A Taste of Austria: Tafelspitz, the Emperor’s Favourite Dish

October 26th, is “Österreichischer Nationalfeiertag”, the Austrian National Day. Every year on this day since 1965, Austrians celebrate the declaration of neutrality after the Second World War which was signed in May 1955.

To honor this special day, we are taking a look at the country’s culinary side, with a cuisine that is closely linked with its history. Both influences from countries within the former Austro-Hungarian Empire as well as regional influences from neighbouring countries such as Italy, Bohemia or Germany interacted to develop the rich cuisine as it is known today.

It is important to know that there is not one kind of Austrian Cuisine, but unique regional variations within the country. Mostly, the term is associated with Viennese Cuisine,  a multi-ethnic cuisine. Classic dishes that make up this typical cuisine are mainly based on meat, such as the very popular “Wiener Schnitzel” or “Tafelspitz”. Considered as national dish of Austria, Tafelspitz, which is boiled beef simmered along with root vegetables and spices in the broth, actually is one of the few original Viennese Specialities and has a very long tradition.

Tafelspitz (Boiled Beef) with traditional side-dishes. Photo by ProstMahlzeit
Tafelspitz (Boiled Beef) with traditional side-dishes. Photo by ProstMahlzeit
The Emperor’s favourite dish

As favourite meal of Franz Joseph I, Emperor of Austria, boiled beef has been one of the standard dishes at the imperial court. It is written in an official cookery school textbook from 1912: “Nie fehlt an der Privattafel Sr. Majestät ein gutes Stück gesottenes Rindfleisches, das zu seinen Lieblingsgerichten zählt.” which translates to  “His Majesty’s private table is never without a fine piece of boiled beef”.

Franz Joseph preferred his boiled beef accompanied with freshly grated horseradish, cabbage and stale bread for absorbing the remaining sauce. Except on days of fasting, boiled beef could be found on the imperial family’s menu every day. Not only the emperor developed this distinct love for beef, but the dish was of great significance for the diet of all social classes.

“His Majesty’s private table is never without a fine piece of boiled beef”

The name “Tafelspitz”, literally meaning tip for the table, derives from the Austrian term for the meat cut. Usually from a young ox, the cut comes from the top hind end of the cattle, the Musculus glutaeobiceps. The illustration on the right depicts this Austrian style of meat cut, with number 25 marking the part known as Tafelspitz. Pinzgauer Rind, Almenland Almochse, Ländle Kalb or Wienerwald Weiderind are some examples among cattle breeds which are popular for this cut.

Pinzgauer Stier (Tiroler Zucht); Das Rind in Hess, Wiener Küche, 1925. Image Courtesy of Austrian National Library
Pinzgauer Stier (Tiroler Zucht) ; Das Rind. In Hess, Wiener Küche, Wien 1913.  Image Courtesy of Austrian National Library

The meat itself and the way it is prepared have hardly changed since the 19th century. Still nowadays, boiled beef is classically served with extracrispy fried potatoes, apple-horseradish and chive sauce. Very special is the tasty soup that results from boiling beef and vegetables. It can be served before the main course, garnished with dumplings, noodles or soup vegetables.

Austria… and Lithuania?

Did you know that also the Baltic state Lithuania had some relations to the  Austrian cuisine? Within Europeana Food and Drink, the project partners from Austrian National Library and Vilnius University – Faculty of Communication are at the moment exploring historical gastronomic relations that are rather unknown to develop an eCookbook based on traditional recipes. Old cookbooks, pictures or illustrations,  found through Europeana and other sources are the foundation for this research. Europe is looked at from a different angle, considering it to be a net of culinary connections which is linked by invisible historic threads leading to their traditional cuisines.

Stay tuned on our blog to learn more about the result of this European culinary exploration, with historic dishes travelling from Austria to Lithuania and vice versa.

By Angelika Leitner, Austrian National Library