Dueling Desserts, Plaster Poets, & Sigmund Freud: Vienna’s Cafe Culture

Dueling Desserts, Plaster Poets, & Sigmund Freud: Vienna’s Cafe Culture

I’ve touched on the fact that my family members dabbled in sweets as well as meats in my last two posts, which involved my cousin Curt Allina, who lived across the street from Sigmund Freud and who later put the heads on PEZ. But the Kornmehl family also had a direct connection with a quintessentially Viennese concern: Coffeehouses. (For some background, see From Meat to Sweets: A Family Occupation and Preoccupation, and also The Bride Ate Chocolate: A Genealogical Mystery, because chocolate comes into this story too.)

More Food of My People

Café Victoria-Schottentor1929

And yet, even though it wasn’t far from my hotel, I  didn’t manage to check out the former Cafe Victoria, which was owned by the Other Siegmund Kornmehl, the brother-in-law, first-cousin-in-law, and name-sharer of Freud’s butcher. As the postcard–indeed, the fact that a postcard exists–indicates, it was quite an impressive place. Sadly, a McDonald’s may occupy the space of the former cafe; here’s a blog post (not by me) on the topic, including the picture of the likely site. I compensated for bypassing the Cafe Victoria by visiting several other famous coffeehouses, and ones that were open.

Food Fight

Cafe Sacher When I told people that I was going to Vienna, several said, “You have to go to Cafe Sacher to try to the original Sachertorte.” Who was I to argue? It turned out that the right to use the name The Original Sachertorte had been contested, and others disagreed with my choice of place to sample the real deal, but I’ll get to that. Let me start with the undisputed parts of the Cafe Sacher story.

According to the booklet that you see sitting next to me–and could I look any happier?–Franz Sacher, a nice Jewish boy, first made the confection for Prince Metternich in 1832, when Franz only 16.  Most people highlight the drama of the story, the part where Franz has to fill in for the master chef at the last minute, and wows the prince.

I was particularly tickled by another bit of the tale.

It seems that Franz’s son, Eduard, who took after his father as purveyor of baked goods to the court, opened up his own restaurant (“delicatessen,” the booklet calls it) and hotel. In 1880, Edward Sacher married Anna Fuchs, the daughter of a wealthy butcher.  The official literature says:

Anna started to work at the hotel right after the wedding. She immensely enjoyed the work and, given her husband’s poor health, gradually took over the reigns at the hotel…It was under her ‘regime’ that the Sacher acquired its legendary reputation.

You can see why I might be disposed to like this place. The chocolate cake “mit schlag”– the only way it’s served unless you specifically request whipped cream removal, and who would?– didn’t hurt either. The cake at Cafe SacherIf you look closely, you will see that the piece of cake is divided in two sections. I only ate half. The other half was consumed by Aurelia Young, whose father, Oskar Nemon, sculpted Sigmund Freud. After her talk at the Freud Museum, Aurelia and I took several outings together. This was one of our favorites.

Cafe Sacher Aurelia Young

Aurelia Young and unknown seated woman at Cafe Sacher

Just Another Pretty Pastry?

While I was still in Vienna, I posted the smiling picture of myself at the Cafe Sacher on Facebook. Several friends mentioned that I need to do a comparative chocolate cake taste test at Cafe Demel, which had sued the Sacher for the right to tout itself as the purveyor of  the “original” Sachertorte (here a bit of background to the dispute). Even though Sacher won the suit, Demel’s version was better, my friends said.

I wasn’t opposed to taking the challenge.

Perhaps not wanting to reopen old wounds or choosing to accentuate the positive, the Viennese people I spoke to mentioned Demel only in the context of its violet petal candies, beloved by Empress Sisi. Flower petal candy doesn’t hold any temptation for me. It is, however, very pretty. The display, below, is the centerpiece of the downstairs area of Cafe Demel, where cakes and confections to go are sold. Violet candy cafe DemelI also heard touted the charms of Demel’s open kitchen with the pastry decorators. Watching the practice of a traditional trade is a nice anthropological experience, no question. I stopped to enjoy it as I ascended the stairs to the dual-level cafe. The section on the first level permits smoking (I guess they figure the smokers will become short of breath if they have to go up a second flight of stairs); you have to keep climbing to get to the nonsmoking part of the restaurant.

