Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Café Diglas

I met with Hans Diglas at his family’s café at the height of Jause, the Viennese ritual of coffee with a little something on the side. The tables were filled with scowling, grey-haired men cemented into corners, protected from the world by their daily paper; young Frauleins in jeans inhaling cigarettes and exhaling gossip; tourists with lust-glazed gazes eyeing the Apfelstrudel and jam-filled Krapfen (doughnuts). Diglas is one of the few cafés that make their own desserts. Made fresh everyday, Herr Diglas boasts—as opposed to so many of the city’s Konditerei (pastry shops), he tells me, that freeze their cakes and defrost according to need. He declines to name names. Hans Diglas is hospitable to a fault, signaling to the waiter to bring over four desserts, “just to taste,” he assures me. Nevertheless he is quick to disabuse me of any illusions I may have about Viennese cafés and dessert. Not only did cafés here not serve desserts until very recently, he assures me, they were prohibited by law to do so. Though not every dessert was outlawed. For example the Nusskipferln (nut-filled horn) he insists I try was allowed. But forget the tortes for which Austrian metropolis is renowned. Those came later, at least to the kind of café Herr Diglas owns.

There is another sort of café, the so-called Café-Konditerei where desserts are the star attraction. These are the ones where ladies of a certain age traditionally linger throughout the afternoon nibbling on the endless permutations of butter, sugar and flour that the Austrians refer to as Mehlspeisen, (literally flour foods). The long history of the more typical café is of a place where men have congregated and consumed drug beverages, not merely the stimulating varieties but also wine, punch and other spirits. But sweets? Well European men are traditionally not supposed to have a sweet tooth. In Vienna the Café-Konditerei owners were so concerned that they were losing out on the male traffic that they petitioned the authorities to allow them to serve savory foods so that the coarser sex might have something to eat if they accompanied their lady friends to the confectioner’s shop.

Originally those confectioners set up shop to cater to the upwardly mobile bourgeoisie who couldn’t afford their own
Zuckerbäcker as these artisans are know in Austria. When a lady wanted to host an afternoon tea, she would contract one of these shops to supply the necessary sweets. The fashion for a sweet afternoon Jause seems to have arrived with a fashion for all things French around the turn of the nineteenth century. Eventually, the sweet shop would add a few tables and respectable ladies had a place to chat and nibble on Torten while their husbands cut deals in a smoke-filled Kaffehaus.

But back to those
Torten. Don’t image for a moment that there is some antique origin to those delightful strata of sugar and fat. Even that delectable lodestar of Viennese confectionary, the buttercream, dates to the end of the nineteenth century. Jószef Dobos is credited with inventing it in the 1880s. It’s worth remembering that it is virtually impossible to produce buttercream on a commercial basis unless you have dependable refrigeration. So we can thank the industrial revolution not only for flush toilets and espresso but buttercream as well.

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