Knödelmeister Christoph Wagner is adamant. Dumplings are an alpine tradition centered in Oberösterreich (Upper Austria). Four thousand years ago the people of Mondsee, east of Salzburg, mixed flakes and flour from millet and wheat with fruit, herbs, nuts and water into a filled dough they baked in a stove.
Was that the origin of the dumpling tradition? Austrians like to believe it is although the people of the western alpine regions were also making dumpling-like doughs one thousand years earlier.
The common denominator was hiking and hunting in the mountains. It is plausible to believe that the first dumplings were made from a thickened porridge mixture formed into balls, stuffed with fruit or meat, and baked to allow for easy transportation.
The history began two thousand years ago when dumplings were common fare in the hostelries on Roman roads across the Alps. This is also a clue to the origin of the name, thought to be nodus meaning knot or nodulous meaning nodules. In Old German this became chnode, knode or knoto and later knötlein. In Austria and Germany the knot also became the kloz meaning ball and today in western and northern Germany the knödel is a klöß.
A thousand years later they were mentioned in parchment manuscripts. The first known pictorial representation is from 1290 at the chapel of Hocheppan in South Tyrol where a fresco depicted a nun eating dumplings from a pan over an open fire.
In the 1300s the personal chef of Habsburg ruler Rudolf IV was known to cook bread, cheese, meat and vegetable dumplings in village hostelries during excursions to and from Vienna.
Monastic manuscripts in the 1500s suggested that dumplings were made with flour and water, a high proportion of meat and pieces of bread to bind the mixture. In reality the proportion of bread was always higher than the meat in the recipes of the common people.
Then the potato arrived in Europe, and dumplings made with potato dough became popular, until it was obvious that dumplings were a variable feast. In 1737 an encyclopaedia suggested that dumplings were made round from all kinds of fish and meat, with flour, yeast and seasonings and were boiled or baked, and served in a broth or consumed with other foods
A later book revealed the munificence of dumplings in Austrian cuisine. Reported in Culinary Heritage Austria this included ‘almond dumplings (for Vistula soup), bread dumplings, bacon dumplings, pork and veal dumplings (with soaked bread rolls), rice dumplings, chicken dumplings (for pea soup), plaited dumplings (from strudel and rolls for beef soup), Vistula dumplings, apple dumplings and pike dumplings (for parsley soup)’.
New Viennese Cuisine, around 1880, cited breadcrumb dumplings, liver dumplings, bread dumplings, potato dumplings, Tyrolean dumplings, military dumplings – egg, flour and roasted onions, steamed dumplings, lung dumplings, and plum dumplings.
In the 2010s the dumpling landscape is largely alpine, from Bavaria through Upper Austria to the Tyrol and South Tyrol. However dumplings are traditional foods throughout all of Austria and Germany, as they are in many regions of central, eastern and northern Europe – especially the Czech Republic, Liechtenstein and Serbia. They are also traditional in areas of eastern France and northern Italy.
In Austria dumplings are a culinary art form, a variable feast of flavours, and totally imaginable. Ingrid Pernkopf, master chef at Landgasthof Grünberg in Gmunden, and Christoph Wagner feature 250 recipes in their book Knödelküche. They quote an old Upper Austrian proverb. ‘If you do not eat dumplings, you are hungry all day.’
If you do not eat dumplings you have not lived!
Culinary Heritage Austria worry that the tradition might be under threat. ‘Preparing dumplings is a labor-intensive business, and many are not spending much time cooking today.’
But they also make a valid argument why home cooks should make the effort. ‘The tradition of dumplings persisted throughout the crisis years of the 20th century, because dumplings are a hearty, nutritious and above all cheap food. Fruit, minced lamb, cured meat, meat and sausage leftovers are also put into the casing. With sauerkraut or salad, this results in a reasonably priced meal’
Top Tips for Making Dumplings
- Let the dumpling dough rest.
- Always make a trial dumpling.
- Squeeze dough firmly into a ball using palms of moistened hands.*
- Roll dumplings in flour before cooking.*
- Let dumplings simmer in hot water, do not boil!
- Use stale bread from white bread rolls.
- Mix dough thoroughly.
- If dumpling mass is too wet add breadcrumbs, oatmeal or semolina.
- Cook dumplings in a large pot without lid.
- Do not cook too many dumplings at once.
- Use hot milk to soak the bread cubes.
- Add a small amount of curd cheese mixture after maturation.
- For potato dumplings use floury potatoes.
- Add vinegar to potato dumpling dough to prevent mixture going grey.
- Add cornstarch or potato starch to cooking water to prevent dumpling disintegration.
- * Make starchy doughs (potato, curd cheese) with floured hands
- * Make soft dumplings (bread, liver) with wet hands.
- * Dumplings are fluffier without flour, so go easy on flour in dough.
- * Use a minimum of flour during rolling process.
- * Roll potato dumplings in amble flour before cooking.
Knödel Zeit — Dumpling Time
Editorial Note — recipes to follow gradually.
Bärlauchknödel wild garlic
Leberknödel beef liver
Rauchfleischknödel smoked meat
Tiroler Knödel Tyrol
Tiroler Speckknödel Tyrol bacon
Topfenknödel curd cheese
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