Saturday, December 13, 2008


Sluka, another of Vienna’s famed Zuckerbäckers is holding up less well under the Christmas onslaught. Admittedly, its location next to the Rathaus puts it just a few steps away from the ginormous Christmas market that takes over the square in front of City Hall. The market is great fun in a hokey, carnival kind of way. Seemingly, there are miles of stands selling kitsch and wurst. And Sluka does not bear the overflow with grace. The service is more brusque than efficient, the harried waitress demanding payment even as she drops my order on the table. Looking over the shop-worn desserts I had selected the strudel, thinking it a safe bet. Not so, it turned out to be soggy, mushy and overly sweet. No need to go to Vienna for this!

Friday, December 12, 2008


Two weeks before Christmas, Demel is a madhouse. At five in the afternoon, the waitresses cut through the swaying shoals of tourists like sharks on a mission. The customers barely take heed though, transfixed as they are by so much towering confectionery. Demel’s is easily the city’s most picturesque Café-Konditerei with fittings that date back to the late 1800s. Admittedly, the design is just about as chaotic as the crowd with a confusion of styles that comes with a century of decorative accretions. The latest change came in 2002 when DO & CO the catering corporation that bought the storied confectioner added an open kitchen to the mix. Here, the curious can ogle the Sacher-Tortes being iced and chocolates receiving their final flourishes. I am of two minds about this. I love seeing the meticulous workers carrying out their métier, but it does turn the café into an even more Disneyesque production that it already is.

All the same, the cakes look damn good—not merely the tortes but also the strudels, tarts, and other more homey confections. I stick to the cakes though, ordering a slice of Maroni-Torte, a four layer affair of chocolate and chestnut cream robed in an infinitesimally thin coating of marzipan and an overcoat of chocolate glaze. Textbook perfect and the little “kiss” of chocolate dipped chestnut cream on top just adds to the delight. Demel’s at least seems to be surviving the corporate takeover rather well.

Thursday, December 11, 2008


Though Gerstner dates back to 1843, the Café-Konditerei on Kärtner Strasse, one of Central Vienna’s main shopping drags, is of much more recent vintage. No Gemütlichkeit here, rather a contemporary urban vibe keeps the room humming with conversation, the steam-engine hiss of the large, utilitarian espresso machine and the constant timpani clink of china on marble counters. The cakes are picture perfect though my Dobostorte —admittedly a dense confection of chocolate buttercream and some eight layers of vanilla cake—is perhaps a little denser than need be. And the coffee is thin.

And I’m a little put-off by the display of French-style macarons in the window. It makes me wonder if the management’s heart is really in the right place. I’m probably being unfair though, who am I to deny the Viennese these delightful Parisian treats.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Heiner Café-Konditerei

A short walk from St. Stephen’s cathedral, L. Heiner is on Wollzeile 9, more or less cattycorner, from Hans Diglas’ café. Heiner has more Gemütlichkeit than class, the waitresses, outfitted with folkloric costume and orthopedic shoes, bustle with a slightly frenetic efficiency handing out fractions of cakes and sections of tarts. The Sarah Bernhardt Torte (€3.50) I order is a happy surfeit of cream upon cream; three layers of chocolate buttercream and two of mocha sandwiched by thin layers of walnut cake. All this is covered with a chocolate glaze. Yes, it’s a little over the top but what would you expect from a cake named after the famed actress.

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.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

At Nakur

Kolkata sweet makers have a weird life, like bakers the world over, they sleep while the rest of us work and make themselves busy into the deep hours of the night. When you visit the sweetshops in the afternoon—at least those where the workshops are in the rear of the store—you see the workers sprawled on benches and any other elevated spot, tossing and turning in an effort sleep. As best as I can figure out, many of them live here much of the time. If you want to see the action, you need to wait until dark. Most of the confectioners don’t start production until six, seven o’clock so the sweets are fresh the next morning. Remember, there are no refrigerators here.

The best example
of one of these small confectioners is Girish Chandra Dey & Nakur Chandra Nandy, one of the best loved and oldest sweetshops in North Kolkata. Nakur, as everyone calls it, is on a busy commercial lane in the skein of densely trafficked streets that make up the old Shyambazar district. The shop itself is little more than a grated hole in the wall but the locals who line up at the window and the connoisseurs who have braved the traffic across town, know that this is where you can find some of the finest sandesh in Kolkata, delicate and creamy with a subtle grain that melts gradually and unevenly in your mouth.

