Tuesday, 3 March 2020

Quick tips for a brief trip to Vienna

I was due to attend the European Congress of Radiology next week, but I learnt this morning that it had been cancelled due to the current coronavirus situation. I have cancelled my visit but a friend and colleague who was due to attend and present a paper has decided to carry on with the trip, and have a holiday instead. I've been to Vienna quite often, on the pretext of attending the congress, but it's her first time so here are a few very brief tips, off the top of my head, based on my own experience, and my personal inclinations.

Getting there from the airport

There is a special airport train, the CAT, but check out the regular Austrian Rail service which is much, much cheaper. Visitors from the UK will be shocked by fares of around 5€. It might even stop closer to your hotel.

Things to see

Imperial Vienna

The Habsburg Empire ended in 1918, but Vienna proves that you don't need a reigning monarch to wallow in full blown Royal and Imperial (Kaiserlich und Königlich, or K&K) tourism. The imperial palaces, starting with the Hofburg, are worth visiting. Among other things, you can see in the palace museum the folded dinner napkins, still used by the Republic for formal occasions, whose technique remains a state secret. Throughout the city there are establishments styled "K und K" for Kaiserlich und Königlich, or Royal and Imperial, including pastry shops, shoemakers, barbers and so on.


There is the great gothic cathedral of St Stephen, of course, and there are the grand baroque palaces, but unique to the city are the buildings of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and the Viennese Secession, such as the Looshaus opposite the Hofburg (now a bank), the Secession Building (also an art museum), the Postal Savings Bank, and the Majolikahaus by the  the Naschmarkt, to name a few Which brings us to the museums.

Note: most museums are closed for one day each week

For an overview of early modern art and design, there are permanent displays at MAK and the Leopold Museum (you can get a combined ticket).

MAK is the museum of applied art, whose construction was inspired by the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, and serving a similar function. The Leopold Museum has as its focus Austrian art of the late nineteenth century and Modernism. It is located in the MuseumsQuartier where there are other excellent museums with a modern or contemporary focus, notably mumok (modern art), Kunsthalle Wien (contemporary art), and AzW (the Viennese Architecture Centre).

The Albertina houses the worlds largest collection of graphic art and there are always big and excellent exhibitions. A modern art branch opens on 13 March 2020.

Across from the MuseumsQuartier, and facing each other, are the magnificent Kunsthistoriches Museum (Art History Museum) and the Naturhistorisches Museum Natural History Museum, both with excellent collections.

Food and Drink

The Viennese cafe has been listed by UNESCO as part of the intangible cultural Heritage of mankind. They are places where you can sit for as long as you like with your coffee. Most have food and cakes.  Coffee in Vienna comes in a range of styles that you might not be familiar with: see this guide and this one. The visitor is advised to do a bit of online research and visit a few establishments. My list of famous Viennese cafes is on this google map.

Looking for something light and economical? The bread here is superb and there are bakeries everywhere which also sell sandwiches and pastries. The big chains like Der Mann and Anker are good value.

Close to St Stephen's cathedral, the unpronounceable Trześniewski, on Dorotheergasse serves delicious small open sandwiches with soft toppings at 1.40€ each which are highly recommended. I'm really fond of this place and I made a guest appearance on television when Rick Stein was filming there. Let's just say I didn't think much of his commentary when I watched the programme.

Don't forget the sausage stands. They are generally pretty good.

As for restaurant food, that's for another post. But before ending, I must mention the Loos American Bar, designed by the famous architect Adolf Loos in 1908. It's tiny, the smallest bar in Vienna, but beautiful, and the cocktails are excellent, if you can get in.

Thursday, 26 July 2018

Art et Marges Musée; Outsider art in Brussels

We discovered this little museum on a trip to Brussels back in April. Housed in a rather nondescript unit in a row of shops, with its entrance at street level in a brick and concrete slab block, it's easy to overlook. The museum is dedicated to "outsider art": work created by untrained artists outside the mainstream, often with social problems, learning difficulties or psychiatric problems. 

During our visit, there was a joint exhibition by Guy Brunet and Josselin Pietri, both self-taught artists and cinema enthusiasts.

Guy Brunet (b 1945, Viviez-Aveyron, France) is the son of cinema operators. After doing a variety of jobs, and becoming unemployed in the 1980s, he decided to become a one-man filmmaker. He produces his own handcrafted films, writing his own screenplays, and using cardboard cutout characters and sets constructed from cardboard. 

Josselin Pietri (b 1973, Parilly, near Lyon, France) creates sculptures and pictures, also using cardboard and also inspired by the movies.

