Was the Habsburg Empire history’s most confusing?

There’s an old joke about Lebanese politics: if you think you understand it, then it obviously hasn’t been properly explained to you. I feel that way when reading about the Austro-Hungarian Empire. My word it’s a confusing business. It was ruled by the Austrian Habsburg family but there were so many different people and rather than living in defined areas like the English in England or the French in France, they lived intermingled with each other. There were Croats, Poles, Italians, Germans, Hungarians, Serbs, Bosnians, Romanians and others all rubbing up against each other. There were Catholics, Protestants, Orthodox Christians, Jews and Muslims. Then there were people whose names mean little to modern eyes: Ruthenians, Galicians, Slavonians, who mustn’t be confused with Slovakians or indeed Slovenians. In fact the Empire is at times reminiscent of that great spoof history 1066 and All That:

‘The Scots (originally Irish, but by now Scotch) were at this time inhabiting Ireland, having driven the Irish (Picts) out of Scotland; while the Picts (originally Scots) were now Irish (living in brackets) and vice versa. It is essential to keep these distinctions clearly in mind (and verce visa).’

All those different peoples. How do you make sense of it? One way is to look at it the Empire in microcosm rather than trying to understand the whole thing. There is a town called Zadar on the Dalmatian coast in what is now Croatia. Here East meets West, Islam meets Christianity and Northern Europe meets the South. Zadar was once part of another great defunct Empire, the Ottoman, until it was ceded to Venice at the 1699 Treaty of Karlowitz. The Venetians called it Zara and its character became less Croat and more Italian. Then from 1806 until 1818 it entered the Habsburg sphere. The town would have been highly cosmopolitan with Croatian, Italian and German all being widely spoken as well as minorities of Jews, Serbs, Bosnians, Armenians etc. Simon Winder in his book Danubia, a brave attempt to explain the Habsburgs, refers to the area as ‘a sort of linguistic mudslide.’ Then after the defeat of Austria in the First World War, the Empire was dissolved and Zara became part of a united Italy. Later after Italy’s defeat in World War I it became part of Yugoslavia, and then part of an independent Croatia, and the name reverted to Zadar.

Are you still with me? Perhaps it might be more enlightening to look at a family who lived in the city. Girolamo Luxardo, originally from Genoa, arrived in Zara with his wife Maria Canevari in 1817. Here she made a liqueur out of the Maraschino cherries native to the region. They founded the firm of Luxardo to manufacture the liqueur in 1821. The family still make a Maraschino to the old recipe though the firm relocated after the Second World War to the Veneto region of Italy. Almost all the Italian residents left when it became part of Yugoslavia. The city is now almost 100% Croat. Yet the spirit of the old cosmopolitanism lives on in Luxardo Maraschino. Similar liqueurs were made by monasteries since the early middle ages, Maria Canevari’s original recipe was an Italian take on a Dalmatian speciality (the other great Dalmatian speciality being big spotty dogs). It’s now made from Italian cherries. Rather than being a flavoured liqueur, it’s actually distilled from the cherries and the pits themselves, and then diluted and sweetened. So it shares a heritage with fruit brandies such a Slivovitz, made from plums across Eastern Europe. But whilst these brandies have a somewhat fearsome reputation, Luxardo maraschino is all about sophistication.

It’s sweet and smooth but it also has an earthy, nutty taste from the cherry pits. Its richness and complexity provide an essential ingredient in many cocktails. In a recent book called the Spirits, the author Richard Godwin writes: ‘you can generally tell someone who’s serious about cocktails by whether they own a bottle of maraschino.’ Luxardo not only provides a sweet cherry taste but that nuttiness adds depth to such classics as the Brooklyn, the Tuxedo, the Martinez and the Aviator. Me, I find it delicious diluted with sparkling water and ice whilst I ponder the complexities of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Once I’ve got that sussed, then I’ll move on to the political situation in Lebanon.

This originally appeared on the Luxardo website.

By Henry

I worked in the wine trade and publishing before becoming a freelance writer and broadcaster. My work has appeared in the Spectator, the Guardian, the Oldie and Food & Wine magazine. I now works as features editor on the Master of Malt blog. Ihave been on BBC Radio 4, Radio 5 and Monocle Radio, and a judge for the BBC Radio 4’s Food & Farming Awards and for the Fortnum & Mason food and drink awards 2018. My book Empire of Booze: British History through the Bottom of a Glass won Fortnum & Mason debut drink book 2017. My second, The Home Bar, was published in October 2018.

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