As I sit down to write, I notice a cricket is on the side of my desk, its antennas poking up and alerting me to its existence. It thinks it is camoflaged, as it has sought out the darkest surface in this otherwise light colored room. I may have brought it in with me from the day in the cornfield, where I ran into a number of flying, hopping and buzzing insects; and as it may be taking care of any possible lingering mosquitos that the frogs in the pond have let slip by, or for sure relishing some of the other harmless yet annoying flying creatures I’ve been swatting away at for a week, he will become my new pet.
After breakfast and the horse and chicken care, I trim the grape vines leaves and branches from the front yard fence, so the sun can reach the burgeoning grapes growing hidden from view, that are now turning from green to purple. These will be picked – along with the ones hanging from the canopy of their back patio – when ripe, and go through the same process as with the cherries for juice. Birgit and her sister are in the kitchen, whose windows are open and which overlook the front yard, falling into a colloquial Austrian conversation that when I attempt to understand, as at the dinner table, I can decipher, but here outside when it’s not meant for me I let their their dialogue create a quaint background music to my snipping and landscaping, the dialogue of sisters, sharing information and goings on about their lives with their young children running around and through them. When I am finished with the outside trimming, I know what has kept them busy: homemade mohnnudeln, a potato, egg, flour “dumpling,” rolled into short long pieces, boiled, and then coated in a poppy seed, cinnamon, sugar and butter coating.
Because the zucchinies are ripening daily, and in her pantry sits a full bucket of them, Birgit makes zucchini soup almost every day, and so we have that as well before hand.
Rain is forecast for the rest of the afternoon, limiting any more vine work or garden work. Birgit looks up the bus schedule to the nearest train station town – Stokerau – and announces there is a bus in seven minutes, which is very lucky as the busses rarely run in the summer. Otherwise, I would have to take one of the bikes and ride to the train station, about ten km away, lock it up there, and hop on the train to Wien. I opt for the bus idea, as the sky threatens rain now, and grab a day bag, money and walking shoes and head out to my first adventure outside the farm.
The S Bahn takes about 40 minutes, depending on how many stops it makes along the way, to reach Wien Mittte, one of may stops in Vienna, but the one closest to the old town, and there disembark into the bustle of city life once again. And what a life! I obtain a tourist, land marked street map from the train station and get my bearings in order, and meander west on Stephansstrasse which will eventually take me to St. Stephans Cathedral. Right away I am side tracked by delights of all kinds, especially this bakery/candy store that enticed me in with the sheet of almond brittle.
A few customers behind in line, I wait patiently, until I come to my correct senses: I need this almond brittle like I need another dumpling, and reluctantly headed over to the fresh fruit and vegetable juice man across the street who pressed a few large beets into a cup for me. Feeling more spiritely with my decision, I continue on my way, until just down the road I meet up with a Konditorei, which entices me for a far different reason. One of my wishes for several years now is to sit in a Viennese coffee house at a round, marble table over a rich burgundy carpet and long windows hung with heavy drapes that mute the clang of silver wear, cups and saucers in the kitchen. I would sit there, so the story goes, drinking the perfect cup of dark, heady coffee with the most creamy milk, and slice into a linzertorte with a silver fork. That’s as far as my story went, but I may be able to finish my story today. As I face the Konditorei’s window, inspecting the sachertorte, the apfel strudel, the topfkuchen, the erdbeer torte, I remind myself: I’m still drinking my beet juice. There are bound to be more I will encounter in my Viennese afternoon. I walk on, and am fascinated by the colors, the voices, the languages, the people, the shops. I walk straight onto Stephans Platz, from Schulerstrasse and come face to face with the cathedral, its mosaic tiled roof reflecting brilliant blue and gold, its one spiral reaching for the sun.
I walk around to find its entrance where horse carriages wait to trot their way around the old town area, and am approached by a fellow in Mozart garb offering me a discounted ticket to tonight’s concert: a tourist’s smorgasbord of Mozart, Strauss, Haydn and Vivaldi at the Haus der Musik, at the Palais Erzherzog Karl – 1567. He would have had me had the concert been for the afternoon, but I did not make any plans for a pick up from the train station as late as 11 pm, so I take the information anyway and keep it for another afternoon, quickly learning that besides the food and treats I’ll need to return for, there are also the concerts and the museums that begin to vie for attention on the way to Hofburg Hof, the imperial residences of the Hapsburg families. So today, I tell myself, is for getting my bearings and doing a survey course in the layout of Vienna.
Onward in a westerly direction, I walk onto the Hofburg grounds, where one can find the Spanish riding school building, where all those beautiful, white horses, called Lipizzaner Stallions, are trained to lift their legs high and dance sideways, and the riders wear the helmets with tassles that remind me of a certain Rembrandt painting. Tickets for a morning exercise show as well as for a guided tour are available, but again, with time limited, I must scope out my must sees, and move forward. Also to be found here, are the National Bibliothek, the largest Austrian scientific library with architecture that reveals said largess, and the Kaiserliche Schatzkammer – a museum that houses the jewels, probably dinnerware and other imperial finery of the Hapsburg era.
