Saturday, December 26, 2009

The Marktstrasse in Lahr During the Christmas Season

Today is Boxing Day; in Germany, it is called "Zweiter Weihnachtstag" (second Christmas Day).  No stores will be open today.  The Gasthauses will be busy and so will the country roads.  As it is a beautiful sunny day here, many German families will be out walking, after driving into the country, parking, and walking along the edge of the forests, down lanes or across the hills.  Nearly all will eventually stop at a Vesperstube, Cafe or Gasthaus for coffee and cake or a small meal.

This past Wednesday I was in downtown Lahr doing some Christmas shopping.  Lahr is 20 minutes north of us and has about 50,000 inhabitants.  We do much of our shopping there.  So today I thought I would show that area, known as the Marktstrasse (Market Street) and some of the Marktplatz (Market Square) during the festive season.  Christmas decorations will remain until January sometime, though New Year's decorations and store windows will change this coming week.

On the left is a view of the Marktstrasse with the old City Hall at the end of the street.

Below right shows an outdoor cafe with one lone man sitting outside.

Many enjoy just wandering down this pedestrian street, browsing and sometimes stopping for a Bratwurst or drink.
Below left is a bakery.
There are a couple cafes along this street and a Bratwurst Kiosk.  Of course, many stores can be found as well.  One I went into last week was the "candy" or "sweets" store, as Hans loves Marzipan and they sell one of the best.  I buy it here every year.    
See the window of the Tea, Coffee and Sweets store to the right. 
Another interesting store is the gift store, below left.

Just below on the left is a book store. To the right two beautiful buildings on one end of the Marktplatz.  Underneath, the square just before entering the Marktstrasse with the Kaufhaus Kraus department store on the corner. 

Finally, a small flower vendor. Happy Boxing Day!

Friday, December 25, 2009

The Christmas Goose


Christmas Eve with tree candles lighted.

Christmas in Germany is a special time, just as it is in all countries that celebrate it.  It's the time that we remember our childhood Christmases and those of our children.  And, of course, we remember the story of the birth of Jesus and the true meaning of why we celebrate it.  For the children, it is a wondrous few days, and the weeks leading up to it are full of excitement and anticipation.  I remember well how excited I used to be.

In North America, the big day is on the 25th of December, beginning early in the morning with the children perhaps finding their stockings at the ends of their beds; then the opening of presents that Santa left overnight under the tree.  Later in the day, a turkey dinner, stories, and finally off to bed.  In Germany, Christmas Eve is the time when children receive their gifts, so that is a very special time for them.

As I write, this is Christmas Day, the 25th, which here is more about the wonderful dinner to come, visiting with friends and family and perhaps going for a walk in the afternoon.  The 24th is the day for Germans.  That is when the children are kept occupied while Mom and Dad get everything ready for late afternoon.  Grandparents or an older sibling will take the little ones out for a walk while the tree is being decorated and presents put beneath it.  Before the tree and the presents, though, will be supper, and in Germany there are as many traditions regarding this meal as there are mothers; however, each area of Germany does have similar traditions within the area.  The meal is nearly always simple, as what child can sit for long knowing the Weihnachtsmann (Santa) has left the presents already?

In our area of Baden-Wuerttemberg, it is often Schaeufele (lightly smoked pork shoulder) with potato salad.  Others have a fish dish, such as carp or salmon.  When Hans was a child in Brandenburg, Germany, their Christmas Eve supper was wieners (made from pork and beef) and potato salad.

We still follow Hans's custom today, though I usually make something else as well.  From about 1967 onwards my special meal included Coquilles St. Jacques (made with scallops, wine and cream).  I continued doing that over the years with Hans.  I didn't make that this year but will again.  Hans now makes his potato salad with oil and vinegar, broth and several herbs.  In earlier years he made it with mayonnaise (his own), but we both prefer the one he now makes with the broth.  Everyone loves it, including many of our friends in Nova Scotia.  He always tries to come up to the standard of our friend, Monika, whose potato salad he deems to be the best.  She makes hers the same way as he does, but somehow, he says, hers is always better!  (On an aside, his is very good, too!)

Our traditional Christmas Day dinner is goose.  Both of us grew up having that; he, in Brandenburg, Germany; I, in Prince Edward Island, Canada.  During my children's years it was mostly turkey, but I always loved goose.  In Germany, it is called "Gans" and many have that today--but not everyone.  Good friends were having duck; others, beef or fish.

