Friday, 2 March 2012

Return to Vienna (4)

(Vicus, dear friend, you may prefer not to read this)

Shortly before we left for Vienna Carlotta, a Swiss friend, told me that the best Wiener Schnitzel - literally 'Viennese Slice', thin slices of boned and steak-hammered veal fried in a coating of breadcrumbs - was to be had at a restaurant called Oswald und Kalb, 14 Bäckerstrasse, Vienna. If O und K's was OK, if their Wiener Schnitzel was the best in Vienna, it had presumably to be the best in the world. We found the restaurant, a tiny place with room for about 15 people, and booked in for supper on my birthday.

That evening we were shown to a table for two by Herr O. (or maybe Herr K.) beside the bar. In the window there was a sign saying - I can't remember the exact German - that here was served the best schnitzel in Vienna. I asked Herr O. (or perhaps Herr K.) if this was true: Yes, he said, it is very true. Very, very true. He retired behind the bar to pour himself a generous glass of white wine, and I was astounded to see him light up a cigarette. We've become so used to smoking being banned in public places, even where we live in individualistic France, that we considered leaving in disgust. But we'd placed our order, we respect Carlotta's opinion, and if the best Wiener Schnitzel in the world was on its way to us, maybe it would be better to overcome our dislike of tobacco smoke and make the best of it.

Both J. and I are former smokers (I used to smoke a pipe until about 25 years ago) and it's notorious that there are no more fanatical anti-smokers than those that have given up.

Our schnitzels arrived, golden, beaming, lovingly prepared and served with pride. The first mouthful reminded me of a superb flavour and texture I hadn't experienced for 50 years. I wish I could describe it to you, but unfortunately I'd hardly eaten a tenth of this glorious offering when some of Herr O's (or possibly Herr K's) pals came in, leant against the bar not two feet from our table, ordered themselves drinks and lit up their vile gaspers, filling our end of the restaurant with noisome smoke. My eyes started to water, my throat to sting, the superb dish was ruined and I couldn't wait to leave. J. was practically apopleptic. I've nothing more to tell except that I honestly don't know whether we'd been served the best schnitzel in the world, and that the walk back to our hotel through the frosty air of the old city of Vienna on a Saturday night was a privilege after the desperate miasmatic stench of Herr O's and Herr K's.

I thought Europe was virtually smoke-free. Stringent anti-smoking laws have been made in France, a country notorious for individuals noisily asserting their inalienable right to do whatever they want whenever they want, yet the no-smoking regulations are pretty scrupulously observed. It's the same in Italy, apparently. In my experience things may be a bit more lax in Spain, but I'd always counted Austrians as being fairly ready to toe the line in such things. Clearly not.

I mentioned this to Carlotta when we got back. Yes, of course, she said, and added she was very sorry, she just hadn't thought to tell us. But then she's a smoker.

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