Eat, Chat, Love at Eschi Fiege’s Vegetarian Mittagstisch

Running late for my lunch appointment with author, host, and notorious Vienna vegetarian chef Eschi Fiege, I rushed through the Naschmarkt, one of Vienna’s largest public markets. Passing under the overlapping awnings, the sky opened up, drenching the path that runs between the market stalls and lifting the fresh scent of the market’s exotic foods into the air. It’s getting close to lunchtime and the all this fresh food is making me hungry. A quick dash across the street and I am at Eschi’s building.

The first thing you should know about Eschi Fiege is that Lunch is sacred. It’s her favorite meal of the day. She firmly believes that in our busy lives, it is critical to take an hour out of the day and enjoy a meal, preferably with friends. As Eschi says, “It gets your mind off whatever it is you normally think about, recharges the spirit and refreshes the mind”. She calls it her “secret for success”, and it has served her well. Eschi says “for years I observed people rushing around at lunch, food in hand, rarely taking time to sit down, and vowed to never fall into that trap”. According to Eschi, “setting that one hour a day aside is a key to a more productive day”.

No.32 | The Vienna Vegetarian Kitchen of Eschi Fiege

A few years ago, she decided to test her philosophy by kicking off a project called “Mittagstisch”. This is a German word that generally means lunch, but refers more specifically to a kind of fixed menu lunch for a group or workers. Twice a week Eschi Fiege opens her home to a small group of friends and friends of friends for lunch. Guests experience a relaxing hour with great seasonal, locally sourced, vegetarian dishes, and good conversation with friends and new acquaintances. And Eschi gets an enthusiastic and vocal audience to test out her new dishes.

The food industry wasn’t Eschi’s first choice as a career. At the age of 23 the world of advertising caught her eye and she became a creative director. Following that she moved into copy writing and directing for TV commercials. All this time cooking and entertaining was just a hobby. In retrospect though, her work experience and talents serendipitously led to her current project, combining a passion for food with media savvy to bring her message to a wider audience.

No.32 | The Vienna Vegetarian Kitchen of Eschi Fiege

Eschi’s apartment is packed with character and imbued with the continuity that only comes with a long family history. It’s where she, her mother and her grandmother lived so Eschi has been cooking here ever since she started licking the spoons. In fact, young Eschi took an early interest in cooking, experimenting with her own recipes soon after starting to cook with her mother.

The apartment feels more like a farmhouse than an urban apartment. Two resident cats, vintage furniture, well-worn, creaking floors and a balcony overflowing with plants, combine to give an impression of casual country living. A great place to put out some tables and invite some friends over for a relaxing mid-day break.

No.32 | The Vienna Vegetarian Kitchen of Eschi Fiege

From the balcony the fresh food markets can be surveyed several floors below extending through Vienna’s “Rechte Wienzeile” district. Many of the vendors have become Eschi’s trusted allies in her endeavor to create relaxed, seasonal cuisine for her favorite meal of the day.

A few years ago, Eschi Fiege decided to test her philosophy by kicking off a project called “Mittagstisch”… Twice a week Eschi opens her home to a small group … for a Vienna vegetarian lunch.

Eschi’s recipes draw influence from regional foods: part Austrian, part Italian, part French with a hint of the Middle East. The food is uncomplicated at first glance. On tasting though, the flavors and combinations are surprising and the dishes an absolute delight.

No.32 | The Vienna Vegetarian Kitchen of Eschi Fiege

It’s been a few years now and Eschi has collected a loyal following. One unexpected result from this was a steady stream of requests for recipes. Once again luck was with Eschi when a Viennese publishing house offered her a book deal. The new book is titled, naturally, “Mittagstisch”. So now we can all benefit from Eschi’s years of kitchen experiments. It’s in German, but I am hoping for an English version soon.

Well, I have exceeded my hour-long lunch with Eschi and have to move on with the afternoon’s activities. But I am definitely refreshed by my Vienna vegetarian Mittagstisch and ready for whatever is in store.

No.32 | The Vienna Vegetarian Kitchen of Eschi Fiege

The tag line for Eschi’s book is “Sie kocht als wuerde sie uns lieben”. A rough translation of that is, “She cooks with love”. That’s a good place to end.

Details

If you’re in Vienna you can experience Mittagstisch for yourself. For times, gatherings and information, please email her at mail@lovekitchen.at. Don’t forget to mention that you are a friend of the Bearleader.

For more information on Artist Otto Zitko; www.ottozitko.com

Photography and story by Daniela Stallinger

River Cottage To Table

Having been a fan of the UK TV series set at River Cottage farm, hosted by food advocate Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, and without any new shows to watch of late, I came across Hugh’s talk at TED Exeter from a few years ago. One thing Hugh said resonated: “In order to help us connect with food, we should seek food with a story.”

With so many aspects of the world’s food supply in crisis, what’s one person to do? Well with River Cottage farm resturant and on the TV show, Hugh has made a personal appeal for us all to live better, healthier and more sustainably, by each week telling his personal stories about food. And his stories have had real impact. The national awareness towards eating locally and sustainably has never been higher in the UK. And in national and international politics, Hugh has successfully advocated for sensible and sustainable food policies in ways that will reap great benefits for consumers the world over for years to come.

