A love of sweets is firmly embedded in Austrian culture, from the classic Sachertorte with a ribbon of apricot jam to flaky apple strudel and the raspberry- hazelnut linzertorte. Equally mesmerizing is the Manner Neapolitaner Wafer, unmistakable in its iconic pink foil wrapping and far-reaching global audience. A confection that combines a triumph of engineering with a focus on quality ingredients, the wafer is so swoon-worthy that it has achieved cult status. In anticipation of Valentine’s Day, I took an armchair trip to Vienna for a little gift-giving and recipe inspiration.
My introduction to the hazelnut cream wafer began years ago: first, when my son Drew was studying in Vienna, then again when he and my daughter, Maggie were both in school in London. When academic breaks allowed, they criss-crossed much of Europe together; by train, by bus, on foot, cramming in as much history, culture, and local cuisine as possible. I lived vicariously from afar. Being part of a family fueled by our insatiable appetite for regional customs, it was just a matter of time before Manner wafers became an integral part of their travel itinerary. Tucked into backpacks and squirreled away in suitcases, the sweet souvenirs ultimately found their way into my eager hands when my young travelers returned from abroad. I was in love. Captivated by this hybrid candy-cookie, I doled them out judiciously, afraid my limited supply would quickly dwindle, announcing to anyone within earshot that Manner wafers would make the perfect base for a pie.
There is something decidedly different and richly satisfying about the five-layer wafer, perfumed with cocoa and hazelnut. From its distinctive pink packaging down to its perfectly mouth-sized rectangle shape, the confection provides more than a sugar rush. Maggie summed it up best when I recently confessed my obsession with the treats. “They are very easy to eat,” she agreed. “For something incredibly light, there’s so much flavor.” Maggie continued, “Manner reminds me of travels abroad with Drew, passing the pink package back and forth on long, cold, train rides, calculating who would get the last piece.”
Unlike the typical grab-and-go sweet that assaults from the checkout line of any American supermarket, Manner isn’t simply a snack, it’s an experience. The precision-cut of the wafers, the multiple layers of cream, and the pleasing way they shatter provide a distinctive texture not quite like any of our stateside counterparts. Unlike domestic cream-filled wafers, Manner’s are extremely flavorful without being cloyingly sweet. In short, their deliciousness is clearly a sum of its parts—and we have Josef Manner to thank for that.
In 16th century Austria and throughout much of Europe, quality sweets were primarily a fixture at royal courts. Because cocoa and sugar were expensive imports, chocolate drinks, in particular, were a popular treat at exclusive gatherings. The invention of the cocoa press in 1828 ushered in the modern era of chocolate. Cocoa could then be mixed with sugar and liquids, transforming it into a confectionery ingredient. The resulting drop in production costs made the it more widely available to the masses.
In 1889, Manner opened a small candy store in Vienna’s Stephansplatz, near the historic St. Stephen’s Cathedral. The shop started out selling chocolates and feigenkaffee—which translates to “fig coffee,” a mixture of ground roasted coffee and dried fig that was popular throughout Austria and much of Europe. Within a year, Manner was keen on expanding his business; he purchased a small chocolate production company and, in a conscious decision to make his product more accessible, sold his sweets by the piece. This reflected Manner’s confectionery philosophy: “Chocolate for everyone—good and affordable!”
Business continued to flourish, in large part due to the Manner Neapolitaner Wafers 239, a shelf-stable confection of fluffy hazelnut cream sandwiched between five paper-thin wafer layers. The wafer was so popular that Manner launched a ten-pack in 1907 in response to demand.
As for the mouthful of a name Manner bestowed upon the treat, that came from the original source of the hazelnuts used in the cream: Naples, Italy. Unearthing the significance of number 239, however, took some sleuthing.
To learn more about the history of the company and the enormity of Manner’s cult status, and to solve the mystery of “239,” I reached out to Karin Steinhart MAS, Head of Corporate Communications and Sponsoring at the Manner office in Vienna. Poring over the statistics she shared, it became abundantly clear that my kids and I were but few among many with an abiding love for the crisp, perfectly sweet-yet-not-saccharine wafer. Overall, the company produces 50,000 tons of sweets per year, which translates to the consumption of approximately 72,000 Manner wafers per hour, or two packs of Manner wafers every second. According to Steinhart, there is a significance to “239.” “The item was first found in the product catalog in 1898 under the rather technical name, “Neapolitaner Schnitte (wafer) No. 239.” She suggests that Manner worked and reworked the wafer until he was satisfied; 239 versions later, he finally was.
