Imagine that you were born in Vienna about 200 years ago, preferably in an important aristocratic family or in the family of a high-ranking officer. Then you would have a chance to be invited by the Austrian Emperor to his table. The host in our article will be Franz Joseph I, who became Emperor in 1848 and six years later, he married the legendary Sisi.
Invitation to the Festive Table
Official dinners (souper) were often held at the Austrian court for foreign guests, diplomats and other important people of social and military life. Each guest first received a written invitation not only with the date and time of the dinner but also with information about the dress code and the meeting place where the guests are to wait for the Emperor. His arrival was announced by the master of ceremonies by striking the floor with the ceremonial stick. The guests stood up and paid tribute to the ruler. The Emperor nodded to them and walked to the dining room. If more guests were invited, they were allowed to enter the dining room in pairs in a predetermined order. Special attention was paid to which gentleman accompanies which lady. This was a rather complicated matter at the Austrian court, even more so for the Emperor himself. Empress Sisi was often absent from court because of her travels. After the Crown Prince had committed suicide and two other heirs to the throne had died as well, their widows lost their position as the first lady of the monarchy in charge, which left the Emperor with barely any suitable ladies to escort. Official dinner or banquet – it was actually a state act, which presented not only the glamour and pomp of the monarchy but also the power and respect of all present. Therefore, even to make the seating plan was a difficult task on which the court staff often spent the whole day. Oftentimes, the seating plan was a result of long diplomatic negotiations. They were not to offend anyone and had to seat the guests very strictly according to their rank and importance. At the same time, they kept lists of who had attended which dinner so that no one would be forgotten. Similarly, detailed records were made also of the served meals so that the menu was not repeated.
Luxuriously Decorated Festive Table
The guests quietly and calmly searched for their seats at the table according to the place cards. After the Emperor took the seat, the others could sit down as well. There was a menu card next to each place setting. If you didn’t know French, you didn’t understand much of it, because the names of all the dishes were given in French. However, in those days, French was also commonly spoken at court. By the way, this menu card, marked with a gold or silver coat of arms, had to remain on the table even after dinner, no one was allowed to take it with them as a souvenir.
If you were content that one of your good friends was sitting opposite of you so that you would have someone to talk to all evening, then you were wrong. It was not permitted to talk to people across the table. In fact, it was not even practically possible. The festive table was covered with rich decoration. One of the first additions to the dining room of the young Emperor Franz Joseph was a set of neo-French bronze centerpieces (surtout de table) which he ordered himself in Paris in 1850 – with tiny figures of putts playing, animals running and birds flying among huge gilded candlesticks. Rich gilded flower tufts were wrapped around the stands.
However, it was already during the reign of Franz‘ predecessor, Emperor Ferdinand I, in 1838, that a monumental set of gilded bronze centerpieces with winged goddesses representing Lombardy and Venice was delivered from Milan, which could be arranged up to a length of 30 meters! The guests must have been enchanted. The mirror plates reflected the flickering flames of candles in huge candlesticks (the wax was expensive, the candles were lit just before the arrival of the guests) and beautiful garlands of flowers overflowed from the vases (but only odorless flowers were used in order to not suppress the taste and aroma of the food – mainly orchids which were already grown in greenhouses in Schönbrunn during the reign of Maria Theresa, but also irises, azaleas and begonias). In the autumn, the decoration was complemented by colorful leaves from the trees and even stuffed animals borrowed from the Natural History Museum. Everything had carefully been thought out in the smallest detail, and accurate sketches of what would stand where on the table have been preserved to this day.
Serving at the Imperial Table
So the guests were only allowed to talk to their nearest neighbour, but there was not much communication anyway. Although many courses were served, dinner went by fast. The waiting staff wore great gala uniforms, they were not allowed to talk to each other, they moved quietly and noiselessly, communicating with signs and gestures only. The chief inspector of the table supervised the whole process with his strict eyes.
One waiter served a maximum of two diners, he held a heavy tray with nicely arranged food from the left side of the guest and the guests helped themselves. The wine was poured into crystal glasses by another servant with white cotton gloves on his hands from the right side of the guest – from original bottles and carafes decorated with silver labels.
