The subjects of food culture and table talk form the basis of a very colourful exhibition at the Huber-Hus Museum in Lech.
The list of ingredients is short: 650 grams of polenta, two litres of milk, a quarter kilogram of butter, some salt and – if available – a dash of cream. The cooking time is pretty long: it needs at least an hour‘s stirring. The number of mouths that can be fed, however, is impressive: up to eight. We are talking about Riebel, a traditional Vorarlberg dish, prepared in a large cast-iron pan, served piping hot, and washed down with a mug of malt coffee. Around 1900, in Lech, it was not butter, jam and white rolls that were put on the table, but this filling and also inexpensive corn dish. Today, the Riebel bubbles on the stove but rarely, to remind us of times gone past with its smell. Of times when Lech Zürs still mainly lived off farming. With the rise of tourism, the region changed quite drastically. And the eating habits and table manners also soon adapted to the new challenges. To trace this change is the goal of the special exhibition, entitled “Esskultur und Tischgespräche” (Food Culture and Table Talk), that is shown at the Huber-Hus Museum in Lech.
The initial impetus for the conception of the exhibition was the fact...
...that Lech Zürs, with fourteen decorated restaurants, had “the highest density of Gault Millau toques in Austria” and was described in the Falstaff Guide of 2008 as a “World Gourmet Village,” explains Thomas Felfer from the Huber-Hus Museum in Lech. The special exhibit shall deal with the changes in the food cultures and the table manners, from 1900 to the present day, a basic aspect of the show being conversations with the people of the region. Their memories, their culinary vocabulary are the red thread, as it were, running through the special exhibition at the Huber-Hus Museum.
Food is not only one of our basic needs...
...it always has had a strong social aspect. When our nomad ancestors settled down, they were confronted with the necessity of having to produce their own food, i.e. to cultivate fields, and also to build trade routes in order to come by the goods they did not have themselves. Lech Zürs, for example, for centuries has obtained flour and corn from Oberstdorf across the German border. In return, the local farmers sold their livestock there. “There has always been a lively exchange, also when it comes to recipes,” says Felfer, referring to old recipe books, old cookbooks used for teaching in schools, which can be used to retrace various influences. Polenta, main ingredient of the aforementioned Riebel, could not be produced at such altitudes either and therefore had to be imported. Yet it was very durable and easily stored.
The rural diet around 1900 was anything but poor...
...it merely did not have the variety that we are used to today. The list of ingredients for the recipes was rarely very long. In their earth cellars people stored turnips and carrots as well as sauerkraut. Meat was smoked and thus made durable. Fresh meat, as it comes to the table almost daily nowadays, our ancestors had on their plates only on rare occasions, only when an animal had been killed, that is, which mostly happened in the autumn. Fresh meat, by the way, was called “green meat,” Felfer adds. An important part of the diet, and part of almost every dish, were milk and other dairy products.
Over the open fire, of course, it was mostly stews that were prepared.
Only when the brick stove was introduced, the cooker with several round openings, several dishes could be cooked at once. Which, naturally, had an effect on what landed on the table. Such a simple stove, of course, was not enough to provide for a large number of guests. Going hand in hand with the growing influx of tourists, therefore, there were massive changes in the way kitchens were equipped: guesthouses were enlarged, hotels built from scratch, and the kitchens fitted out according to the new requirements. For, while the first alpinists focussed more on scaling the summits than on culinary delights, the guests who populated the ski pistes demanded more comfort, more choice on the menu than the tourist pioneers who pushed into these inhospitable regions or were merely passing through. The Lech population quickly adapted to the new demands, and decided on international cuisine, as menus from the nineteen-fifties show.
Fads, such as the fondue...
...found their way to the selection of dishes on offer just as culinary specialities did. Thus, for instance, the so-called “kalte Platte” (cold platter) was a fixture until the nineteen-seventies. Which had to do with the fact that the chef usually was off on Sundays, that the guests still had to be cared for, though. Even the term “kalte Platte”, which is rarely to be found on menus these days, shows that the change in food culture and table manners also means a change in the vocabulary. This is a crucial aspect that “Esskultur und Tischgespräche” is paying particular attention to as well.
In the course of researching for the special exhibition, for example, the organisers stumbled on the expression “Fünf- Uhr-Tee.”
Probably in reference to English customs, hotels, in the nineteen-sixties, offered their mainly urban visitors a so-called five o‘clock tea, where they could sit together and chat comfortably. Among the locals, on the other hand, there was the tradition, for a long time, to come together in the kitchen for a chat in the afternoon. And the common meal still is sacrosanct to many hotel and restaurant owners in Lech and Zürs. Once a day, at least, the whole family sits down together to eat.
The tasty Riebel, whose special fragrance many of the older people here still remember, is unknown to most of the younger generation. And yet, the trend in the kitchens is once again pointing in the direction of regional specialities. There is a good chance, therefore, that the Riebel will soon be found again on menus here and there.