Travel Journal Summer 2021 – Austria Day One: Obsessions and Spy Games

September 13, 2021

29 August, Ponte de Lima

I was afraid the details of my summer trip would begin to fade after I wrote my last entry two months ago, but the best memories are still vivid; I can already tell that the impression of certain moments will be lasting, even if they get fuzzier with time. I seem to have a mental limit (especially these days), but memorable experiences seem to unconsciously get upgraded. However, there are so many good ones (and difficult ones, too) that bring on the humor of the circumstances now, that it’s actually been hard to forget any of it. Once I start down each lane of memory, it doesn’t matter anymore if things are perfectly accurate, or even if they’ve become more fantastical than they were at the time. Our imagination can be just as important as the original occurrence in that it rewrites things to keep them interesting when they’re not, and less painful when they’re that.

I just finished lunch on our terrace overlooking Portugal’s Lima Valley. (The picture above was shot from there.) We live in a part of the world with many specific products that have few equal or greater examples the world over. The combination of seafood and frango caseiro, the Olympic athlete chickens sold to the butcher by the locals, acorn-scavenging pigs, and free-roaming countryside-grazing cattle, deeply sweet carrots, and eggs with, at best, only one equal in the world. And the lemons. Sorry Amalfi, we lived on your shores for a year and had your lemons every week, and while yours are grown on limestone cliffs and are extraordinary in a different way, size isn’t everything; those just from our own property, grown on extremely acidic soils of metamorphic and igneous rock, are even more aromatic and much less bitter than most lemons. And with Galicia just twenty-five minutes north, some of the most prized shellfish in the world thrives at extraordinary and almost unbelievable quality, thanks to the extremely high content of plankton inside the estuaries (locally called rías). Oh, and the Galician beef: it’s the real deal (but However, I’m sorry to say that the best versions of grilled Galician beef are not usually found in Galician restaurants, but rather in other Spanish regions that use the product, like the many great Basque restaurants.)

One of Many Obsessions

The ingredient I didn’t mention in the list may be mainland Portugal’s most special gift from the Atlantic: sardines. Portugal is globally famous for their conservas (canned) sardines, as is Spain, but that’s not what’s served at the famous street side seafood and fish grills in the ancient port of Porto, Matosinhos. There it’s all about the fresh, wood-fire grilled sardines and other seafood—a must for anyone coming to Portugal for the first time, or for another round of this country’s warm hospitality and extraordinary food at prices unmatched in any other first world country.

Sardines have become an obsession. They’re seasonal—a truth that put me in a state of depression last winter, perhaps greater than the pandemic restrictions themselves—and I understand why: it’s the fat! Between the late spring and early autumn months, plankton populations are at their peak and the sardines gorge themselves, building up fat and improving their flavor. Sardines are one of the healthiest, if not the healthiest fish for you, because they don’t consume mercury-rich food—only plankton, not other fish. Anchovies are the same, but they are less common to get fresh here in Portugal and while the salt content of the canned and salt-packed versions is a deterrent for some, they are without a doubt my greatest food obsession. Anchovies are a part of almost every lunch and dinner made at home.

Wednesdays and Fridays, Armanda, a middle-aged Portuguese woman with a soft and kind face, brings fresh shellfish and fish straight from the Atlantic, a twenty-minute drive to the west and visible from our terrace. On her truck she always has sardinhas, and while they are a lot of work in the kitchen because she doesn’t clean them, they’re irresistible, and at five euros a dozen, no matter the size, it’s impossible to pass on the deal, and she always gives me thirteen or fourteen, depending on how many she has.

Shellfish and fish in the States are usually too expensive. It’s for that reason that I’ve always hesitated to experiment too far with them because when you put a lot of cash down, you don’t want to mess it up, and with seafood minutes can make what would be potentially epic turn dry and hard. But here, ocean fare is almost free by American standards (it’s even half the price of what we used to buy during our year on Italy’s Campanian coast, on average), and I’ve let loose to explore more, and I only wish I did more twenty years ago when I first moved to Southern California with its multitude of Pacific Ocean options. Here, the only real cost associated with sardines is the time they take to prepare. That’s one reason they’re so cheap; the other is that there’s so much available when they’re in season.