It was an amazing display. The artworks were beautiful and wonderful creations, made from the most commonplace of materials. The exhibits perfectly captured the spirit of the movies. Many of them had lots of charming details, and all were very inventive.

The first floor gallery showed works by other artists. I'm ashamed to say I failed to record the names of many of them, but it was a marvellous and varied display, of which this is a selection.

I was particularly taken by these guns and rockets by André Robillard (b 1931):

When you visit the museum (which you must), look in on the nearby Cité Hellemans, a beautiful art nouveau-influenced social housing complex built in the early 20th century. Also close to the museum are the eclectic furniture and antique shops on Rue Haute and Rue Blaes.

Art et Marges Musée
Rue Haute, 314
1000 Brussels

Friday, 18 May 2018

Practical Guide to Truffles (Book Review)

I don't know much about truffles. I've eaten some dishes containing truffles, but that's about it. However I've always been a bit curious about them, given all the fuss that people make, and recently I had the opportunity to learn a bit more.

On a recent trip to the South West of France, I chanced upon this slim volume in the gift shop of the Chateau of Monbazillac. It is well-written, informative and unpretentious, and I strongly recommend it to anyone wanting to learn more about truffles It's definitely worth reading if you are planning to spend your money on them.

A few interesting things which I have learnt:

There are several species of truffles, of which only two are of gastronomic interest: the black Périgord  truffle (Tuber melanosporum), and the white Alba truffle (Tuber magnatum).

Other species are either not very interesting, i.e. not very aromatic, or even unpleasant. This is worth knowing as an ill-informed buyer could end up paying a lot of money for something of no value.

Black and white truffles are quite different in the way they should be prepared.

Black truffles may be fresh, or preserved. Fresh truffles do not last for long: not more than a week when carefully packed stored in a refrigerator. So if you have spent a wad of cash on your fresh truffle (hopefully Tuber melanosporum and not one of the inferior or nasty varieties), you should prepare it and eat it immediately. Preserved truffles, it should be noted, are in no way inferior, merely different. The book describes the dishes for which each type is most appropriate.

It has become fashionable to shave raw truffles over food, but this practice, I have now learnt, is only appropriate for the white Alba truffle, because the black Tuber melanosporum only releases its aroma at 40C, so shaving a raw black truffles over your pasta is a complete waste. The Alba truffle, on the other hand, does not stand up to cooking, and should only be consumed raw, as a condiment, so if you have one of those, shave away.

As for truffle oil, this is neutral vegetable oil to which synthetic truffle aroma has been added. The ingredient was discovered in the 1980s in the course of biological research into truffles, and is identical to its 'natural' counterpart, in that it is exactly the same chemical. If you see something in your bottle of truffle oil that looks like a piece of truffle, it's just there as an ornament, or to mislead the customer, and does not contribute to the flavour or aroma. It might even shorted the shelf life of the oil if it degrades more rapidly. For more information on truffle oil, there's an interesting article in Wikipedia.

There's lots more in the book about the history, biology, selection, purchase, preservation, preparation and cooking of truffles, all written in an easy-to-read and engaging style. I now appreciate that its worth learning a bit about them before seeking them out in order to avoid disappointment. This book concerns itself almost exclusively with Tuber melanosporum, so I think that anyone wanting to go into the Italian Alba truffles should probably look for a similar sort of book on the topic.

Practical Guide to Truffles - Truffle is a simple product
Pierre-Jean & Babeth Pébeyre, Sophie Brissaud
Féret . Published 21/03/2014

New edition (in French)
Manuel de la truffe, nouvelle édition - La truffe est un produit simple
Auteur : Pierre-Jean et Babeth Pébeyre, Sophie Brissaud
Date de publication : 15/11/2016

Sunday, 26 February 2017

Grammeln, greaves and scratchings

We arrived in Vienna on Saturday. It was a bit early to check in to our accommodation, so we decided to have something to eat at the airport. At the cafe, the dish of the day was Grammelknödel mit Sauerkraut. Grammelknödel was translated as "dumplings with greaves", which I found a bit puzzling, since I thought greaves were a sort of armour worn over the shins. 


We ordered it anyway, as we were partial to dumplings and to sauerkraut. While waiting for  our food to arrive and I looked online, and this entry from Wikipedia popped up, under the topic of  Rendering (animal products):

"One edible product is greaves, which is the unmeltable residue left after animal fat has been rendered. An alternative process cooks slaughterhouse offal to produce a thick, lumpy "stew" which is then sold to the pet food industry to be used principally as tinned cat and dog foods."

