Tafelspitz and Bruegel’s Hunters in the Snow

The Hunters in the Snow, by Pieter Bruegel

by Brooke Chilvers

The recent lifting of requirements for COVID-19 testing prior to travel to France, for fully vaccinated Americans, has unleashed my mind. Although the CDC still classifies Europe as Level 4: Very High Level of COVID-19, nothing can stop me from dreaming of Christmas in Vienna. 

I am envisioning my favorite Viennese dish. Who would have thought that would be boiled beef? When served with its broth and accompanied by horseradish cream, I more or less order it everywhere it’s on the menu. But the best Tafelspitz – really – is at Plachutta, preferably the original address near St. Stephan’s Cathedral; alas, they seem to be “chaining.” 

As their website declares about Emperor Franz Joseph’s preferred meal: “In Vienna, a person who couldn’t talk learnedly about at least a dozen different cuts of boiled beef didn’t belong, no matter how much money he’d made or if the Kaiser had awarded him the title of Hofrat (court councillor) or Kommerzialrat.”

The website has a diagram of the capital’s “very special division of beef” for butchering, explaining “today cattle are being cut into more parts in Vienna than anywhere else in the world.” Who would have known? When I was a student in Germany, there was pretty much just roast or steak at the Supermarkt.  

Whichever Tafelspitz cuts you select – and everybody has their favorites, from “lightly marbled and very juicy” to “low-fat and tasty” – dishes are all still under $30, which includes the tax, tip, and tablecloth. I picture myself starting my repast with Plachutta’s heavenly Bärlauchschaumsuppe – wild garlic foam – which I’ve failed to reproduce; Tafelspitz, too.

I’ve always told my husband that if anything happened to him, I’d find solace in Vienna, even if the feather-hatted war widows in winter Loden from my youth, with their chubby Dachshunds nestled at their feet, are gone.

Every day, I would have my dinner for lunch in an establishment where ladies my age (then) are still treated with some elegance. Every day, I would revisit the paintings my husband and I loved together, including Klimt’s The Kiss at the Belvedere Museum where the trees, I remember, in the dead of winter are filled with feral parrots. He has sifted through the endless banks of graphic works at the Albertina with me, and wandered the hallowed hallways of the Imperial Furniture Collection from which you emerge bathed in Biedermeier. 

But the painting he likes best, of course, is The Hunters in the Snow, by Dutch/Flemish Renaissance painter, Pieter Bruegel the Elder (c. 1525–1569). At some point, Pieter dropped the “h” of his family’s future dynastical name, Brueghel, so that Pieter Bruegel the Elder is the father of Pieter Brueghel the Younger and of Jan Brueghel the Elder, who is the father of Jan the Younger.

We’d seen the impressively large painting (3’ 10” x 5’ 4”) at least twice in winter; already then, we were the only patrons still wearing olive-green wool coats and Tyrolian hats with pins and feathers. It rarely snows in Vienna, but the dead-of-winter overcast sky outside was the same as in the painting 450 years ago.

The painting’s dramatic, rugged mountain landscape rising up in the distance, and the civilized, church-steepled valley below owe nothing to Bruegel’s Low Countries homeland, especially not to Antwerp where he lived and worked, and everything to his cross-Alpine round-trip journey to Rome, sometime in the 1550s. 

Hunters in the Snow is one of five panels in a pictorial cycle on the labors of each season, painted in oil, and commissioned by a wealthy merchant and collector named Niclaes Jongelinck, who owned 16 of Bruegel’s works. Four panels survive in other museums: Gloomy Day, Return of the Herd, Haymaking, and The Harvesters.

Calendar scenes have a long tradition, most famously in illuminated manuscripts, such as the Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry (c. 1412). But here, for the candlelit, wood-paneled dining room of Meneer Jongelinck, Bruegel describes the daily life of the peasantry, seen from the same elevated viewpoint as the host, unfolding in the frozen and snow-covered farmlands and township below.

We see the trio of weary hunters and their pack of 13 bone-tired dogs tromping through the snow with their meager game bag of a single inedible fox, although its fur would surely be of some value for trade. The men and canines are only further downcast by the empty tracks of hare leading away. Sheltered by the leafless weave of branches from three almost black-trunked trees, with crows sharing the bird’s eye view, we witness the multitude of scenes unfolding before us simultaneously: the December singeing of the pig over a blazing yellow and red fire, the hauling of firewood, the driving of a laden oxcart, while skaters and curlers fly merrily over the ice.   

Bruegel’s painting reminds us that the winter of 1564-65, during Europe’s “Little Ice Age,” was particularly harsh. Seeming to ignore the religious tensions between the Reformation-fueled Calvinists and Catholics, and the pending Dutch revolt against the Spanish in the air, the artist instead portrays the dignity of daily life, its tasks and its pleasures, whatever the season.

Yet Bruegel’s clientele included Cardinal Granvelle, minister of the detested Spanish Habsburgs, along with connoisseurs and scholars, such as Abraham Ortelius (1527–1598), inventor of the modern atlas.

The last time we saw the painting, Rudy found a tiny little hunter; it looks like he’s firing to scare off the crows. You can actually see the red fire from his blast.

Close-up of the almost invisible tiny hunter, a detail on the right-hand side of the painting, halfway down.

If I were a widow, after my afternoon with Rubens, or Schiele, or any of the Vienna Secession artists, it would be too late for Vienna’s celebrated hot drinks with caffeine. So before taking my seat at the Staatsoper, or Musikverein, or the Mozarthaus itself, I would take a bite of Sachertorte and raise a glass of Sekt to my husband at Demel, or Café Landtmann, or under the cooling arches of Conditorei Sluka on Rathausplatz, if it’s summer.

After all, my first spoken words in German, outside an American university classroom, were Mit oder ohne Sahne? With or without cream?


Brooke Chilvers worries that her dream of Christmas in Vienna, with her still very alive husband, may be on hold, as war has broken out and Ukraine is being savagely bombed and invaded by Russian forces.  Suddenly, the 660 miles between Vienna and the Ukraine border seem a very short distance, indeed.