My first sardine experiments began as freshly cleaned, filleted and lightly cured with lemon wheels and salt for just a few hours, or overnight—I did that one the first half dozen times and it was always delicious and as good as any fresh sardine I’d ever had. Then it was on to mild pickling with a modest amount of lemon juice and vinegar. Vinegar is all too often overused in everything from pickling to salad dressings; with the right ingredients, vinegar is the needed accent, not a taste that kills the wonderful ingredients it’s meant to lift even higher. I’ve marinated sardines still fully intact (except for the guts, scales and head, which needs to be clipped off to evenly fit into my roasting pan) in lemon, vinegar and salt for only thirty minutes and quickly cooked below the oven’s salamander with a touch of olive oil, oregano (an herb that seems perfect for fish) and flaky sea salt atop extremely thin slices of onion that render just enough to stay crunchy but lose their harshness while soaking up the flavor of the fish and a little portion of the marinade dumped over them.

Recently at our new favorite restaurant in Porto, called Apego, I was given perhaps the most simple and extraordinary preparation yet. The restaurant is owned and operated by Aurora Goy, a chef raised in France by her French father and Portuguese mother, who judiciously employs French techniques on her Portuguese food. She does sardines every which way, but last Saturday night I had the mother of them all. I asked her about the preparation—the secret, please—and she smiled and said, “it’s really simple: salt, but it has to be the right salt and for the right amount of time, thick sea salt and no more than an hour, but perhaps thirty minutes is enough.” The perfect time needed is only based on the size of the sardine, and my first try was another lucky strike I hope to repeat.

Enter Austria

Far away from any ocean but a land full of gorgeous food, is Austria. I’ve said many times that I think Austria is grossly underrated in the context of European cooking. Perhaps people lump it in with Germany—often the least inspiring cuisine of all the European countries I frequent—but it’s different, and just a “simple breakfast” at the Malat family’s hotel alone stands as proof.

I passed through the mountains of the far western end of Austria in its western state, Tirol, heading north through Germany, took a sharp right just southeast of Munich around Rosenheim, and headed back into Austria without being stopped for proof of the Covid test I took the day before in Italy’s Südtirol. After fewer than three more hours on the road I’d be checked into Malat’s hotel.

It doesn’t matter how recently I’ve showered before arriving at the Malat’s hotel, I’ll want to close the elegant and diaphanous white curtains of the room above the courtyard below and take another one in the fully-exposed glass shower stall that separates the bedroom from the bathroom, get the blood flowing with a nice hot one—even on a blistering summer day as it was the day I arrived—and lay around the room in the towel (or in the buck) to relax and forget the world for a moment. The Malats had a vision with their hotel: they want you to feel pampered (and sexy). And you do.

I snapped out of my half hour of vacation mode and went down to meet Michael Malat (his friends call him Mickey; pictured below), who had checked me into the room. I’d been driving all day and was hungry, so we patched together a few things in their hotel’s breakfast kitchen, popped a bottle of Riesling, and caught up on the state of the world and California. We hatched a plan to start the morning doing some drone shooting up at Stift Göttweig, the towering, ancient monastery that dominates the top of a tall nearby hill to the south of Malat’s place. The monastery has an epic view of Kremstal’s alluvial plains and loess covered metamorphic rock terraces below (pictured above) and its steep hillside vineyards on the north side of the Danube, with views deep into the Wachau River gorge to the west, Kamptal straight to the north, and Wagram to the northeast.

Breakfast at Mickey’s

Normally, I don’t eat breakfast and haven’t done so regularly for nearly twenty years—save for when I’m on vacation, or the need for food to gain warmth from the empty cold and hollow feeling that follows a restless night of attempted sleep. If you seek to live well and not miss excellent things, skipping breakfast at the Malat’s would be a crime against yourself. Here, there is no choice.

