IN THE FIELD
Waltraud and Michael supply exquisite fruit and vegetable rarities, the stuff that top chefs spin their culinary dreams out of. The couple run an agricultural business in Stetten that reminds you more of a meticulously set-out fairytale garden than of fields.
Several years ago the following happened in a top Vienna restaurant. A guest ordered a regal meal including five courses and brimming with the season’s delicacies. After the scallops, John Dory and other delights had been polished off, the satisfied guest leaned back and asked to see the head chef. The latter came running, the guest looked at him ecstatically and declared that he had never eaten such good potatoes in his life. What kind were they?
The potatoes whose ranking had overtaken the seafood came from vegetable farmers Waltraud and Michael Bauer, in Stetten near Korneuburg. The farm the couple run defies the inadequate traditional description of an agricultural business. Any visitor would wander through the Bauer’s realm as if in a fairytale garden full of colour, fruit and fragrance.
Blooming fragrant roses of all colours as well as head-high cardones, the artichoke’s wild cousins, grow between the border beds full of flowers with (needless to say) edible blossoms. Long raised beds exude the aroma of herbs most of us have probably never heard of, much less tasted. Rare apples, pears and apricots ripen on the fruit trees, while in large poly-tunnels physalis, aubergines, peppers, beans and cucumbers of all varieties run riot alongside innumerable kinds of tomatoes whose colours range from dark purple and striped green to creamy white. Their flavours vary just as much as their appearance.
This is one of the Bauers’ strengths: they make the most of the rich range of different varieties in order to deliver the best to Austria’s gastronomy business. You could describe the couple as artists of epicurean bot-any, ambassadors of organic taste, the vanguard of a culture of rooting out forgotten and newly found fruits, vegetables and herbs. They were already experimenting with exciting, unknown raw material when studying at the University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences in Vienna. As a student Michael Bauer bred chicory, hardly known in this country three decades ago, and wrote his dissertation on this bittersweet, capricious vegetable that will only grow in the dark.
Bauer recalls how after all the analysing was over, he stood in front of a not inconsiderable harvest of chicory and asked himself, “so what am I going to do with it all?” He packed up these crunchy little winter-salad ingredients, drove to Vienna and took a chance, knocking on the door of a well-known restaurant. A minute later he had got rid of his entire load, and in return received an order from the head chef to keep on supplying as much as he could grow, preferably as soon as possible. What else could he offer? Everyone was very keen on fresh zucchini blossoms, practically impossible to get hold of in this country.
Michael Bauer went home and began to redesign his parents’ farm. Soon zucchini were growing next to his father’s wheatfield. May turnips and special kinds of carrot spread out over another. The next one was covered by strawberries – the final break-through into the demanding world of gastronomy. Almost forgotten, the “Mieze Schindler” variety’s wild-strawberry flavour won over not only the cater-ers, restaurateurs and other food providers, but the guests, too. They were phoning restaurants, asking if there were more of those wonderful strawberries, and if so, could they book a table.
Soon other ambitious chefs also took notice of the Stetter vegetable specialists, and a fruitful dialogue between kitchen and field started that has continued to this day. Vegetable producers such as the Bauers are important in the gastronomy busi-ness. They deliver the stuff out of which chefs make their dreams come true. By introducing the masters of cuisine to new products and turning their attention to exciting taste trends, they act as a source of inspiration for all those who know to how appreciate this. “You need a nose for what’s coming next”, says Michael Bauer. “That’s why we try something new every year.” He looks after the fruits and vegetables, Waltraud Bauer after the blossoms and the herbs, but in the end everyone in the family business gets involved in whatever needs doing, whenever. This can mean working around the clock, especially between February and November.
Large food conglomerates grow produce for long-term storability at the expense of flavour, but those who disagree with that approach have to harvest tomatoes, strawberries and cucumbers every day, and zucchini blossoms twice a day. They have to ensure that the blossoms of delicate violet, wild pansy and scented geranium reach their destination within hours. The enterprise supplies about 30 gastronomy businesses a week with absolutely fresh pro-duce. When Michael Bauer nips tomatoes off the stem, he knows exactly which ones have a perfect flavour just then and which ones need another day or two to ripen.
Waltraud Bauer collects seeds and herbs from around the world, sows and plants them, and tests them in field and kitchen. She considers only the best as marketable: “More than 90 percent of the experimentally planted herbs are not interesting, but every so often an exciting plant appears.” Take Sicilian dill. Freshly picked and immediately put in your mouth, it tastes similar to standard dill, but it develops surprisingly sweet and different, strong flavours on your tongue. Then there’s the horseradish leaf with its hot taste, the red-leafed sorrel or the balsamic sage from Africa.
The stretched-out, half-raised plots housing this colourful sprawl of herbs display a practical elegance and have been made by the owners. It reflects the way the Bauers work: they try and do things, extracting the best out of everything, whether variety, plant, fruit or tool. They get their hands dirty and always stay on the lookout for something new. So if a legendary Italian chef like Cesare Giaccone from the Piedmont comes to visit the couple’s vegetable domain and happens to mention a fantastic type of corn to use in polenta, soon after it will be test-grown in Waltraud Bauer’s corn field.
“You need a nose for what’s coming next. That’s why we try something new every year.”
Corn, beans and pumpkin are grown in the same mixed-type cultivation used by the Central American Mayas at least 2,000 years ago. Corn provides the poles on which beans can grow, which in turn supply the corn’s roots with nitrogen. The pumpkins protect the earth from erosion and dryness. This history of shared cultivation of crops and people is part of Waltraud and Michael’s agricultural philosophy. They know their home-grown plants’ history just as well as their preferred locations, light, shade, water and soil consistency. It’s all part of the plants’ growth and their flavours’ development. For example, the same kind of potato can taste entirely different depending on the soil it matured in.
A guest like the one whose tastebuds were so thrilled by the Stetten potatoes doesn’t really need to know all this in order to enjoy. Quality stands for itself. Nevertheless, a dish might just be even more delightful when you understand that the art produced in the kitchen has its roots in the soil and the people who look after it with such dedication.
Rare vegetable varieties, the taste of tomorrow and cooking for a better world: Stories of tradition and the future of gastronomy.
The articles can be found in the current 'S-Magazine'. Every four months you can find new stories here.