Patty-cake-patty-cake is more than just a kids’ game in Austria. These people take their laibchen very seriously.
Laibchen is the word for a ground-something patty. Typically it’s made from chopped meat – usually beef or pork – mixed with pepper and salt, garlic and fresh herbs, a bit of chopped onion and an egg to hold it all together. Dusted with fine breadcrumbs, it’s pan-fried in vegetable oil and served with a green salad and a beer.
But modern-day Austrian chefs are hacking up all sorts of things these days to produce an elegant, creative, usually vegetarian riff on this rustic staple.
At Gasthof Fürberg, a small, family-run hotel on Lake Wolfgang in Austria’s Salzkammergut region, the
laibchen (above) are formed from topfen (a fresh cheese similar to quark), minced onion, leek, carrot, celery, beets, and other veggies, and a big dose of minced herbs. Formed into patties, patted with beaten egg and fine breadcrumbs, they are pan-fried and set afloat in a savory wild mushroom ragout. The dense forests around Lake Wolfgang are home to many varieties of mushrooms; the cream comes from a local farm; the herbs are from the hotel’s garden. This is farm-to-table dining at its finest. And that bouquet of fried parsley beside the Fürberg patties isn’t just for looks, by the way. Its bright herbal flavor and lacy crispness made a great dish ever better.
I enjoyed every bite of my cheese laibchen during a recent stay at Gasthof Fürberg. The setting was magical – a gravel terrace smack on the edge of the lake; lights aglow in massive chestnut trees; and a cloud-dotted indigo sky fading to black. We drank a delicious “cuvee” from the Neusiedlersee wine region of eastern Austria (this one a blend of Zweigelt, Blaufränkisch and Cabernet Sauvignon).
And, since I knew I had already burned off many of my dinner calories with a three-hour hike that afternoon, everything tasted all the better. The hike took us up and over the Falkenstein massif, past a picturesque chapel that St. Wolfgang supposedly chiseled out of rock sometime around 964 AD, then down into the modern village of St. Wolfgang.
The hike is one of my favorites because it offers varied terrain (some insanely steep, some baby carriage-friendly), sunshine and shade, a peek inside the gates of lakeside villas, and a smattering of religious legends that I find very entertaining. The path is part of a famous pilgrimage route that includes the aforementioned chapel, another weensy chapel in the side of the mountain that has spring water gushing out of the stone -- supposedly unleashed by St. Wolfgang’s sword; and yet another chapel featuring an indentation in the wall, supposedly made by the saint’s head. Legend has it that if a hiker rests his head in that space he will never suffer from headaches. Since it was covered in slime and seeping water, I decided to take my chances with the headaches.
A few days before our arrival at Fürberg, we had encountered cauliflower laibchen at the charming Steirerhof hotel in Austria’s Steiermark region. (The area is best known to Americans as the home of Ahhhhhnold Schwarzenegger --- remember him?) .
The golden patties consisted of mashed and chunky cauliflower, sautéed onions, topfen cheese, and lots of fresh chopped chives. They sat on “thrones” of whipped topfen. I found the extra cheese to be overkill, but the delicious patties tasted of veggies straight from the garden and the texture was terrific.
Once again, I dug into dinner with gusto, thanks to the rousing hike up and over the Reiteralm that was led that day by the patriarch of the Pitzer family that owns the hotel. (Son Marcos was in front of the 20-plus group of hikers, dad Karl was behind giving encouragement to those who doubted they could tackle the two steep, snow-clad peaks involved.)
Steirerhof is a member of a loose association of hotels in Austria and northern Italy called Wanderhotels. (Wander is German for hiking.) At these hotels, the room rate usually includes a huge breakfast buffet, a three-course dinner, and a guided hike each day.
During our adventure onto the Reiteralm (an alm is a large meadow that’s usually a riot of colorful flowers in June, and home to lucky local cows all summer long) we came upon the Spiegelsee, German for Mirror Lake.
This was our first visit to the Steiermark region. But, with scenery like this during the day, and meals like Steirerhof's at night, it’s unlikely to be our last.