Prompt: Write about a special family recipe—perhaps one that has been lovingly handed down from one generation to the next, or one that makes you the star chef in your kitchen.
By Sarah Roos-Essl
“You can only buy butter from Johann and only on Sundays and ONLY before 10:30am,” Franz looked at me sternly through round tortoise shell glasses and spoke with a thick Austrian accent. His breath smelled of cigarettes and his daily glass of breakfast prosecco.
“And eggs. You must only buy ‘freilandhaltung und bio’ – ‘organic, free-range’ – and only from Maria, and only right when she sets up her stall at 6:30am. Good to bring a…what’s the English word for it? A flashylight?” Franz continued.
I didn’t want to interrupt his concentration but I really needed to stop and write this all down. This seemed to be essential, life-or-death information about how to source food and cook in my new country. And this was the see-and-be-seen local event of the week: The Klosterneuburg Farmer’s Market.
We moved to Austria from Berkeley, California in late August and while our 120 year-old crumbling villa was being renovated, my husband, two young daughters and 6 month old GoldenDoodle puppy rented an apartment from Franz on the town square in Klosterneuburg, a village just outside Vienna. Franz was a fourth generation hotel apartment owner and lived his entire life in the historic (and equally crumbling) building that faced the Stadtplatz. This legacy made him a sort of de-facto town mayor and certainly the de-facto expert on all things worth eating in our 40,000 person village. The absolute certainty in which he spoke coupled with an actual degree from the Cordon Bleau made me take his advice very, very seriously.
“And what happens if I don’t make it to Maria in time for the eggs? I can just get some at the grocery store across the street, right?” His look could have frozen over hell.
“No, then you simply Do. Not. Have. Eggs!!!” he shouted, eyes bulging in disbelief at my idiotic question.
Slowly, as weeks passed, I began to absorb the rhythm of the market’s offering and the seasons of my newly adopted “heimat” or “homeland”. I had lived in California for nearly two decades and was spoiled by the never-ending supply of gorgeous produce. Northern California’s temperate climate blessed its residents with beautiful fruits and vegetables all year long, without interruption. One had to pay very close attention in order to even notice the seasons passing. Figs, for example, were only at the farmer’s markets in September, and they arrived so soft and sumptuous that they were hours away from spoiling. Blueberries trucked in from the Oregon coast marked summer’s arrival in June and left as suddenly as they appeared a few days later.
But things like avocados could be purchased in December for Christmas Eve guacamole or in July for a Fourth of July BBQ, no matter. Tomatoes of all varieties and colors could be used for salsa verde, bolognese or ratatouille all year round. The senses never suffered in Northern California, that was for sure. But perhaps in some ways, my memory did, as I could never quite remember what time of year things happened, not with the cues of weather or seasonal meals anyway. I knew that the seasons in Austria would be a different beast altogether and I was thrilled to move to a four-season climate for the dramatic changes in living and ritual that they would bring.
August in Austria was marked with absolute abundance – bursting cherry tomatoes still on the vine, crisp cucumbers with icy cold centers and raspberries so electric-pink they looked fake. If we arrived at the market after 9am, it was shoulder-to-shoulder with shoppers, straw baskets bumping, children and dogs running amuck. The lines were long but they were also part of the experience and an opportunity to practice my broken German with a neighbor waiting alongside me. “Look at the color of the carrots today! Unbelievable! How is Maria already out of eggs? It’s only 7am…”
Like clockwork, September’s mornings grew darker and colder, flashlights were indeed needed at 7am, hokkaido pumpkins practically glowed from within and lay heaped in piles at every stall. Apples rested in wooden crates with their leaves and branches still intact. Stürm – young, fermented wine – was sold in foggy bottles without labels.
I observed every change like an anthropologist, desperate to understand this land and the people who inhabit it, hoping that in doing so, I would find myself suddenly belonging to it too.
Autumn continued and the Sunday Market offering grew smaller and smaller. The lines disappeared as the wool sweaters were pulled out of storage. There were many Saturdays in late fall that I would stare out our apartment window as the cold, gray rain poured down and on more than one occasion, I thought to myself, “Franz will never know if I skip the market today and buy eggs at the supermarket…” It felt like a sort of betrayal to even think this way.
“Don’t worry, there’s always something interesting and always something worth cooking here,” Franz said to me one frost-bitten morning in November, as if sensing my early-onset seasonal depression. By this time, the fresh berries of summer were long gone and only fruits and vegetables that could be stored in a dark cellar were left – potatoes, carrots, apples, onions and more potatoes. The bright colors of summer had vanished and the muted Caravaggio still life colors of winter had arrived.
Franz strutted over to the butcher’s stall and pondered for a long time. Two whole chickens sat perched alongside rows of glossy bratwurst and plump kasekrainer sausages. “How fresh are these?” he asked Johann, who by now was sold out of butter, as read the sign next to his cash box. Butter – AUSVERKAUFT!!!
“They were butchered last night, around 8 o’clock,” Johann replied without sentiment. Franz looked slightly annoyed and I wondered what he really wanted to hear? That they were killed in the guy’s van a few minutes ago?
He bought them both anyway and scuttled back to his apartment without saying good-bye.