This is probably the spot to discuss Kolkatans’ most beloved sweetmeat.
Whereas rossogolla seems to incite controversy and reactions that I associate with soccer hooligans [see for a little sample] sandesh seems to be primarily on object of affection. There is controversy, no doubt, but little bloodlust. I had the good fortune to have Joydeep Chatterjee my Kolkata sweets guru open the door for me at Nakur. Here there is no secret (or not much) to how sandesh is made. In fact, regular mortals can see right into the workshop as they shop for their sandesh. The workroom is astonishing simple. A large gas burner or two with a giant karai (Indian wok) set on top. A couple of sinks. And that’s about it. The workers mostly work squatting on the floor assembling the confections.

The process of making sandesh is easy enough to describe—the finesse comes in the execution. And the ingredients. In the early hours of evening, milk trucks pull up to the front of the shop, buckets of fresh, raw cow’s milk are carried inside and then pasteurized. Then a worker adds a small amount of the sour whey from the last batch of chhana. This curdles the hot milk. Then the milk solids, called chhana, are scooped out and allowed to drain. This is, incidentally, exactly the same process as making ricotta. Now the milk curds are set on a wooden board, set at an angle over a sink, allowing the whey to seep out gradually. Then comes a light squeeze in a linen cloth and finally the critical step where the chhana is kneaded, by hand, to achieve just the right texture. I am introduced to the master kneader, Uchit Narayan, the one Joydeep told me he would adorn with jewels and honors, if he had the power. Uchit grins at me and gets back to work.

Once the curds are the perfect consistency, they are cooked with a sugar syrup.
Depending on the desired result, you will cook them more or less time. Cook the mixture briefly and the sandesh is the consistency of a light delicate cheesecake. Longer contact with the fire and the sandesh is drier so it can be molded and filled—much like Belgian chocolates. At Nakur the fillings vary from lemon to black currant to even vodka!

So what makes Nakur better than the great majority of Kolkata sweetshops? First the milk. Protap Chandra Nag, who runs the shop, quips that K.C. Das uses pasteurized milk for their confections and so his sandesh has no flavor. Another reason is the slow process of draining the chhana which maintains the fat content of the milk. Joydeep tells me that a lot of sweetshops weigh down the [warm] chhana to extract the whey, losing a lot of butterfat along the way. They can render the fat and sell it for ghee but the sandesh is poorer for it. Finally, the apostates will the knead the chhana in a machine. A horror, my guru assures me.

So what is my favorite here? I think it is one of the simplest: a sandesh filled with a mix of soft chhana and evaporated milk. It’s like an edible haiku on the many forms of creaminess.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Visiting K.C. Das

The morning after Kali Puja, the atmosphere is even thicker with the air-borne particulate from what must have been tens of thousands fireworks and crackers that blew up last night. It’s a little ironic that the city has banned smoking just about everywhere but in your home. I’d hard enough to imagine what the lungs of a non-smoking Kolkatan look like, the smokers must be in dire state indeed. But I don’t have much time to ponder the public health concerns from nicotine in the developing world. My crash course in Indian desserts is about to accelerate.

Today I made an appointment with K.C. Das, or to be more precise with Dhiman Das, one of the partners in this venerable institution. K.C. Das is like Vienna’s Demel, an urban icon that people like to grouse about: “It’s not as good as it used to be….you can find better sandeshrossogolla…at (and they fill in the name of their favorite sweetmaker).” But it’s on every list of the city’s best confectioners. The company’s sweet-making facilities and offices are located in Baghbazar, an old neighborhood in Kolkata’s north end where many of the city’s most famous sweetshops are located. Not that I’m allowed to visit the factory—I’m quickly whisked off to the Das family home where I wait in a dim old-fashioned parlor hung with modern art and religious icons.

Dhiman Das is meticulously polite but only modestly forthcoming. He tells me the family legend about the invention of rossogolla, the shop’s claim to fame. The way he tells the story, his great, great, grandfather Nobin Chandra Das created what is now one of India’s favorite desserts through a process of trial and error. He was looking to create a sweet moister that plain old sandesh, something that would quench thirst as well as the sweet tooth.

I saw rossogolla being made later in the day at a local neighborhood sweetshop. You can see the setup in the picture below. Presumably the arrangement in the K.C.Das kitchens is a little more up-to-date but the process is much the same.

To make rossogolla you take chhana (fresh cow’s milk curd cheese) and knead it to the correct consistency, then you stir in a little maidam (wheat flour) and make balls of about an inch (or a little more?) in diameter. These are then boiled in syrup, drained and placed in cool syrup. In the process, they blow up to more than twice their diameter, become lighter and bouncier.

