Some weeks ago, before that outburst of infernal heat, we longed for something spicy, something hot, and something that would really satisfy us—we were really very hungry that day some weeks ago. Some green asparagus with graped parmigiano just wouldn’t do the job. And so we remembered a very rich meal that was very popular in Germany in the 1970s, Gefüllte Paprikaschoten, which translates to Filled Peppers. We always thought of this dish as typically Hungarian a recipe, its origin seemed quite clear to us, as in these days everything served with peppers or even just remotely seasoned with paprika was considered Hungarian, and as Hungarians are very fiery people this meal should actually be a very fiery one. Germans, however, tend to prepare it very, very mild. Overly mild. I’ve said it before, and I say it again, Germans don’t like spices. Therefore, the grounded paprika for the sauce comes from Switzerland, I imported vast amounts of it, not from some posh fine delicatessen, but from a very ordinary supermarket, from Coop, from their cheapest range, Qualité & Prix, and is wonderfully hot. Just perfect. The Swiss love fine dining, and therefore you get the best spices there. Actually, I should call this dish Swiss Hunger Treatment…
When in Paris, it’s one of my strange habits to have the first coffee in the day in the Marais, don’t ask me why, there are perfectly fine alternative locations all over Paris, but no, it has to be the Marais, Paris’s oldest quarter, you won’t find much of Haussmann’s architecture here, it’s filled with beautiful hôtels particuliers, the residences of the aristocracy, erected hundreds of years ago, and still teaching us lessons about grandeur, in comparison, the front door of Mrs Kennedy’s lodging on Park Avenue appears to me like the back entrance to a dubious embassy of a totalitarian country with a laughable gross national product, sorry, New York, and don’t get me started on Trump and his golden tower, anyway, the Rohans and consorts had much better housing, one of those palaces, that’s what these hôtels particuliers really are, palaces, now houses the Picasso Museum. Then there’s Place des Vosges, a cliché, I know, but I have to pay it at least one visit each time I’m there, it actually looks nicest off season, in January, early in the year and in the morning, on a frosty day, void of people and tourists, under light snow, when only birds have left their prints, I like it in the rain, too, a little morbid, but I rather hate it when it’s full of people in summer, people with too much time on their hands ruin everything, loitering with intent, thirsty for a tan or whatever they do on a lawn – I do sound misanthropic, don’t I? Don’t get me wrong, I like people. Just not in places that look better without.
Luxembourg is known for gathering politicians from the European Community, some tax-friendly banking and its Grand Duke. It’s much lesser known for its flour. Why that is, I cannot tell you. It’s perfectly fine flour. Admittedly, neither wholemeal nor organic, at least the packaging gives no indication of it, just a fancy crown, meaning it’s of somewhat aristocratic origin, maybe the Grand Duke has a mill, who knows, Louis XVI was into crafts too, he loved making keys, metalworking or milling, where’s the difference, anyway, I’m very fond of this flour, however politically incorrect, and as for organic baking ingredients and political correctness, my apples take full responsability, they’re totally organic, all seven of them, and they take the lion’s share of that cake anyway, so it probably won’t pose a health hazard. Alerted as I was, I tasted the rum at large, just to make sure its aroma would complement the other condiments, vanilla pulp and cinnamon, finding myself totally at ease with my partially conventional, inorganic and man-made apple cake. Totally.
The best thing about Switzerland is the food. And the best thing about the food is a Luxemburgerli from Sprüngli’s. You might think it’s a macaron but it’s not, believe you me. I’ve had macarons, plenty, even those hysterically cherished ones from Ladurée, and I had them from Ladurée in Paris, on rue Bonaparte, so don’t tell me the taste was probably just affected by transportation, say a long-distance flight to Sydney, Cape Cod or Kyoto or where ever you picture me misjudging Ladurée’s famous delights, no, even those iconic French macarons are nothing in comparison. Nothing compares to a Luxemburgerli. Nothing. Actually, it makes macarons obsolete. Sad excuses for a sweet. You better take the next flight to Zurich and make it to Paradeplatz as quickly as you possibly can. If only I could do the same, but I promised to show up at my parents’ place this Easter weekend…
One day, when on my way home from work, I changed trams on Paradeplatz in Zurich, just like any other day. This particular day, however, was not an ordinary day at all, it happened to be a very particular day, it was the day Sprüngli had changed their windows for Easter. Now, when you’re a chocolate addict like me, you’re about to lose control over your itinerary, you stop paying attention to anything else, least of all your connecting tram, you can take the next one, or the one after that, but on this day, I lost control over time and space altogether, I was mesmerized by a chocolate Easter bunny, the biggest chocolate Easter bunny I had ever seen, ever!, it was huge, gigantic in fact, who could ever eat it up, I wondered. I think, this was my last self-controlled thought, then, this Easter bunny’s face started to mesmerize me, what expressive features, such character, I felt like I had entered Alice’s wonderland, as if that bunny was about to address me, saying something like If I lose my temper, you lose your head, it wouldn’t have surprised me at all, I took a deeper look in its eyes, one look too many, and da war’s um mich gescheh’n, it spoke to me, it sang to me, my fate became quite plain, half drawn by it, I glided in and was not seen again.
