Interview with Gudrun Steinkellner, a Reichenfels native who regularly writes on her blog kochenwiefrüher.at and who has published three books full of tried and true regional recipes from the Lavant Valley and Carinthia.
Claudia: Gudrun, how did you get the idea to write a blog about cooking in the first place?
Gudrun: I was an editor at a school book publisher in Vienna, and all this new media was a topic. There was always this idea in my head that I should try it. Then my mother died and I was often here in Reichenfels again, spending time with my father. He wanted to cook and taste these old recipes again. I didn’t know how to cook them, so I just asked around, tried them and found it incredibly interesting. I must also add that I really enjoyed editing a great many history books. I’ve always been interested in that and I’m also a home economics teacher. Actually,I was a home economics teacher first and later an editor, and so the two topics somehow came together. I found this really interesting and I also heard so much about how people used to organise their households and chores in the course of the year. At some point I thought I had to write it all down. And my mother – that’s actually very funny, my mother was a wandering-cooking-teacher in the Lavant Valley.
C: What is a wandering- cooking-teacher?
G: At that time, at the beginning of the 20th century, there was little knowledge about nutrition and there were efforts to improve this. Wandering-cooking-teachers were sent into the valleys, to inns and large farms, and held cooking courses. After her death, I found two recipe books in which my mother had written down everything. I was at the Unterkärntner Newspaper in Wolfsberg and asked if they might be interested in this topic too. They said: “Yes, let’s write a column with old recipes every two weeks,” and so I did that. I’ve also been writing a blog since 2015 because I wanted to try out how something like that worked anyway. I started the blog and it had over a hundred thousand hits relatively quickly. Then of course it was clear to me that I wanted to write a book aswell – that was Kochen wie früher im Lavanttal. That’s how it all came about.
C: How many editions of this book have been printed?
G: It’s now in its second edition and has sold quite well.
C: That was the first book and how long after that did the second book come out?
G: After two years we published Buchhofer Rezeptideen.
C: How did that come about?
G: One day the doorbell rang at my home. A woman from Reichenfels was standing there and said, “I heard you collect old recipes” and handed me a beautiful, handwritten cookbook. It was from 1944, the transcript of a Buchhof student, Mrs Hakl. The woman was her daughter and I used recipes from the book. Shortly after I went to Buchhof to ask the director, Ms. Grossing, whether that was okay with her. I thought I should to ask. We started talking and the idea was born to, on the occasion of the upcoming 80th anniversary of the school, publish a cookbook with a collection of old Buchhof recipes. We called on people to send in their recipe books, notebooks and favourite recipes from their Buchhof years. A lot of people sent us their recipes and we made the book out of them.
C: So it was relatively easy to get people to send something in?
G: Yes, because I think they still identify very strongly with this school. The school has really achieved something special. They also have annual graduate meetings and so on. It’s remarkable. This book also sold quite well; very quickly we were in the second edition. After that I still had so many recipes and I keep getting old, handwritten cookbooks.
C: People just give them to you?
G: Yes. Just on Sunday someone was here again and gave me a bag of books. I think that’s so nice. I look through them and also use the recipes – you always have to pay attention to the copyright, of course, but I can use anything older than 70 years.
C: Are some recipes written in the old Kurrent handwriting?
G: Yes, I learned that too. I have a chart with the old letters hanging over my desk so that I can read everything. My dad also helped me a lot with this. That was amazing, because he was almost 99 years old and still remembered a lot, what the customs were and so on. That was very interesting and, to circle back to the first book, I had been gone for a long time. It was a great way to settleback in here, by talking to so many people again. Iwent everywhere and asked everyone, “How do you make it? How did you cook it in the past? What was it called then?” and so on.
C: So you actually brought old memories back to life?
G: Yes, and it was nice coming home again that way.
C: Almost as if the old recipes had been waiting for you to come back. Who knows if anyone else would have been interested in them.
G: Of course it´s also a huge amount of work. I probably worked 2000 hours on the last book. I cooked all the recipes myself and then photographed the finished dishes. I try every recipe until it works. I also have my advisors whom I can call if something goes wrong. First I do the research, then go shopping and cook. Then maybe something goes wrong or, which often happened last summer, since it was a relatively cloudy, the light was not right for many of the photos. I worked for hours and then the photo was too dark. That was a challenge.
