The holidays, in chocolate: Part II, Austria

Austrian chocolate ball

Perhaps no country has impressed its holiday chocolate so indelibly on my mind as Austria. It was a decade ago that I visited, but I remember the experience clearly, mainly for its several horrors. They weren’t the kind of horrors that made me dislike Austria. On the contrary, I’ve thought often of returning. It’s more that the things I saw there were so hideous, they have left me with a dark and profound fascination with Holiday Austria, including its chocolate.

I visited Austria in early December and the Christmas season was vibrant. My friend Michelle, whom I was visiting, brought me on a multi-city tour of the Christmas markets, which are a seasonal highlight. Market stalls filled every town square, selling pretzel-like pastries and hand-carved wooden things, woolen sweaters and Lederhosen. Everywhere we went, trees and stately buildings were dressed fancily in strings of lights, and there was always glow-wine and deep-fried Emmentaler cheese.

There was also a relentless, freezing, soaking downpour that pursued us around the country. From Graz to Vienna, we dashed from stall to stall in Christmas markets, standing for a few frozen moments pressed up against the table of wares, endeavoring in vain to stay dry beneath the small flap of awning, like goats. Our respite was hot chocolate. Lured in by the glow that spilled out onto wet streets from Austria’s million cafés, we drank dozens of mugs, served on silver platters with tiny spoons and a cube of sugar.

After one such café visit, Michelle and I saw a break in the rain and ventured back out into the night. While we’d been sipping chocolate and eating Sachertorte, the townspeople had turned out in great numbers to line the windy cobbled street, and we soon saw the reason why: a Christmas parade.

Of course we stayed to watch, despite the bitter cold, and it was a lovely parade. Then at the end-where, say, in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York, Santa Claus would appear, driving his sleigh-a horned devil emerged from the darkness. The figure lurched and lunged at the children, who screamed and fled. We watched, transfixed, as he began to pelt them with balls of ice. Parents laughed and smiled. Michelle and I instinctively moved closer together as the figure approached us, swinging a vicious whip low along the ground, leering.

09 krampus

It was Krampus. I had never heard of such a person, but he is part of European Christmas lore. The devil to Nicholas’s saint, his job is to punish naughty children, the ones who don’t deserve gifts. In some accounts, he leaves them coal. In others, he drags children off to Hell, or simply eats them. Wikipedia has a fantastic image from an early twentieth-century greeting card that pretty much sums up the experience of a visit from Krampus:

09 Gruss_vom_Krampus

That was my first enlightening moment regarding Austrian holiday cheer. The second was when we did our stocking stuffer shopping, for Mozart kugel.

It was not possible to step into a shop in Christmastime Austria without encountering a kugel. This was especially the case in Salzburg, Mozart’s birthplace (No. 9 Getreidegasse)–for the kugel are named after the famous composer. They are a three-layer confection: a heart of pistachio marzipan, surrounded by nougat, enrobed in chocolate. Mozart kugel means “Mozart balls” and of course it is only too tempting (in English, anyway) to add the possessive to “Mozart,” and give the confection a new layer.

Historically, the Mozart kugel are award winning and beloved. Competition over which brand is the “real” kugel is fierce. The Austrians are wild for them, if supply is any judge. Accordingly, I bought many boxes of Mozart kugel, to distribute back home as gifts. Back in our guesthouse, having never known a kugel, Michelle and I dissected one. Inside, we saw a hideous thing:


09 kugel

I mean, really! Green, surrounded by a paste the color of some human flesh? Visually, the inside of the kugel was a shock. Nevertheless, we tasted one. And here I have to say something that I genuinely do not wish to say about any chocolate, least of all one that seems to be the confectionary heart of an entire country’s holiday spirit: I did not like the kugel. I think this was mainly due to the marzipan, which I don’t fancy, even when it’s not pea-green. Or maybe I was simply too old by then, and had missed a crucial Mozart kugel imprint period. Or maybe I just chose a lesser brand. Who knows. I would seriously like to return to Holiday Austria and taste them again to see if our relationship improves.

But for now, I am glad to be going to a place where there will almost certainly be no Mozart kugel: Nigeria. I will look for holiday chocolate there, and report back next week on the treasures that I find.

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