Now, sadly, that the show has ended its run, Hugh has turned River Cottage farm over to the public, enabling us all the opportunity to experience, hands on, all the food stories we enjoyed on TV.

Upon arriving for our day at the farm we were greeted by operations manager Simon. He led us down the garden path, so to speak, as we made our way from the reception through meadows of grazing sheep, beehives, and crisp rows of dew-laden crops. Lambing season was in full swing so bouncing baby lambs hopped and scuttled in all directions as we passed through their domain.

River Cottage Farm and Restaurant in Devon | Bearleader No.29

We sat down in the new dining hall and Simon treated us to some hot-drink hospitality as we learned more about River Cottage farms and resturant’s new mission and mapped out the day’s activities.

First, River Cottage farm was a TV set and laboratory of sorts for Hugh to test his farming, foraging, and husbandry ideas. Now it is a working farm and a modern state-of-the-art culinary school, which spreads Hugh’s message through hands-on instruction one person at a time.

River Cottage Farm and Restaurant in Devon | Bearleader No.29

The facilities are state of the art and quite literally set into the landscape with vast areas of glass along the edge of the classroom. The message is clear, consider not just the food in front of you, but also where it comes from. And in most cases, the food prepared at River Cottage farm and restaurant could have been observed at some point through those windows.

The professional kitchen was buzzing with food production for the classes, and preparations for the soon-to-be-arriving guests. Dining at River Cottage is a great outing. You can visit for lunch or dinner year round. I have often been to restaurants where the term “farm to table” is batted around. Always with justification, but in this case the relationship is so close, sitting at the table while observing the farm is an altogether unique experience.

River Cottage Farm and Restaurant in Devon | Bearleader No.29

The range of classes on offer year round cover an amazing variety of skills and topics: meat cookery, bread making, gardening, food foraging, preserves, making cider and beer, butchery. And for each subject taught in the school there is a corresponding book to remind students of what they learned once they get home. The books are also handy if you cannot make it to the farm: There is still a literary route to the River Cottage experience.

… Hugh has turned River Cottage farm over to the public, enabling us all the opportunity to experience, hands on, all the food stories we enjoyed on TV.

Because I am a bit of a fan of the TV show, getting to explore Hugh’s kitchen was a high point. One thing I learned from Hugh was that, with an old stove and an old table and a warm fireplace, you can make almost anything you want. And seeing Hugh’s old stove, table and original 17th century working fireplace in real life, it all looked even less auspicious than the simple set of tools and appliances where Hugh worked his magic on TV.

River Cottage Farm and Restaurant in Devon | Bearleader No.29

Outside the kitchen window is the wonderful Victorian kitchen garden. It was still early spring when we visited, but you could see light green shoots all around starting to push out of the ground.

Simon explained that it took a few years to get the overgrown, abandoned farm back to where it is today. A farm is a machine for food production, but to work naturally it requires time and strategy. Each crop grows best with a certain set of nutrients which may be generated naturally by the crops grown in that ground previously. And once those nutrients are depleted the crops must be rotated. Getting the order right is the key to a productive yearly harvest. And coming up with ways to prepare food from all the crops in the rotation is the key to productive farming. Some plants have become more popular than others and tend to be over-farmed. But each plant is good if you know how to prepare it.

River Cottage Farm and Restaurant in Devon | Bearleader No.29

We walked by a noisy gaggle of geese dashing for the pond to avoid us, and carefully avoided the chickens roaming freely around the farm, pecking the ground for any tasty morsels they could dig up. We stopped off at the pig pen for a visit with a couple of River Cottage’s heritage breed pigs. Simon politely knocked on their roof and both pigs poked their heads out to greet us. Both curious about the stranger at their door, they quickly warmed up to me, having a chew on my Hunter boots, which I took as a friendly gesture.

In the greenhouses, the first lush and juicy strawberries were starting to ripen. A few more weeks and they will ready to serve. Finally we made our way up a small hill, along a narrow footpath, and emerged in a large meadow covered with bluebells in bloom. What a brilliant mass of deep blue. On the way out we made a final stop at the lambing shed, where the newborn lambs were as curious to see us as their mothers were apprehensive.

River Cottage Farm and Restaurant in Devon | Bearleader No.29

It is a great feeling when everybody and everything works towards a common purpose. And this is how the evolving story of River Cottage is being written every day by the people working on the land, in the kitchen and those plotting a future for this amazing place.

They say it is best to leave a place wanting more. And my departure from River Cottage was with the determination to come back soon.

Details

For information about tours, classes, or dining at River Cottage, go to; www.rivercottage.net

Photography and story by Daniela Stallinger

High Altitude Greek Cooking

“Forget gourmet, discover gastronomy“ is the mantra of our hosts Fanis, Vagelis and Andonis. And they wear their message proudly. It’s the first thing we saw when they greeted us for our Natour Labs Cretan Cooking Class in the village of Milia Crete at the Milia Mountain Retreat, the words were emblazoned on their T-shirts.