Decorating at Demel

Note: The sign that seems to indicate no picture taking refers only to no picture taking with a flash; see the little lines on the upper right corner. I’m not that brazen.

With its ornate high ceilings and shimmery chandeliers, the room was lovely, if not nearly as impressive as the digs of the Sacher. That’s okay. I was there to eat cake, not to ogle imperial trappings.

Let me admit this up front: I did not end up trying the chocolate cake.  By this point of my visit, I was on a mission to try something with marzipan. It was my mother’s favorite sweet, one I became extremely fond of too, and I assumed I would find almond paste confections all over Vienna. I didn’t. So I asked the waitress at the Demel to suggest a dessert with marzipan in it. I was told that the carrot cake–and only the carrot cake–fit the bill.

This did not make me unhappy. As my friends know, I generally love carrot cake more than I love chocolate cake, which is too rich for me (I know, the picture above does not show me suffering; the whipped cream helps offset the dense sweetness).  Sadly, Demel’s carrot cake was just okay. It was dry–and not especially marzipan-y. I’ve had better in Tucson.

My companion–Aurelia again–ordered what was described as a classic Viennese cheesecake. Meh. Even the vanilla sauce, which came as a side option, didn’t enliven it, or my carrot cake, for that matter. All in all, we were not impressed. Sorry, but a good bakery should excel in pastries of all sort, not only of the chocolate variety, and they should taste as good as they look.

Consider me firmly on team Sacher.

Focus on Famous People–Including Freud

You may be relieved to learn that the controversial, pastry-related portion of this post is over, as I move on to the famous people segments. The two other cafes I visited both had pastry but, because I did not sample it,  I can’t venture an opinion.

Faux Peter Altenberg made me do a double take when I entered the Cafe Central

The first, Cafe Central, was suggested by the only relative I met in Vienna, my third cousin twice removed, because it’s a classic and it’s near his place of work. Cafe Central outsideAccording to Wikipedia, in 1913 alone, patrons included Sigmund Freud, Adolf HitlerVladimir Lenin, and Leon Trotsky, though there is no evidence that they ever shared a table or even greeted each other. That said, the 2007 BBC radio play Dr Freud Will See You Now, Mr Hitler,” by Laurence Marks and Maurice Gran, plays on the possibilities. 

Lenin and Trostky came to the Cafe Central often, but the most regular of the regulars was poet Peter Altenberg, known for exhorting people to “get thee to a coffeehouse”–only in German.  He has been immortalized seated in front of the pastry case at the entryway, a somewhat disconcerting greeter, this first-time patron thought. My reason for not having pastry had nothing to do with the poet, however. It was late afternoon, and therefore time for alcohol. I had a glass of wine and a steak tartare.

Altenberg was a friend of Sigmund Freud, who frequented the Central too. But it wasn’t Freud’s favorite.  According to a piece about Freud’s Vienna in The Sydney Morning Herald:

Freud usually went to Cafe Landtmann (Dr Karl Lueger Ring 4), next to the Burgtheatre and a short walk from Berggasse 19…. Its ambience is stylish and low-key. Freud’s chosen seat, at the rear of the main salon, offered him excellent views, not only of the Ring but members of the class he treated: the nervy, upwardly mobile, culture-mad bourgeoisie. After meetings of the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society, Freud took the group to the Landtmann where he sipped eine kleine Braunen (a short black) and puffed his interminable cigars.

Cafe Landtmann

Cafe Landtmann

I visited Cafe Landtmann on the afternoon of my first day in Vienna, less than five hours after I stumbled, sleep-deprived, off the plane. I had just finished a large lunch–of Freud’s favorite dish, Tafelspitz, but that’s another story–and a walking tour of Jugendstil architecture when my guide suggested we stop into the cafe.

Operated continuously since 1873, it looked a bit shabby in the afternoon light, in spite of its frequent reupholsterings. That just added to its charms–as far as I could appreciate them. I was too dehydrated and too tired for pastry, or even coffee, more’s the pity. I just had water.

