Saturday, 29 September 2012

The Great Japanese Rooftop Barbeque

With the hot summer nights there is nothing better to an Aussie than a good old-fashioned barbeque. There is something quite primeval about sitting around an open flame with a drink in hand, enjoying a balmy evening while cooking fresh raw meat! At this point I must apologise to my vegetarian friends who will be cringing with contempt as they look forward to their carrot stick lunch. However, whether they like it or not, the barbeque remains one of the most satisfying of culinary experiences that is happily enjoyed by us carnivores. To our surprise, here in Japan the home-style barbeque is generally a pretty rare experience. Not because the Japanese dislike cooked meat, quite the contrary, but simply because most live in apartments that understandably prevent any kind of open air cooking. However, not to be deterred they have invented numerous ways in which the humble barbeque can be enjoyed, one of which is what Jules and I simply refer to as the ‘rooftop barbie’!

In Osaka this event is referred to as a ‘beer garden’ and is so popular that you need to book weeks, if not months, in advance to reserve a spot on top of one of the city’s many high-rise buildings. Once making it to the rooftop, the elevator doors open to what can only be described as an over-scaled ‘simulated backyard’ complete with rows of tables each with mini ‘hibachi style’ barbeques. There is fake grass and the usual temporary seats that you might find at your local backyard function, such as the classic ‘white plastic stackable’ and the ‘strappy fold-out’ variety. Like many of Japans large group eating establishments, it is an all you can eat and drink affair. You are given a set time limit, so patrons are encouraged to get there early in their best barbeque attire to fire up their cooker and enjoy the endless amount of food and drink on offer. With plates in hand, you head around to various ‘stations’ to collect the freshly cut seafood and raw meat. This tends to be quite thinly cut, as is the Japanese preference, so it takes only a couple of minutes before it is cooked. Of course there are many accompaniments available too, including the odd bit of salad if that is your choice, but it is the ritual of cooking meat and seafood in the open air that the locals primarily come to experience, not to mention the many large jugs of beer that inevitably wash it all down.

The atmosphere high above the city rooftops is quite unique, with thousands of fairy lights draped all around, accompanying the more impressive lights of the big city beyond. High on a wall is a projector, beaming out drive-in sized images of the latest local sporting events, however nobody really seems to be watching it as they are more intent upon keeping an eye on their sizzling meat. Once all the barbeques are in full swing, there is a steady cloud of smoke drifting high into the night sky, while there is a ground swell of boisterous conversation that continues to increase with the arrival of yet more jugs of the amber fluid.

Several hours later and at the designated time, the tune ‘Old Lang Syne’ is played from overhead speakers, which is the not so subtle hint that the crowd should eat their last morsel, drink up and leave. Inevitably by this stage of the night the rooftop party is well and truly in full swing and despite being the only ‘gaijins’ (foreigners) at this mammoth communal barbeque, our group has by now struck up a conversation with one of the Japanese groups on the next table who are curious about our origins and have now drunk enough beer to ask. It is all very friendly and indicative of the happy atmosphere of the evening that continues to bring people of all ages back during the summer months. While such venues are temporary and only last for about four months each year, they have in recent years become a roaring success, enabling the locals to experience something that we in Australia tend to take for granted. While it may be a relatively new phenomenon over here, we found the whole experience to be actually very close to the traditional Aussie ‘beer garden’. Indeed through such annual events, barbeque cooking in Japan certainly remains alive and well, adding to Osaka’s reputation for their love of all forms of cooking and of course, good times!

Saturday, 15 September 2012

In Search for the Best ‘Vanilla Slice’ Ever!

Over the last few years, friends and family have been under the misguided impression that we have spent our time away from Australia purely sightseeing. I must confess that this is not entirely true, as in fact we have been undertaking some quite serious research by scouring the world to find the perfect ‘Vanilla Slice’! Well, in all fairness to Jules, I have to state that it has been my quest really, as I have tended to eat most of these delicious custard filled slices of heaven in the various places we have visited.

The strange thing is that as I child, I wasn’t particularly fond of this particular cake, which is still colloquially referred to in Australia as a ‘snot block’. They would sell them in the school canteen and more often than not, they would sit in an open tray in a warm room for several hours, attracting the flies and ensuring that the over-yellowed custard filling would stiffen to become a coagulated block of jelly. However, my impression was to dramatically change several years later when what was referred to as ‘Bavarian Slice’ was served to me at a Christmas function in Adelaide. Apart from the name change, it was essentially the same cake, but this time the vanilla custard was smooth and creamy, the puff pastry was crisp yet not too dry and it was topped with a perfect coating of white icing…absolutely delicious! I asked where the cake had come from, but nobody knew anything other than the name, which was assumed had some sort of Germanic connection. I guess that is where the search began and over the next few years, when ever we passed a local bakery we would pop in, in the hope that I might re-discover that delicious custard slice, whatever it’s name might be.

