We’re incredibly excited to be partnering with Nostrana to host chef Nora Pouillon, whose memoir, My Organic Life, was released this week by Knopf. Below, we’re sharing a vivid excerpt about her childhood during WWII on a farm outside Vienna.
Pouillon is a pioneer and champion of organic, environmentally conscious cuisine. She opened Restaurant Nora in Washington, D.C. in 1979 and worked with farmers to supply the restaurant with seasonal organic produce. In 1999, Restaurant Nora became the first certified organic restaurant in the United States.
What better way to honor this legend and leader than by breaking bread together. Find out more about the event and make your reservation here.
By Nora Pouillon
I am a war child. Although the war ended when I was just eighteen months old, I am surprised by how much I remember. Maybe it is because the events were so traumatic; maybe it is because the deprivations of the war years blended into those of the postwar years. My earliest memory is of a terrifying sound: a high-pitched siren blaring through our house in Vienna. My mother would grab my older sisters, pick me up, and rush us all down to the cellar. There, we would sit on benches or on the dirt floor, huddled with our neighbors, awaiting the explosions. Shivering and closing my eyes tight, I would try to tune out the noise. I would breathe in the damp, earthy smell of the cellar, where my mother stored fresh apples, pears, potatoes, and glass jars filled with eggs from our chickens to last through the winter. Those rich smells transported me to a quieter place — the warm, sunny farm in the mountains where the fruits and vegetables grew — and comforted me until the raid was over.
The war disrupted everything, and because I was very young, disruption was all I knew of life. My memories, like Vienna at the time, are shadowy. I know, partly through the stories my family members have told me, that people on the streets were hungry, some were disappearing, and there was a hushed sense of desperation. Everywhere, food was scarce. Farmers had gone to war and left their fields fallow. Food was not something that you could take for granted but rather something that had to be rationed, saved, bartered, or traded on the black market. In Vienna, food seemed very distant from the country fields where it was grown.
“Shivering and closing my eyes tight, I would try to tune out the noise. I would breathe in the damp, earthy smell of the cellar, where my mother stored fresh apples, pears, potatoes, and glass jars filled with eggs from our chickens to last through the winter.”
But I was lucky to be able to spend most of the war outside the city, in the place I dreamed about during those air raids: a farm in the Tyrolean mountains. Even before I was born — in 1943 — my father had decided that he needed to send his family away from Vienna while the war raged. He was a successful businessman and able to lease a working farm a day’s distance away so that my mother, my two older sisters, and I would have a safe place to weather the devastation and its aftermath — and have plenty of fresh food to eat. My father was an outdoorsman who loved hiking and healthy eating, so a remote farmhouse in the Alps seemed like the best place for him to send us.
Later, I came to understand there was another reason he had sequestered us in such a remote place: we were also hiding Jewish friends from the Nazis. But I knew nothing of that then. For the duration of the war, with the exception of occasional trips to Vienna, we were tucked away high in the mountains of Tyrol.
I lived in the mountains, off and on, from just after I was born until I was eight years old. The farm my sisters and I grew up on was one of those magical places of childhood, not only because it was safe and comforting — the opposite of war-torn Vienna — but also because it was the place where I awoke to the world with a sense of wonder. More than anything else in my first decade of life, the experience of living on a working farm profoundly influenced the person I was to become. There, in fields on steep mountain slopes, with a chalet-style log house, I discovered how food is grown and how it tastes just pulled from the soil or warmed by the sun. Far from the rubble of Vienna, the food in Tyrol gave me my first taste of nature’s bounty — something that has stayed with me all my life.
