By Rebecca Musgrave
As someone who prefers to remain seated at a crisp tablecloth clad table whilst enjoying good food, the word “buffet” unfailingly sets alarm bells off in my head. When faced with the Imperial Riding School Renaissance Hotel Saiblingsschmaus spread on Ash Wednesday however these bells were quickly silenced.
For several years now the Vienna hotel has been bringing in the traditional Lenten period of fasting with a celebration of organic char, saibling in German. The light, freshwater fish which is native to Alpine lakes and the Arctic quite rightly takes centre stage in the ceremony, easily outshining its more acquired competition, the herring.
My “buffet” anxiety stems from, I believe, supressed childhood memories of dubious school canteens and terrifying dinner ladies. The buffet style fare was always questionable mainly because of the uncertainty surrounding exactly how long it had been sitting there. In the case of head Chef Markus Trocki’s Saiblingsschmaus, there was absolutely no doubt as to the products’ freshness.
Since September 2011 the char has been back on the hotel’s Borromäus restaurant’s menu, after taking a short break during the summer. Chef Markus Trocki is a big fan of the delicate Austrian fish and as such prepares it for his guests throughout the winter whether steamed, grilled, fried or smoked. A specific fish can even be selected by the individual customer straight from the tank in the restaurant that is home to the fresh char. Despite the two metre long aquarium being a somewhat dated feature of the restaurant, there is nothing more reassuring than seeing the head chef himself standing over the water with his net, before gutting the fish and cooking it on the open grill right in front of his customers.
The particular char enjoyed in the restaurant comes from an organic fish lake in the Waldviertel region of Lower Austria. The group of fish farmers belonging to the company BioFisch not only guarantee healthy fish on account of the high quality of the water but also protection of valuable ecological areas. No hormones or genetic engineering takes place in the breeding of the fish who live in a completely fertilizer free environment, all the while feeding on additive free animal feed. Due to this strict observance of the principles of organic farming practices, the char, it seems, is of truly superior quality.
“Our Saiblingsschmaus has a reason. We do not do the traditional Heringsschmaus because we have this wonderful native product in Waldviertl,” explained Markus. “I am really given carte blanche with my cooking here and I love it. I would always choose to cook with char which I even had a go at fishing myself back in November.”
Despite being a fish fond of the cold, eating it is a seriously summery experience. Our fishy feast began with a plate of smoked char of various cuts. Quite frankly, as a big fan of smoked fish, had I merely been presented with this I would have been enormously happy. The lightly smoked char and carp, which was unbelievably delicate and paired with a sufficiently mild horseradish cream, blini and a perfunctory sprinkling of micro herbs, was not only delicious but very pretty. The fish is smoked by Markus himself using beech wood. This particular wood gives the fish a very sweet flavour but one that is by no means overwhelming.
With my appetite sufficiently whet I went to the next station of the “buffet” to have my personalised salad made. The endless bowls of fruit, vegetables, nuts and croutons left me somewhat stumped and well aware that if I was to make the decision myself as to what was to go into my salad it would be an overexcited mess of ingredients. As such I let the chef do his work. Traditionally on Ash Wednesday the salad has herring as the main ingredient. In my case it was enormous fresh shrimp which were perfectly paired with sweet pineapple, cucumber, pomegranate, pine nuts and a dollop of fresh yoghurt. The little salad would be very easy to recreate at home and a wonderful nod to imminent spring, especially when paired with a delicious glass of local Grüner Veltliner.
The main itself was uncomplicated and unpretentious just as fish should be. The beautiful fresh fillets are cooked by Markus either with lemon and tomato or herbs, very simply, on a flat grill. The fish, which only moments ago was swimming around in the fresh water tank and days before in its Austrian lake, is cooked quickly and served with a simple green salad and a mini tomato and onion bruschetta.
Char, which belongs to the same family as trout and salmon, is quite different from its more common brothers and sisters. Far from the somewhat earthy taste of trout and the flaky consistency of salmon, the beige char was sweet and subtle but still meaty. “The fish is robust enough to even work well on the BBQ and was a huge success when I served it that way in the summer months last year,” explained Markus. Every last drop certainly disappeared from my plate including the skin which was thin and had a very discrete flavour unlike many fish, perhaps another reflection of the char’s freshness.
A little treat of mini strawberry mousse cake finished the meal off quite perfectly, leaving me wholly satisfied after my very first schmaus experience. Whilst I was far too full to claim to have begun the detox that Ash Wednesday supposedly signals, I was very contented and a complete char convert. Perhaps it is time for Heringsschmaus to take a backseat in the Lent proceedings? Long may Borromäus and Markus continue to celebrate char, the native and underrated fishy friend.
For more information and to book a table to sample the restaurant’s organic char visit: http://borromaeus.at/restaurant/hotels/hotel-information/travel/VIESE-the-imperial-riding-school-vienna-a-renaissance-hotel/