Home of the Schnitzel

By Andrew Court

It’s three in the afternoon and I’ve almost missed lunch.

Hiking the mountains around Gstaad, Switzerland takes energy, and the breakfast buffet pastry isn’t holding up. We’re the only people in Le Grand Bellevue’s dining room and the already overly attentive Swiss waiters are circling. “What’s good?” I ask, looking at a menu laid out with the precision of Patrick Bateman’s business card.

The waitress responds, “Our Wiener schnitzel is the best in Switzerland,” with a slightly aggressive teutonic accent and otherwise perfect English.

These hills—where Hemingway popularized skiing in the twenties—were uncharacteristically reaching almost ninety degrees so I was initially reluctant to take her advice. But then I remembered the first rule of schnitzel: When done correctly, it’s a light food for all seasons. The dish is far more similar to tempura, and much less like greasy roadside fried chicken. At around sixty bucks, anyway, the Bellevue’s better cure cancer.

My first bite is a revaluation and also when I knew I’d be writing this. The veal is pounded thin and the crust is a perfect gold brown. On top is a light salad with Parmesan flakes and balsamic. The schnitzel itself covers the entire plate with a slice of lemon perched on the edge, wrapped in cheesecloth to keep the seeds in. Before I know it the meal is over and all I can think about is ordering another one.

This is serious guy food; why isn’t it on every menu across America? We love fried food, why not hammer it into this thin crispy slice of northern European excellence? 

Conventional wisdom has it that this dish is Austrian and they do indeed take it seriously. The phrase ‘Wiener schnitzel’ is legally protected in Austria and Germany. Under Austrian culinary code, a legal system I can’t imagine in the United States, the term only refers to a slice of veal coated in egg, flour and breadcrumbs that’s then fried. Pork, a popular substitute, isn’t verboten but must be clearly labeled.

The truth, however, is not something the Austrians want to hear. The Wiener schnitzel comes from Italy. The first reference to Veal Milanese, the iconic Italian fried cutlet, came in 1134.  It shows up on a menu served at the Basilica of St. Ambrose which was recorded by writer Pietro Verri in his History of Milan.

Fans of the Milanese believe a letter sent by Count Attems, aide-de-camp to Emperor Franz Joseph, is proof the Austrians got the dish from Italy in the 19th century. In the letter the count praised the Milanese specialty so much the ruler brought it to court. The Austrians dispute the authenticity of this letter, but it doesn’t change the fact that the first reference is still from Italy.

The dish’s fame spread, and a bunch of variations popped up. In Germany, the schnitzel was made with pork, becoming Jägerschnitzel and the Rahmschnitzel. In Switzerland they ditched the frying, and it became known as “Zürcher Geschnetzeltes,” with veal cooked in a creamy mushroom sauce. Across Central and Eastern Europe, chicken schnitzel gained traction, providing a lighter alternative to traditional veal or pork options. This would culminate in one of my favorite varieties, the Israeli schnitzel, chicken fried in olive oil.

Schnitzel’s Austrian identity solidified in the early 20th Century as part of a program to promote Viennese cuisine and the creaking grandeur of the Hapsburg empire. This is how we get the term ‘Wiener schnitzel’ as a way to differentiate the dish from other breaded meats in neighboring countries. Austria even has a museum dedicated to the food.

While I am skeptical, theirs is the first I feel I need to conduct further empirical research to see if Austrians are the best. Figlmüller would be the best place to start. Their version is always 4mm thick and 30 cm across. The veal is breaded in kaiser roll crumbs from local bakers and fried in three separate pans for ultimate crispness. Their secret is the oil temperature, and the head chef isn’t telling.

Here in the United States the Wiener schnitzel hasn’t really caught on. Sure, if you are at a theme restaurant like Zum Schneider on the Lower East Side or at Oktoberfest in Cincinnati it’s available, but it’s not a staple. We have devoted a whole culture to BBQ and burgers, but ignored this fried delicacy.

I’m not political, but if I was running in the 2024 election my platform would be simple, a schnitzel in every frying pan. With a good meat hammer, and a cast iron pan, it’s not even that hard to make at home.

And yes, I like it the Italian way, which is bone in.

From the FE Films Archive

See More Films from Field Ethos

You May Also Like