A recent week in Austria to celebrate a friend’s wedding ended with a final evening in Salzberg. Having spent the day soaking up another medieval and early modern palatinate complex in the form of the Festung Hohensalzburg and the incredible cathedral below, and making all sorts of noises about potential comparative studies with Durham’s own prince bishops, our thoughts turned to the prandial kind.
Nestled into a corner of the monastery walls of St Peter’s Abbey is the St Peter Stiftskeller, praised for its cellar by Alcuin of York in 803, and justifiably proud today of its history as Europe’s oldest restaurant. A flick through our guidebook and a peek at the Stiftskeller’s website suggested a slick, sharp, innovative restaurant and a matching clientele to boot. Karl Lagerfeld is just one of the many starry guests to have graced its threshold, and the web photography alone made me weak at the knees. For the Stiftskeller and I, I had a feeling it was going to be love at first sight.
Entering via a vaulted, open air courtyard, the welcome was warm and we were immediately shown to a table despite not having booked (and not being dressed in Lagerfeld’s threads). The menu was extensive and seasonal; classic meat, game and fish and vegetarian dishes, cooked up with international influences and a gastronome’s flare… a little foam here, a little glaze there…
Whilst we waited for a sharing platter of ‘Delicacies: surprise from the monastery’s kitchen’ and reflected on the happy nuptials, the charm of the city, and my newly-discovered appreciation for Austrian wines, we tucked into caraway and wholemeal breads with herb butters and dipping oil. In due course, the monastery’s kitchen was quick to yield its surprises, and, I’m glad to say, they were all of the pleasant variety. Beautifully arranged, we were treated to tiny portions of red pepper emulsion, carpaccio of beef, chilli jelly, cheese with a pear and ginger chutney, prosciutto, a herb mouse, tongue carpaccio, salmon and black pepper fishcake, and cuts of salted herring: tiny mouthfuls of intense bursts of flavour.
To follow, my husband opted to round his stay in Austria off with a hearty plate of tongue (if that isn’t too jarring a metaphor), whilst I chose smoked tofu in a thai coconut curry served with ginger basmati. Not quite traditionellen österreichischen Spezialitäten, but by that point the novelty of dumplings and wiener schnitzel had worn off and I was intrigued to see what the the kitchens could do with a block of tofu – not an ingredient I usually associate with high-end dining. Under the expert eye of Andreas Krebs and his team, however, it turns out that a form of magic akin to alchemy can be performed with good old bean curd.
We were too full to manage dessert, but I could have happily sat in the Stiftskeller all night. One wonders what the chefs at St Peter’s might do with medieval recipes on the menu, and indeed, what Alcuin might make of it, were he to see the monastic complex today.
A monk of fierce intellect: an advisor to Charlemagne, an advocate of educational reform, and the man responsible for introducing punctuation, capital letters and spaces between words to the written word, Alcuin was not a proponent of excess. He regarded the devastating Viking raids on Northumberland in 793 as divine retribution for the immoral and ‘luxurious habits’ of the Northumbrian people, and urged their king, Ethelred, to:
‘Defend your country by assiduous prayers to God, by acts of justice and mercy to men. Let your use of clothes and food be moderate. Nothing defends a country better than the equity and godliness of princes and the intercessions of the servants of God.’
Perhaps fittingly, one of Alcuin’s preferred foods was porridge, an old favourite in terms of sustenance and nourishment but maybe not the food of a senior churchman at the turn of the eighth century. But his poetry also suggests that in Utrecht he learnt to flavour it with honey and butter (‘In Traiect mel compultimque buturque ministrat ‘*), two ingredients that Mary Garrison observes as allegorical signifiers of wisdom and discernment.** I have no doubt that Garrison is right in this; the literature, both primary and secondary, on the role and symbolism of honey in the Christian Church is vast. However Alcuin was also clearly alive to the more holistic notion that what tastes good does you good. And in that sense, I think he would have been entirely approving of St Peter Stiftskeller’s hospitality 1200 years on.
*’Ad amicos Poetae’, Alcuini carmina, IV, in Ernst Duemmler (ed.), Poet Latini Aevi carolini, I, Monumenta Germaniae Historica, Poetae latini medii aevi 1, Berlin, 1881, pp. 220-222, here at p. 221, l. 9. **Garrison, Mary, ‘In Traiect mel compultimque buturque ministrat’, in Rondom Gregorius van Tours, eds. Mayke de Jong, Els Rose en Henk Teunis (Uitgeverij Verloren, 2001), pp. 114-117.