The Malats truly have one of the best breakfast spreads outside of a Michelin-starred European hotel one could find; it’s so good that it’s almost embarrassing that it’s all there for you and you can have as much as you want. Michael’s mother, Wilma, greeted me at the door with a big smile and her soft, motherly energy—the inner caretaker that treats all like they’re her children coming in from playing and starving. My late mother, Rosemary, was mostly of German heritage, and being around Wilma was like being near an extension of her spirit. On their vinyl record player spun Neil Diamond, one of my mother’s favorites, and honestly, I would’ve never expected to hear Neil in the Austrian backcountry. It all made me feel like I was safe at home—as I always do in Austria—but my mother never served a breakfast like the one I was about to partake of, filled with the joy of hospitality that infused the room from Wilma and her culinary staff and the edible pastoral gifts of the early summer.

The spread was immense, and even slightly unusual for a breakfast. It had all the standards, like homemade chunky granola, cakes, nuts, cereals, cheeses, breads and the Waucher-Laberl, one of the great breads of Europe and a specialty of the historic Schmidl family, in nearby Dürnstein. A small, round and flaky, crunchy but soft-inside roll, it’s always branded with an S on the bottom to show that it’s come from the Schmidl bakery (pictured below with Austrian winegrower, Peter Veyder-Malberg); no others are quite the same, so ask to see the branding and prepare to keep searching it if it’s absent. Don’t forget that it was Austria’s capital, Vienna, that is the origin of the world’s great pastries, not France; in France pastry places are not called Viennoiserie without reason. It also included a whole host of unexpected things, presented as salads and hors d’oeuvres, from sauteed chanterelle mushrooms with asparagus and feta cheese (for breakfast!), burrata with roasted beets (obviously they know how valuable beets can be to travelers), vegetables, alpine-fresh wild strawberries and cherries, thin slices of eggplant with fresh figs and fresh goat cheese, and desserts galore.

Wilma is a master omelet maker. She gets it: soft eggs, not overcooked, nor overmixed, finished with killer ingredients, including comté or gruyere (I forgot which one it was), and some delicious and locally cured pork belly fried on the griddle just before the eggs hit the flattop. Interestingly, she adds a little bit of grated carrot, a touch I never would’ve considered in my omelet but now do. It’s a breakfast room you never want to leave, and here, you don’t have to. You can come anytime, grab a bottle of wine, drink as you want and tell them what you had when you are finished. It’s an incredible place where you really are made to feel at home to do what you want, when you want.

Spy Games

It was the twelfth of June and it was hot. Last year, it was July that scorched Europe, but this year it came a month earlier and following a very cold start to the growing season which stunted the growth of plants, the blazing heat made it so that you could come to the same vineyard at the end of the day and see that the shoots had pushed out three or four more inches by sunset; this was a story that would follow my path from Austria, through Germany and into France. In 2021, the vines grew as wildly as anyone had ever seen before.

Michael and I started our drive up to Stift Göttweig. Once at the top, the place was swarming with attendants and police officers doing nothing but wearing Soviet-like faces, looking for trouble. That day there was a meeting of politicians and media and I could sense that drone filming wasn’t a wise choice, but Michael insisted that we press forward and approached every guard for permission to take some “photos of the place,” but we were denied, denied, denied. Finally, we found an unattended trail that circled the monastery. Out of sight and earshot, we passed an older couple who smiled and made us feel like we weren’t doing anything wrong—just out for a stroll on a Saturday morning.

I found the right launch pad with just enough space between two trees to get the drone out into the clear. It was a perfectly blue sky, and I knew the shots would be money. The drone, that had somehow and somewhere along the route acquired the name Bob, had the sky to himself, and I zeroed in on my controller to make sure the flight was smooth with no wasted time. I knew I would be limited to one battery’s worth of time, despite having three others fully charged and ready to go, because once the drone would come back in for the landing, we may get spotted. We weren’t doing anything wrong, per se, but given the political event and the intense atmosphere, it felt like we were a couple of Double 0s wiggling our way into a party to which we weren’t invited.

After some glorious shots (including the one above), the battery warning began to shriek, potentially calling attention to us. I brought Bob back and slowly threaded him through branches with only a foot or so to spare on each side—a precarious situation because the sensors might have stopped him from coming too close to the trees, leaving him out there above us with no place to land in time. But he got through, touched-down quickly and less than a minute later was tucked into an unassuming white cloth sack I used instead of the drone case—something I always do to camouflage my intention to film. I don’t like trouble, especially in other countries that use languages with which I’m less familiar.

