Charlotte is enjoying the opening of a handful of French patisserie coffee shops, to the delight of citizens who now get to discover the art of good coffee and good cake.
But as an Austrian, I must set the facts straight.
Austrians are used to being mistaken for Australians. We learn to smile at Americans’ cute enthusiasm for the fluffy “Sound of Music” by those who do not mistake us as Australians. But when it comes to cake and coffee, there’s no tolerance for misunderstandings:
“Kaffee und Kuchen” (coffee and cake) is all ours; it ain’t French.
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The French may have strong coffee in small cups, and they may have decent pastries, but they don’t have the culinary tradition of coffee together with pastry.
When I lived in the suburbs of Paris for nine years in my formative years, I would often sneak into a “boulangerie/patisserie” (bakery and pastry shop) and pick up an éclair au chocolat. But that would be taken away in a box and
eaten in the park or at home, without coffee.
There was no place to sit and coffee was not sold at the pastry shop. In France, coffee was served black and alone mid-morning or afternoon or at the end of a meal after dessert. Or it was served for breakfast in a big bowl of warm milk into which one dunked a “tartine” (toast).
Austrians, on the other hand, have coffee with cake in our DNA, in our blood stream, in our daily, weekly and monthly routine.
When a traveler arrives at the final destination, the first thing the Austrian host will ask is, “Would you like some coffee and cake?” When an Austrian lives with you, you better have cake and coffee ready for breakfast.
Austrians even have an afternoon meal between lunch and dinner dedicated to coffee and “Mehlspeise” – the Austrian word for cake or pastries that translates as “flour-based dish.” Those who can’t make it a daily ritual catch up on Sundays in large family gatherings for coffee and cake in the afternoon.
Austria’s involvement with cake dates way back. Remember Marie Antoinette, the wife of Louis XVI of France, whose suggestion for citizens begging for bread was “let them eat cake”? She was Austrian, the daughter of Empress Marie Therese of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. (Before she lost her head, she managed to import the croissant to France from Turkey-
threatened Vienna, too.)
I have some experience with this Austrian baking myself. My grandmothers ran a coffee/pastry shop in Vienna after World War II. My mother published a cookbook and many of the recipes came from that shop.
Since my teenage years, I have probably baked close to a thousand cakes. When I came to the South, I rolled my eyes at minor-league red velvet cake recipes, tweaking them to replace artificial red dye, hoping to turn them into Vienna salon-worthy marvels.
When I moved to Charlotte 10 years ago, I religiously schlepped my preschoolers every Friday afternoon to the only shop in town that offered coffee and cake (Dean and Deluca, even though it was way over my personal-spending budget). It was important to me to indoctrinate them at an early age to the coffee-and- cake culture, so they wouldn’t confuse their cultural heritage with that of Oktoberfest Humpapa.
So, yes, Austrians ARE cake and coffee. There are coffee shops at almost every street corner in Vienna that serve not only a dozen types of coffee, but at least a dozen types of pastries, from cake and pie slices to strudel of all sorts.
Yes, I admit, it is kind of nice to have all these French pastry shops popping up after years of cake-and- coffeehouse vacuum. I can now sort of fulfill my urge of good coffee with good cake in a public setting. But as an Austrian, I feel betrayed. I wonder why Austrians missed this market opportunity and let it become a fake French brand.
The last time I was in Vienna enjoying my “Topfenstrudel” (cheese cake Danish) with perfectly paired coffee – a “Grosser Brauner” (“big brown one,” double espresso with heavy cream) – I decided I needed to educate Charlotteans on the truth of the coffee and cake tradition: It does not come from France, but from Austria.
When I got back to Charlotte, I went to a local French pastry shop, enjoyed a petit café crème with a small pecan pie and wrote this up.
But not before my cake-snob self remembered that pastries taste best at room temperature. I know, that’s difficult to achieve in the South, where steamy summers are only possible with air conditioning and pastries have to be refrigerated to survive.
That’s all right. Even cold pie is better than none.
Karin Lukas-Cox grew up in Montreal, Paris and Vienna. She translates technical documents and is the author of “Südstaatenhausfrau,” short stories in German on life as a housewife in the South.