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Stories to Go 6: Kolschitzky’s Qahveh House

There is a lot about Viennese cafes in the stories on this blog and this is the last one in the series, the legend about how the Viennese coffee house tradition began. This story was written as a sequel to the first in the series (Being with Beethoven), about an elderly pensioner who leads a solitary existence in Vienna. Years ago, I had the good fortune to come across a book called Das Theresianische Wien. It describes Vienna during the reign of this capable and conscientious monarch (Maria Theresia, 1717 – 1780), who laid the foundations for much that is worthy of emulation in this city today. For example, safe drinking water.Vienna’s drinking water today is brought from Alpine sources in the mountains around Semmering, approximately one hundred kilometers south-west of Vienna in the direction of Graz. This water is characteristically low in calcium hydrogen carbonates. Together with its low temperature and high oxygen content, it has a pleasant, sweet taste. In Maria Theresia’s time, Vienna’s water came from wells dug in the swampy countryside and was usually brackish, often foul tasting, and unhealthy. She introduced the sale of bottled water in the mid-1700s, a few decades before Evian was introduced to the world as a health drink for gallstones by the Marquis de Lessert in 1789.A certain Carl Burney from Hamburg writes in 1783 that shopping is no problem in Vienna as the tradespeople come to your home to sell their wares, and de Luca writes in his 1785 description of this royal city that: since the water in Vienna is not very good, there is a wide choice of bottled mineral waters, for example Selter, Rohitscher Sauerbrunn, Spaa, Pyromonter, Eger, Freudenthatler, Vorderbrunn and Pirkenfeld Sauerbrunn, among others. All these are tested for purity by the medical faculty and sold in sealed bottles or krugs.

If you’re interested in 18th century Vienna, and can deal with the sometimes old fashioned German of this book, I can highly recommend it. Das Theresianische Wien, Monika J. Knofler, Boehlaus Verlag, Graz, 1979


He sometimes was unfaithful to his stamm cafe where a place was permanently reserved for him, and wandered elsewhere for a post-prandial cup of coffee.  After all, he thought, one must have something to compare excellence with.  As a wise man remarked long ago, we fully recognize moments of happiness only in retrospect for what they are, never during the events themselves.  So like an errant husband who needs an occasional infidelity to remind himself of the virtues of his wife, he deserted his habitual coffee house for another.

On this Sunday, he entered the cafe on the perimeter of the inner city simply because it looked so venerable, age lending the building a patina reminiscent of sunlight on silver hair.  The walls were decorated with pictures framed in varnished oak; solid, enduring, unaging; the pictures insignificant in themselves but lending atmosphere and character to the place.  Time flew by here just as quickly and inexorably as it did elsewhere, but the decor lent the dark interior an air of unhurried timelessness; this timelesness paradoxically emphasised by the ticking of the pendulum clock mounted on the far wall, hesitantly chiming quarter, half and full hours like a polite old gentleman clearing his throat, too well-bred to raise his voice and interrupt the comfortable hum of conversation.

Nearly all the tables were taken, but he saw a small table-for-two by the window was free and sat on one of the round-seated armless Jugendstil chairs with gracefully curved backrests, waiting with elbows propped on the table to give his order. Sitting there at that window seat was like straddling two worlds. Outside, the bustling stream of cars and assorted city traffic attested that Vienna had joined an exclusive group of cities.  In the inner city, carbon monoxide levels shot up to match those of metropolises like New York, Paris, London or other conurbations listed on the designer packages of prestigious products.  Turning his head backwards through an arc of one hundred and eighty degrees, he travelled backwards in time and imagined that the cafe had not changed decor or character for centuries.

The interior was subdued, the light that came through the windows facing the street had a faint golden tinge from the name of the cafe painted in Gothic letters on the glass.  The waiter, smooth and pale, seeming not to walk but flow, was polite, bringing the grosser brauner with swift, silent efficiency on a silver tray, a single spoon impeccably balanced on the glass of water that was invariably served with the coffee.  Along with the coffee the waiter brought him a copy of the day’s newspaper, mounted as always on a cane frame.  Apart from the muted noises of the busy traffic and the subdued murmur of voices, the only sound was the ticking of the clock.  The scene was probably the same three hundred years ago, he thought.  He blinked and yawned, assailed by a sudden weariness, feeling the years gather in his bones like tree rings in an ancient oak…

The interior was very smoky and smelled.  Smoky because of the pipe smokers who were prohibited, by royal decree, to indulge their habit on the open streets.  They popped in here whenever they felt the urge to smoke, sitting in foggy groups of two and three, drinking glasses or red or white wine.  The room smelled of stale, unwashed bodies, sauerkraut and roasting meat. Above it all the strange aroma was sharp in his nostrils, not unpleasant in its novelty, overriding the miasma of the inn’s dark interior.  A fat chicken pecked at scraps of uneaten food on the floor, squawking noisily when the uncouth oaf at the next table lurched to his feet, sweeping the remnants of his meal to the floor.