Sugar is the most opposed achievement in modern society, when you admit putting sugar in your coffee, you’re as politically suspect as if you opposed putting taxes on the rich. So, unless you’re already wearing a t-shirt that says Save the Rich, don’t ever quit sugar! You might lose what life’s all about, where there’s nothing sweet to experience, there’s only bitterness to endure, so believe you me, you don’t want to live without any contrasts, you need them just as much as the day needs the night, and the week its weekend, and whatever they tell you about the danger of sugar or carbohydrates altogether, slow or fast, think of what you’d have to give up once you’ve renounced sugar: the rigid bitterness of orange marmalade, mine is imported from a weekly market in Versailles and amère as hell, needs some sweetness to soothe your tastebuds, otherwise you end up with a twisted tongue. And if this necessity doesn’t convince you, just think of that: citrus fruit and sugar cane have the same origin, God—and you don’t want to contradict God, do you?
When I turned 35, I was frolicking through the food halls of La Grande Épicerie de Paris on Rue de Sèvres, in Paris’ stylish 7th arrondissement, to get some tea from Kusmi, I was in desperate need of new supplies of Prince Vladimir and St. Petersburg, my two favourite blends (and boxes, because who am I kidding, I buy it mostly for the boxes), but then I got sidetracked, sidetracked by a salami that looked so yummy as any salami ever could, the sign said “saucisson des Abruzzes”, and although I didn’t know where the Abruzzo (or is it “Abruzzi”?) are, Italy, I guess—I do have to look it up one of these days—anyway, I was sure that they produced the best salami in the whole world, it just looked so yummy—perfection, absolute perfection! I bought 500 gr of it, a baguette, a bottle of red wine, can’t remember what kind but I guess St.Émilion as I usually buy St.Émilion, and however Italian that salami was, I was still in Paris, France, wasn’t I? I made it happily to my hotel nearby to meet my parents who were waiting in their hotel room, you see, after dropping my tea in my room, I was supposed to pick them up to go to a nice place to celebrate my birthday, kind of a family tradition to dine in Paris on our birthdays, but I had just made a change of plans: I was planning on having a picnic in my hotel room! Baguette, salami and Bordeaux while looking out of the window. How swell, I thought, how very swell – but my mother’s reply was “What? Are you crazy?” – an hour later I had Bœuf Bourguignon at a nice place on Île St. Louis. Mothers! But I kept the box. I’m a romantic.
Austria is very blessed a country. They not only have Sissi, that wonderful iconic empress played so heartbreakingly sweet by Romy Schneider, more importantly, they are lucky to have the very best pastries in the world. You all know the Sachertorte from Sacher’s in Vienna, probably the most famous chocolate cake in the world, although it’s not the vast amounts of chocolate that are to blame for its fame, but the fine layer of apricot marmalade, then there’s Demel on Kohlmarkt near Hofburg Palace, purveyor to the Imperial and Royal Court of Austria, the best pastry shop in the world (at least, as far as I’m concerned) with an absurdly delicious range of tarts and cakes (and a very yummy Beef Wellington, too) that make you forget all about the importance of beach bodies in general and very much of your own in particular, and finally there’s Kaiserschmarrn, a kind of elaborate pancake with lots of rum raisins—and some apricot marmalade to dip your pieces into for a slightly sour yet very fruity contrast. That one, at least, you can do all by yourself (don’t forget some grated lemon peel, it’s quite crucial), for anything from Sacher or Demel’s you need years and years of training… Years!
Some time ago, I had the worst of nightmares. I was in a tram in Zurich, trying to make it to Sprüngli’s to get some Himbeer-Rahm-Torte, their famous raspberry cream cake, my very favourite, it’s so very rich and heavy with raspberries, yet light and fresh like air, but that damn streetcar wouldn’t take me there, for some reason, it was taking the wrong turn, totally wrong direction, I wanted to get out, but it just wouldn’t stop, it just went on and on, still, I had to get out to make it in time before closing hour, missing it was not an option, I had to have that cake, I just had to, I don’t know how I finally managed to take another tram, I think I ran them all down somehow, but the other one wasn’t the right one either, I started panicking, I was way too late now, all of a sudden night had fallen, it was completely dark outside, the time was 6:25 pm – hadn’t I left at noon? – and that streetcar had just passed the Zurich opera house to make it home to Seefeld, like it was mocking me, I just had to get out, but even if I managed to, how should I ever make it to Sprüngli’s in time, with five minutes left at my hand? Any suggestions? Any? Well, neither had I, instead, I woke up screaming. Still without any cake, but at least safe and sound. I made it to the fridge and had noisette yoghurt. No raspberries, but quite yummy.
The best thing about my Zurich apartment was the coffee downstairs at Totò’s. Whenever I would leave the house and feel like taking it slowly, I’d sit down and order a double espresso before taking my tram, heavy stuff, bitter and strong, awfully good, and while I was sipping it, I’d watch my neighbourhood, that beautiful Seefeld scenery, from a different angle, not as usual from my third floor balcony, through my olive trees’ leaves, but at ground level, quite a change, it’s true what that teacher in Dead Poets Society says, you should change your perspective from time to time, it’s quite invigorating, and thanks to Totò’s, I didn’t need to climb on anything, I just had to make it three floors further down.