Lovingly-made Pannonian food: Austria’s Paprikawirtin [classic article]

So many supposedly “authentic” ethnic restaurants are still filtered by the expectations and ingredients of the big metropolitan areas. Recipes and presentations are tinkered with until they’re just a shadow of the traditions they’re meant to uphold.

For real-deal Pannonian cuisine (named way back in the day of the Romans, it’s eastern edge of Austria that was Hungary until 1921), get yourself to Paprikawirten in the “Altes Brauhaus” — old brewery. The complex was a hunting lodge for Prince Esterhazy, who later sold the restaurant part to the current owner’s grandfather. The restaurant is a very important part of what today is called the Burgenland region of Austria. I was very glad to be hosted to experience it!

It was great to spend some time talking to Ilona Püspök, the current owner and “paprika hostess”. While the restaurant is in a rural location — Frauenkirchen — she’s savvy enough to succeed in the restaurant business anywhere in the busiest cities, if she so chose. With her athletic build and glossy brown ponytail, she’d be on the cover of lifestyle magazines in the U.S. all the time if she had a bistro here. She has lightened up recipes to be less greasy, but to still have fat to carry the flavor.

I learned that the saying for one man being in a group of ladies is “you are the cork in the basket”.

The restaurant is in the original Esterhazy buildings and everything has a casual, yet dignified, country charm. True to their origins, they serve wild game in the winter, local produce, seasonal, localvore Hungarian dishes. The paprika they grow is a special red one, not the common orange-red.

Ilona also cans absolutely luscious house-grown paprika and chili jams — a dream with white cheeses! — as well as the locally popular apricot preserves. Remember, it’s apricot jam that laces the world-famous Sacher Tortes, sold in Vienna just an hour away. The jars are available for sale to the public and let’s put it this way. They were worth it to me to pay $25 with the airlines to check a bag (I was NOT going to do it) and haul some home. They’re truly exquisite and the paprika jam is akin to, but different from pepper jams you might find at a farmer’s market here. The apricot jam is richly perfumed of deep apricot flavor and scent; I’ve been stirring it into rich yogurts, mixing it with the paprika jam and “doctoring up” carry-out rotisserie chickens. The chili jam is a highly spicy and salty condiment: I will be using it to perk up some mild white, European cheese in a picnic tonight.

This is what I had for lunch:

Starting out the lunch, as is customary in that part of the world, was an exceptional wine, local to them: dry muscat, having a candy-grape nose but dry in flavor. It’s great for an appetizer.

Variation of appetizers with pickled beef — a jellied beef with yellow and red carrots, fresh goat cheese from the Gmall Family in Gols wrapped in bacon, chicken liver terrine with marinated sour cherries and quince mousse, salad and crunchy bread

Creamy pumpkin soup with roasted pumpkin seeds and pumpkin seed oil, a creamy yet light and foamy soup, not something that would just sit in your stomach. You can totally go back to work after a bowl. It’s savory with a nice hit of salt. We tend to think of pumpkins as a being a New World thing, but they are also really popular in Eastern Europe.

Roasted “pike-perch” (what we just call “pike”) with potato-paprikas and leafy greens. This is a well-balanced dish between lighter fish and a richer side dish. Some of us know pike fish a lot better than others: you don’t tend to see it on American menus, but it is the main component of most gefilte fish recipes. If you’re Jewish like I am — or have attended your fair share of Passover meals — you know pike like the back of your hand. It’s medium-mild. It was served with farm-fresh carrot cooked with the apricot jam, for tender sweetness.

Another dish I tried is Ilona’s favorite: it’s a pancake that’s thin like a blintze, filled with ground and browned pork, hot peppers. I can certainly see why that’s her go-to dinner!

Variation of sweet strudels: apple strudel, grape-sweet cheese strudel with vanilla ice whipped cream. These are classic, hearty desserts from the former Austrian-Hungarian empire.

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