Irene and myself became friends because of our mutual love for food. Founder of BookaCook, Irene is quite a celebrity in Vienna. She is the fuel in the kitchen of Austria’s Slow Food movement and the toast of events that matter most not just in the Austrian capital but around the Alpine country. Although her catering company, BookaCook, is booked out for months at events ranging from weddings to international conferences, Irene had little clue about what vegetarians eat in India. One day, she invited me to Hofladen, a place which is not just her kitchen but lounge, shop and takeaway place.
Surrounded by exotic vegetables and legumes from around the world, she threw up her hands, wondering in which pot to pour the tamarind juice and what use it is to sprinkle saffron in a pan.
That sunny, Sunday morning, I made her a jeera aloo and pooris breakfast. The dessert included ground rice simmered in sugar, milk and cream and topped with strings of saffron from Spain. It was that piping hot plate of chole which she insists on calling chickpea curry that landed me a job at the Hofladen as chef, specialising in vegetarian Indian cuisine. Irene introduced me proudly to her clients as someone who is able to make a potato not taste like a potato.
Then she laid bare before me all the masoor dal, every baigan, every kaabli channa that she had stocked up in her store room but did not know what to do with.
At the Hofladen, carrots cooked in masoor dal became lentil soup,baigan bharta was melanzane in yoghurt and the taken for granted roti became a hot favourite as hand rolled bread from whole wheat.
Irene is of German stock. She was born in the 1960s as Europe slowly recovered from destruction wrought by World War II upon the continent’s land and leute. Her father was a gardener and her mother a professional cook. Her parents were so proud when Irene made it to the Austrian foreign ministry as an office assistant.
The last world war was preceded by severe economic depression in Europe when several generations had missed out on a good meal on the continent. The staple diet of Irene as she grew up in the gorgeous countryside of Styria, one of Austria’s four provinces, was pork and potatoes, of course without jeera. The post-war period is perhaps the first era in recorded human history when the aam aadmi at least in the so-called developed world, found a wide variety of enough food not only on the plate but also in the dustbin. In the past half-century, as Europe prospered, entire populations gorged off the shelf of marketplaces that overflowed with goods from around the world they became sick. The over-consumption, instant and constant munching in the name of comfort, caught up with citizens like Irene.
To the deep disappointment of her mother, Irene gave up her city job with a secure salary to return to the land. She recalled the days she had spent with her father in the garden. Irene felt suffocated in the air-conditioned comfort of her plush office where she was offered coffee, cakes, cream and candy ad infinitum and which caused her body and soul much pain. She began to long for sunshine on her face, to be able to inhale the aroma of grass, herbs and flowers. The restlessness in her soul coincided with the birth of the Slow Food movement founded by Carlo Petrini around the turn of the last century in the same country where the word orgy originates.
Irene is in the forefront of the Austrian chapter of the Slow Food movement and champions healthy eating habits and the cause of local small businesses of bio farmers and independent producers of agricultural products
Disgusted at not being able to prevent a fast food outlet from opening at a historic Roman square, Petrini, an Italian journalist, began to promote ideas of the preservation of traditional and regional cuisine. Since 1987, the movement has spread like fire in a forest and today it has over 100,000 members in 150 countries.
Irene is in the forefront of the Austrian chapter of the Slow Food movement and champions healthy eating habits and the cause of local small businesses of bio farmers and independent producers of agricultural products.
She works with hundreds of farmers, cooks, students, researchers, small-scale producers and farmers from across the country and abroad.
Like the pied piper, Irene will escort a gang of international chefs collected in Austria to the bi-annual Terra Madre conference in the Italian town of Turin this month, hosted by Petrini. The good news is that Irene promises to keep Hardnews posted on whatever is cooked in the pots there.