Something was telling us that we should go back out the way we came, and we should’ve followed our instincts, but we decided to go straight to the car because it was only a few minutes’ walk while the backtrack was at least ten. As we turned the last corner around the building, with our car in sight, we came upon four Austrian cops in the middle of the path, a fifth on his way. Without saying a word, Michael and I knew we had no choice but to walk right between them to get to the car, and any unusual movements or direction changes would attract attention. I tucked Bob’s white sack back behind my Canon on the same shoulder to use the camera as a decoy. Not twenty feet away, their eyes narrowed on us in unison. We knew we were in for some trouble.

Sometimes not attempting to speak the local language is a good strategy for potentially minor offenses where no one else is involved. Some years ago in Chablis, Dominique Collet, from Domaine Jean Collet, was with me in my car after we had some Champagne at their place before a scheduled dinner in the village center. There was an alcohol checkpoint, and she firmly grabbed my shoulder as we approached and said in French, “Don’t speak French with them. Only speak English and they will probably let us go without testing.” I’d only had a glass of Champagne and was sure I would be under the limit, and I’m always ready to practice my French. But when they stopped me, I said, “I’m sorry, I don’t speak French…” They waved me on.

I don’t speak more than ten words of German. My German is so bad that whenever I’m in Austria or Germany and need gas, I pick only pumps with numbers I remember how to say to the cashier, which means I am stuck between pumps one, two and three, and picking back up at six and seven. I never get gas from pumps four or five because it’s only after I leave the station that I remember the words, vier and fünf, even though they’re so obvious, being so close to English…

By the movie-like interrogative tone the first officer took, our Double 0 game seemed to begin to unspool. Ciao for now, Bob, I thought… For those who don’t speak or understand German, the language can be startling and sound aggressive by nature, even when niceties are exchanged; Italian can be the same. It’s not fluid and melodic like Latin languages, and American culture has long villainized the German language, particularly since WWII. It can sound so harsh, and it did from this officer, the squattest and ugliest of all the guards and clearly a guy that relished his position of authority. The others formed a half circle around us as the officer barked at Michael and then he turned his angry dog face on me, intensely. He shouted some words. Michael interjected. He yelled at Michael. Michael, with his unflappable calm, spoke with what felt like authority over all the officers present—he was their sergeant, telling them to calm down. The guard switched to poorly spoken English and firmly said, “Identification. Please!” I forgot my passport at the hotel, something I rarely do; even when I go two kilometers down the street for dinner in Portugal it’s always in my pocket along with my Portuguese ID. Thankfully, I had my Portuguese resident visa, which I’ve pulled out of my wallet maybe five times in total over the last nine months, since it arrived in the mail a half year late due to the pandemic. The officer reviewed the card, looked up at me, handed it back, showed a half-cracked smile and calmly said, “have a nice day.”

We slipped past the pack with the white bag making a smooth transition to the front of my body and the camera slipping back to continue shielding it from their view. On the drive down the hill, Michael explained the exchange he’d had with the officers. I was impressed by how he had managed the situation and took the attention away from me while I nervously hid Bob from sight. No doubt he’s a better Double 0 than I am, more of a James Bond type: ice-cold, the looks, the silver tongue, the confidence. I on the other hand am a terrible liar, and when the officer was yelling at Michael, telling him to be quiet because he was addressing me and not him (as explained by Michael), I was ready to just hand over the drone because I was sure that’s what they were talking about. Someone surely saw it flying around this heavily guarded monastery that was soon to fill with important people and they’d waited for us to come out from the trees, arrest us, confiscate the hardware, and pitch us in the who’s cow. But for a minute back there, Michael owned those guys and shifted the dynamic. And we got lucky, too. They had no idea what we were up to.

Next month, we’re off to Weingut Tegernseerhof to meet with our very good and longtime friend, Martin Mittelbach. First order of business: film the Wachau vineyards around the Loiben area that includes some of Austria’s most well-known crus, like Kellerberg, Höhereck, Schütt, Loibenberg, Steinertal, and Kremstal’s Pfaffenberg vineyard.