There are numerous variations (mango rossogolla anyone?) but one of the classics, apparently created by Nobin Chandra’s son, is rossomalai (rosso refers to syrup and malai to milk). This is made exactly the same way as rossogolla except that in this case it is soaked in a milk-based and saffron-tinted syrup. The result is creamy, delicate and almost like a really good ile flottante, but much less insipid. Dhiman Das tells me all the Westerners like it the best.

As we sit, he sets a feast of sweets before me, not only the famous rossogolla and rossomalai, but also a whole assortment of sandesh: plain, stuffed, light and airy as well as dense and chewy. There are also a whole series of new inventions where rossogolla is sandwiched with sandesh. I’m not entirely convinced by these. I think the textures detract from each other. Still it is all very educational.

Dhiman Das sends me home with two big cans of rossogolla. They’ve been canning these since the thirties. We’ll have to see what the folks back home have to say about it.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Kali Puja

In Kolkata, the morning’s thick, pink air fills once again with a slowly-building crescendo of blasts and beeps. Much to my amusement, the newspaper features a story on regulations meant to minimize the noise pollution of Kali Puja, when celebrants set off fireworks and firecrackers to serenade the goddess. Firecrackers that generate more than 90 decibels at 5 meters distance are supposed to be banned (for comparison, that’s like a jackhammer at about a meter). The next day The Telegraph reports that almost 800 people were arrested in the night for noise violations. But my question is, aren’t these firecrackers just another note in the city’s cacophonous cantata, just the loudest crash of cymbals at the concert’s end. What’s more, Kali isn’t exactly the type to go in for law and order.

She’s heavily into sweets though. When you visit the temple in Kalighat, the little shops that line the alleys surrounding the temple as well as the cramped courtyard inside sell basically two things. Little sweets made of thickened milk and sugar, some flavored with a few grains of cardamom, and garlands of hibiscus. The goddess is apparently as fond of the blood-red flowers as the sugary snacks. The shops get deliveries of a great mounds of the sweet paste which they then form into disks about the size of a silver dollar. These then get packaged into a dry leaf cone with a few blossoms to decorate the offering. You then line up (for hours!) to present the sweets to the priests.

But I’m getting a little off subject here. Because the sweets for which Kolkata is really known are not considered acceptable to the goddess or any of the rest of the Hindu A-Team for that matter. What Bengal is know for are desserts based on a fresh curd cheese, called chhana in Bengali. It’s made more or less the same as Spanish queso fresco or, for that matter, North Indian paneer, by curdling hot milk with a little acid and draining off the whey. (Curdled milk is considered impure to ultra-orthodox Brahmin and thus the gods.) To make paneer, the curds are then pressed into dense bricks and then typically used in savory recipes. For chhana the milk solids are kneaded to an appropriate consistency and then further processed into a whole menagerie of sweets, the most prominent of which is called sandesh. This can take the form elegant little cheesecake-like pillows or be denser and stuffed with nuts or other fillings. There are also variations that are simmered in syrup or soaked in a saffron-tinted milky liquid. There exist dozens if not hundreds of permutations.

But it all comes down to the kneading, I’m told by Joydeep Chatterjee.

What’s the point of coming to India if you can’t get yourself a guru? And I couldn’t ask for a better one. Not that Joydeep exactly fits the stereotype, he is clean-shaven and modestly rotund. Though not modest in most other respects. When he speaks, whether indoors or out, it is always to the balcony. It turns out he trained as a physicist at Oxford (or was it Cambridge?) with a specialty in chaos theory. (Now that’s something that comes in handy in Kolkata!) These days he mostly works as a journalist and his obsession, as I find out in intricate detail after a two-hour lecture, is the field of Bengali sweets.

Bengalis can’t knead the chhana, he tells me, “this is the kind of job which is not possible for Bengalis to do because the kind of bone structure we have, the kind of anatomy we have, the kind of inner strength that we have with this kind of weather.” No, what you need is a guy from Bihar. And he assures me he knows the best one in Kolkata. “I’ve always told him that if I were the king—or some such thing—in India I would be adorning your hands with diamonds and whatever I have” he says, adding, “He’s such an important man…” Because unless the chhana is kneaded to the right consistency it doesn’t have the right grain. And that, Joydeep insists, is worse than a disaster. I’m promised an introduction to the chhana master on the following day.