At right, this year's goose, just out of the oven.  The wine:  a 1999 Chateauneuf-du-Pape.  A good wine, either a Burgundy or Cote-du-Rhone, compliments a goose dinner.

In 2005, our friends, Jean and Bev, arrived from Canada, visiting for a couple days before  heading to a small village in Burgundy for three months.  They had rented a Gite (a holiday house) and lived next to the owners, whom they got to know well.  Jean and Bev decided to treat these new friends to a Canadian Thanksgiving dinner (it was October).  But to find a turkey!  They couldn't find any in the area (lots of Bresse chickens, but no turkeys!).  So they drove all the way back to Germany (about 3 to 4 hours) and bought one here--or so they thought!  We got a frantic phone call from Burgundy:  "We didn't buy a turkey, but a goose!"  (Their French friends knew the difference!)  Jean and Bev hadn't known the German word for turkey so bought what they thought was one.  (In Deutsch, turkey is called a Pute or Truthahn.)  A cry for help:  "How do you cook a goose?"  So, by fax to their landlord's machine, we sent off the directions on how to cook a goose.  According to them, everyone loved it!  But they haven't lived this down and won't as long as we keep bringing it up!

Several weeks later, Jean arrived back along with other good friends arriving from Ontario, Ron and Nancy, for Christmas and New Year's.  They stayed at a wonderful Gasthaus we know well in the hills.  We asked Herr Burger and his daughter Ruth Moser if they would consider making Christmas dinner for the five of us, a goose with all the trimmings.  "Naturlich!" they replied.  So on Christmas Day, the 25th, the first time ever for us eating at a Gasthaus for Christmas, we had the most memorable Christmas goose dinner ever.  It was fabulous!  The goose was perfect and the gravy superb (lots of cream); the potatoes were pureed and so beautifully served I can still see them in the huge bowl; the platter of mixed vegetables was outstanding as was the red cabbage.  And so was my dressing.  I had asked if they would mind if I brought a casserole of dressing along.  That was fine with them.  They later told me that they had loved it, too.  Canadian stuffing or dressing is different from the German and anyone who has had it here, loves it.

The picture above is of the small village of Biederbach where we were earlier this week and where Jean, Ron and Nancy stayed in 2005 at the Deutscher Hof.  That is where we had our remarkable goose dinner.

Many Germans go to a Gasthaus for Christmas dinner.  As the Gasthauses are all very busy on the 25th, it's necessary to reserve well ahead.  (On the 24th, nearly all Gasthauses close by 2 p.m. and some do not open at all that day.)  Many Germans cook at home of course and have family members join them.  As I was writing this, our goose was in the oven, the stuffing inside it, not in a casserole.

Our Christmas dinner and me!

Along with our goose, I make pureed potatoes.  I boil them along with a couple of garlic cloves.  Then, when ready, I mash them, along with the cloves of garlic, adding lots of unsalted butter (butter is the secret).  Hans makes red cabbage which goes perfectly with goose or game dishes.  He also makes Kartoffelkloesse (dumplings) and watches over the cooking goose.  We never get rid of the goose fat; it's great to use in cooking later on when making something else.  I remember my mother saving it, and I think she used it for making buns.  Hans likes it this way:  Once the fat congeals and hardens, what is left can then be spread on bread.  It's certainly not the healthiest thing, but he loves it.  I never eat it that way myself, but it's great to add to gravy another time.  Gaenseschmalz or goose fat, on rye bread, sprinkled with salt, is a delicacy.  Along with the meal, we have my homemade cranberry sauce, which I make every year to give as gifts and to enjoy during the year.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Christmas Trees and a Schnaps Hut

Germany started the tradition of Christmas trees in the middle ages.  Christians around the world took up the custom little by little until today it is one of the most enjoyed and loved of all Christmas traditions.

Unlike most North Americans, Germans don't put up their trees until almost the big day itself.  That was the same when I was a child in Charlottetown.  The tree went up about a week before Christmas. Dad put the lights on it--but never lighted them, at least not when we were there--and Santa decorated it overnight on Christmas Eve.  It was such excitement on Christmas morning when first seeing our tree magically transformed from the night before, seeing the toys and parcels beneath it and all the dishes that held special Christmas candy.  We did the same for our children in their early years, but we then decided that it was a little too stressful and rushed.  So after that, Terry and Susan helped us and that was special, too.

The picture at top right shows Hans, checking out a few trees in front of  the farmhouse where we buy our tree and the son of the owners looking inside a small hut. 

