The wurst of times
The recipes of their refugee grandparents inspired two brothers to create a new Austrian restaurant. It feeds a growing appetite for middle-European cuisine, says Gareth May
Friday 10 January 2014
"Grandma used to love making the apple strudel. She'd bring it in on this dessert trolley with ice cream, custard and whipped cream… That's one of my biggest memories of her – of this three-tiered dessert trolley she wheeled around everywhere. It was almost like a Zimmer frame."
I think it's safe to say that Ed and Ben Robson are grandma's boys. The joyous grin plastered across Ed's face as he loops another flaking spoonful of strudel into his mouth reveals as much. It's certainly not too hard to imagine both brothers, 20 years earlier, clambering over one another for their favourite strudel accompaniment. The elder, Ed, opting for custard, while his younger brother, Ben, helps himself to a generous scoop of ice cream.
Now 31 and 27 respectively, the boyish charm remains. As does the brothers' passion for Viennese cuisine, as strong today as it was when they were strudel-stuffed kids, instilled in them by their Austrian-born grandparents.
It's a passion that couldn't be better timed, either, as the UK seem to be going through a middle-European revival.
Whether it's a penchant for high-quality, meat-packed bratwursts from Bavaria or rich pastries from Austria, that crumble at the first kiss, central-European fare is fast becoming a favourite of Londoners and beyond. I talk to the brothers in the canteen-style ground floor of Boopshi's, their Austro-British restaurant in London's Fitzrovia.
The wide windows give the impression that you could walk in right off the street – a purposefully designed "casual environment to bring people into it" and a direct mimicry of the open atmosphere of their grandparents' home in north London.
It's obvious that the brothers' brainchild isn't inspired by recent food trends or was mere years in the making. Boopshi's (pronounced "Boop" and "She's") story begins decades before the boys were even born.
Pre-Second World War Vienna: as with so many Jewish families, once whispers of Hitler's plans made it to Austria, the only choice was escape. According to Ed, his grandparents "got out just in time" but not together. Nora and Fred met in London in 1948. They married four years later.
Fast-forward three decades to when Ed entered the family kitchen, closely followed by his brother Ben a few years later. Their love affair with Viennese cuisine would start with trips to their grandparents' home – helping "Oma" prepare the schnitzels for another Sunday feast in Hatch End.
As with so many of their generation, Oma and Opa didn't talk about the war, leaving food a key component of the inter-generational connection with their grandsons. Here were recipes of sweet apple strudel and warming frittaten soup handed down with great joy, a far cry from the nightmares of war.
The bond was instant but it wasn't until after both grandparents died – Fred eight years ago, Nora five – that the first signs of a foodie legacy began to show.
While sifting through her sister's belongings, Ed and Ben's great aunt uncovered a treasure trove of "incredible" photographs featuring members of the family whom the brothers' father didn't even know existed, and three well-thumbed diaries – the key for what would become Boopshi's.
One of the sleek black books is now kept at the restaurant in an envelope marked "Opa's recipe book" in their father's handwriting, with a similar serif to the Ks of the immaculate script within.
The brothers believe that the book was given to their grandfather by his mother while still in Vienna and the recipes jotted down by the then young baker – including rye bread and apricot pudding – would suggest as much.
The book inspired the brothers to turn their idea for a bar – something the pair had dreamt about since their teens – into a Viennese restaurant, and many of the photographs feature prominently in the restaurant's branding.
One shows two Hungarian relatives sporting lederhosen and "outrageous" moustaches, another of Oma and her sister saying "prost" to the camera, Campari spritzers in hand , accompanies "Spritzer No 1" on the restaurant's cocktail list.
"They were such big role models in our lives," Ben says. "We wanted to pay homage to them. That's what Boopshi's is – this massive tribute to our grandparents."
For two people for whom food must have meant so much, Boopshi's menu is perhaps the biggest tribute of all. Inspired by their grandfather's meticulous documentation of family recipes, the brothers have been equally scrupulous. For the past three years, they have travelled backwards and forwards to Vienna, researching and refining techniques, sharing their findings with their close friend and head chef, Rino Scalco, who in turn has set to work sourcing the best meats to emulate the Austrian dishes. The result is a cornucopia of central-European dishes with a considered British tweak.
