Two hundred thirty-five years after the death of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, his native Austria has shrunk from its Hapsburg Empire dimensions, but its cuisine is as wide-ranging and varied as when the boundaries stretched from Imperial Russia to the Adriatic.
At its height, the empire consisted of more than a dozen nationalities with more than 51 million people speaking 16 languages. Mozart -- whose favorite foods were beluga sturgeon and capon -- traveled for a third of his lifetime, surely enjoying the empire's eclectic mix of regional dishes.
Austria's cooking ranges from Hungarian goulash and Bohemia dumplings to airy spongecakes and egg-enriched sauces of Italian and French origin, to roasts and sausages from southern Germany.
Austria's mountain provinces contributed rittetensuppe (pancake soup) and the Tyrol provided speckknodel (bacon dumplings). Salzburg, Mozart's birthplace, added one of Austria's most famous desserts. Salzburger nockerl is a delicious souffle of eggs, sugar, butter, milk and flour topped with lingonberry sauce. It puffs into rounded mounds.
Although we know from Mozart's letters about his love of capon and sturgeon, Austrian restaurateurs may find it difficult to put together a Mozart menu this year. The beluga sturgeon, which used to swim up the Danube as far as Vienna to spawn, has, since the construction of power stations on the Danube, gotten only as far as Romania.
Some things, however, have not changed. Coffeehouses were among Mozart's favorite haunts in Vienna. There he met friends, played cards and billiards, and gambled away a fortune. In those days coffeehouses had no music. In Mozart Year 1991, many of Vienna's 300 coffeehouses -- including the one behind the state opera house that bears his name -- will play some of his 621 works.
Coffeehouses are a relic of the Turkish siege of Vienna that ended in 1683. A daredevil former Austrian spy, Franz George Kolschitzky, swam underwater across the Danube to reconnoiter positions for the Austrian emperor. Later, when the Turks were routed, they left behind in their tents some mysterious brown beans. As a reward for his services, Emperor Leopold I gave Kolschitzky some of the booty -- and a license to sell coffee.
Today coffeehouses, which offer pastries and as many as 24 different varieties of coffee, are so important to Viennese life that some people name the one they frequent daily as their postal address. They have become the club, pub and bistro where customers don't have to worry about overstaying their welcome as they sip their coffee and read magazines and newspapers.
Perhaps the most famous coffeehouse of all is just across the street from the Cafe Mozart: the Cafe Sacher, just off the stage door of Vienna's Opera House. It is the home of the Sacher torte, created in 1832 when Prince Metternich issued an order for the concoction of a special tasty dessert for a group of discriminating distinguished guests. "I don't want any complaints about the dessert tonight," he barked.
The order came when the chef was sick, so a second-year apprentice, Franz Sacher, 16, took on the difficult task. His creation, a chocolate spongecake with a layer of apricot jam covered with a candylike, semisweet chocolate (and usually served with whipped cream), was a success. The exact composition of the delicacy remains a secret, the cafe says. It sends Sacher tortes throughout the world.
Every year Austria produces 100 billion Mozartkugels, or chocolate balls, the country's national sweet, introduced 100 years ago. The candy's four layers are pistachio-green marzipan, dark nougat cream, light nougat cream and fine dark chocolate. If you lined up one year's production of Austria's Mozartkugels -- each one is only 3 centimeters thick -- they would cover a distance of 2,000 kilometers from Salzburg to Gibraltar.
A portrait of Mozart in a red coat, a white wig and a frilled shirt adorns each piece. He lived 200 meters down the street from the Mozartkugel creator. Today the great-grandson of the inventor still makes them by hand. "It's a lot of trouble, but it's all part of producing the Mozartkugel," he says.
When Mozart finished a composition or after a performance, he enjoyed a large meal and a few drinks. While there is no record of the wines he drank, it is likely he imbibed "heuriger" -- "wine of this year" -- from grapes that still grow on the slopes of the Vienna Woods.
Heurigers are family-owned-and-run wine taverns sprinkled throughout the countryside. They can be identified by a sprig of pine hung above the door and a small plaque informing passersby that the winegrower serves wine on the premises. Viennese law stipulates only establishments that grow their wine entirely in Vienna or surrounding local districts can call themselves heuriger.
Vineyards surrounding the Viennese capital account for 40 percent of the total Austrian wine production. Almost 90 percent of Austria's output is white wine from its 60,000 vineyards.