Tante Hertha’s Viennese Kitchen was left just outside my door yesterday morning. (Postman doing a pretty good milk tray man impression at the moment – love the postman who will climb the stairs to my flat, so much nicer than the postman who left a little red note in the letterbox telling me I could have my post in 48 hours if I would go and fetch it myself from a skanky back alley behind the railway station). Sadly I had to go to work almost immediately and didn’t get home until just before 11pm desperate for a bath, bed and sleep. At 3am I was still leafing through Tante Hertha.
A few years ago I was beguiled by the Tessa Kiros books which sort of mixed family history and food. ‘Falling Cloudberries’ is an excellent book which deserved all the plaudits it got, ‘Apples for Jam’ has a good chocolate cake recipe in it and then there was ‘Venezia: Food and Dreams’, the pages are gilt edged, the bookmark is black velvet, the illustrations are lavish and I’ve never used it once not least because I find it impossible to engage with however lovely it is to look at.‘Tante Hertha’s Viennese Kitchen’ is just as lovely but infinitely more engaging, an object lesson in how to do this sort of book properly.
Hertha was the aunt and great aunt of the daughter mother team responsible for this book. She was a nurse during the First World War after which she became a society photographer. The Second World War and communism robbed Hertha’s family of estates in what was to become Slovenia (like all the best Austrians Hertha was a baroness) and the photography business went downhill. Nothing daunted Hertha (who didn’t marry but shared an elegant apartment with her mother and a sister in law) went into catering working from a kitchen which was also a bathroom. She sounds like the most amazing woman.
Hertha kept a notebook of her recipes which were almost lost in a clear out but were happily rescued by Maria Von Baich and this book is the result. I gather that everything has been tested and where necessary tweaked and updated, the book is a nice bit of biography, background on old Vienna, photo’s which create an ambience, lots of notes and tips, and a really good selection of recipes. The emphasis is on sweet things; cakes, biscuits, and tortes but the savouries aren’t neglected and for someone who doesn’t really know it looks and feels very authentic. The sweet bias makes sense because what I do know about fin de siècle food is that the savoury bits don’t always date so well but everyone loves cake.
Reading this I was also really reminded of ‘The Hare With Amber Eyes’ – the parallels are obvious; an aristocratic family falling on hard times, the Viennese setting, and a concentration on the small details of everyday life, as well of course as a treasure rescued and passed down the family. Better though is that this treasure can be shared – these recipes are living history and a celebration of a remarkable woman. At the weekend (after I’ve caught up with some sleep) I will be making Lebkuchen which I love to buy but have inexplicably never made – and am not even sure if I have another recipe for. There are all manner of other biscuits I want to try, and the thing that’s really caught my imagination; meringues to use as Christmas tree decorations, apparently these were traditional and are baked with cotton attached for hanging purposes. I haven’t bothered with a tree for the last two years but think I might have to this year just so I can do this.
‘Tante Hertha’s Viennese Kitchen’ is published by a company called New Holland which is new to me but coincidentally amazon recommended ‘Notes From A Swedish Kitchen’ this evening which comes from the same stable. It looks intriguing and has gone on my wish list (who would have imagined that I've been looking for just such a book – damn you amazon with your temptations). If it’s anything like as good as Tante Hertha it will be impossible to resist.