By Matt Long | Posted to LandLopers.com
Food is always an important aspect of any trip, but sometimes what I find to eat and drink takes on even greater importance. That was the case most recently when I sailed along the Danube from Budapest to Linz, Austria on a river cruise with Avalon Waterways. It was an active trip, but it was also about cultural discovery and for me, that usually means food is involved. Today I want to share those special food moments both on and off the ship that helped me not only better enjoy my adventure, but understand the local culture at the same time.
Lángos – One of Hungary’s most popular street food delicacies, I actually enjoyed this for the first time while onboard the Avalon Impression. That’s one aspect I loved about sailing with Avalon, every day they brought in the local flavors through our meal options, including a robust dinner of these deep fried treats. Like most comfort food, lángos is pretty simple: it’s just deep fried flatbread that puffs when fried. It’s a blank canvas for just about any ingredient, including both savory as well as sweet. The classic though is one topped with shredded cheese and a gooey sour cream that’s different from what I’m used to in the US, but no less delicious.
Nokedli – One of my favorite German side dishes is a great spätzle, so when I found the Hungarian version I couldn’t resist. Also found on the dinner menu onboard the Avalon Impression, it was the perfect accompaniment to my lángos main course. Nokedli are Hungarian egg noodle dumplings that are commonly used when making one of the country’s favorite dishes, Chicken Paprikash.
Hungarian kürtöskalács – Also called chimney cakes by those of us who can’t pronounce the Hungarian, these are enjoyed all year but especially around Christmastime. Made from sweet yeast dough, the cake starts off as a strip that is spun and then wrapped around a cone–shaped baking spit and rolled in granulated sugar. It is baked on a charcoal grill while doused with melted butter, until its surface becomes golden-brown. During the baking process the sugar caramelizes and forms a shiny, crispy crust on the cake. Made to order, the cakes are served up hot and the steam rising up looks just like a chimney, hence the name.
Ruin bars – These have become really popular in recent years and not just amongst the backpacker set, but just about every visitor to the city. Ruin bars are bars and cafes that started when people wanted cheap places to drink. Taking over decrepit buildings that had fallen into disuse, entrepreneurs set up shop creating eclectic spaces where nothing matches and everything is unplanned. They’re fun places to meet friends, hang out, relax, drink, get a bite and just enjoy the evening. Of course they have now been taken over by hipsters and tourists, but that doesn’t mean they’re not still fun, they are, and if you really explore them you’ll see old apartments and stores from the Communist era that offer a surprising glimpse into the city’s darker past.
Austria & All the Schnitzel
This is one of the most touristy meals out there, but it’s famous for a reason – it’s delicious. Sure you can find Wiener Schnitzel (which means schnitzel from Vienna) just about anywhere, but when you’re in Vienna one of the best places to enjoy this traditional delicacy is at Figlmüller’s. Located near St. Stephen’s, the chefs at Figlmüller’s have been creating some of the best versions of Austria’s national dish since 1905; so it’s safe to say they know what they’re doing. The schnitzels are made from the best cuts of pork and extend well past the edge of the plate – a massive 11 inches in diameter. Still, I found myself devouring this classic dish in no time; it was light, crispy and delicious. You can enjoy schnitzel anywhere, but be sure to try it at Figlmüller’s who really can be credited with transforming this popular dish into the culinary event it is today.
That wasn’t the only time I tried schnitzel in Vienna, I also joined a cooking excursion offered by Avalon Waterways. The class, which lasted an entire afternoon, was taught by one of the most entertaining people I’ve ever met and during our time in his demonstration kitchen we learned the proper way to not only make an authentic Wiener Schnitzel, but an equally authentic (and delicious) apple strudel. While the excursion was an optional one, it was one of the most fun experiences I enjoyed during my week sailing with Avalon.
Non-Schnitzel Austrian Fare
Breakfast culture – While in Vienna, I took a tour that shared the early-morning side of Vienna just as it started to wake up. A big part of that was enjoying a classic Viennese breakfast (and especially coffee) experience in a beautiful downtown cafe. Some bread and jam, cold cuts and a soft-boiled egg was the perfect light start I needed but, more importantly, the coffee was incredible. Vienna famous for its coffee culture and as a true coffee lover it was a highlight of my day. Served on a silver tray with a small glass of water, there is a certain protocol to the ritual and no one is ever rushed. If you want to order just one cup of coffee and sit in the shop and read for a few hours, that’s fine. Coffee is meant to be enjoyed and when coupled with a space as gorgeous as this one in downtown Vienna, there are few better ways to slowly wake up.
Kaiserschmarm – At the end of the day, while savory is fine, I have an incredible sweet tooth. Dessert is always an important event for me, and I wasn’t disappointed in Vienna or anywhere else in Austria. Kaiserschmarrn can be found throughout both Germany and Austria, but its Imperial roots trace it back to Vienna. It’s also easy to find and delicious to enjoy. It’s a light, caramelized sweet pancake that is split into pieces while frying and served with powdered sugar and an applesauce or other compote. While not as sweet as a chocolaty dessert, it’s filling and tasty and more than satisfied my sweet cravings.
Strudel – I seriously doubt that Austrian apple strudel needs much of an introduction, but in case you’re not familiar with it this is one dessert not to be missed. I learned the proper way to make this classic dish during my optional cooking excursion with Avalon and while it’s slightly more challenging to make than I imagined, I can’t wait to try baking it at home. Strudel is a sweet, layered pastry that can be made with any fruit, not just apples. It became popular in the 18th century throughout the Habsburg Empire and still remains a traditional go-to dessert today.
Wine – Even though Austria’s famous Wachau Valley is less than an hour outside of Vienna, it really does feel like a world away. Rolling hills dotted with an improbable number of wineries with the mighty Danube cutting through the middle, this remarkable area is one of Europe’s most beautiful getaways. It’s not just a pretty face though, there’s a lot to see and do here, especially if you’re interested in food and wine. The Wachau Valley is one of the most famous wine regions in the world and along with great wine regions comes amazing food to match. Wine is big business in the Wachau, and the region reminds me of so many others around the world from Sonoma to the Margaret River. Life here is all about the grape, and every spare inch of hillside has a vine on it.
Cheese and beer – On the last day of the Avalon cruise along the Danube, we stopped at the small town of Engelhartszell to visit a very special place. Engelszell Abbey is a Trappist monastery – the only one in Austria – originally founded in the 13th century. Although a lot has changed in the intervening years, the small town alongside the river is just as quiet and tranquil today as it must have been centuries ago. In order to make some extra money, the monks produce any number of items including cheese and an incredibly popular craft beer. The most popular brews are the Gregorius, Benno, and the Nivard, malty beers that reminded me of a great American IPA more than anything else. No matter where you sample the local fare in Austria, just make sure you get off the beaten path at least once to experience some of these very regional delicacies.
No matter your culinary preferences, there’s no doubt that food is an important part of any cruise along the beautiful Danube. What would you add to this list?