Later that week, Martin, my husband, had his first business trip away since we moved to Austria. I was nervous to navigate our daily life alone for a week – I couldn’t even properly read the road signs, let alone handle a real emergency well. I’ve heard that a “worry is a prayer for that which you do not want,” though it’s never stopped me from obsessively mulling over worse case scenarios.
And so it goes, I was rushing around that first morning alone – pouring müsli, heating milk for hot chocolate, hustling to pack lunch boxes as the dog panted at the door, brushing and braiding hair. I dropped the hairbrush and when I bent down to pick it up, something…snapped. I shouted out in pain, startling the girls and the dog. My back had gone out and I layed there in a fetal position on the floor, unable to get up. Seemingly every muscle in my lower back was in spasm. It was excruciating.
As if sent from above, there was a knock at the door. Franz and his wife Barbara were there to deliver our weekly change of towels and bedsheets.
“Oh. My. Godddd,” Franz shook his head from side to side and made a “tisk tisk” noise. “Babsie, help me lift her into bed. Then go get your Ayurvedic massage oils and I will make The Soup.”
The girls were dropped off at school and I was gingerly lifted into bed, still in agonizing pain, with tears running down my cheeks. Franz left and returned ten minutes later, cradling a huge stainless steel soup cauldron against his chest. The two chickens, still tied with string, and heaps of herbs and bundled root vegetables were piled inside. He didn’t speak as he covered the chicken carcasses in cold water and clicked on the burner. I could hear the soft repeating swish of the carrot peeler as I stared at the ceiling. How was I going to manage this week alone if I couldn’t physically get out of bed? Anxiety quickened my heart. I tried to focus on the noise of the carrot peeler.
There is significant research on the almost mystical healing powers of chicken soup. It is said to have the same antibiotic and antiviral properties as prescription medicine and can give an inexplicable boost to the immune and anti-inflammatory systems in the body. They say that a homemade, slow-cooked chicken broth can heal nearly any kind of malaise, from the common cold to a broken heart.
While the soup boiled and gurgled, Barbara massaged earthy-smelling oil into my lower back, tucked a hot water bottle under my feet and gave me a tea to drink that tasted like hay. “Your nervous system is in overdrive. Just like a computer, you need a reboot!” she smiled at me sympathetically.
I fell immediately asleep. A few hours later, I awoke from my nap to a steaming, giant bowl of soup at my bedside. Pieces of brightly colored vegetables swirled around the clear, salty broth. The chickens themselves had all but disintegrated into the mix but their memory in flavor was unforgettable.
I finished two bowls and closed my eyes again, silent with gratitude for this act of kindness from two people who morphed from strangers to angels to family within minutes. When I opened my eyes, I noticed that someone had left the front door of the apartment ajar. Instinctively, I jumped up to close it so the dog wouldn’t escape onto the busy street. I caught myself by surprise – the pain in my back had vanished and I was mobile again.
I turned around to see Franz and Barbara smiling smugly at me from the kitchen, proud of their work and not even a little bit surprised by the miraculous healing powers of The Soup.
Franz’s Chicken Soup
- 1 whole chicken or 4 chicken thighs (bones intact) or 1 chicken carcass from a previously roasted bird
- 5 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
- 4 carrots
- 1 yellow onion
- 1 large leek
- 1 parsnip
- Few sprigs of parsley
- 1 teaspoon black peppercorns
- 6 star anise pods
- 6 whole cloves
- 2 cloves garlic, smashed with the peel on
- 1 inch stem fresh ginger, peeled
- Salt to taste
You’ll want to invest in a very large stock pot, around 9 liters, if you want to make soup regularly. Then you’ll make enough to freeze and keep on hand when life throws you a curveball.
- Place the chicken or carcass in the pot and cover with a layer of apple cider vinegar. This helps the bones release their nutritious minerals during cooking. Leave to sit for 20 minutes with the lid on.
- While the chicken rests in vinegar, peel and wash the carrots and wash the remaining vegetables. Leave them whole.
- Fill the pot with cold water, leaving 6 inches at the top to account for boiling and bubbling.
- Add the everything but the vegetables and bring to a boil
- About an hour after it’s been boiling, add the peeled vegetables. Leave the skin on the onion
- Leave everything to boil for at least 4 hours, but as long as you possibly can. Add water as necessary when you see it depleting to maintain the same level as when you started.
- When you’re nearly ready to eat, use a slotted spiderweb spoon to remove the chicken, vegetables and herbs and transfer them to a bowl.
- The chicken meat will fall easily off the bone. Rip it up by hand or with fork and knife and throw it back in the pot of broth. Cut up the vegetables into bite-sized pieces and throw them back in too.
- If you like, cook rice or pasta (my favorite are Thai rice noodles) in a separate pot and add to the broth when finished.
- Salt to taste
- To serve, add a few splashes of chili oil, sliced scallions or dried chili flakes for extra zest. Otherwise, simply enjoy as-is!
Sunday Writers' Club Member
Sarah Roos-Essl is a writer, entrepreneur and mother to three little girls. She and her family moved from the San Francisco Bay Area to Vienna three years ago in search of a slower pace of life and unlimited Käsekrainers.
By day, Sarah is the Director of Content for TourRadar, a travel adventure booking company. She previously lead content teams at Twitter and Facebook while in San Francisco. By night (and on Sundays with SWC!), she’s writing a mixed-media memoir about motherhood and moving abroad. She also sings Soprano with the U. Vienna Philharmonic Choir.