Café Culture in Vienna

// Written by Harrison Yu //

When I first heard about the café culture in Vienna, I was not impressed for a variety of reasons: (1) it sounded lazy, (2) I don’t drink coffee, and (3) I hate Sachertorte. After spending 14 weeks in Vienna though, I came to realize several things: (1) Americans should take a break once in a while, (2) properly prepared coffee can be wonderful, and (3) I still hate Sachertorte.

Luckily for me, Sachertorte isn’t the only sweet served in Viennese cafés. In fact, it’s actually pretty uncommon for the torte to be sold in regular everyday cafés. What you will most often find instead are wonderful Viennese cakes and pastries that are simple, elegant, and rustic. During my time in Vienna, my all-time favorite pastries were the Mohn Kuche (poppy seed cake) and the Esterházy torte. I first encountered the Mohn Kuche at Café Sperl, where the delicate and earthy poppy seed sponge cake was complemented by a tangy and sweet raspberry jam and topped with a hollow crunchy crust.

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Mohn Kuche at Café Sperl
Photo by Harrison Yu

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Sachertorte
Photo by Harrison Yu

Despite my memorable first meeting with the Mohn Kuche however, I shall always keep a special place in my culinary heart for the Esterházy torte. This is a classic cake that exemplifies the former Austro-Hungarian Empire, and is named after the Hungarian count who loved this cake so much (and whose descendents own much of the industry and land in Hungary today). Composed of alternating layers of hazelnut meringue (similar to macarons) and hazelnut buttercream, the torte starts off with a satisfying crunch from the meringue, which then slowly melts away while the voluptuous buttercream accentuates the hazelnut flavor. Though simple in appearance, the Esterházy torte requires a great deal of precision during its baking technique as well as meticulousness in its assembly, making this particular cake all the more dear to me.

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Esterházy torte
Photo by Harrison Yu

Of course, a café visit in Vienna would not be complete without some Viennese coffee. Supposedly discovered after the Siege of Vienna in 1683 when Turkish invaders left bags of coffee behind during their retreat, this coffee is truly some of the best in the world. Previously, I had never managed to finish any cup of coffee, always stopping after two or three sips due to the acrid bitterness and oily and cloying quality of most coffees. But in Vienna I was tempted by and ultimately fell in love with the fancifully named Melange. Much like a cappuccino, the Melange (also called Wiener Melange, which is German for “Viennese Blend”) is made with black coffee and steamed milk, though it has a wispier top than a cappuccino. After this positive first foray into the world of Viennese coffee, I was encouraged to explore dozens of new possibilities as I delved into exotic drinks like Wiener Eiskaffee (iced coffee, ice cream, whipped cream, and wafer cookie straw) and Rumkaffee (rum and coffee).

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Melange
Photo by Harrison Yu

Surprisingly, though the food and drinks are an integral part of Viennese café culture, they are in fact not the main draws of Viennese cafés. Instead, the best part of going to a café in Vienna is the fact that you can buy a coffee and then sit and read the newspaper in a cafe for three hours without being disturbed. While I was there I could do my German homework, do some light reading, or chat with my friends, and not a single person would bother me. This leisurely attitude is something I miss now that I’m back in America, as even after my experience in Vienna I still don’t usually take a break as much as I probably should. Once in a while though, I like to take some time off and relax the way they do in Austria: with good food, good coffee, and some good old peace and quiet.

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