What's the French Word for That Austrian Thing?
Longing for Vienna with gemischter satz and open-faced sandwiches.
My memory is going. Not too long ago, I forgot the French words that we English speakers use to refer to small food items served before a meal. I literally could not recall the term hors d’oeuvre. “You know,” I said, “that French word for finger food.” Amuse-bouche? Canapé? “Seriously?” said my friend. “When is the last time you saw a canapé?” So, yeah, this was a ridiculous conversation.
In any case, the word canapé got stuck in my mind and I started thinking about tiny open-faced sandwiches. I mean, that’s all a canapé is—bread with some stuff on it. In French canapé also means “sofa” and so I guess there’s the idea that ham or smoked salmon or cucumbers or caviar or whatnot sits on the bread as if it were a sofa? Hmmm. Let’s just call them tiny open-faced sandwiches for now.
Anyway, thinking about open-faced sandwiches led to me thinking about Vienna. I haven’t been to Vienna in a while and it’s a place I’d like to visit again soon. And when I get to Vienna one of the first stops will be to eat open-faced sandwiches at places like Trześniewski and Zum Schwarzen Kameel, washed down with a glass of gemischter satz.
Gemischter satz? Yes, the traditional everyday wine of Vienna, a classic field blend (gemischter satz literally means a “mixed set” or “mixed bag”). Gemischter Satz may have a dozen or more varieties in the blend—well-known grapes like grüner veltliner or riesling mixed with obscure ones like rotgipfler, zierfandler, roter veltliner, and neuburger.
Yes, they make wine within the city limits of Vienna. With 1,700 acres of vineyards, it’s the only major capital that produces wine. In fact, over half of the city’s land is agricultural, concentrated in the outer districts north and west of the center. These cozy neighborhoods were once villages before being subsumed into the city proper, and they are dotted with heuriger, the traditional wine taverns central to the Viennese experience. Heuriger, which means “this year’s wine,” dates to an emperor’s decree in the 18th century that allowed winemakers to open simple restaurants to sell their new wine. Many heurigen, even now, are only open several weeks per year. Gemischter satz is wine of these taverns.
I write at length about Wiener Gemischter Satz in Godforsaken Grapes, but here are the basics: Since 2013, Wiener Gemischter Satz has been an official DAC in Austria, recognizing a wine style as well as a geographic area. To be Wiener Gemischter Satz, a wine must have at least three and no more than 20 grape varieties in the field blend. The first grape must constitute no more than 50 percent of the blend, and the third grape must constitute at least 10 percent of the blend. These are meant to be bright, lively white wines aged in stainless steel; no Wiener Gemischter Satz can be more than 12.5 percent alcohol, and it must not have a “strongly recognizable expression” of oak. These are honest wines, balanced with crispness, flavor, and a lacy lightness.
These days, Wiener Gemischter Satz has been elevated to a high level by wineries such as Wieninger, Weingut Christ, Mayer am Pfarrplatz, and my favorite, Zahel. Most Vienna producers keep with tradition and also run heurigers as well. Zahel, for instance, runs a popular heuriger in the neighborhood of Mauer, which is 20 minutes from the city center (Anthony Bourdain once visited). “A heuriger can be simple, but that’s the goal of the heuriger,” says Alex Zahel. “The Viennese mayor comes and shares a few glasses of wine at the same table as everyone else.”
I recently opened an old favorite, a bottle of Zahel Wiener Gemischter Satz Mauer 2020 ($20), a blend of grüner Veltliner, riesling, pinot gris, pinot blanc, chardonnay, and traminer. Wow, what a bright, energetic, friendly wine. Fruity and zesty and drinkable, yet sneakily complex. Such a happy wine. It was so happy and drinkable, in fact, that the wine went very quickly. So I also opened a bottle of Zahel Orange T Orangetraube 2021 ($22), a wine made from a single, obscure grape called orangetraube. Still happy, but also intense, spicy, pithy, full of warm citrus fruit.
“Sometimes when we talk about winemaking in Vienna, people don’t believe how close to the city we are,” says Zahel. “Ninety percent of the people visit think, ‘Okay, so you bring the grapes in from elsewhere and press them in Vienna?’ But no. The vineyards are right here.”
Anyway, all this made me miss Vienna very much. So I decided to make some Vienna-style open-faced sandwiches, aka canapés. I dug up a decade-old cookbook from my shelves, Neue Cuisine: The Elegant Tastes of Vienna, by Austrian chef Kurt Gutenbrunner, which has a short ode to open-faced sandwiches. “Surprisingly, for something so refined, they’re easy to prepare,” Gutenbrunner writes.
Honestly, I don’t even know how “refined” they are. It’s basically just tossing a bunch of stuff you already have in your fridge or pantry into a food processor. Then you spread it on tiny pieces of bread — preferably something like dark rye or pumpernickel. Bonus points if you cut your crusts off the bread. Double bonus points if you cut the bread into small circles.
For a Spicy Egg Spread, take 5 hard-boiled eggs, 3 tablespoons of mayonnaise, 2 tablespoons of Dijon mustard, 8 cornichons, 1 tablespoon of drained capers, 1½ teaspoons of sweet paprika, and a half teaspoon of cayenne pepper. Toss all that into a food processor and puree (makes about a cup). Then spread it onto your bread. Makes about a dozen.
For a Salami-Egg Spread, take 5 hard-boiled eggs, 4 ounces of salami (preferably something with a little spice), 2 tablespoons of mayonnaise, 2 tablespoons of Dijon mustard, and 6 cornichons. Toss all that into a food processor and puree (makes about a cup). Then spread it onto your bread. This also makes about a dozen.
If you’re thinking…“this is just a fancy egg salad”…well, you’re not wrong.
Once you’ve got all your little sandwiches spread, then it’s time to figure out the toppings. More capers and cornichons are good, as are slices of hard-boiled egg. Olives or apple slices or sprouts work. Horseradish or tapenade? Why not. Ham or smoked fish or pickled herring are all classics. Probably my favorite, especially on the Spicy Egg Spread, is simply sprigs of dill.
Experiment, go crazy. Call them canapés and make them even fancier. They’re supposed to be a little ridiculous. Serve them on a big platter. Eat too many. Open more gemischter satz.