Tafelspitz: Food Fit for Kings and Emperors

Munich

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For some, legend has it that Ludwig II of Bavaria (1845–1886) always dined alone with the table set for various people, while according to others, he ate surrounded by statues to prevent him feeling alone. However, there’s something on which everyone agrees: born in Munich, one of his favourite dishes was Tafelspitz (also known as Tellerfleisch), which his cooks were ordered to make every day.

In case you’re not familiar with the dish, Tafelspitz is simply a piece of meat—often topside—that is cooked with vegetables. It is traditionally preceded by a starter of soup, followed by the filleted beef, accompanied with vegetables and sometimes a horseradish sauce.

Since the city’s other two staples—the Leberkasse meatloaf and the Weisswurst sausage—are traditionally eaten mid-morning, this Münchner stew normally graces the table around mid-day.

And like many stews, its origins can be elusive. For the cultural-studies academic Helga Mullneritsch, a specialist in the analysis of recipes and the historical and cultural factors that have shaped them, according to the 18th-century Austrian recipe books with which she has worked, the predecessor of Tellerfleisch or Tafelspitz is the French recipe boeuf à la mode.

Tafelspitz appears indistinctly in Bavaria and Austria, both part of the Holy Roman Empire—dissolved by Napoleon in 1806—which was succeeded by the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Franz Joseph I—one of its last emperors, who married Elisabeth and was almost linked to Ludwig II of Bavaria—was also a great fan of the dish, although in this case, there are no records stating that he ate it every day.

Joseph Roth, an author who chronicled the downfall of the empire, used Tafelspitz in his novel Radetzky March to symbolise its decline. At the start of the novel, the dish is served in a festive atmosphere at a gathering of relatives and friends of the Trotta family. However, by the end, aware of the downfall of the empire and his own family, the elderly Trotta eats his Tafelspitz alone, in a scene marked more by sadness than glory.