Austrian comfort food just like our grandparents made
A chance discovery led to the Robson brothers celebrating their hidden Jewish heritage with food, says Jake Wallis Simons
Behind the doors of Boopshi’s, a modest restaurant in central London, lies a story that begins in Thirties Austria. “One day we found an old cardboard box that used to belong to our grandparents,” says Ed Robson, 31, who set up the restaurant with his 27-year-old brother Ben. “It was filled with documents – birth certificates, letters to each other, bank statements and copies of visa applications. That’s how we realised they were Jewish. They had never talked about it.” Both Nora and Fred Robson – or Nora and Fritz Rosenzeig, as they were formerly known – had escaped from Austria before the Second World War and made new lives in England. They passed away several years ago, having never spoken about the past. For the brothers, the discovery prompted a desire to reconnect with their heritage. But their starting point was not the National Archives or a genealogy website. Rather, it was the collection of dogeared notebooks that they had found in the box. “They were full of recipes passed down to our grandfather by his mother,” says Ben. “The ingredients were written in full, but the techniques were in code. We had to decipher it.” “Food was a central part of their lives when we were growing up,” adds Ed. “He always did the baking, and she did the savouries. The one exception was the strudel.” Ben nods sagely. “He was never allowed to interfere with the strudel.” This classic western European pudding was the centrepiece of Nora’s fabled “dessert trolley”, which she used to trundle out “three or four times a day”. The strudel is one of the three recipes that the brothers have agreed to teach me in the kitchen at Boopshi’s. The other two are savoury dishes, schnitzel and spätzle. Like everything else on the menu, these are based on their grandparents’ notebooks, but have been given a modern twist.“When we discovered the recipe books, we were both working in a restaurant in Hampstead, north London,” Ben explains. “We decided to set up a restaurant that served light, fresher versions of our grandparents’ traditional Austrian recipes, without losing the essence.” For more than a year, the brothers took frequent trips to Vienna, dining in all types of restaurant, from cordon bleu establishments to roadside canteens, thinking about “what could work”. In December they were finally ready, and Boopshi’s – named after the pet name that Nora and Fred had used for each other – was born. In the kitchen, the head chef, Rino Scalco, initiates me into the secrets of Austrian cooking lite. We start with the Wiener schnitzel, a thin slice of veal fried in breadcrumbs, a classic Viennese dish. “It is best to use organic rose veal,” says Rino, “which is produced without cruelty to animals. It’s darker in colour, and far more tender and flavoursome. You can get it from Waitrose or a good butcher.” Starting with a slice about half an inch thick, the first step is to “bash it out” using a meat mallet (or place it between two sheets of baking paper and attack it with “something flat”). The trick, he says, is to “get the meat as thin as you can without putting a hole in it”. “A thick slab of meat will take longer to cook, and it will absorb all the oil and become horrible and greasy,” he explains. “If you keep it thin, it will cook in a minute or two and come out very light.” Make sure that the edges are as flat as the centre; if there are any inconsistencies, it won’t cook evenly. After dipping the veal in egg, flour and breadcrumbs, give the schnitzel 30 minutes in the fridge. Otherwise the batter will separate from the meat when it goes into the oil, creating air bubbles that will break away, creating unpleasant bare patches. I am surprised at how quickly it cooks. Before I can taste it, Rino puts it aside and moves onto the spätzle, or Austrian dumplings. He makes a paste with egg, flour, water and butter, spoons it through a colander into a pan of boiling chicken stock, then takes it out with a sieve. The result is a host of gnoccilike nuggets, which can be crisped up in a frying pan and served with a cheese sauce, or simply added to soup. OK, so this one isn’t so light. But if you’re craving winter comfort food, you need look no further. Finally comes the legendary apple strudel. The goal is to prevent the apple from oozing as it cooks, which can soak the strudel and weigh it down. To do this, the apple is sliced very thinly with a mandolin or potato peeler. Then it is mixed with raisins soaked in rum, cinnamon and demerara sugar, and left to stand for an hour. The next step is to paint six sheets of filo pastry with melted butter to make them pliant and adhesive, then tuck a rectangle of apple mixture into it and roll it up. After half an hour in the oven, it is golden and slightly sticky. Finally Rino hands me some cutlery. The resulting meal – washed down with Viennese lager – is not remotely greasy or stodgy. Instead it is tasty and moreish, the perfect way to banish the January chill. “Our grandparents would have loved this place,” says Ben. “One of their favourite things was entertaining. And their recipes live on.” Boopshis.com Serves 4-5 Ingredients 6 sheets of filo pastry 2 large cooking apples 150g Demerara sugar 50g raisins that have been soaked in stroh rum overnight 50g melted butter 1 tsp cinnamon 1 tbsp of breadcrumbs Serves one Ingredients 200g of veal, preferably loin, topside or rump, cut to half an inch thick 2 large eggs 2 Kaiser rolls (white rolls will do) Bottle of vegetable oil Method Blitz the bread rolls in a blender. Then spread on a baking tray and cook in the oven, at the lowest temperate possible, until completely dry. Return to the blender and blitz again to ensure an even, dry crumb. Bat out the veal until it is as thin as possible without breaking. Dip the veal in flour, and season it with salt and pepper. Lightly beat the eggs and coat the floured veal on both sides. Refrigerate for about 30 minutes. Coat the veal in breadcrumbs (don’t pat too hard). To cook, if you do not have a deep fryer, you will need a deep pan. Use enough oil so that you can submerge the schnitzel completely. Thewalls of the pot should rise at least 10cm/4in above the oil to avoid spillage. Using a cooking thermometer, bring the oil up to 185C. Lower the breadcrumbed veal into the oil for 30 seconds, then turn it over for another 30 seconds. Remove, place on a rack to drain excess oil, and serve.
By the book: the Robsons have modified family recipes at their London restaurant Boopshi’s