Emma Hellenstainer

also available in German also available in Italian

Born 12 April 1817 in in St. Johann, Tyrol, Austria
Died 9 March 1904 in Merano, Italy

Pionier of Tyrolean gastronomy  



“Frau Emma – Europa” – this post card reached its addressee – or so says the mythology around Tyrol’s most famous innkeeper and restaurateur.

Her mother was already proprietor of the Grauer Bär (Gray Bear) in St. Johann. After her early work waiting tables in her parents’ inn Emma was sent to the Ursuline Sisters in Innsbruck to be educated. In Salzburg she learned cooking at the Drei Alliierten (Three Allies), one of the best establishments at the time. While still a student she wrote her first book; naturally it was a cookbook.

When her mother inherited the brewery inn in Toblach, the twenty-year-old Emma had to take it over. She was accompanied by her nurse and by such bits of advice as, “You must never laugh.” In Toblach her excellent cooking skills were hardly appreciated: the Tyroleans were accustomed to mush, dumplings, crullers and cabbage. Nonetheless there was never a lack of customers, and the rather run-down establishment recovered rapidly. One guest came especially often: the son of the postmaster of Niederdorf, Joseph Hellenstainer. After he brought her a pair of earrings from the Ampezzaner Valley she forgot all her mother’s admonitions….

Emma Hellenstainer

The wedding was held in 1842 in St. Johann, and shortly thereafter the couple took over Joseph’s inheritance, the inn Zum Schwarzen Adler (Black Eagle) on the main square in Niederdorf.

Joseph had responsibility for the transport service, Emma took charge of the inn, including managing the staff, garden, wine-cellar, and agricultural activities. In this she had to overcome tensions with her conservative mother-in-law, the old postmistress. Between 1844 and 1856 she bore four daughters and two sons. 

During this time Niederdorf was experiencing an economic boom. In 1833 the “Strada d’Alemagna” had been built through the Höhlenstein Valley between Conegliano and Toblach, for the Puster Valley the most important connection between Kärnten (Carinthia), the Steiermark (Styria), Vienna and Tyrol.  And Emma Hellenstainer was open to change: she adapted the décor and furnishings of her inn to modern requirements and upgraded the down-home local Tyrolean fare. Her humorous, appealing and open manner attracted many guests: “One wanted his soup hearty, the other wanted it clear, one wanted fatter meat, the other lean, one a spicier meal, the other milder; she took care of everything, and everyone felt at home.” (Rösch 2003, 94). Stories abound from this time about unhappy and dyspeptic guests whose stay at the Schwarzadler made them healthy and, more than anything, happy. They returned every year and provided an intensive public relations campaign for the young innkeeper. “Home,” “healing,” and even “redemption” are recurrent words in the guest-books of the Schwarzadler. The fame of the establishment grew. “After Turkey at any rate, the European country with the worst cooking is Tyrol”,  thus the travel author Gustav Rasch on the Tyrolean cuisine (Rösch 2003, 93). He listed three exceptions, however, restaurant-inns which were like sunny green oases in this desert of food preparation: the Gasthaus zum Elephanten in Brixen, Frau Emma’s inn in Niederdorf, and the Gasthaus Rizzis in Vigo in the Fassa Valley.

In 1858 Joseph Hellenstainer, only 50 years old, died of kidney failure.

Emma Hellenstainer

Emma now also took charge of the transport business, with drivers and stable help for 20 horses and the remodeling of the inn as well. (Hellenstainer 1925, 74)

The Viennese high aristocracy enjoyed consorting in the Schwarzadler: the Infanta Isabella of Bourbon-Parma, the fiancée of Joseph II; Emperor Franz Joseph I; Empress Sissi; Crown Prince Franz Ferdinand; Count Esterhazy of Hungary. Guests came from all over the world: the English stayed for the summer to hike in the mountains; the Italians came in search of a cool, refreshing place; the Austrians and Germans enjoyed the beautiful region and the excellent cooking. And everyone came because of Frau Emma.

In addition to her hospitality business her children’s education was very important to her. She emphasized the importance of early contact with other cultures and the mastery of as many languages as possible.

She trained many young female cooks herself. Her tea butter earned her a silver medal at the Vienna Cooking Exhibition in 1884 and made its way into the Viennese court kitchens. The process of marketing some of her products evolved to a small shipping business. The transport enterprise had additional advantages: she could obtain “exotic wares” such as olives and pomegranates, melons, figs, lemons and Parmesan cheese while still fresh and at a relatively reasonable price.

All such innovations as railroad, electricity and road-building were utilized to economic advantage both for her own business and for the entire region. Thanks to Frau Emma’s contacts and persuasive power, for example, the new railroad passed quite near to the village.

Frau Emma was the first female member in the German Alpine Association and a leading co-founder of the Austrian Alpine Association. She personally outfitted the first Puster Valley mountain guide with clothing left by her husband and founded the village beautification society.

In 1899 Emperor Franz Joseph I awarded “the world-famous Frau Emma” the gold medal of honor. Her children remained in the hospitality trade. Son Eduard built the hotel Praxer Wildsee. Son Hermann opened Hotel Emma in Merano in 1907. Hotels Stadt München and Post in Neuspondinig were also owned by the family. The daughters, on the other hand, “married” into prominent gastronomical families of South Tyrol. Well-known establishments were – and to some extent still are – managed by their offspring, such as the hotel Praxer Wildsee, the hotel Elephant in Brixen, the Greif (Griffin) in Bolzano. (Erbe 58)

Frau Emma spent the last years of her life on the Pragser Wildsee in summer and in Merano in winter, where she died at age 87 on 9 March 1904. 

A married woman with children in those days had few professional opportunities outside the home. The division of labor in the Schwarzadler was the traditional one: the wife took care of the inner, domestic side of things (children, servants, guests, kitchen and décor), while the husband was in charge of the outer, public aspects, such as business and external contacts. Frau Emma applied her “feminine and motherly qualities” professionally to great effect and profit. As a young widow she then also took on the male’s tasks.

Brigitte Gasser Da Rui

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Hedwig Dohm