Mutti, my mother, always loved to tell the story of how I was born, and she repeated it every year on my birthday. The farmhouse in Tyrol was a two-hour hike down steep mountain trails to the nearest village, Kirchberg. Right before I was born, Mutti hid pork, bread, and other food from the farm in her suitcase and the lining of her coat — you were not allowed to carry food back and forth to Vienna — and thus encumbered, nine months pregnant, clambered down the mountain to the village. She was headed for Vienna so that she could give birth in the same hospital where my sisters were born and be closer to my father. From Kirchberg, she caught a train to Vienna, which lasted six or seven hours, or perhaps even longer, because of all the military inspections. The train was frequently halted so that the officers could check everyone’s papers; when the Germans annexed Austria in 1938, my parents had to produce documentation going back three generations in order to prove they had no Jewish blood. My mother’s papers were in order, but she still held her breath to see if she would be searched and caught smuggling food. Anything could happen to you in those days for the slightest infraction; everyone lived in fear. Eventually, she made it to the hospital, which was marked on the roof with a big X to make it clear it should not be bombed. Amid the explosions going off all around in Vienna, I was born, and a couple of weeks later my mother made the long trip back to Tyrol with her new infant.
Later, on occasional trips to and from Vienna, I would learn for myself what an adventure it was to reach the farm. I recall leaving Vienna at dawn and driving for hours along winding icy roads. Today the journey would take five hours, but then it took all day. The trip was long, boring, and probably dangerous, but all I can remember is what I ate. Throughout the long journey, my sisters and I savored the Wiener schnitzel sandwiches that Mutti had prepared on dark bread, making them last as many miles as possible. Sometimes we would stop at a butchers for our favorite Leberkäsesemmel, which is a kind of roasted – liver pâté. You slice it like cheese, but it’s more like a mortadella. You serve it hot, in thick slices. It’s baked so it has a crunchy crust, and you eat it with mustard and pickles on a kaiser roll. This was a real highlight for us.
“Later, I came to understand there was another reason he had sequestered us in such a remote place: we were also hiding Jewish friends from the Nazis. But I knew nothing of that then.”
Finally, when it was night, we would arrive in Kirchberg, where my parents had friends who owned a grocery store and where we could sleep overnight. You couldn’t just pull up to an inn at the time; there were very few places to stay, and people were cautious and fearful, wary of strangers who might denounce them to the Germans. Only old acquaintances would risk taking you in. We were tired, cold, and hungry by then, so it was wonderful when the owner’s wife would give us thin slices of Kletzenbrot — a dark sourdough bread filled with dried apples, pears, and hazelnuts — which we spread with her homemade butter. Several slices of Kletzenbrot, with a glass of fresh milk, were our dinner. At that point in time, you couldn’t find Kletzenbrot in Vienna; it was truly a regional specialty. They used what they had on hand to make it — rye flour, along with the fruits and nuts — and incorporated it into their daily sourdough bread and made something special out of it. To us, it tasted delicious — an almost fancy snack that gave us a feeling of comfort and safety at a time when traveling was precarious.
At night, we all climbed into one bed — a rough linen bag filled with straw — and covered ourselves with an eiderdown duvet, snuggling close to keep warm on a night so cold that in the morning a skin of ice had formed on the windowpanes.
At first light, we pulled on our long underwear, wool trousers, anoraks, and hiking boots for the rest of the journey, which was several miles by foot. We walked up a trail next to a creek, a torrent rushing down from the snowfields on the high peaks. I loved to dawdle, breaking the delicate ice at the edges of the stream with my toe and watching it crackle into patterns, but Mutti pulled me along. On the way, the pine trees in the snow looked like thousands of Christmas trees, ice crystals sparkling in the sunlight.
It was a long hike to the farmhouse, but my entire family loved being in the outdoors. After hours of trudging up the valley, we finally spotted the A-frame log house, a simple chalet perched on a piece of land hacked out of the hillside. There was one last, impossibly steep hill to climb, but anticipating being inside gave me the energy for the final push. The farmer’s wife, Nanni, and their daughter, Moidi, came out to greet us. They ushered us into their warm kitchen, which was heated by a large iron cookstove. The room’s warmth enveloped me: I felt cozy, safe, and protected.
We were fortunate to be so well cared for in the farmhouse, far from the war. My sisters and I were too young to understand about Nazis and what was happening in Vienna and around the world. We only vaguely understood that when we heard planes overhead, we had to run inside and cover our ears, waiting for the big explosion. Whatever bombs weren’t used on Vienna were dumped in the countryside, and we would come across enormous holes in the fields around the farm. No one ever said it out loud, but everyone secretly feared that one day we too would be hit.
