiling consommé, just before it is served. The juice is kept inside the pinkish meat by the trick of quick roasting and boiling.

But the Viennese do recognize Tellerfleisch, another local speciality. Tellerfleisch (the name means “plate meat”) is eaten only between meals. It consists of a soup plate filled two thirds with clear beef soup, boiled carrots, split green onions, chopped parsley, with a piece of almost but not quite boiled beef and several slices of marrow sprinkled with chopped chive.

There were two schools of cooking beef in Vienna. People who cared more about a strong soup than about the meat put the raw meat into cold water and let it cook gently, for hours, on a slow fire. They would add parsley, carrots, green onions celery, salt, and pepper. After an hour the white foam that had formed on top was skimmed off. Sometimes half an onion, fried on the open range plate, was put in to give the soup a dark color. Others, who wanted their beef juicy and tender, put it straight into boiling water and let it simmer. This would close the pores of the meat and keep the juices inside.

* * *

The Meissl & Schadn was hit by American bombs in March 1945. A few weeks later, Red Army liberators tossed gasoline-sokaed rags and gas into the half-destroyed building and set fire to it. The hotel burned down. But the tradition that had made Meissl & Schadn a great restaurant had come to an end long before. The restaurant was a creation of the Habsburg monarchy; its prosperity and decay reflected the greatness and decline of the Danube empire. With the help of Heinrich, it survived the hectic twenties, but when he died, the restaurant was doomed.

“People would come in and ask for ʻboiled beef’,” an ex-habitué now remembers. “It was shocking.”

Vienna’s butchers have forgotten the fine points of cutting up a steer, and the chefs don’t know how to slice a Tafelspitz. The small pieces at the pointed end of the triangular Tafelspitz are cut lengthwise, but the large, long, fibrous, upper end must be cut along its breadth.

Today most Viennese restaurants serve Rindfleisch or Beinfleisch, without any specification. The cattle are raised, and the meat is cut and cooked without the loving care that made it such a treat. It is often tough and dry, and served by ignorant waiters who recommend to their customers expensive “outside” dishes, such as Styrian pullet or imported lobster. The waiters are more interested in the size of their tips than in the contentment of the guest’s palate. Restaurant-owners, operating on the get-rich-quick principle, no longer keep herds of cattle inside sugar refineries. It wouldn’t be profitable, they say; besides, many refineries are located in the Soviet Zone of Austria.

* * *

Where Meissl & Schadn once stood, there is now an office building. Most of Heinrich’s habitués are dead, and the few survivors have been scattered to the winds by the last war. Once in a while two of them may meet in an undistinguished Viennese restaurant whose menu offers a Tafelspitz, a first-quality cut of boiled beef which, the old habitués can see at a glance, is really Kruspelspitz, a fourth-quality cut, somewhat comparable to an American chuck or round of beef.

At such moments of gloom the old habitués are likely to remember, with a nostalgic sigh, the day in the late twenties when old, dignified Hofrat von B., one of Heinrich’s favorite guests, came into the dining-room of Meissl & Schadn, exactly at twelve fifteen, as he had done almost every day in the past twenty-seven years, and was ceremoniously guided to his table. Everybody knew, of course, that the Herr Hofrat came for “his” Tafelspitz, the narrow part of that special cut which almost, but not quite, touches another first-quality Viennese cut, called Hieferschwanzl. If the Kaiser himself had come in, he wouldn’t have got the Hofrat’s particular piece of Tafelspitz. Heinrich was loyal to his habitués.

On that day, as on any other day, there was the familiar ceremonial after the Hofrat had sat down. In due time the commis appeared with the covered silver plate, followed by the piccolo who carried the Apfelkren. But at this point the waiter did not lift the cover off the silver plate to “present” the meat, as he’d always done. Instead he discreetly glanced at Heinrich. Then the old man himself advanced toward the Hofrat’s table, slowly and cautiously, like a large ocean liner moving toward the pier. Everybody looked up at him. It had become very quiet in the dining-room.

Heinrich bent his back until his mouth almost touched the Hofrat’s ear.

“I’m disconsolate, Herr Hofrat,” he whispered. “A regrettable accident in the kitchen. The Hofrat’s Tafelspitz has been cooked too long. It has –” Heinrich didn’t have the strength to finish the sentence, but the tips of his fingers twitched, indicating that the meat had dissolved in the soup like snowflakes in the March sunshine. He was very pale and his jowls were sagging. He looked as though he had been dead for a while and had been resurrected by mistake.

His breath almost gave out, but with a supreme effort he continued: “I have taken the liberty to order for the Herr Hofrat the rear part of the Hieferschwanzl, close to, and very much like, the Tafelspitz.

He made an effort to open his eyes and nearly succeeded. At his nod, the waiter lifted the cover off the plate with a flourish and presented the meat. There it was, a large, beautiful cut, tender and juicy, sprinkled with consommé, as delicate and enticing a piece of boiled beef as you could find anywhere in the world.

The Hofrat sat up stiffly. He cast one short, shocked glance at the meat. When he spoke, at last, his voice had the ring of arrogance – arrogance instilled in him by generations of boiled-beef-eating ancestors who had been around in Vienna in 1683 while the city fought off the assault of the Turks and saved – for a while, at least – Western civilization.

“My dear Heinrich,” the Hofrat said, with a magnificent sweep of his hand, and accentuating every single syllable, “you might just as well have offered me a veal cutlet.” A slight shiver seemed to run down his spine. He got up. “My hat and cane, please.”

He strode stiffly toward the door. Heinrich made his deepest full-bow, and he remained bent down until the Hofrat had left. But people sitting near Heinrich swear that there was a smile on his face. He looked almost happy.

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