Their weiner schnitzel, the traditional veal schnitzel (in Vienna, a schnitzel isn't a schnitzel unless it's a weiner one) is made from British rose veal, fried three times at decreasing heats, and possibly the thinnest schnitzel you're ever likely to see.
The spatzle 'n' cheese is the Robson's take on the in-front-of-the-telly-with-your-feet-up favourite, macaroni cheese, the spatzle ("a cross between a dumpling and a pasta") created with machinery imported from Austria; and, last but not least, their sauerkraut, so often a wet mess slopped on top of a hot dog, has been given a kick of juniper, cardamom, bay leaf and caraway. The result is a lighter, spiced cabbage that will transport you back to Sunday roast with the folks.
And herein lies the majesty of what Boopshi's has achieved; eating dishes there is almost like eating something you've eaten a million times before, but for the first time. It's a remark I make as I tuck into the smoked eel. I could quite easily be eating mackerel in the bungalow I grew up in as a child. It seems, I'm not alone. "During the launch, five or six people from different parts of the world have said 'this reminds me of so and so when I was younger'. It's that kind of food – it draws out memories."
As if to prove the point, moments later as Ben is handing round the "sherbet" used to make their spritzers (a sweet, yet acidic mix of the essential oils, rinds and juices of lemons and oranges, muddled with sugar) our photographer takes a sip.
"It's…" He pauses. "Evocative of something… from your childhood."
It's this familiarity without being the usual, which renders middle-European cuisine so accessible to Brits; it's a bit like finding a photograph of a family member you don't recognise and then noticing that the two of you share the same nose. "There are similarities between British and middle-European food; it's a very hearty cuisine, lots of meaty dishes. It is very much comfort food." They are the words of Azadeh Falakshahi, who founded the bratwurst sausage joint Herman Ze German with her partner Florian Frey after moving from the Black Forest to Brighton in 2005.
The idea came after the pair successfully toured a hot-dog stand on tour around Britain's top festivals, taking top-quality German sausages to the masses.
Just like Boopshi's, Falakshahi and Frey wanted to augment the London food scene, rather than exploit it. They opened their first restaurant in September 2010 in Villiers Street in London and have just expanded into Soho. "I think part of the reason for our success is that when we started this journey our initial idea was not business [-driven] but more about wanting to show our friends in the UK the German food we loved. Herman Ze German is more then just a food place – it's a whole experience," says Falakshahi.
Back at Boopshi's, as the boys tell me how their father reacted to seeing pictures of his mother on the walls, it's obvious that his emotion had a big effect on them. But what about the unusual name?
"Boopshi's is actually a term of endearment that Oma and Opa used for each other," Ed explains. "It came from 'little doll' but granddad changed it and it became 'boopshi'. It's something that obviously doesn't mean anything to anyone else. But, to us, it has a meaning."
In the years to come, if the brothers keep up the Robson family tradition of a full house and even fuller bellies, Boopshi's might just mean a great deal to others as well.
A taste of the old country: middle-european cooking
* Kipferl – Viennese coffeehouse, restaurant and cake shop in Islington, London, offering sachertorte and Bosnian-influenced mohntorte among others. kipferl.co.uk
* Wurst Class – a van and catering service based in Nottinghamshire, flipping schnitzels and serving currywurst. All meat is imported from Thuringia in Germany. wurstclass.co.uk
* The Delaunay – this London restaurant was inspired by the grand cafés of Central Europe, with a Viennese afternoon tea and takeaway counter for various Viennoiserie. thedelaunay.com
* Bavarian Beerhouse – steins, lederhosen, pretzels, Bundesliga on the box and annual Oktoberfest celebrations. Recently expanded from London into Bristol. bavarian-beerhouse.co.uk
* The Sausage Man – hot-dog van in Lewisham Market and Borough Market, specialising in German sausages. Imports his meat from 20 different butchers. sausageman.co.uk
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