Next time I visit Vienna, I promise to return to the Cafe Landtmann and try the apfelstrudel in honor of Freud, since it was one of his favorite desserts. As far as I know, there are no strudel-related lawsuits to worry about.

10 Responses to Dueling Desserts, Plaster Poets, & Sigmund Freud: Vienna’s Cafe Culture

  1. Jill Kornmehl says:

    Good thing that you could regroup from the genealogy research and sightseeing by enjoying the restaurants and local cuisine. In addition to being butchers, Kornmehl family members were involved in cafes in Vienna, London and Shanghai. What a wonderful piece tying together the Vienna cafes of the past and today. And as usual, you managed to work in a bit of family history, Freud and food!

    • Edie Jarolim says:

      Thanks, Jill. I always plan to just post pictures and end up following a lot of meandering paths. And it’s always nice to be able to combine family research with food, especially sweets! I wish there were pictures of the Kornmehl cafes in Shanghai and London.

  2. Despite your first impressions of Cafe Landtmann I am very taken by the photo here, the characters in it, especially that fellow in front with the side chops, are reminiscent of a painting by Manet. Also I am curious about the name, as an older Jewish friend of mine would sometimes say to a seeming Jew, are you a ‘Lanzmann?’ to refer to, a fellow countryman – but I don’t know if the expression would have been specific to Jews in the ‘Old Country.’
    Diane Schmidt recently posted..Ron Duncan Hart publisher and editor of Gaon Books in Santa Fe bucks trendMy Profile

    • Edie Jarolim says:

      Oops, maybe I should make it clearer: It’s Cafe Central that has all poet in front of the pastry case (and you’re right, it does have a Manet feel — great observation)! You’re right too about Landtmann — I had that thought about the cafe and also about someone I met in Vienna named Hannah Landsmann. My mother and father used to call people they met from Vienna “landsman” — people from the same land…Maybe my next post!

  3. I do so admire serious scientists who pursue their research regardless of the outcome (in this case extra pounds around the waist, perhaps?).
    My own observations of pastries in Austria in general were that they were more pretty than they were tasty. I’m particularly thinking of the favorite dessert of Salzburg, which set our host’s eyes dancing and left me feeling totally blah. It is Nockrl, in case you go back and visit Salzburg.
    But, still, there is something endearing about people who take their desserts so seriously that they engage in law suits over naming rights!
    And they have created great ambiance for munching and sipping.
    Vera Marie Badertscher recently posted..Fourth of July Colonial Recipe: SalmagundiMy Profile

    • Edie Jarolim says:

      I appreciate that you appreciate my careful methodology! I agree with you about the Nockerl, which I had in Vienna. Boring. I did enjoy some pretty impressive pastry, including on the morning buffet at my hotel, and agree that a dessert lawsuit shows an impressive seriousness. I will have to return and try to defend the pastry of my people — even though it is surprisingly lacking in marzipan.

  4. Anna Redsand says:

    Fun review, Edie! One of the things I miss most about Europe is the cafe culture. I enjoyed 2 of the ones you write about.
    Anna Redsand recently posted..Plurality on EasterMy Profile

    • Edie Jarolim says:

      Thanks, Anna! I didn’t even begin to get into the coffee part of the coffee culture… I won’t ask you if you want to take a stand on the dueling chocolate cakes!

  5. […] pretty sure I found the site of the Cafe Victoria, which OSK (the Other Siegmund Kornmehl) […]

  6. […] The Sachertorte’s fame probably began with Vienna’s first luxurious delicatessen store opened by Franz Sacher’s son Eduard, where he sold oysters and allegedly his father’s famous Sachertorte. Next, they opened the Hotel behind the Vienna State Opera where they would sell the cake too. But operations really only gained fame with the entrance of Eduard’s wife Anna, born Fuchs, the daughter of a wealthy butcher in Vienna’s second district: “Leopoldstadt”, also called Mazzesinsel, what was then home to one of Central Europe’s largest Jewish populations.25 […]

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