Austria: Pancakes and Perfectionism

Blog Audio

After a wobbly start to the morning (see: A Body Bag & Two Dead Legs), we’ve left Schloss Neuschwanstein behind on the road to Mount Einstein, which I appreciate is a lot of stein in one line.

The “Plan”

The plan is to reach the town of Konstanz in the next couple of days. This means passing into the state of Baden-Württemberg, 100 miles away in South-West Germany. Here, we’ll stay with a support bubble of Valentin’s family, before heading on to the Black Forest.

From left: Konstanz, Tannheim (Austria), Hohenschwangau and Munich.

So far, COVID has kept us moving, Germany’s government regulations allowing us to park for a maximum of one night in any one place. Each German Bundesland (state) is responsible for the severity of its own COVID restrictions, meaning while Bavaria’s lockdown tightens, its neighbouring state Baden-Württemberg still allows larger group sizes to meet outdoors. With Germany racking up sixteen states, it starts to matter which side of the van you get out of in the morning.


As the map shows, we’re making a slight detour today, crossing the South German border into the state of Tyrol in Western Austria. I have a soft spot for this country, for the vast amounts of green space, for the mountains, for the goats with bells on and the farming idyll that secrets a thriving dairy industry beneath its Sound of Music exterior.

Zillertal, Austria.

There is something old and hearty about Tyrol, a disparity of culture when I think of the midlands of England, where I’m from. If Birmingham is TikTok, takeaway and high-speed trains, Tyrol is the antidote, the memory of some slower, bygone age of smallholdings and self-sufficiency, cows tied up outside log cabins, and steaming piles of Catholicism.


Crossing from Bavaria into Austria brings us ever closer to hearty alpine cuisine and one of my favourite food-related histories: Kaiserschmarrn or “Emperor’s Mess.” I tried this three years ago on my first visit to Bavaria, and fell in love. How could you not? Kaiserschmarrn is a thick, American-style pancake – like a mattress. The batter is mixed with caramelized raisins and then fried to a crisp in lots of butter. It has a unique, scrambled appearance (hence the name), and once separated into pieces, is dusted with icing sugar and served with a fruit compote.


The legend goes, it was concocted in the 19th century by a Habsburg court chef tasked with creating a new dish after Empress Elisabeth of Bavaria. Obsessed with maintaining a slim figure, she refused to eat it, letting husband Franz Joseph I lick the dish clean instead. Supposedly, the Austrian emperor liked it so much he gave his name to it – Kaiser’s mess.

Elisabeth of Bavaria

For years I had the impression that Elisabeth must have been a bit of a kill joy, a dour-faced calorie counter, the sort of person who drinks Diet Coke. I liked the idea of tubby little Franz getting stuck into his pile of eggs and cream. Only recently, did I learn that Elisabeth had severe mental health issues, prone to bouts of depression and anxiety since moving into the Habsburg court. She was a fantastic horsewoman, but her two eldest daughters had been taken away at birth by neurotic mother-in-law Archduchess Sophia. Elisabeth was left alone to suffer from yo-yoing periods of binging and fasting.

Sources claim she would weigh herself up to three times a day, and if finding her weight to be above 50 kilograms, would begin to starve herself. This was exacerbated by her tendency to tight-lace – a popular Victorian-era fashion, which saw women binding their bodies with the tightest corsets to achieve a “wasp-waist”, contorting the abdomen into a minimal “V” shape.

She would not be photographed after the age of 32 for fear of shattering the public’s impression of her “eternal beauty,” a figure the Prince of Hesse described as “almost inhumanly slender.” I imagine her like Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride.

Assassinated in 1898 by an Italian anarchist, her tale is tragic, far more complex than the Kaiserschmarrn caricature would suggest. And in a way, it taints the story. The tale of the tubby little emperor and his tedious stick insect becomes the story of a desperately unhappy woman striving to be physically invisible.

I felt for Elisabeth and her obsession with perfection. As we drove through the Tannheim Valley , the Allgäu Alps behind us like skulking bouncers, I had to think back to last night and Schloss Neuschwanstein – the fairy-tale castle and product of Ludwig II’s control freak perfectionism. There is something scary and fascinating about both cousins.

I graduated from uni in May. Somehow, half a year later, I’m back among minds tortured by the idea of achieving perfection.

Written Nov.13 2020. Audio edit and music by Valentin Jann.

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