I heard about these three ambassadors of Greek culture during a stay at Hotel Ammos. I contacted Andonis to learn more, and he graciously invited me to join the group for one of their Tuesday cooking courses.

The trip to Milia Crete is a story in itself. Traveling from the warm beaches of Chania to the top of the mountains takes less than an hour. The road is steep and quite rudimentary, with many stretches built with just one lane. For the uninitiated, driving up this road can be quite nerve wracking. But once you learn that what the roads lack in width, the drivers make up for in friendly cooperation, it all seems quite adequate. The caution necessary to transverse the route guarantees a slow and gentle ascent with ample time to take in the breathtaking views.

Milia Crete: High Altitude Greek Cooking | Bearleader No.20

On arrival at the Milia Crete turn off, the road narrows even more and becomes gravel, more a path than a road.

The difficulty in accessing Milia Crete is in fact by design. In the past, the route to Milia would have been invisible to anyone not belonging there. Also, the hidden nature of the village has provided shelter and security during many wars and sieges and it kept the self-sustained villagers safe and fed while they waited for treacherous events to pass. Its obscurity was its main defense and the reason that today you can walk into approximately the same village you might have visited in the 17th century.

Milia Crete: High Altitude Greek Cooking | Bearleader No.20

In the ‘70s, with the infrastructure of the village crumbling, the father-in-law of Tasos, the current owner, decided to save the village and turn it into an eco lodge with a restaurant open to the public. Every Tuesday, this is the home of Natour Labs Cretan Cooking Class. The beautiful stone houses of the village have been restored and outfitted as guest accommodations, with fire places inside, and hammocks outside perfect for reading in the afternoon sun to the occasional sound of bells from goats wandering the surrounding hills.

Milia Crete: High Altitude Greek Cooking | Bearleader No.20

On the day of my visit, a varied group showed up hailing from New York, London, Paris and Greece. Our youngest cooking participant, who came with mom and dad from London, was just short of two years old! Tasos pitched in with child-minding duty and kept the little girl entertained with visits to see the piglets raised on the premises.

Milia Crete: High Altitude Greek Cooking | Bearleader No.20

The island of Crete is rich in agriculture. A diet rich in fresh fruit and vegetables has amply fed the islanders for many centuries. Locals were healthy and lived long active lives. Many studies talk about the health benefits of the Mediterranean diet. However in Crete, as in most countries, modern industrialized food has taken over. Imported foods abundant in carbohydrates and sugar dominate in the local grocery stores, as a result, the Cretans now suffer from an obesity epidemic. I can provide a first-hand account of this as I have been coming to Greece since I was a teenager. Years ago it was rare to see anyone overweight, but on my recent visit it was shocking to see XXXL shops prominently advertised on the main thoroughfare.

Milia Crete: High Altitude Greek Cooking | Bearleader No.20

The mission of Natour Lab is to remind fellow Cretans (and visitors) about the traditional way of cooking and eating, encouraging a return to the practice of cooking with simple fresh ingredients, in season, and from local sources. At Natour Lab in most cases right from the Milia Crete. It’s a message beginning to be heard wherever you travel these days, and one championed by an ever-increasing chorus of voices advocating a more sustainable way of living.

Milia Crete: High Altitude Greek Cooking | Bearleader No.20

The take away from the course was that with few ingredients and little time you can create the most wonderful dishes. Our three-course meal illustrated it. First, was a starter of local mountain cheese and tomatoes on crostini followed by a wonderful tomato and peach soup. Peaches and tomatoes go together naturally, we were taught, as do braised lamb and a honey dish with potatoes and courgette (which is zucchini if you live in the US or Australia).

Milia Crete: High Altitude Greek Cooking | Bearleader No.20

Bread was made fresh that morning in a wood-fired bread oven. Delicious! A high light for us all were the cookies that we made from a simple dough of flour, olive oil, honey, and cinnamon. Repurposing a countertop sausage machine, the dough was extruded into delicate shapes. This resulted in a rustic “shortbread” cookie, just as good as the original, but with no sugar or butter.

The difficulty in accessing Milia Crete is in fact by design. In the past, the route to Milia would have been invisible to anyone not belonging there.

As is usually the case when a group of strangers are thrust into a room together, it begins with a “warming up” period! And as the class was conducted in English with most in our group speaking other languages, we had additional communication hurdles to overcome. But once we all started chopping and mixing, barriers quickly melted away. By late afternoon, we were all seated around a communal table in conversation, eating and drinking the fruits of our labor, wishing we could linger into the evening.

Milia Crete: High Altitude Greek Cooking | Bearleader No.20

Check Natour Lab’s website to see what is being offered during your visit to Milia Crete. They also offer a variety of specialized experiences, including bee keeping, and hiking excursions throughout Crete. You can arrange private classes and tours to suit your schedule.

Some of the more challenging hikes require proper equipment. So if you are interested in those activities, enquire before you arrive, and get advice on what equipment to bring.

Details

For more information about Natour Lab; www.natour-lab.gr

Photography and story by Daniela Stallinger