Here in Germany, we now put our tree up about the 22nd of December and decorate it the next day.  Many Germans still do that on the afternoon of the 24th, behind closed doors so the children cannot see it until time for the family to gather.  That is when they see their decorated tree for the first time and all the presents beneath it, left by the Weihnachtsmann, the German Santa.  Trees here are not taken down right after New Year's as we always did in Canada; they remain up until the middle of January, after Epiphany, and some later due to a special religious day towards the end of the month.  The latter is only in certain areas and most often in the country.

The picture below shows more trees and a tree going through a wrapping machine.

Finding the right tree
First, though, one must get a tree.  And that is what we did late yesterday afternoon.  Each year we drive into the country, up into the hills, to a farmer we've gone to for several years.  It isn't far, only about a 20-minute drive.  We now know them and they know us, so it's handshakes all around.  The farmer and his wife have several children (grown now) and some of them are working there as well.

They have many trees from which to choose and all are grown to be as perfect a tree as they can manage.  Because many people, including us, use live candles on the tree, they are also grown to accommodate that custom.  The branches stretch out but there will also be enough space between the rows of branches to ensure the candles can burn safely.  The candles are also the reason most people want their tree to be freshly cut; at the farm that is the norm.  Their trees also don't shed needles quickly as they are a special variety of spruce.

Yesterday, we wandered around looking at many trees, some too tall, others not tall enough; then we found the tree we wanted, not as high as other years, but high enough, at around 6 feet or so.  Our ceiling is about 8 feet high so it will be easily accommodated. 

It was a fairly quiet day at the farm, but others were there and some arrived later.  In this last week before Christmas, it will get busy.  We went yesterday to make sure we had a tree before any snow might arrive, as snow would make it more difficult to drive there due to the steep climb.  However, the weather is said to be getting warmer in the next week, so we don't expect a white Christmas.  At the moment, it is cold; this morning, -3C., but the sun is shining.

The Schnaps Hut

One of the main reasons we go to this farm, aside from always finding a nice tree, is the small, warm hut that they invite us into to warm up and to have a glass--or two--of Schnaps, made by them at their farm.  That has become a traditional custom there.This year, one of the sons, age 23, sat inside with us and poured us a glass of Williams-Christ (pear Schnaps) which was our choice.  Three others who were looking for trees joined us.  Also offered was Kirchwasser (cherry Schnaps) and two other types of distilled liquor, all "on the house" so no cost involved.
The picture at right shows the young man, the Schnaps and hanging salami.

The young man's mother was busy dealing with people outside, but she came in now and again to talk a little.  That son told us that he had been involved with the trees as long as he could remember.  The gentleman inside with us said that when they first started going there 20 years ago, the children would be asking them if they would like some Schnaps!  The young man laughingly remembered doing that--at age three!

The farm also sells their own Schinken (ham) and salami and Hans bought the latter.  He cut a piece off while we were sitting inside and it was excellent (the rest went home with us!).  See the picture at left.  The salami that was hanging from the ceiling inside the hut soon disappeared as the others also bought some.

This small hut is only large enough for a table (sturdy picnic-table style) and a bench on each side, plus a small wood-burning stove.  It can hold at one time only about eight people, though we have seen ten squeezed in!  Before we went inside, seven came out.

The picture below, right, shows me inside the hut surrounded by Schnaps bottles and glasses in the tray.

On the drive home, we followed a car--with a small trailer attached--loaded with trees.  That will be common during this next week.  In mid November the same can be seen, but with larger trucks loaded with trees for the various markets, towns, outdoor squares and tree sellers.  But none are lighted until First Advent or perhaps a few days ahead of time, except inside the stores, which do light them up around mid November. 

The picture at left below shows the car and trailer loaded with trees driving through the town of Schweighausen; we are following behind.

As for our tree, we not only put real candles on it, but we also use electric lights that look like candles.  When we light the real ones, we sit and watch them glow in a darkened living room on Christmas Eve for 15 to 20 minutes before tamping the flames out.  Then we turn on the electric candles and the rest of the evening's traditional Christmas celebration continues.

Of interest:  If you wish to see the pictures in a larger format, just click on the picture you wish to see.


Monday, December 14, 2009

Childhood Memories of Christmas in Charlottetown

This, of course, is not a picture of one of our trees in Charlottetown, but the feeling of Christmas is the same.  With Christmas approaching and Advent well underway, it reminds me of special times as a child in Prince Edward Island.  In those days, the 1940s, we nearly always had snow for Christmas.  It was more unusual not to have it than it is having it today.