C: On the one hand, it’s nicebecause you can eat it all and start over, but it really sounds like a huge time investment.
G: Also calorie-wise. I can say – I gain 10 kilos per book!
C: I have the first book and I especially like it because it´s about cooking with simple ingredients. But it’s hearty cuisine, for people who work hard, because the dishes give you a lot of energy. Sometimes it seems to me that people today lack energy, or at least it´s changed somehow.
G: That’s an interesting observation.
C: I think that could have something to do with the fact that people are no longer outside that much, that they may not eat that well or healthily and that they also do not use good ingredients. Sometimes they may not even know where their food comes from.
G: Also, many foods have empty carbohydrates and fats that simply have little nutritional value.
C: Most of the ingredients in your books are quite cheap and the grocery list is also relatively simple.
G: Yes, you basically have most things at home.
C: We are also lucky here that we are able to get good flour, good eggs and milk relatively easily.
G: I always say that the Lavant Valley is actually a real delicatessen shop. You can cook wonderful things from things that are grown and produced here. And you don’t always have to use everything. In the recipe. You can reduce a little, not add as many grammeln or as much butter, or cook a little less and eat a salad with it or other vegetables. Of course, you have to take into account that people used to work very hard physically, which not everyone does these days.
C: Where do you get your groceries from?
G: I make sure that I buy regionally as much possible. I mostly buy spelt flour, very often at Biohof Schaller in Bad St. Leonhard. I buy eggs from Hanselbauer over in St. Peter, organic eggs. I try to buy locally and sustainably produced goods as much as possible, which is really easy here.
C: Was that different in Vienna?
G: Well, in Vienna it was much more expensive. I mean, even here these products are of course a little more expensive than in the supermarket, but I prefer to buy less and use better quality.
C: With the goal of not having to waste anything, right?
G: Of course, that’s very important to me too.
C: What is your favourite recipe or favourite dish from all three books?
G: As always, the Strucklnudeln with different fillings. I make those a lot, also for my family, because they are so fond of them too.
C: That’s something I only know from this region. I’ve travelled around a lot and haven’t seen these anywhere else. Do you know them from other states or elsewhere in Carinthia?
G: No. That is interesting, because there are “Struckle” in the Slavic area and they´re similar. I’ve seen them in Croatia, Slovenia and also in the Czech Republic. A pasta dough with a filling.
C: Simple fillings, right?
G: Exactly. In Lower Carinthia there was a lot of dairy farming, in Upper Carinthia too, but dairies came into being relatively early there and in Lower Carinthia people used the cream cheese themselves, unless they lived very close to towns. Then went to the weekly markets and sold it, so they didn’t have that many cream cheese recipes. You can see that in the Völkermarkt area, for example, where they use millet instead of cream cheese.
C: So they get a similar consistency?
G: Exactly, millet or Haden, i.e. buckwheat. But here there was no market for cream cheese and that’s why it was used more.
C: I recently saw Daniela Tomazej from Jauntal on Servus TV. She cooked Hadnkranznudeln with a buckwheat filling.
G: Oh yes! They’re in the book too. Those are typical for the Völkermarkt area and especially for Lower Carinthia.
C: In Wolfsberg we are lucky that Daniela and her husband Marian’s organic products are available at the KuKuMa Saturday market. In general, you can buy many ingredients for your recipes there, eggs, flour, meat, milk, lentils, vegetables, etc. Have the books brought back memories for people and motivated them to cook old recipes again? What´s the feedback?
G: I have the impression that people cook the dishes because they enjoy them and because they just love this old cuisine. Maybe because of Corona they have had a bit more time to cook again. This traditional cuisine is very popular now, but it always has been. People are trying to do shop more regionally and sustainably again, which I think has increased popularity. But what I find very exciting: I have contact with some people abroad who emigrated 50 or 60 years ago, the oldest 70 years ago. In Switzerland and a gentleman in Canada, who I keep in touch with. They want to cook and eat the old dishes again too. They still have a longing for home.