You get this really warm and cozy feeling in your stomach when you finally meet your guru, especially when he takes you along to visit his pals.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

On the Eve of Kali Puja

The first thing that hits you as you emerge from the city’s grubby arrivals terminal is the air: thick and acrid, like a still, poisonous fog. The second thing is the cacophony of traffic. Indians treat their cars as percussion instruments with a wide range of taps, raps and blasts that express their intentions, emotions and position in the hierarchy of the road. The caste system is alive and well here. The diesel-belching trucks are the Brahmin of the road, bullying everyone out of their path in the choked roadway. Buses and taxis compete for second place, the latter unequal in mass, certainly, but they make up for it by their sheer entrepreneurial whim. Then come the skittish passenger cars and the three-wheeled auto rickshaws. Finally, the human propelled rickshaws have their own unique spot in this hierarchy. Because they are the untouchables the rules don’t really apply, allowing them to weave through the fitful flow with a kind of reckless oblivion. And the pedestrians? They are insects, scurrying to preserve their lives.

It takes well over an hour to get to the center of the city, past lakes and ponds, and mud huts with sagging roofs surmounted with great billboards advertising luxury high-rises. Kolkata itself could be a lovely city, a Barcelona on the Ganges. It is full of charming, wacky and just plain odd buildings that remind you of what a peculiar place the Indian raj must have been. The Anglo-
Indian cuisine that developed here is surely one history’s more grotesque miscegenations, but the architecture that dates from the years when Kolkata was the colonial capital is delightful. There are gorgeously crumbling mansions in a vaguely beaux-art meets Taj Mahal style as well as handsome apartment blocks with names like Palace Court. But of course, that isn’t what the first time visitor notices. What you see the trash and the disrepair and the poverty. But please, don’t come here, if you can’t see beyond that, because there is so much more.

It is the eve of Kali Puja, one of the many festivals, or pujas, that Kolkatans celebrate. Elsewhere, the holiday is called Diwali and it is dedicated to the Lakshmi, the goody-two-shoes goddess of grace and prosperity. But not here. In West Bengal it is devoted to Kali, the vengeful mother goddess. Block associations, sports clubs and everyone else with the time and the money puts up shrines all around the city with life-size or mostly bigger idols of the goddess with her necklace of skulls and her tongue stuck out in surprise. There are prizes given for the best shrine, the best lighting and even the best sound effects. Garlands of colored lights make some blocks look like Christmas in Brooklyn. Along S.N. Banerjee Road, garlands of flowers lie in twisted piles of yellow and orange along the side of the dusty road. Opposite, the shops full of carefully framed images of the goddess are fronted by chest-high baskets of sugary sweets dyed in colors too outrageous for mere nature—all watched over hundreds of palm-sized statues of the approving goddess, each hot-pink painted idol, carefully tied in a cellophane cocoon. She gets her sweets tomorrow.

Friday, August 22, 2008

My Slow Food Problem

Now don’t get me wrong, I love the flavor of freshly-picked, $4.50 per pound farmer’s market heirloom tomatoes as much as anyone.  Maybe more.  For lunch today I cut some up in thick slices, and laid them out on organic bread slathered with Hellman’s (OK, I am weak) and sprinkled sel gris on top.  And I have been known to pay $20 dollars for a couple of not terribly weighty pork chops and, yes, they tasted lardy, gamey and delicious the way pork chops are supposed to taste and, yes, I abhor the way that clever animals like a pigs are crushed and abused worse than commuters on the No. 6 train

But I am also white, middle class and food obsessed.  Still, I am not delusional.  And when I hear one of the organizers of the Slow Foodapooloza in San Francisco start talking about reviving the idea of the Victory garden as a way of giving disadvantaged people in the United States access to fresh, wholesome food I am convinced that the Slow Foodies are so insulated from reality that they make George W. seem like a reincarnation of Upton Sinclair.  Anya Fernaldis, the Executive Director of Slow Food Nation, readily admits that minimum wage workers are hardly worrying about sustainable agriculture.  So her suggestion is that they plant gardens and harvest the fruit  of their labor.  It worked for middle-class, suburban and rural families during the two world wars.  So why not in the ghetto or the trailer park?  She says that’s it’s a question of time if you don’t have the money.  Time?  Is her head so deeply buried in the compost that she think single mother’s are just hanging around the house watching Oprah?  That families that have seen their wages erode and erode to the point where practically every family needs two wage earner’s to keep their heads above water has time?  Has she any idea how much lead there is in the ground in the inner cities?  Does she think that the people who can’t afford my $4.50 tomato have other things to do with their free moments than to dig in the soil with the hope that 5 months later, they will be able to harvest a crop of zucchini?  This seems like the kind of prescription Marie Antoinette would have cooked up had she been a soccer mom.

And anyway, I’m not really sure that the concern of most slow foodites is to take the revolution to the people.  The organization is fundamentally about class anyway.  Or to be fair, it’s about eating really good food which can only be produced in labor-intensive ways which makes it unaffordable to the commoners and thus makes it a very convenient class marker.  Like the opera or the ballet but tastier.  That doesn’t make it “bad,” just a little delusional.