Close your eyes and imagine you are sitting in a café.
Perhaps on the Champs d’Elysees, watching the Parisians and tourists stroll by as you sip a pricey mineral water or orange presse (fresh squeezed orange juice). Maybe at Café Florian in Piazza St. Marco in Venice, with music wafting in the background, pigeons overhead (wear a hat) and Prosecco in hand.
If you hop into the Wayback Machine (for those of you old enough to remember The Rocky & Bullwinkle Show) and seek out the oldest of the cafes, the ancestors of them all, you will find yourself transported to 17thCentury Austria, sitting indoors in Vienna, where the concept was born.
During the Ottoman wars, the city had been occupied by the Turks. On being liberated by the Polish-Hapsburg Army, Vienna was quickly emptied of the invaders who left things behind, as people on the run tend to do. Among the remainders were bags upon bags of coffee, and the accoutrements it took to brew it.
What had been an exotic luxury became available to the masses in the newly invented coffee houses, outlets created specifically to prepare and serve this beverage which was new to most people. Some traditions which live on today were established in those early years: myriad varieties of coffee preparations to choose among, and the freedom to sit for hours on end, reading, talking, just staring into space.
Starbucks lovers take note: Some things never change.
On a recent trip to Vienna, I visited several coffee houses, mostly for a quick coffee or aperitif, but on one occasion for lunch at the venerable Café Landtmann, a fixture on the Ringstrasse since 1873, now a serious restaurant in addition to being a coffee house. From my notes: “venison ragout with allegedly local cranberries, potato croquettes, porcinis and other fresh wild mushrooms.” It was delicious and satisfying, so I passed on the gorgeous pastry display.
The most interesting part of this was the coffee menu, too elaborate to paraphrase here:
The Viennese coffee house continues to evolve. I remember my first visit to this beautiful city, many years ago, before tastes and health concerns changed the laws about indoor smoking. Even in some of the finest and most historical examples, coffee house walls were a little dank, and smoke permeated the air. When I visited in late 2011, I did not encounter any problem whatsoever with smoke in any coffee house or restaurant, although this could be a result of my seeking out non-smoking areas (which did not exist in the past) and ignoring smokers’ siberias. Bottom line: it is no longer a problem.
I need to go back, and research a blog on “mit schlag”, German for “with whipped cream,” and not ignore the Sacher Torte next time.