When I heard that a new opera house was opening in the Austrian city of Linz, the news should have spurred lyrical memories of Mozart’s Linz Symphony or the thundering notes of Anton Bruckner, who grew up nearby. Instead, I suddenly tasted the finely ground hazelnuts mixed with lemon-infused spices that made up my favorite childhood pastry: the Linzer torte.
Growing up in Geneva, I spent most Tuesday afternoons enduring a painful piano lesson. But after each one, my Parisian mother, well aware of my growing obsession with sweets, would take me across the street to the corner pastry shop, where she let me pick out a treat from among as many as 20 cakes. Every time, I chose the Linzer torte, a pastry filled with raspberry or currant jam and topped with a lattice crust. I can still taste the crumbly, buttery dough and the pungent jam, and recall the way my one-on-one with composer Carl Czerny would recede from my consciousness and melt into pure pleasure.
Now settled in New York, I’d leveraged my sensitive palate into a busy career as a food and travel writer. I decided to travel to Austria and, channeling Gretel, follow a path of torte crumbs around Linz and into its new opera house.
Since 2009, when it was named a European Capital of Culture, the small city that straddles the Danube between Vienna and Salzburg has made tremendous strides in shedding its stark industrial reputation in favor of a quasi-futuristic modern image.
“First we cleaned the air,” said Horst Hörtner, senior director of Futurelab, an innovation think tank at Ars Electronica, a digital media and technology museum housed in a striking multicolored, LED-lit glass cube on the river. “Then we cleaned the water, created a car-free zone and gave the town a facelift.”
And last year, his crew also invented a microchip that translates sound into light. “As a wink to our culinary heritage, we painted it red and called it Linzer Schnitte [meaning slice],” he added. I was onto something.
I cross the Nibelungen Bridge, headed back to the past and the city’s old town.
“It suddenly dawned on me that the Linzer torte connects much of our history,” said Ute Sailer, a city guide who recently came up with a “Linzer Torte Tour.” We’re standing on the Hauptplatz, the main square, lined with pastel baroque facades. “There’s been a weekly market here for the last 800 years,” Ute adds casually.
She leads me on the short walk to k.u.k. Hofbäckerei, the oldest bakery in town. It’s helmed by fifth-generation baker Fritz Rath, a favorite of expat Dennis Russell Davies, music director and chief conductor of the Linz Opera and the Bruckner Orchestra Linz.
“No! We don’t put no raspberry jam in the torte,” roars Rath, a genial goblin who seems to have sprung straight out of a box, in charmingly ungrammatical English. He bounces back to his kitchen, gesturing for me to follow and don an apron. I dig my hands into the dough as he guides me through the making of my very own torte. I can’t resist licking a spoonful of red currant jam. “Here in Upper Austria,” explains the baker, “red currants grow everywhere, like weeds.”