Our father--I was one of five daughters--loved the Christmas season.  Our mother did as well, but because she had so much to do before the big day, Dad was the one who did special things with us.  Mom baked all our favourite cookies, made fruit cake weeks ahead and made our very favourite--fudge--a week or so beforehand--all of it put away in tins until Christmas Eve.

A long-awaited outing each year was going with Dad to Holman's store to visit the Christmas toy department on the second floor.  How excited my sister Carol and I were!  We didn't get toys and presents throughout the year as kids today do.  Our birthdays and Christmas were mainly it for presents, though for Easter and school closing day we usually had new clothes and shoes.  But Christmas was for toys!  Somehow we knew, without being told, that we couldn't have everything we saw, but we would get a few things we really wanted.  So up and down those aisles we went, looking at everything and weighing the pros and cons of what was most important to us.  Dad, no doubt, was taking note of what we liked!

We also eagerly awaited the Eaton's Christmas catalogue with pages of toys to exclaim over.  It would take quite some time to look at each page and to decide what we would like.  We learned to make priorities, as we didn't want to miss out on a much-wanted item by picking something not so important.

Santa found out what we wanted at Holman's store as he was always there on the day we visited it.  But he also found out from the letter we wrote him and sent up the chimney.  We would write it and Dad would light the fireplace and tell us to throw it in (but not before he looked at it himself!).  We would race to the dining room window and watch for the smoke and what we thought was our letter flying off to the North Pole.  The letter would be answered on CFCY, the Charlottetown radio station (I think the only radio station on the Island at that time), as every night before Christmas Santa was there to answer all the letters.  We would be listening for our names to be read and they always were.

Here is my version of golden fudge  This recipe was my mother's, but my mother's sister, our Aunt Beth, made this sometimes on a rainy day in Georgetown, PEI, when we all were children.  Dad also loved fudge, so sometimes he made it.  Aunt Beth called hers "penuche."  My mother called hers "white fudge."  I call mine "golden" because of its colour and also because of those long-ago golden summer days.  Penuche calls for cream and milk; I use only milk.  This recipe may be halved.
Fudge is easy to make but tricky to know when it should come off the heat; it's also tricky to know just when you should pour it into the pan or dish to harden.  Use a candy thermometer to check for readiness when still simmering.  I always use the "testing of the hot syrup on a cold dish" and that works for me.  It should cook to the soft ball stage; not a runny ball but one you can form into a soft ball.  

To pour into the pan to harden, make sure you do that while it is still soft enough.  It's a judgment call.  If it hardens on you before you can pour it into the prepared dish, place it over the heat just long enough to melt it; stir it quickly, remove from the heat and pour it into the pan immediately.  (That happened to me with this batch after I added the nuts, but it turned out perfectly.)

Ingredients and Method:
1-1/2 cups brown sugar; 1-1/2 cups white sugar; 1 Tbsp corn syrup, 1 cup milk.  Butter and vanilla.  Nuts if wished:  walnuts, hazelnuts/filberts or almonds.  Butter well a pie plate or other pan.

Add the sugar, syrup and milk to a sauce pan (deep enough so it won't boil over).  Place over medium heat.  Stir right from the beginning and constantly until it starts to boil.  Lower the heat and let it simmer, without stirring (not even once).  Don't bother to test it until the syrup has started to lower into the pot; this will take some time.  Put a small dish into the freezer to get cold. 

Start to test.  If you use a thermometer, it should be ready when the thermometer reads about 110F to 112F.  Using a spoon, place a few drops onto the cold plate; if still runny, keep it simmering.  When it has reached the soft ball stage, remove from the heat.  Add a chunk of butter about the size of a small egg or bit smaller.  Let the syrup cool.  Add 1 teaspoon of vanilla.  Beat vigorously until the fudge is thick but still pourable.  Add any nuts you wish, stir quickly and then pour into a buttered dish or pie plate.  Set it aside to harden but score into squares before it gets too hard. 

Note:  If you would like to make chocolate fudge instead, just add 3 tablespoons of cocoa to the sugar--I always use less brown sugar when making chocolate, about 2 cups white sugar and 1 cup brown sugar.  Stir the sugar and cocoa together, and then add the milk and continue cooking as given above.   Something to keep in mind,which makes it easier to remember the recipe:  it is always three to one; 3 cups sugar and 3 Tbsp cocoa to 1 cup milk.