The dumplings, when they arrived, were very tasty and by then we remembered grammeln from our previous trips. These are the Austrian version of pork scratchings or pork rinds, often served as snacks with wine. 

The dumplings themselves reminded us of Cantonese char siu pau, or pork buns, as you can see from the picture below (grammelknödel on the left, char siu pau on the right). 


We bought some grammeln later in the supermarket. They were slightly crunchy, but not hard like English scratchings, and very tasty. 


You can also get them mixed in with lard to spread on bread. It used to be thought that this sort of thing was very bad for you, but there is some recent research which suggests that animal fats might be OK after all. Not everyone accepts this, but I think I might, while I'm abroad. 

Sunday, 15 January 2017

Peking Duck and Champagne at HKK London

A whole duck, a bottle of champagne, and more, just for the two of us

Peking Duck is quite hard to come by in Britain, so when we discovered that it was available as a special Saturday afternoon "Duck and Champagne" menu at HKK, close to where we live, we got quite excited and decided to give it a go.

Peking Duck is, by the way, not the same thing as the smoked duck found in Chinese restaurants throughout Britain. Both dishes are served with pancakes, shredded cucumber and leeks, and hoisin sauce, but the duck and its preparation are completely different. The special feature of Peking Duck is the crispy glazed skin, which is separated from the meat. Traditionally this is done by blowing air between the skin and meat, before the duck is dried, and then roasted in a special oven. At HKK, they have a different technique involving dowsing the bird in boiling water mixed with vinegar, lemon juice and maltose sugar. The duck used for this dish is a breed known as Pekin Duck, a fat and tasty variety suited to this method of cooking, bred on a farm in Southern Ireland.

HKK is a fine dining Chinese restaurant close to the Liverpol Street station, with a restrained and luxurious interior. At £49 per head, including a half a bottle of Louis Roederer, the Duck and Champagne menu is pretty good value.

Perhaps a little unwisely, we were seduced by the cocktail menu and we both ordered Pomegranate Tequilas, which were very enjoyable.

The starter was a this excellent blue crab salad.

Then the chef came out to carve the duck, which was served in two courses.

First some skin and a few selected cuts, with black truffle mantou and Imperial caviar:

Then the rest of the duck, in the usual way with pancakes:

On the side, was a bowl of fried rice with duck and abalone stock.

Dessert was champagne sorbet with cotton candy.

The duck, and everything else, was delicious, and it was a very enjoyable experience. I was delighted to find that the champagne went very well with the meal. Wine and Chinese food can be a discordant combination, and I don't know enough about these things to make my own selection, so I appreciate having someone knowledgeable to make the choice on my behalf.

The nice thing about the sort of menus offered at HKK is that two people can go for a meal and still enjoy selection of dishes, whereas in most Chinese restaurants you would need a party of at least 4 people to share the food around.

Finally, I was delighted to be in a Chinese restaurant which clearly had a colour-blind staff policy. Just like its sister establishment, but unlike many other Chinese restaurants, the staff came from all over the world, and that's the way it should be.

88 Worship Street
Broadgate Quarter
London, EC2A 2BE
(Behind Liverpool Street Station)
+44 (0)20 3535 1888

Sunday, 8 January 2017

Review: The World's Most Extraordinary Homes, BBC2

I chanced upon this television programme the other day, the first in a 4-part series, and I've been hooked. The Series is presented by actor and property developer Caroline Quentin, and architect Piers Taylor. In the first episode they visit some extraordinary houses in mountainous locations, and I found it engrossing.

All the houses were utterly modern, and completed within the last 10 years. They were located in different locations: mountains in New Zealand, California, the Arizona desert, and the Swiss Alps. Each one was a response to a different environment. One of the houses had a roof made from an old Boeing 747 wing. Another had walls made of rammed earth. They were all very different and all very beautiful.

It was especially interesting to have the architect explain, with the aid of sketches showing the plans and sections, how each house worked, and how the design adapted to the surroundings. At a time when many people are hostile to the idea of modern construction in the countryside, this programme shows how the best architecture of our time can surpass that of the past. It was good having a pair of presenters, one an architect and the other an enthusiast, to bounce ideas and responses off each other.

Here is a BBC preview and discussion about the series:

The next episode is about house in the forest, and I look forward to watching it.

The World's Most Extraordinary Homes, currently on BBC2 and BBC iPlayer

Piers Taylor, the architect and co-presenter, is the founder of Invisible Studio.

Houses featured:
747 Wing House, Malibu, California, USA

Tucson Mountain Retreat, Arizona, USA

Te Kaitaka, Lake Wanaka, New Zealand

House on the Rigi, Switzerland