‘You haven’t paid for your food,’ the landlord said.  He wore a close-fitting green cap on his head and a brown camisole. His stockinged feet were encased in thick-soled wooden clogs.
‘That will be five kreuzers for the pigs knuckle and,’ he peered into the earthen jar on the table, ‘two for the wine.’

‘At that price, you old highway robber, I’ll drink the rest of the wine.’  The peasant raised the jug and swilled the rest of the wine, a trickle escaping down each corner of his mouth and staining his blue smock.  But the red wine stains were hardly visible among all the other stains already on it.  The old gentleman held his nose and finished the last of his breaded veal cutlet.  It was all the rage here, the latest culinary novelty, and he enjoyed the schnitzel down to the very last golden brown crumb.  ‘Herr Wirt,’ he called to the owner as the latter tested the seven kreuzers on his teeth and pocketed them.  ‘Some water, please.’

‘What’ll it be, sir?  The usual?’

The gentleman nodded and the landlord disappeared into a back room, emerging with a stone bottle in his hand.  He set the bottle on the table and broke open the leaden seal with a flourish.

‘Here you are, sir, bottled water, purity tested and certified by the city authorities.  You’re right not to drink the normal water, gentlemen like you who can afford it.  I’ve heard tell that there are diseases that one can get from drinking the normal water here.’

‘Indeed?  In that case I’m doubly glad I can afford to buy bottled water.  I don’t like the taste of the water here,’ said the gentleman, tucking his fine cambric kerchief into a pocket of his knee length coat of bottle green.  The wide cut claret sleeves of the tight fitting coat whipped with a flourish as he extracted a metal snuff box inlaid with mother-of-pearl.  ‘What is that enticing aroma?’

The thick-jawed yokel overheard the question, guffawed and nudged the owner heartily, pointing to the prim old gentleman.
‘Huh-huh, the gentleman wants to know what the smell is.  Tell him, Gustl.  That’s the smell of poverty, see.  Sweat and dirt and smoke.’

‘Not that,’ said the old gentleman testily, holding the perfumed handkerchief delicately to his nose.  ‘Unfortunately I’m all too familiar with that.  It’s the other thing I’m asking about.’

The Wirt understood immediately.  He frowned at the yokel.’Hush, hush,’ he admonished.  ‘The gentleman’s sense of smell is better developed than yours.  I know what he’s talking about.’
He scratched his ear as though that were his olfactory organ and inhaled the almost visible aroma.

‘That, sir,’ he said proudly, ‘is part of the spoils of war. Taken from the enemy. This being the year of our Lord 1684, last year when the Duke of Lorraine arrived with his troops and Marshal Sobielsky’s Polish army converged on the hills outside Vienna to help our beleaguered city, the enemy fled.  They left behind bags of green beans which were about to be thrown away.  I’m no admirer of the Turks, sir,
believe me.  After all, they threatened and almost took our beloved city, you know that as well as I, having been trapped within these walls during the siege, those two terrible months when even water ran scarce and was so precious.  The memory of thirst is still so frightening and immediate, I can’t believe it was a year ago already.’

‘What was it you took from the enemy?’ asked the gentleman sharply, his curiosity aroused.

‘Those bags of green beans I mentioned, sir.  I have a friend who was a prisoner of the Turks for more than three months.  He is a very clever fellow and a born trader.  He has travelled to many distant places and even lived with the Musalman for a few years, learning their habits and adopting their ways. Anyway, he told me in confidence to salvage those beans and showed me how to prepare them.  When roasted, powdered and added to boiling water, it makes a stimulating drink.’  He took a deep breath and smiled at the old man.  ‘I’ve been wondering what to call it.  The Turks call is Qahveh.’  He repeated the name aloud a couple of times, ‘Qahveh, Qahveh,’ rolling the syllables, testing them on his tongue like a gourmet his food.

‘Qah-veh, Qah-feh, Qah-feh, Qahfeh.  That’s it!  I think I’m going to call it Qahfeh.  And I’m going to rename this place. Kolschitzky’s Qahfeh House.  Doesn’t that sound good? Kolschitzky’s Qahfeh House, and all around it this wafting aroma, the smell of success brewing in the kitchen.’

The old gentleman was not deceived. He knew he was bearing witness to the birth of a legend. Myths and legends did not need to be factually true.  All that they needed for authenticity was a grain of truth surrounded by a cultural cloud of veracity.  What did it matter that the drink had first been brought to the city more than a century earlier by Armenian traders?  Posterity would give Kolschitzky the credit for bringing coffee to Vienna. And in a way posterity’s judgement would confer rightness, as it always did.

The scent of the cold coffee tickled his nostrils with the light touch of a ghost from the grave, waking him with a start. The cafe was almost empty, but outside the bustle of traffic continued undiminished. The silent waiter appeared at his elbow with a faint smile.  ‘I think the gentleman fell asleep,’ he said in the archaically formal third person.  ‘Shall I bring him another cup of hot coffee?’

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