The Manner brand has since expanded its product line to include a range of treats; in addition to an assortment of wafer flavors, the company also sells marshmallow candy, chocolate dragées, and even a potent chocolate-hazelnut liqueur. However, the Original Neapolitan Wafers—still made according to that 1898 recipe—remain the company’s best-selling product. (My heart belongs to the original, but I can also vouch for the restorative power of Manner Liqueur.)
Another constant in Manner’s history is its logo, a silhouette of St. Stephen’s, Vienna’s 14th century Romanesque and Gothic cathedral. The ornate church with its multi-colored chevron roof tiles and towering 446-foot spire has served as the backdrop for both cultural and historic events. In times of joy (Wolfgang Mozart’s wedding) and sorrow (Antonio Vivaldi’s funeral) and through the ravages of two world wars, the cathedral, visible from almost anywhere in Vienna, has remained a beacon of the city’s skyline. In 1890, the Archdiocese of Vienna granted the Josef Manner Company exclusive use of the cathedral’s image for marketing purposes. In exchange, Manner agreed to fund the wages of one stonemason dedicated to repairs of the landmark church. This practice continues to this day. Dr. Carl Manner (Josef’s grandson) commented on this special relationship in a 2015 interview, observing that “the cathedral is holding a protective hand over Manner.” Indeed, perhaps humble beginnings and a little divine intervention can yield sweet rewards.
The prominence of St. Stephen’s peeking out from behind the Manner logo conjures the city of Vienna, and for many smitten with the confection, the cathedral is a subliminal reminder of the Manner brand. I asked Drew if he remembered his first Manner encounter; my son recalled a field trip through Vienna’s wine country, and a lunch as uninspired as the brown paper bag it came in. “The most memorable part of the meal,” he noted, “was a pink package of Manner wafers.” Today, whenever he finds them in a shop, he always buys a pack or two. “Nostalgia is a powerful thing,” he added.
As recognizable as the silhouette of St. Stephen’s is, the wrapper’s vivid pink color is equally iconic. Steinhart confirmed that the rosy hue was the color of the original packaging and that the Vienna headquarters has been painted to match. But it doesn’t stop there; the brand has even teamed up with the Pantone Color Institute to standardize its signature color. The result? “Manner Rosa by Pantone,” an easily recognizable pink that further cements the brand’s legacy. (So easily identifiable, in fact, that it’s virtually impossible to miss the wafers’ cameo appearance in two paragons of pop culture: alongside Austrian actor Arnold Schwarzenegger in Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, and behind the counter of the Central Perk café in season six of the 90s TV sitcom, Friends.)
While Manner has a highly visible presence throughout Europe, it is not quite so ubiquitous here in the States. So, when I randomly stumble upon them, like in an off-the-beaten-path farm market in central New Jersey, I find myself grabbing as many packages as I can without drawing attention to myself. And every time I tuck them away in my pantry, I announce authoritatively, “Please don’t eat these- I’m saving them for a recipe.” With Valentine’s Day upon us, I now have all that is needed to reimagine another nostalgic Viennese treat.
A few years ago, during a long-overdue family trip back to Vienna, Drew steered us down a series of cobblestone streets to a quiet cafe away from the crowds. My first kaffeepause (a very civilized pause in the afternoon when one eats pastry and sips coffee) was memorable: a raspberry pastry, defined by a crunchy hazelnut base, jammy filling, and a dollop of rich cream. Between meals and additional coffee breaks, we devoured history and culture, occasionally taking refuge from the biting January weather by exploring the local BILLA and SPAR supermarkets, where, to my giddy delight, I discovered Manner wafers were sold by the 400-gram bag. This ensured a stockpile sufficient for a pie crust with plenty left over for snacking. I added the cookies to my hand-held cart along with a small jar of local honey and raspberry preserves, earmarking my souvenirs for a pie.
Standing in Stephansplatz, facing Manner’s flagship store, the majestic St. Stephen’s cathedral is still tended to by a Manner stonemason, easily recognizable in his Manner Rosa uniform. Folklore suggests when the breeze aligns with the Manner factory just so, you can detect the fragrance of hazelnuts and chocolate in the air; this is true. It’s also true that multiple 10-packs of Manner Neapolitaner wafers fit handily in one’s carry-on luggage, and the lightweight biscuits aren’t likely to tip any baggage weight restrictions. (Honey and jam, Maggie warned, are considered liquids and must travel in checked luggage.) A return trip to Vienna in the immediate future seems unlikely, but a Manner-inspired pie is the next-best thing to a restorative holiday.