From Afghanistan to Zambia via Jamaica and Montenegro join Fork and Flag for an epic voyage around the world on a culinary journey through London town. Forget expensive flights, carbon guilt and irksome visa regulations. Trade timezones for tube zones and sample 111 countries through the eclectic cuisine, eccentric waiters, eye-watering decor and evocative entertainment of its restaurants

Saturday, 21 August 2010

Austria



Restaurant - Tiroler Hut
Location - Bayswater

By Boeing : 9887 miles

By Boris Bike : 2.3 miles


In spite of its rich Habsburg cultural heritage and Vienna’s sophistication the image that most Britishers have of Austria is of Julie Andrews teaching impossibly high-waisted children to yodel in alpine pastures. The Sound of Music has formed our Austrian canvass of an idyllic, fresh aired, clean limbed, Elysian pasture of dairy cows, wild flowers and impromptu fillial choruses.

The fact that our image of Austria is not formed of seven centuries of imperial elegance and artistic expression but by a hackneyed musical from the 1960’s is an example of how television has blinkered our cultural viewpoint. It is unsurprising then that Austrian dining in London is not civilised Viennese aut cuisine but yeasty, yodelling, beer swilling pantomime. Despite the unassuming neon lit entrance of the infamous Tiroler Hut, within minutes of walking down steps into a dingy, airless cellar, reverberating with the echoes of frenzied yodelling, you know this will be an unforgettable evening. It as if an alpine lodge has been transported from the Tirol having been furnished en route by Shepperton Studios most eccentric set designer. It is soon apparent that this is more cabaret than cuisine. Alpine cow maidens with flirtatious costumes serve cavernous, foaming steins of beer while you browse the menu for the many variations on the pork, cabbage and dumpling theme.



Austrian cuisine is most noted for its delicate pastry deserts such as sachertorte and innumerable butter encased cakes and tarts. A Viennese Coffee house, with its laid back elegance, silver service and convivial conversation, puts our Starbucks to shame. But their dining is far less exotic and memorable, following the bland Germanic tastes of slow cooked meats and dollops of stewed vegetables. The Teutonic palate is not the most adventurous, with the danger of spice avoided in favour of the comfort of centuries old home cooked staples.



From our small table in a distant corner we saw a bow-backed septuagenarian in mandatory high waisted shorts and twanging braces make his leisurely way to an area suspiciously free of tables. The reason for their absence soon became clear as he stepped onto the impromptu stage and yodelled the tune of Edelweiss, that age old tune bastardised by the Von Trapps. It was difficult to tell whether the straining yodels were the result of a conscious tightening of vocal chords or an attempt to suppress a sneeze. It is said that the Yodel was invented as a way of communicating across the alps in the era before mobile phones, or even semaphore. It was an attempt to reverse Darwinian Theory and devolve to the level of cuckoos. But absurd a means of communication as it is it has remained an integral part of Austrian folk traditions. With yodellers and Morris dancers clearly cut from the same cloth we are not in a position to feel culturally superior. But while it was silly and faintly comic the good humour and hospitality, greeted by a stirring chorus of thing slapping, felt authentic. My medallions of cured pork on a bed of seasoned cabbage washed down with replenished beer the evening was more entertaining than most.



It was kitsch, certainly, but light hearted, unpretentious fun and frivolity. With the yodeller mopping his brow after an exerting stint another man appeared and arranged fourteen bells on a table, ranging from tiny to town-cryer size, with a couple of steel tea pots for good measure. He then reprised Edelweiss with a peerless performance of a cow bell chorus. With each bell of a different pitch and kettles providing the bass, by shaking them with eye-aching speed and a deftness of touch that betrayed his arthritic age, he received a standing ovation. This was an Austrian artist at the top of his game. Finishing my slice of cinnamon laced apfelstrudel I beamed from ear to ear.

Then the evening turned surreal. Not content with an authentic Austrian repertoire the yodeller reappeared and murdered a strongly Arian accented rendition of New York, New York by Frank Sinatra. I could have been in Rene’s cafe in Allo Allo. Rather than celebrate his native culture he had locked it in the gallows to be publically mocked. On cue a drunken stag party formed an impromptu conga line and a Korean girl grabbed the microphone for the most unlikely duet since Rod Hull and Emu. It was a scene straight from a Terry Gilliam fantasy. I half expected a dwarf on a unicycle to offer me schnapps.

From enjoying myself in an Austrian restaurant I sat helplessly by while my evening descended into a Benny Hill inspired stag party venue. I suddenly felt like a bashful Methodist who had unwittingly gatecrashed a naturist wine tasting; out of place and out of sorts. It had been the oddest evening of year. On the one hand it had been the most immersive cultural experience of the journey, but on the other it felt constructed and crass. Without the culinary range and popularity of other countries Austrian cuisine has sought succour in that nutritional niche, the themed evening. London is the richer for it, but it is certainly an acquired taste.