The Salzkammergut enchants in a wide variety of ways. The traditional cafés and pastry shops are a paradise for food lovers. These establishments are definitely the sweetest route to discovering – and tasting – tradition, customs and culture.
It smells like honey, chocolate, nuts, fruits and spices: these are the only ingredients used to make Hugo Rubenbauer’s ‘Ausseer Gingerbread’. It’s sounds very simple, but it’s not, as a glimpse into the in-house bakery in Bad Aussee in the Ausseerland-Salzkammergut clearly shows. It quickly becomes evident how much craftsmanship, time, precision and talent is hidden in each individual gingerbread creation leaving the bakery. And that’s a lot of gingerbread. “Each year, we use around 16 tonnes of honey and nine tonnes of chocolate,” says Rubenbauer. The owner is very proud that in his business everything is still made by hand. The authentic and hard-to-knead gingerbread dough is still prepared as it was over 400 years ago and then rests for two to three months in the cellar before it’s made into hearts and other treats by busy hands. It’s a tradition that visitors will appreciate.
The Ausseer gingerbread business was founded in 1892 by Gustav Lewandofsky. His son, Gustav, ran the company until 1972 and then handed over operations to Hugo Rubenbauer. The baked gingerbread has always been decorated with great attention to detail. “The many special requests cannot be manufactured by machine,” the traditional gingerbread maker explains. Seventeen different types of gingerbread are made in the Bad Aussee production workshop and sent throughout the world. On some days, up to 25 busses stop here for a small, sweet treat. “I’m not one who can make the same thing every day,” says the owner, dressed in a white work smock and ready to depart for Munich. In the boot: 10,000 pieces of Ausseer gingerbread which he personally delivers. Even at age 73, Hugo Rubenbauer is a tireless worker. Although the trained pastry chef no longer works directly in the bakery, he still doesn’t consider calling it quits anytime soon. “I can’t be without the business. For me it’s certain; I’m not planning to retire.”
The Zauner pastry shop in Bad Ischl is an institution in the Salzkammergut – if not throughout all of Austria. Founded in 1832 by Johann Zauner, it has fostered traditional pastry-making for over 187 years. The senior director, Josef Zauner, completed his apprenticeship at Zauner and was adopted by Hildegard Zauner who had no children of her own. Like his predecessor, he is a tinker in the bakery, always creating something new that reflects the sweet tastes of the times. Naturally, the many classics from the imperial ‘k.u.k’ period are also still favoured. Few people leave Zauner without one of the famous ‘Zaunerstollen’. These delicacies of nougat, chocolate, Ischl wafers and caramelised hazelnuts were invented in 1905 and have remained unchanged ever since. “There are products that are so traditional, that the recipe can never be changed. And that’s fine since this tradition is our head start,” says Philipp Zauner. The son of Josef and Susanne Zauner has also learned the confectionery trade in addition to studying business administration. “At every opportunity, my father emphasizes that he is able to pursue a career that wholly fulfils him and gives him true pleasure. This passion also seized me early on. It was always clear to me that I would one day learn the craft of a confectioner.”
The dessert professionals in Bad Ischl bake seven days a week. The café in the centre of Ischl opens at 8:30 AM. By this time, one of the largest cake buffets in Europe must be fully stocked. The display cases are consistently filled with 150 products. There are also 250 different sweets whose assortment changes annually. Thirty employees make up just the bakery team which includes many confectionery masters. All of these sweet works of art are produced by hand. Production automation in any form is simply unthinkable – here at Zauner, original hand craftsmanship should be upheld. Quality constantly remains the top criterion for decisions. “We are always open to modernity but do not adopt every new trend. From our perspective, it makes perfect sense to remain true to the classics,” Philipp Zauner states.
Bad Ischl and Zauner – the two share a very special history. “As the former imperial court supplier and confectioner, it’s important to us to perpetuate tradition and safeguard old recipes.” The old songs by Franz Lehar, with which the famous operetta composer used to pay his tarot debt to the former owner, Viktor Zauner, have also been preserved. The pastry shop has always been a popular meeting place. That he can help shape and continue this legacy is the most important motivation for the young confectioner Philipp Zauner, who enjoys roaming between the bakery and the always-full shop area. Like his father, he fosters and values personal contact with his customers. This tradition is also preserved at Zauner. “After all, if the boss doesn’t march through the guests at least once, then you haven’t truly been at Zauner!”
One heads to Ottet in Schörfling am Attersee to be – as it’s so aptly known – ‘away from home, but still at home’. This traditional Viennese coffee house is operated by Karl and Waltraud Ottet. Karl Ottet is a true son of Schörfling but with true Viennese roots. His parents, who came from Vienna, opened the coffee house in 1949. Karl Ottet, Jr. became a master confectioner in 1981 and took over the traditional business in 1982. Since then, he has directed the bakery of the establishment with sweet and creative talent. His wife Waltraud helps in sales and service, is responsible for marketing and lends a hand anywhere and anytime she is needed.
At Ottet, pride is taken in the fact that everything is homemade. This ranges from the breakfast pastries to the homemade chocolates, ice cream and baked items and even includes the bookkeeping, as Waltraud Ottet grinningly mentions. The owner feels much more comfortable with her guests than at her desk in the office. “See you, Walter!” she calls out to a gentleman. Mr Walter, obviously in a good mood, has just purchased a piece of pear rice cake. He cheerfully returns the salutation and dons his hat. “Ninety-five per cent of our guests are regulars,” explains Waltraud Ottet, who handles the steaming coffee machine in a stylish, green suit. When asked if she still even likes pastries given the plethora of delicious creations by her husband, she replies with a mischievous smile. "Sure, I eat something sweet twice a day. After all, I'm also involved in quality management."
At the turn of the century, Gustav Klimt spent numerous summers on Lake Attersee, where many of his famous landscapes paintings were created. In 2003, the Café-Konditorei Ottet dedicated to him the ‘Original Klimt-Praline’, which has since become a distinctive specialty of the establishment. The hallmark of this composition of slightly bitter chocolate and amaretto ganache filling is real 23.5 carat gold leaf. In this way, Ottet hints at Art Nouveau, while the square shape of the delicacy pays homage to Klimt's square pictures. The Klimt praline is a prime example of authentic craftsmanship and was deemed a treasure of the Austrian gourmet region by “Culinarium Österreich” in September 2004. A coffee house experience on Lake Attersee is perfectly rounded off by the freshly roasted coffee blend ‘MOKKarl’, which was specially created by Karl Ottet himself.
In July 2019, the Austrian dessert culture was deemed a world cultural heritage. The UNESCO commission included it in the registry for ‘good praxis examples for the preservation and perpetuation of intangible cultural heritage’. Sweet cuisine is thereby considered an Austrian cultural asset. A love of cooking and baking remains the secret ingredient for successful sweet creations. This passion for desserts has been cultivated throughout the Salzkammergut for centuries - and continues to be passed on from generation to generation.