Sunday, December 14, 2014

Another Christmas Market Post. (This One, with a History Lesson!)

With ox tails ragu-ing in the slow cooker for dinner, and a Teenager busy studying for an Algebra exam, Tony and I pointed the five-horse sleigh into Burgenland, Austria's smallest state, and largely bordering Hungary ("Ungarn" on the map) to visit the Christmas market at Schloss Esterhazy.

Burgenland has an interesting history, most of which I shall not bore you with. During the Empire, Burgenland was part of the Kingdom of Hungary, with the Esterhazy's being the ruling family. After the dissolution of the Empire, Burgenland was assigned to Austria, I think, because of its German-speaking majority population. And then, of course, Burgenland was absorbed into Nazi Germany, but its border city Sopron was the location where the Iron Curtain first fell. So there.
The ancestral home of the Esterhazy Family was, once upon a time, a beautiful Baroque palace. A little TLC is needed here and there, though it is possible to imagine its former glamour inside. Joseph Haydn was the noted composer of the Esterhazy Court, and an annual festival is held at the palace to celebrate him. Of interesting note is that the melody from Haydn's Emperor's Hymn, written for the Holy Roman Emperor, also happens to be the melody for the current German National Anthem. 
 I love the Antler Room.

 The Ballroom was especially festive.

A view from the main salon overlooking the portico and gardens. Grey, foggy, and with an almost haunted feel. Would you believe Burgenland's motto is, "The Sunniest State in Austria?"
Schloss Esterhazy sits in Eisenstadt, Burgenland's capital city. Adjacent to the palace is Eisenstadt's "Main Street," where we had hoped to find somewhere to enjoy lunch. This is what much of Austria looks like at midday on Sunday afternoons, when practically everything is closed. Two of the three restaurants that were open had no available tables, but thankfully our third attempt was the charm and we squeezed into a table for the daily special of Fledermaus. No, of course we did not eat "bat," but rather, pounded chicken cutlets shaped like bat wings. Delicious, and with an equally delicious pumpkin-seed oil drizzled potato salad and my favorite Burgenland wine, a Blaufrankisch.

After lunch Eisenstadt's small and pleasant Christmasmarkt had opened; we strolled past a nativity scene with an unusually gnome-like Holy Family and vendors selling all sorts of Austro-Hungarian goodies.
Among those goodies was this stunning piece of cookware from Korond, Romania. I call it "Hungarian Le Creuset," but it has a more interesting story.
Cue the next map. The village of Korond, Romania is populated by Hungarians who were forcibly relocated to (present-day) Romania to defend the Kingdom of Hungary from invading Ottomans. They remained even after Transylvania was assigned to Romania, and to this day these displaced Hungarian ethnics continue their pottery and ceramic traditions. Korond is marked with a yellow star; near the Romanian border.
Thank you, Internet, for the photo.
What began as a pleasant way to spend an afternoon netted a culinary treasure and another piece for the infinitely sized puzzle of Central European history. I love what we discover when we go wandering. 

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Make New Friends, and Keep the Old

Christmas markets make for both pleasant diversions while running errands in the city, and as destinations in their own right. I am rather partial to the AltWiener Christkindlmarkt and the market nearby at Freyung public square.  The markets capture my attention for their displays, and strolling amidst the setting of Schottenkirche and several beautiful city palaces makes me happy.

This week friends and I paid a visit to another old friend, the Bratislava Christmas markets. Simplicity reigns with the city's two small markets, leaving plenty of opportunity to appreciate the eclectic mix of fading Baroque and modern architecture, and sample unusual cuisine. 

 Duck fat crepes, anyone?
This week I also made a new friend, the Palais Niederösterreich Adventmarkt. The market was set in several of the palace rooms and showcased the bounty of Lower Austria in grand style.

I declared it impossible to leave this market without a gift for everyone on your holiday list. Birch Water is the new Coconut Water, I was informed, only with 20% alcohol. 
 Whisky, however, never goes out of fashion.
The flavor of Austrian cuisine tends more toward the savory, so I was pleasantly surprised to see so many scharf (spicy) offerings.
Level 1 (sweet) to Level 12 (spicy!). A sauce for every taste.
Saffron spice collected from crocus flowers is used in Gugelhupf, a classic Austrian cake and one of our favorites.
The burning of blessed incense is a tradition associated with Epiphany; the selection from which to choose was extensive and impressive.
 Herr Blaich explained how one of my favorite oils, Kürbiskernol (pumpkin seed oil) is made.
Ever so resourceful. Who knew fish skin could become a fashion accessory?
I am also convinced that there is not a grass, or flower, or plant that can not be processed into either schnapps or a jam in this country, and sometimes both!
To old friends, and to new friends. Prost!