I wouldn’t like to call it a fixation, but this ‘interest’ of mine has seen Jules and I exploring many bakeries from all over Australia and in more recent times worldwide. We have tasted all kinds of variations over the years including different types of custards, consistency of pastry or subtlties of icing and in some cases, the inclusion of jam. Recently we finally made it to the region of Bavaria, not that we came here especially to look for the elusive slice, but it was certainly on my ‘things to do’ list in both Germany and Austria. Here we discovered that what we knew as a ‘Vanilla Slice’ in Australia was referred to in these parts as a ‘Cream Slice’ or a ‘Creme Schnitte’. It turns out that the term ‘Bavarian Slice’ was actually a term given to the slice in England, where it remains as popular as in Australia and as a result of immigration, it may explain why it sometimes goes by that name.

No matter what name the slice goes by, it’s certainly not a pretty cake to eat, with custard oozing out the sides with every bite, eventually leaving you with cream all over your face and sticky hands from the icing. I must admit that I probably indulged in far too many ‘Cream Schnittes’ on our recent trip, but it’s a thankless task and in the name of research somebody has to do it! So at this stage I think I can reveal my current list of the top six standouts in my quest for the perfect ‘Vanilla Slice’…

 1. Dulwich Bakery Adelaide, Australia – This is our favorite local bakery and still delivers the best ‘Vanilla Slice’ in South Australia and possibly the world!

 2. Cafe Hanselmann St Moritz, Switzerland – Here they refer to it as a ‘Vanilla Cream’ and serve the slice with a layer of puff pastry in the centre and a thin layer of jam…very tasty!

 3. Greenhaigh’s Bakery Wigan, United Kingdom – I must admit that I ate a ‘Bavarian Slice’ here a few years ago, but I fondly remember the vanilla custard being deliciously creamy.

 4. Café Diglas Vienna, Austria – Again served with the puff pastry in the middle, allowing the slice to stand particularly tall, with just a hint of jam.

 5. Schatz-Konditorei Salzburg, Austria – They served a nice ‘Cremeschnitte’ that came with an additional layer of regular cream (although quite unnecessary in my opinion) and very creamy custard.

 6. Demel Pastry Shop, Vienna Austria – Once the purveyor of cakes to the Imperial and Royal court of Austria-Hungary, their ‘Crème Schnitte’ still remains fit for a king despite their preference for a dusting of icing sugar rather than sticky icing!

While I can’t say that I have found the best Vanilla slice in the world quite yet, there have been some pretty impressive contenders. Still the memory of that definitive slice tasted over twenty years ago lingers on and with the passing of time, it seems to get better and better. So the search will continue and by all means if you know of any challengers for the title, please let me know, I would love to put them to the test!

Look here for update.

Saturday, 8 September 2012

In the Footsteps of Vienna's Greats

Arriving in Vienna from Salzburg provided quite a contrast. While Salzburg was small and elegant, Vienna provided grandeur on a large scale. Fortunately we were staying in an apartment that was very close to the city centre so we could easily walk around to take it all in and we would certainly do plenty of that over the next few days! There seemed to be no limit to the ornately decorated palaces and public buildings throughout the city, not to mention the countless statues celebrating its many famous citizens. Vienna is a city that would have easily have rivaled Paris in the era of the ‘Belle-Epoch’ and while it doesn’t quite have a definitive landmark attraction such as the Eiffel Tower or Arche de Triomphe, it has an almost overwhelming array of fine buildings that enable it to rightfully lay claim to being of the most beautiful cities in Europe.

With the Baroque styled buildings supplying the backdrop, the stars of Vienna were the many famous people that lived here in the glory days the city. Like Paris it attracted a veritable who’s who of the arts and progressive thinking during he 19th and 20th century. Freud, Nietzsche and Einstein all chose to reside here, developing powerful ideas that would shape the twentieth century. It was also a centre of the new wave of modernist design with the buildings of Wagner and Hoffman shaping new directions in architecture. Musically, the sound track of the city was then and continues to be Mozart and Strauss, who are both honored with major statues in the city gardens. In fact it is difficult to walk anywhere in the city without bumping into a character wearing period costume and a Mozart style wig accosting you to buy a ticket to one of the nightly musical performances of their works. However, it was pleasing to note that currently Vienna’s most celebrated son is not a writer, designer or musician, but an artist… Gustav Klimt! Posters, souvenirs and images of Klimt seemed to be everywhere, coinciding with the 150th anniversary of his birthday. Jules and I visited a fabulous exhibition at the Leopold Museum that provided a wonderful insight into his life and times through not only his paintings, but also letters, documents and photographs. We followed it up with another exhibition at the Upper Belvedere Palace with its wonderful display of Klimt’s most iconic works, including his most highly commercialized piece ‘The Kiss’, which appears on everything from plates to tea towels. Another major Viennese artist, who now achieves far more recognition these days than he did during his short but eventful life, is Egon Schiele. Schiele’s boldly grotesque and often sexually provocative images were particularly popular with students during my art school days in the 70’s, so it was terrific to see many of his best works close up at the Leopold and Albertina Museums.