I sit here for a while, contemplating life during that era, and earlier, when the medieval wall around Vienna was taken down in the mid 1800s and replaced with the ring road. What once housed cobblers and dairies have become Salamander and Das Beste Eis der Welt. (True, by the way. I once thought Haagen Dasz was the best ice cream in the world. But it pales by comparison. I taste this ice cream – actually the cream, as I find out later at the Konditorei – and I am transported to cream heaven. There has never been, nor will there ever be, a match to the cream that is made here and used for desserts and in food recipes.)
By now the beet juice is long gone, and I’m ready for my afternoon treat. I find Aida Konditorei, back at Stephans Platz, and although I cannot find a linzer torte, (not for lack of asking at several along my way), I do find a linzerschnitt, but upon inspection through the glass case, can see very little if any of the necessary red currant jam. Disappointing, but no complaints, as the apple strudel looks enticing enough as it is. Knowing this choice will not complete my coffee house story, I forego sitting inside (as there is no carpet or drapery although I was pleased to see the marble tables) and select an outside table, order a kaffee mit Sahne and an Apfel strudel mit Sahne. I don’t see why not. Here I am, after all. And what a piece. It must weigh a kilo. Around the pastry dough thinly sliced apples mingle with raisins and some kind of thickening agent – either farina or flour and butter – and overall, I thought a bit too dry. I know, right? Here I am, all psyched about my coffee house story and eat something that is not perfect. The cream, though, creates a beautiful symphony all together, and the coffee and cream was splendid as well. I decide I must finish my coffee house story at a different establishment on a different day, and maybe even in a different place, like Wiener Neustadt or Linz itself.
I am too full with butter, sugar, flour and cream to contemplate what I had in mind for dinner: Wurstchen mit senf und ein Bier. Alas, another day. I decide to walk back down to the Banhof to walk along the Donau; I admire the archtecture and the gardens where I meander through and watch children play fussball. On my way down the road, I run into the Manner wafer shop, the original chocolate and other assorted flavored wafers that began my love story with Austria years ago. Well that, and the wine at the local Heuriger, but that’s for a later story.
My knowledge of corn has grown as large as the stalks this summer. Briefly, here is the gist of what an organic farmer must do when growing corn: Seed it and wait for rain. That’s it, although he’ll be doing a lot of worrying and speculation along the way. Once the corn flowers, it must be removed, and this is when the hard work begins. Non organic corn is fed a fertilizer that ensures even growth, so that a harvester can run through the whole field and pull the flower off the stalk. An organic cornfield will experience different growth periods of its corn, and the removal of the flower must be done by hand. The first harvest is done by a bunch of guys from the Check Republic, who remove the flowers from the top of the stalks, but because there are so many, and the green leaves of the corn stalk tall and broad, it often can hide the flower quite well. This means that several more times of walking through the rows of corn become necessary. The flower must be plucked from the female stalk so that the male flowering seeds, blowing around in the wind, can pollinate the female corn, and with flower removed, its easier to do. In every cornfield, there are three rows of male corn stalks for every five rows of female plants. The female is the larger plant, and its leaves are darker and less transluscent than the male plant.
Once a farmer sees his corn flowering, a great panic ensues, as if left on too long, it will pollinate itself and produce a product that cannot be sold. A corn controller apparently roams the area and randomly will walk through a field to see how many of these flowers have been left or overseen. If he thinks there are too many, he will tell the landowner to walk through it again, or he will tell the buyer of the seed to not buy it as it will have been contaminated. If plucked too soon, the plant is too immature to pollinate successfully.
So my job is to walk the fields today, and I am trained on spotting these little buggers who like to hide behind the leaves. It can be mind numbing, but sometimes numbing a mind isn’t all that bad. It offers a whole lot of quiet time to think one’s thoughts. Just to give you an idea of the time this took, in four hours I walked 6 miles up and down the rows, at a very slow pace.
At times, the corn reached above my head, creating a sea of green. See if you can spot the flower in the middle picture. And see if you can find the grasshopper in the bottom picture.
We stop and drive home for lunch: fried potatoes, onions and ham, and a tomato salad with mozzarella cheese. (Farmers in this region have fields in different areas, to ensure that he doesn’t lose all of his crops to a single disaster, should it happen in one area; or, to ensure that if the quality of soil isn’t great in that area, then it will only efffect one of his crops, and not all ten, for example.) After lunch, we drive back to finish the hectar(s) and stay until 8. In total, we are there about 9 hours, walking up and down rows of corn and paying attention to where these flowers are hiding. Spending that much time to there is not the norm, and I only volunteer to help him get it done. I usually only work between four to five hours a day. The picture at the right shows the ends of the pulled flower, and they offfer a tasty snack if you get hungry out there, tasting like the sweet, white kernels found on the ends of corn on the cob, and an August summer’s day.