We were also far too young to realize that the friends who came to live with us on the farm, Tante Hertha and her daughter, Herthi, were in danger. As I grew older, I thought we brought them along because Herthi was my friend and I liked to play with her. But it was not until I was a grown woman, living on my own in the United States, that I learned that Tante Hertha, the wife of one of my father’s good friends, was Jewish, and in actuality we were protecting them. I still don’t know how they managed their journey to the farm, and I certainly doubt that the farmer and his wife knew we were sheltering Jews; no one asked questions at the time or wanted to know. Now I think that hiding our friends was one of the main reasons my father leased such a remote house, unreachable except by a two-hour hike, perched like a lookout at the top of the valley. No one would have taken the time to search the farm without good reason, and we would have seen soldiers coming long before they arrived, with time to hide our friends. If my mother was concerned, she didn’t show it, and I remained blissfully unaware of the danger. I think that this was a reason my mother didn’t want us to socialize too much with others in the area; she didn’t want them to know what we were up to. Happily, Herthi and I are friends to this day, and Tante Hertha and my mother were the same way. I can’t bring myself to think of what might have happened to her if she had not been with us on the farm during those years.
By today’s standards, the farmhouse was primitive: there was no electricity and no running water. But for a child, it was paradise. We could run freely in the land around the house — so unlike Vienna just after the war, where soldiers patrolled bombed-out streets — and the workings of the subsistence farm were an endless source of fascination for me. I loved to watch Nanni and Alois, her husband, milking cows, cutting wheat and grass, planting and picking vegetables, baking bread, butchering animals, and building and fixing what they needed. They did almost everything themselves, producing all their food, soap, shingles for the roof, yarn, firewood — everything but the iron tools they bought in the village. I was a curious child and soon started poking my nose everywhere on the farm to find out how things worked.
“Nanni would collect the cream until she had enough to make butter — a task she performed every two weeks… She shaped the butter into loaves with her hands, then rolled them with a wooden tool that imprinted a design on top. Every farm had its own design so you could always know where the butter came from.”
Over the years in the mountains, I gradually felt as if I became a part of the farm and of its way of life. I became more and more aware of the workings of the world around me. I learned that food comes from nature — from the air and the water, the soil and the sun — and that nature must be carefully tended and respected. I saw how much planning and hard work it took to keep a family alive through the whole year and how dreadful it was to waste any of the fruits of those labors. For Nanni and Alois, food was a constant occupation, and the land was precious. Food was life.
The farm worked according to the rhythms of the day and of the seasons. Every morning and evening, Nanni would milk the two cows. She poured the milk she collected into a separator and turned the handle, and out of one tube came milk and out of the other, cream. Cream was like gold to them. After the war in Vienna, we got used to eating dollops of whipped cream on our desserts, but here that was an unheard-of extravagance. Nanni would collect the cream until she had enough to make butter — a task she performed every two weeks. I would watch as she poured the cream into a big wooden barrel with a handle and began to churn it. When the cream became clumpy, she would add ice-cold water from the spring to rinse off the butterfat. She shaped the butter into loaves with her hands, then rolled them with a wooden tool that imprinted a design on top. Every farm had its own design so you could always know where the butter came from. I loved that detail — that added touch that showed a pride in their work, a way of caring for the food and its provenance and for the simple beauty of what you ate.
Our families ate separately, but the smells of their kitchen during mealtime always drew me to the door. They had their big meal in the middle of the day, after a morning of chores and before an afternoon of even more hard work; it was the only time during the day that they sat down. Nanni would catch me peeking behind the door. “Nora!” she would call, with a smile, “Come in, come in. Come and eat with us.” She would make space for me on the wooden bench where they sat, her long gray braid swinging under her scarf, her clogs clumping on the wooden floor.
Excerpted from My Organic Life by Nora Pouillon. Copyright © 2015 by Nora Pouillon. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.