Special wines, especially Austrian and Hungarian, were served for each course. There were also carafes on the table with water from the “Beautiful Well” in the castle park, after which the Schönbrunn Palace received its name. This water was considered by the nobility to be the best in the whole monarchy. Cognac and liqueurs were served with the coffee.
Music was also played at the gala dinners, mostly works by composers of the time, as well as Strauss’s waltzes. A handful of important guests received the honor of having a music piece specially composed for them.
A few centuries ago, every wealthy nobleman had his own cutlery, which he carried with him everywhere. At the end of the 18th century, sets of 12, 24 or 36 pieces began to be produced (these numbers are derived from the number of apostles). Silver cutlery was placed on the table with the backside up to show the imperial coat of arms (they are still used today on state visits).
The table setting was dominated by a white cloth napkin, specially folded for the occasion – you can read more about the imperial napkin in our article: HERE.
At the Austrian imperial court, guests used to eat from silver or gold plates for a long time, porcelain was used only for soups and desserts.
It was not until the 19th century that porcelain began to be used for other courses as well. The biggest pride was Grand Vermeil – a service for 40 people made by French goldsmiths from gilded silver. Later, the Viennese silversmiths expanded it to 4,500 pieces, which together weighed more than one ton! When this service was used for the official dinner, the dessert was served on beautiful plates with painted flowers. According to the Habsburg tradition, each duke had to learn a craft. Emperor Francis II./I. (1768-1835) was a gardener. In his honor, the Viennese porcelain factory made two sets of such beautiful flower plates.
Dinner with the Emperor
The classic menu consisted of 11-13 courses, the order was arranged according to the traditional French model – for example, in the winter months, the menu always started with oysters, the soup was never to be missed and at the end of the dinner cheese, ice cream and desserts were served. The main course was roast meat – since the Emperor was a passionate hunter, it was often prepared from the game. But quail pate, roast wild boar, pheasant breast or rabbit ragout were also served. If you now think that dinner with the Emperor must have been gluttony, then you are wrong. Guests did not overeat, on the contrary – there are many legends about how the guests, as soon as they left the Hofburg, searched for nearby restaurants to quench their hunger. Dinner with the Emperor, despite the many courses served, lasted only 40-45 minutes! When the Emperor set down his knife and fork, it was a sign to the others that they must do the same even if they had not yet finished their meal. Sometimes it could even happen that someone tasted his portion with only his eyes. As soon as the plate was brought to him, it had to be taken away. Never mind that, however, as the food may have been cold already. In order to not disturb the festive atmosphere with the kitchen smell, the kitchens in the Hofburg were located far from the rooms where the meals were served. The meals had to be transported in wood-heated boxes, and sauces were finished in the vestibule near the dining hall.
Until the dissolution of the monarchy, mouth rinsing was practised at the table after dinner, although it had come out of fashion at other courts already. Guests were brought bottles of peppermint mouthwash, glasses, spittoons and bowls of peppermint pastilles.
Franz Joseph I was a very strong smoker (by the way, Sisi also smoked), but neither he nor the guests smoked at the table. They could indulge in their favorite cigarettes after dinner in a special lounge where coffee, cognac and liqueurs were served. The staff stepped to the wall and waited patiently until the last guest left the room and the door closed behind them. Only then could the cleaning start. The imperial court had 5,000 employees at the time and was actually the largest service company in the entire monarchy.
So, would you like to attend a dinner with the Emperor too?
If you are interested in this topic, then on your next visit to Vienna you should also see the Silver Collection – Silberkammer in the Hofburg, where the original oak showcases store a variety of dining services, glasses, copper baking trays, decorative and other items that were once used in the kitchen and dining rooms at the Austrian Imperial Court. The photographs used in the article are from this museum.
Opening hours and other practical information: here
Virtual tour: here
You can also see set tables from the time of Franz Joseph I „live“ as part of a tour of Schönbrunn Palace. Opening hours, practical information and a virtual tour: here
Text: © Copyright Ingrid, Travelpotpourri
Fotos: © Copyright Ingrid, Travelpotpourri