Beethoven – The Noble Art of Cooking

Beethoven - the Noble Art of Cooking“Beethoven began to complain about the bad world, about malice, lies and deceit, claimed that  absolutely no honest man could be found any more and finally came to distrust even his through many years of service proven housekeeper. Then he suddenly decided to become independent. He personally visited the markets, chose, negotiated and bought. When the few friends he still tolerated in his presence, painted him a worrisome picture about it, he became angry and invited them, to giva an undeniable proof of his extensive knowledge of the noble art of cooking, for the following afternoon at his table. The guests was nothing left but, in anticipation of things to come, to acquiesce punctually. They found their host in bedjacket, the bushy hair covered with an imposing nightcap, the loins girded with a blue apron, busy at the stove. After a patience exercise of more than one and a half hour, after which the impetuous craving stomachs could hardly be calmed by cordial conversation, dinner was finally served. The soup recalled the leftovers donated kindheartedly in the inns of the beggars’ guild; the beef was barely half cooked; the vegetables swam simultaneously in water and fat and the roast seemed as if was smoked in the chimney. Nevertheless, the host heartily attacked all the dishes. His hesitant guests could hardly bring themselves to force some pieces down, regretted to be oversatisfied and stuck to healthy bread, fresh fruit, sweet pastries and unadulterated grape juice. Fortunately soon after this memorable feast the Master of Musical Arts got bored with the kitchen regime. Voluntarily he laid down the sceptre, and the housekeeper came back into position and dignity.” Thus Ignaz von Seyfried, friend and colleague of Beethoven, in the “Anhang” of his book “Ludwig van Beethoven’s Studien im General Basse”.

“The noble art of cooking” was clearly not a field in which Beethoven excelled. That much the story makes clear. What this story also tells us is the amount of dishes that were served during lunch. Soup, boiled beef, vegetables, roast, bread, fruits and sweet pastries, all washed down with wine. We see the same pattern in Beethoven’s conversation notebooks: “bread soup, meat with sorrel, turnips with small fish, carp in black sauce”; “noodle soup, meat with sauce, spinach with cold roast, veal chops” and: “rice soup, peas with ham, leg, pastries, salad”. Those were not the shopping lists for a whole week, but the menu for a single afternoon meal. In Beethoven’s days it was normal practice to have no less than five or six courses for an afternoon lunch, even in middle-class households. In the evening they went easy with three dishes, mostly put together with the afternoon’s leftovers, and breakfast consisted of no more than coffee or chocolate, at most accompanied by a roll or some other luxury bread.

Beethoven - Noble Cookery
At the basis of the preparation of such elaborate meals stood a hearty beef stock. Rule of thumb in 19th-century Viennese cuisine was that there always had to be a large pot of this broth at hand. It was used for the preparation of soups, sauces, vegetables, meat and poultry, be it cooked, steamed or roasted. The broth was made of lean beef, onions and root vegetables, usually with the addition of some veal or sheep’s bones, an old chicken and a chunk of liver. It had to be lean, without fattiness, because fat never makes a broth “gut und kräftig” (good and strong), as the cookery books admonish their readers.

Salt was by far the most important seasoning. Of the exotic spices they used pepper, tailed pepper (Piper cubeba) and chilli; allspice; ginger, white turmeric (Curcuma zedoaria) and cardamom; nutmeg, the nut itself, but especially the mace (the dried seed coat); saffron; cinnamon, white cinnamon (Canella alba) and cloves. Since the beginning of the 19th century there was a growing tendency to replace all these foreign spices with domestic herbs: parsley, chervil, fennel, thyme, sorrel, celery, marjoram, shallot, garlic, coriander, juniper, caraway, bay leaves, horseradish, mustard seed, anise, basil, savory. Parsley, sorrel and onions were eaten as vegetable as well. In winter, when there were no fresh herbs, a mixture of dried herbs was used, such as, for example, a mixture of dried thyme, parsley, tarragon and savory, 1 part of each, plus 2 parts of basil.

The most eaten meat in Viennese cuisine was “Rindfleisch”; beef. With the word “Rindfleisch” they meant oxen: castrated bulls specifically raised for meat production, which gives a beautiful rich, fat-marbled meat. Bulls, buffalo and old cows were often sold as “Rindfleisch”, but were considered far inferior or even -in the case of the bulls- barely edible. Cows around six years old, well fattened and not used for milk production however, were estimated to be of higher value than the oxen. Veal was also very popular. It was eaten very young; the whiter the flesh, the better, but not younger than 14 days because otherwise the meat would be red, weak and tasteless. Lamb, too, was preferred very young, but were -for the same reasons as veal- not to be slaughtered too early. Mutton was good as long as the time of year insured tender grassland. Pork more than two years of age was considered rough, tough and unpleasant to taste. In the summer meat was not eaten earlier than three days after slaughter; in winter it was left to “ripen” a few days longer. With poultry, it was as with veal or lamb: the younger the better. Offal such as heart, lung, spleen and stomach were also popular. Of game especially the young female animals were appreciated. Just about anything that ran, crawled or flew through forests, mountains and fields was welcomed in the kitchen. Fish was eaten as fresh as possible, but spawning fish was avoided. Under the heading “fish” also fell frogs, turtles, beavers and otters.

Of the fruit and vegetables they ate what the season had to offer. In winter, they ate fruits and vegetables preserved in various ways. Bread was still the staple food; potatoes were not eaten much. They had the name to contain poisonous juices, and recommended to be washed thoroughly after peeling or even be soaked for a considerable time in water.


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