C: Maybe also a longing for grandma, or for mum, I also notice that in Fundus. People come in and are reminded of their childhood, “Gosh look, a pot like the one grandma had. Do you remember, she used to cook in it.” They often have tears in their eyes when they remember.
G: Or when people who have been away for 60 years often feel homesick. It’s somehow very touching.
C: My parents have been living in Australia for 50 years and my mother still cooks a lot like she used to. Mohnnudeln or apricot dumplings or Buchteln, cream cheese strudel made from yeast dough, covered apple pie or roast pork with caraway seeds and garlic.
Your third book is called Kochen wie früher in Kärnten , do you plan to write more books?
G: Well, I still have so many recipes. Take a look at my bookshelves and my desk, full of old cookbooks and I keep getting more. Just today someone was here again and said he would send me his mother’s notes. I also like to do it, it gives me joy.
C: But it’s also a big responsibility.
G: Yes, but that’s nice because it keeps the recipes alive.
C: Do you have any idea in which direction your next book will go?
G: I’m drawn in three directions. But I can´t follow all my ideas at the same time and I don’t want to publish a book every year, that’s too much work. I really work on them for many, many hours. This year I actually spent the whole summer on my book and I also got quite stressed. I didn’t really want to publish the book yet, but Barbara Karlich did a show about traditional food and she invited me.
C: And then you were on the show? How was it for you?
G: Well, exciting – to see how something like that is organised and what goes on in the background. It’s a huge machine and there´s an unbelievable professionalism behind it. One can never imagine what is necessary to produce it.
C: Similar to a book. You hold the finished book in your hand, but what was necessary to publish it… it’s actually amazing how many hours go into it.
G: But it’s beautiful work and I’m retired now and have always loved books.
C: Yes, one wouldn’t think that you’re already retired.
G: When I was 14 I went to school in Klagenfurt and then moved to Vienna when I graduated from high school. I worked there for 40 years and have been back here again for 6 years.
C: Do you miss Vienna?
G: No, not at all. I think I savoured it to the limit. I really enjoyed being in Vienna, I enjoyed living there, did a lot culturally, but at some point my time there was over.
C: Were you just full from it?
G: Exactly, full is a good description. Because I was here with my dad so much, I began to appreciate how relaxed and friendly the tone is here. The tone in Vienna increasingly got on my nerves, this… the sociologists call it density stress and this irritability, especially in traffic and when shopping. I had a good life in Vienna, there is absolutely no question about that, but the quality of life here is much better.
C: I’m sure it’s good for people here to hear that. I wonder if locals here really appreciate it.
G: Yes, maybe you have to have lived somewhere else. If I had never gone to Vienna, I might think I had missed out on something. Now I’m fully here, that’s interesting and didn´t expected it. I would never have believed that I would come back and love to be here so much. In August I was in Vienna with my daughter, we were sitting on a bench in the city and she said to me, “Mama, let’s go back home.” I agreed. My daughter was born and raised in Vienna, but today she lives in Klagenfurt and is also very happy there. I went to middle school in Klagenfurt. They used to say “middle school” to a higher school that wasn’t a high school and I was in the women’s vocational school. At that time Klagenfurt was a very grey city, but it has evolved incredibly. Just like Wolfsberg – recently there was an article in The Standard about how successful the urban development in Wolfsberg has been.
C: What does a daytrip to Wolfsberg look like for you, what do you do?
G: It’s always a pleasure, last Saturday was such an ideal day. We went to the Lavantmuseum, a very nice museum in such a beautiful building, and saw the exhibition WIR:WAHR. I also like the old tools they have there and of course I love those old pots, the Schwarzhafner ceramics. I have a collection of my own here in the kitchen that I always have to look at. Then we strolled through the city, also were on Hohen Platz square at the KuKuMa, then in the Glasatelier Silberberger. Fundus was closed, otherwise we would have gone in there too.
C: On Saturdays, Fundus is only open on the first one in the month. Where are your books available in Wolfsberg?
G: At Fundus, Libellus, Lagerhaus, Kärntner Buchandlung, San Damiano, Haus der Region or directly from Wito Verlag.