‘Schnitzel with noodles’, sang Julie Andrews in one of Salzburg’s most famous cultural highlights, The Sound of Music. I love Austria’s wonderfully comforting cuisine, and this elegant little city is blessed with a riot of places to eat.
With so many visitors to its festivals, the dining scene is varied and stylish. Musicians and artists from nearby theatres and galleries pile into atmospheric Triangel, and it’s here, amongst the cowhide chairs, sheepskins for outdoor dining and urbane waiters that we have our first genuine Austrian schnitzel. It’s love. We have kasnocken, too, a pleasingly super-stodgy version of mac ‘n’ cheese made with spaetzle, and haussulze, a kind of jellied meatloaf with pumpkin oil.
There’s a delicious cuckoo-clock aesthetic to many of the restaurants here. Dirndls and lederhosen are alive and well in this city, and history greets you at every turn. After a wander through hauntingly beautiful St Peter’s cemetery, we find ancient Stiftsbäckerei St Peter – over 700 years old – where bread, sweet white and rustic rye, are baked in wood ovens the way they have been for centuries. We buy dense, dark sourdough rolls to chomp on as we wander the alleyways.
A different kind of past awaits across the river from the Altstadt. In a part of town off the tourist radar, chef Roland Essl keeps the 600-year-old traditions of Alpine cuisine alive in his Weiserhof. This style of cooking is in danger of disappearing, but it’s very much worth seeking out. We eat fat-pearled, salamistyle sausage made from mountain chamois; the hilariously named stinker knödel, dumplings crafted from old – and, yes, stinky – cheese made from whey ‘because the cream went to the rich’; Pongauer fleischkrapfen (these names!): huge pasty-like ravioli made from fried rye-flour pasta stuffed with smoked beef and served with sauerkraut. Roland makes some of the best black pudding I’ve ever had: soft, fudge-like, delicately flavoured with nutmeg, cinnamon and cardamom, and served with silky mash and lentils.
We head out of town to Hallein to meet Gerd Braun, owner of generations-old Café Braun. Wow, Austria is good at sweet things, and this is a fantasyland for lovers of chocolate, sponge and marzipan, often crafted into outrageously pretty confections. We have strong coffee and krapfen – light brioche doughnuts; pale, chewy, honey-gingerbread honigkuchen; and a bavarois of praline and cream. Ravishing.
Our next two experiences couldn’t be more different. The first is rural and rustic, cheese-making at Fürstenhof, a low-slung dairy with glossy Jersey cows. We leave laden with our own-made ‘sorta-mozzarella’. Then it’s the height of sophistication at the two-Michelin-starred Obauer in pretty, Alpine-chic Werfen. Here, brothers Karl and Rudi Obauer dazzle with intricate, clever interpretations of classic dishes. There’s river trout, almost ceviched and served with wild herbs; and local venison, rosy and rich, with rowanberries. Some dishes you can’t imagine being delicate – slow-cooked pork cheek with goose-stuffed dumpling and truffled cabbage – but they manage it. And when they go off-piste – a dessert of blood orange and coconut – the results are exquisite.
Back to the pretty Salzburg streets to graze. There’s the market in Universitätsplatz for giant pretzels studded with seeds or crusted with cheese. I like Delikatessen Mayer for its kletzenbrot – dark fruit bread, dense with figs and spices, like Scottish black bun. And my first introduction to kaspressknödel – ‘squeezed cheese dumplings’, gooey and hypnotically stodgy. Down an atmospheric ‘through house’ – a tiny, covered alleyway – we hit the legendary Balkan Grill for one of their bosnas: fragrant beef sausages in soft baguette, pungent with curry spice, onion and parsley, lubricated with lurid-orange hot ‘punsch’ from the tiny wine shop, Sporer, next door. We buy truffled, cured sausage from Felleis and Knittelfelder while stylish locals sip sultry riesling from Wachau.
And the cafés! There’s everything a vintage coffee shop addict could wish for: Schatz Konditorei with its original bentwood Thonet chairs and gluttony-inducing pastries. Founder Carl Shatz invented the now-ubiquitous Mozartkugel stuffed with pistachio marzipan and praline. There are some wonderfully preserved coffeehouses on the north side of the River Salzach: Café Wernbacher for faded 50s beatnik glamour, or Café Bazar, its Belle Époque interior a haunt of artists and intellectuals. Café Tomaselli is in the heart of the old town, notable for its excellent strudels and rude waiters. I’m unfazed: it’s worth any chippiness for the antique beauty of the rooms, the einspänner and mélange coffees and the blowsy indulgence of its sugared pastries, sachertorte, strawberry tarts and oozing éclairs.
St Peter Stiftskeller, within the eponymous monastery walls, can lay claim to being Europe’s oldest restaurant: above its carved door reads ‘seif 803’ (since 803). Restaurant manager Jos Huppertz shows us the building’s many secrets: rooms built into the rockface; ballrooms as gilded and elaborate as a wedding cake; wood-panelled halls hung with hunting trophies. This is a destination for Salzburg’s wealthiest visitors, where Karl Lagerfeld holds parties and customers wear fur parkas. We have two of Salzburg’s most famous dishes: tafelspitz, boiled beef served with a root vegetable broth, freshly-grated horseradish, a herbal spinach purée, and what’s described as a dumpling but is more like a thick bread sauce. And the iconic Salzburger nockerl, soft meringue peaked to look like a mountain range – and every bit as mammoth. Huppertz cuts into its trembling mass to reveal the sharp berry jam hidden in its depths.
There’s just time for one more schnitzel at cute, studenty Zum Zirkelwirt – light, crisp, juicy; yes, Julie, it really is one of my favourite things. As we leave, the host shouts after us, ‘Have a nice life!’. OK, Salzburg, we will.