Spending much of our time in Vienna visiting its seemingly endless collection of galleries, we particularly took a liking to the ‘Artist Quarter’, with it’s unique combination of galleries (of varying scale and specialisation), combined with outdoor areas filled with cafes and restaurants. On a warm summer evening it is a terrific meeting place with its colourful sculptural lounges providing a place to sit back and relax or to listen to music or the occasional guest speaker. A short walk down the road is the iconic ‘Secessionist’ building, which was designed by Joseph Olbrich in the early 1900’s as a exhibition space for Viennese artists who had rejected the restraints of the traditional art academies. This building had so often been the focal point for many of my art history discussions over the years and it was high on my list of places to see. As anticipated we found the exterior very impressive, however the interior was a little less so, as it had lost most of its original features after rebuilding following extensive bombing during World War II. We also found the addition of a bright yellow platform in the basement gallery to view Klimts ‘Beethoven Frieze’ as simply an unnecessary intrusion. Non the less, Jules was more than compensated by the nearby historic market (The Naschmarkt) which offered an huge range of produce, while for me, there was the added bonus of a regular flea market that is held each each Saturday. During our travels Jules has made an ongoing study of produce markets and rated this one quite highly with its extensive range of culinary delicacies.

It had become increasingly apparent that good food was a high priority for the Viennese and we certainly enjoyed some excellent meals during our visit. One of our favorite spots was at the site of the annual Vienna Town Hall Festival, which screens operas in the summer evening and most other times serves an extensive range of culinary dishes at a bargain prices. Despite being totally outdoors we were most impressed that everything was served on china plates or in glasses, making it a far more eloquent experience than most other festivals of this type. Another indulgence that we particularly enjoyed was visiting Vienna’s long established coffee shops to sample some of their most famous cakes…Apple Strudel, Chocolate Sacher Torte and my personal favorite, the Cream Schnitte. These were once the regular indulgences of the great writers, artists, musicians, designers and intellects of Vienna, who would often take a break from the serious business of changing the world to enjoy the simple pleasure of coffee and cake. Much like this grand city, its good to see that certain things have never really changed!

Saturday, 1 September 2012

Enjoying the Sights and Sounds of Salzburg

It was a relatively short trip from Munich to Salzburg by train and within a couple of hours of leaving, Jules and I had slipped over the border into Austria and before not too long were walking around its beautiful cobblestone streets. It is quite a small city, surrounded by the sort of lush green hillsides that made it an ideal setting for the musical blockbuster, ‘The Sound of Music’. At this point I need to mention that ‘The Sound of Music’ was the very first movie I ever saw in a cinema and seeing those beautiful rolling green hills while living in tinder-dry Australia made quite an impact on a 10 year old kid all those years ago. So needless to say, I was already impressed with Austrian countryside even before we had arrived and with blue skies overhead, I wasn’t disappointed as it provided a wonderful backdrop to Salzburg.

Long before Julie Andrews was running around its hillsides, Salzburg was already a major tourist destination, attracting visitors from far and wide. Not just for the beauty of its old town, but in admiration of its most famous citizen … Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. The great composer was born and lived here during his short, but eventful life and even today he still remains the town’s major tourist attraction. Both the house in which he was born and his residence are museums in which you can view the instruments he played, sheet music of his famous compositions, letters he wrote to his beloved wife and even locks of his hair. He was certainly the ‘rock star’ of his generation and like most superstars who die young, there remains an insatiable desire for the public to delve into every aspect of the life of this young prodigy. Mozart recordings continue to sell as well as ever and you can easily catch live performances of his concertos just about any night of the week. The commercialism of Mozart here is certainly something to behold, with what seems like every second restaurant, hotel and coffee shop laying claim to his name, not to mention the countless souvenirs. Here you can buy original Mozart chocolates, perfumes, jewelry and much more, not that I was aware that he had ever digressed into any of these enterprises during his lifetime.

While tourism remains the lifeblood of Salzburg, over the years it has been sensible enough to retain it’s essential character. The Baroque buildings have been strictly preserved (earning it recognition as a UNESCO world heritage site) with most subsequent construction remaining sympathetic with the traditional 17th century architecture. Even the style of street signage is strictly controlled, with businesses restricted to ornate traditional overhead signs that hang above each shop. So if you ever want to see the most elegant ‘McDonalds’ sign in the world, this is the place to view it.

Looming large over the old town is the picturesque Hohensalzburg Castle that dates back to 1077 and that sit high on a nearby ridge. Unlike the invaders from centuries ago, Jules and I were able to venture inside its fortified walls to find a little village preserved as if from a time long gone. From its highest point, the view was magnificent and we could look down upon the timeless streets of Salzburg as well as a majestic landscape that stretched endlessly into the distance. As one of the largest medieval castles in Europe, there was plenty to see as we wandered through the labyrinth of chambers before navigating the steep hike back down to the narrow streets below. That night we walked across the old bridge to have a look at the towns summer screening of popular opera performances (Mozart of course) that are held in the open air of the town square. With the sight of the castle on the hill under lights and the sound of the opera in the air, it all seemed quite surreal, but somehow right. Some places will never change and I guess Salzburg is one of them.