“Can I have four of the ‘Smoked Salmon on Horseradish Cream Cheese’…no no wait, I want two of the ‘Turkey Liver’ instead…”. We were at the Trzesniewski shop in Vienna and the lady in front of me seemed to have trouble deciding which finger sandwiches to order for lunch.
There was a line of hungry people waiting patiently behind us. It was early afternoon in the month of August, there were tourists everywhere and the restaurant was quite busy at this hour.
The Trzesniewski fast food restaurant in Vienna center city is like an old and established institution. If you want a quick and light lunch packed with true local Viennese charm, this is the place to visit. They have 22 different varieties of finger sandwich laid out nicely behind a glass counter. These are prepared with combinations of lobster, herring, salami, egg, liver, tuna, cream cheese, onion, tomato and many other delicious ingredients. Each mini sandwich is priced at 1 Euro. It is hard to find a place any cheaper than this.
You can simply point to the ones you want and a nice waitress behind the counter takes your order. The place is tiny and a bit cramped, there is not much space to sit inside but there are some standing tables outside.
I had read about this place in Rick Steve’s travel book. Franciszek Trzesniewski, a Polish cook first started this restaurant more than 100 years ago. He wanted everyone to be able to afford his sandwiches, so he came up with the idea of cutting the sandwiches into small portions. Although the owners have changed since then, it is now run by the Demmers family; the concept of having a variety of small and tasty finger sandwiches for lunch in a hurry - remains unchanged to this day. The recipes are unique and are a business secret. None of the employees know all the recipes. Apparently the full documentation of the recipes is stored in a safety vault.
In the interest of saving time that would be “wasted” in reading the labels and selecting the sandwiches, and knowing that our party of four was really hungry after all the walking about, I simply said: “Can I have one of each please?”.
The waitress gave me a blank look. I looked back blankly at her…did I say anything wrong? What did I just say?! She did seem to understand English. And I could see there was enough stock of sandwiches available.
Then what was the problem…?
Meanwhile my order had created quite a stir. The lady who seemed to be part of the owner’s family and was attending to the cash counter came to my rescue and spoke quietly in a confident tone to the waitress - in German. I had a sinking feeling that they might think I was some kind of a maniac ordering close to two dozen sandwiches in one go, and depriving other poor tourists of their share. But how did that matter? They should be happy I was buying more of their stuff. It is supposed to be first come first serve isn’t it? And I was going to pay them anyway. I had a right to order as many as I wanted. At least that is how things work in other parts of the world...
After this awkward moment of confusion, the waitress politely asked me if I wouldn’t mind taking the sandwiches on the metal platter that they use for baking, instead of the small plates.
Oh yes, no problem with that!
So the real cause for confusion was how they were going to serve the sandwiches to us! They didn’t have any large plates. Good heavens.
The sandwiches were delicious indeed. Each of them was a work of art. Now that we had tasted the entire variety, I went back to the queue to order some more, especially the ones that tasted really great. The waitress was smiling at me when I reached the counter again. Oh well. I was a repeat customer after all.
This episode reminded me of my childhood days when on special occasions my dad would buy an entire platter full of “Lapeta” from the neighborhood sweet shop. Each platter would have two dozen lapetas.
‘Budhai’, the owner of the shop was really big, the size of a sumo wrestler. He could easily have been 400 pounds or more. I remember his eyes were always wet, his face looked kind and round almost like a Buddha. Budhai would sit all day preparing delicious sweets for his loyal customers. Handmade sweets prepared and sold the same day. There was no refrigeration. And what a crowd he could draw to his little shop. People would wait patiently in line for their fix of jalebi, yoghurt and lapeta.
Lapeta was a name coined by Budhai for the Indian dessert that he prepared by slowly thickening and condensing flavored and sweetened milk for several hours. I remember walking by Budhai’s shop in the afternoon trying to catch some free flavors. We would watch him painstakingly preparing the lapetas, slowly stirring the milk on a flame, his expression unperturbed and his gaze fixed on his preparation for the day. Noone knew his recipes. The milk rich with tasty ingredients such as almonds and pistachios would be spread thin along a large wide ‘karahi’ utensil until it was dried into a semi-solid cake form, and then he would carve it and roll them down the karahi - into little rolls.
These would be crispy on the outside with a fluffy soft creaminess inside.
One bite of this precious piece of dessert and our eyes would dance with joy!
Once you started eating this fine dessert, you were hooked by the perfection, and there was no stopping after that. This was clearly not about money for Budhai, it was his passion that drove him to creating a dish that could be presented to the Gods.
Budhai was a legend. And as kids, his creation was one of the best treats we could ask for.
One day we were told that Budhai had died in his sleep. He used to take Bhang (cannabis) on a regular basis. He was actually quite young, but the sedentary nature of his job and lack of exercise had perhaps taken its toll and led to a fatal heart attack. He had no immediate family.
Our favorite sweet shop closed after Budhai’s unfortunate demise. The secret recipes were lost forever along with their legendary creator.