Swiss spies, Sacher cake … and anti-Semitism

It was a pivotal moment for Austrian baking traditions when a young apprentice had to step up and creative something extraordinary to please notorious Chancellor Klemens von Metternich. Franz Sacher boldly took this opportunity of a lifetime to create a chocolate cake which has become a globally celebrated delicacy.

The copyright quarrel concerning the original recipe of Vienna’s Sachertorte is one of the finest parts of Charles E. Ritterband’s new book “Grant und Grandezza”. The Swiss journalist reflects on his experiences with Austrian mentality – this obscure concoction of charming courtesy and thorough grumpiness – ever since he settled in Vienna nearly 20 years ago.

Ritterband can be a dazzlingly entertaining writer when he tries to analyse the characteristics of the average citizen of Vienna: unfriendly and dissatisfied, but at the same time aware of the outstanding infrastructure of the city – from its excellent tap water to the magnificent cultural opportunities. Ritterband also proves being a sagacious connoisseur of life in (upper class) Vienna when musing about winning over the city centre’s infamously eccentric waiters.

The Neue Zürcher Zeitung journalist certainly has a point as he meticulously documents the most recent anti-Semitic scandals involving high-ranking representatives of government party FPÖ. He does not shy back from underlining the dark legacy of Austria in World War Two including repression and persecution of the local Jewish community.

However, this is probably not what readers came for. They are without a doubt longing for other subjects when a book named “Grant und Grandezza” has a caricature depicting a grumpy fellow on its cover.

Thankfully Ritterband provides enough material to please them – going to the opera with his Viennese grandmother, a bizarre Swiss-Austrian espionage controversy, sarcastic analysis of Austrian meals, plans to get Austrian charm on the list of UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage. Subjects as these are certainly the special appeal of “Grant und Grandezza”.

The only lamentable aspect is that the terribly vapid caricatures of Michael Pammesberger cannot keep up with the author’s wit.

Grant und Grandezza. Randbemerkungen zu Österreich
By Charles E. Ritterband
Published by Ueberreuter (www.ueberreuter-sachbuch.at)

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