Vienna: cake, a Schubert ‘Messe’, and an education

Church of St Augustin.

Megan volunteered to sing with the St Augustin choir when she moved to Vienna, and she invited me to attend Mass on Sunday to hear the music. I was stunned to enter a cathedral-sized church, with not only the organ, but what sounded like a full orchestra, and a many-voiced choir high up in the back. It was a stunning performance, and I’m also amazed that many of the singers are volunteers: Megan is of course a trained singer, but I really think to get that sound they must have to tell some people that they can’t join? Anyway, I sat in a beautifully carved, desperately uncomfortable pew (wood, with a panel right across the lower-shoulder blades that meant one could not lean back comfortably, but this isn’t about comfort, after all,) and was steeped in clouds of incense.

Megan’s choir sang a ‘Messe C-Dur,’ which I take to mean a Mass in C-Minor, with music from Schubert.

One of the characters about whom M writes in her own blog is a formidable lady who apparently runs things, whom M dubbed ‘Mildred’ because she didn’t catch the lady’s first name. This very lady exchanged addresses with M so they could write to one another, upon which M learned the lady’s name is actually Lisa. Lisa invited M to lunch after Mass, and Megan had already arranged to meet me, so I was absorbed into the invitation. Later, M & I decided that ‘Mildred’ was a more apt name than Lisa for our hostess. Tugging a wheeled shopping bag behind her at alarming speed, this 80-year-old lady blazed down the road to Cafe Mozart, explaining (in perfect English – she taught as an English teacher for much of her life,) that she wanted us to see the professionalism of the waiters at this Cafe, and that it had been re-built on the site of the oldest Cafe in Vienna, and that all the tourists go to cafes for the cake (guilty!) but the food is in fact amazing and we had to try the lamb…

The tornado calmed somewhat: we were seated straight away, and Mildred announced that she was there for her usual lamb, and helped us select some traditional dishes. I chose Tafelspitz. This was beautifully boiled beef in a clear broth, floating beside a knuckle of bone with perfectly softened marrow ready to eat. There were slices of boiled parsnip and carrot, and a separate small dish of creamed spinach, accompanied by a perfect dome of golden-fried potato shreds, and finally, two small dishes: cream with chives, and apple sauce with shreds of fresh horseradish. Mildred instructed me to mix the latter sauces all together to get a ‘blend of sweet and sour,’ and it really did taste amazing. I cut off the strip of perfect fat along the crescent of boiled beef with some guilt, feeling like I should eat every morsel of this carefully prepared dish, and I even made sure to try the bone marrow (not bad for a former vegetarian).

Megan had a large, fluffy pancake chopped up and served with cream and sweet berry sauce. She later said she’d had three cakes in one meal: that was her main course, another traditional dish treated as a main course. Mildred had her lamb – the best in Vienna! – and then she continued to force-feed us by ordering two cakes for dessert. One was an enormous thin, crunchy waffle cone coated in hard chocolate, filled with cream and fresh strawberries, with a bit of shortcake and strawberry mousse hiding within the cone. The second was a marzipan and coffee flavoured layer cake. We also had coffee (I carefully tried a tiny espresso – I’ve learned that coffee with milk makes me jittery to the point of being unwell for hours, but for some reason coffee with no milk seems ok) and Mildred dashed back to the church to find her coat, which she was convinced she’d brought with her, but we gently insisted she hadn’t.

An important point to note about this lunch was that Mildred, with the help of our waiter, selected a glass of white wine for Megan and me, and a glass of red for herself, which she offered to us to try. ‘Is this Austrian wine?’ I asked with surprise – ‘Of course!’ Mildred said, ‘But it has a French name.’ (She’d picked a Cabernet for us.) It was incredible wine, as was her red, and it restored my faith in Austrian wine which had been severely tested the night before, in the taverns.

‘Mildred’ (Lisa) and Megan in front of the Sisi Fountain.

Throughout lunch, Megan and I sat and listened to Mildred’s stories. We talked about the concert and opera Megan had taken me to, and Megan was amazed at some of the famous people Mildred has heard perform in Vienna throughout her lifetime – (I’m afraid I don’t have the understanding of this subject to be suitably impressed, but I’m sure Megan will name the correct names with the correct amount of respect on her blog when she writes about this). At one point, Mildred told us that she’d finally come to appreciate how important it was to buy herself tickets to get good seats to shows. ‘When I was young, I was too worried about saving money,’ she said, ‘My mother wanted to have a good seat for the opera, but I never got her one…I wish I had now.’ We all got teary at that, and then the tornado took off again, and we hurried behind like ducklings, careful not to get run over by her two-wheeled shopping bag, as she took us on a swift walking tour through the city, to the Volksgarten.

‘We used to have to queue for hours for potatoes,’ Mildred told us, ‘I remember getting up at three in the morning, and standing there until eight in the morning…and the people two, three ahead of me, they got the last two potatoes. There were none left…They gave us peas. We realised every single pea – every single pea – had a worm in it: we soaked the peas overnight, we peeled them apart, one by one: into one bucket went the peas; into one bucket went the worms. We made everything out of peas: bread made of peas, soup made of peas, flour made of peas…I remember we had to take a train to cross the border; the train was so full of people, and we did not know when it would leave. I was young and not afraid: I climbed right to the top of the train, to sit on the roof! My mother was afraid, but she would not leave me: she climbed up beside me. We waited and waited; we climbed on that train at 10 in the  morning…it left at eight at night. In the night, the Russian soldiers climbed on the train: they were looking for women. I was twelve years old. My mother, she covered me with a blanket, she hid me…’

The impromptu tour from this remarkable woman, woven with her remarkable memories, helped me revise my opinion of Vienna. It has the same sort of love for life, food, family and friends as I’ve felt travelling in Bulgaria: the feel of a satisfied being which still remembers the pangs of hunger, the memory of fear. A culture that knows what it is to want, but no longer has to want, and so rejoices in a bounty it did not always have. A culture entitled to its cake.

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