While Mom baked and made the candy, we enjoyed another special day each year on the Sunday about two weeks before Christmas.  Dad would take Carol and me on our sleigh through Chaarlottetown to the Experimental Farm to collect some spruce boughs.  Our other sisters were quite a bit younger so didn't go in the early years with us, though Judith did one year.  We thought the Farm was out in the country, and I guess it was then, but it really wasn't that far.

Once we arrived at our destination, Dad would go underneath a fence and cut some boughs while Carol and I waited beside the sleigh.  I think we both felt a little nervous that he would get caught!  He never did and maybe they wouldn't have cared.  But we felt relieved when he crawled back to our side of the fence.  We'd pile the sleigh high with the boughs and at the end of the afternoon would trudge home, tired and cold, but happy.  Mom would have a hot supper ready for us on our return.  During our absence, she had not been idle; that was the day she did some of the Christmas baking.

After supper, Dad would start making the wreaths for all our windows.  We would help him by getting the red tissue paper ready for the bows at the bottom of them.  The smell of spruce, the baking, the warm house and our parents' love for us have kept those memories alive.  Each year I relive that time in my life for a few moments as I'm sure my sisters do as well.

Below, baked and iced Scotch cake on a plate with the Prince Edward Island tartan.

Here is a recipe for my mother's Scotch cake that she made only at Christmas.  Today most call it shortbread.  The recipe was given to her by her next-door neighbour, Georgie MacDonald, in the 1930s.  It is likely much older than that as Georgie likely received it from her mother.  I now live in Germany but I make Scotch cake every year and give some of them to our German neighbours and to our special Gasthaus families as a small Christmas gift.  Germans make some wonderful Christmas cookies and sweets, but not shortbread or Scotch cake.
Mom's and Georgie's Scotch Cake:  1/2 lb butter (1 cup); 1/4 cup brown sugar; 1/4 cup powdered sugar (icing sugar); 2 and 1/4 cups sifted bread flour; 1 teaspoon oatmeal (optional); 1 teaspoon cornstarch.
Note:  I rarely use oatmeal in mine as it doesn't seem to make much difference.  I use all-purpose flour in Germany but I think it is slightly heavier than the Canadian; however, you can likely use it (without sifting).

Method:  My mother's recipe just says, "Knead very lightly until soft!"  Here is what I do:

Cream butter and the brown sugar and icing sugar together well  in a large bowl (you can use your mixer).  Mix the dry ingredients together lightly; work them into the butter mixture.  You can use the mixer after they are worked in.  Knead lightly until the dough is soft and getting pliable.  This takes a little time.  I usually do part of this in the bowl and then I dump it onto a floured surface and knead until it can be molded a little into a square or rectangle.  Roll it out to desired thickness (with a floured rolling pin), about 1/4 inch to 1/2 inch.  Make sure it is even throughout.  Cut it into squares or diamonds.  Place on greased and floured pan (or on baking paper in the pan).  Chill.  Bake in 350F/180C oven until light brown, from 12 to 15 minutes.  (They should never be too brown.) 

Ice them if wished.  My mother always put large dabs of green or pink icing on top of each Scotch cake.  Just mix some icing sugar and butter together until creamed, but not too creamy; add a little hot water and mix well.  Hans's suggestion:  Add some lemon juice to taste as it gives some contrast.  I do and it is a nice addition.  Or you can add the lemon juice directly to the creamed sugar and butter and just a drop or two of hot water if needed.  Add only enough so that it isn't too soft for adding to the top of the Scotch cake. I usually need more icing sugar as it is sometimes too runny; make sure you have more in readiness just in case.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Third Advent and Sunday Dinner at a Gasthaus

This was Third Advent and the day we met with two lady friends for dinner.  Every few weeks Hans and I drive down to Freiburg on a Sunday to pick up Anita, who is 83, and Lina, who is 94.  Anita has poor eyesight and a new hip, but is otherwise quite well.  Lina has few problems; her hearing is as good as a younger person's and so are her eyes.  She is quite amazing.  She told us she walks every day for an hour, perhaps part of the reason for her long life and good health.  Last year, when Hans said to her that she certainly didn't act or look 94, she retorted right back:  "I'm only 93!  Don't make me older than I am!"  Anita is on the right; Lina on the left.

Both women live in Freiburg, a university city of about 200,000 inhabitants.  It's about 30 minutes south of us.  It is a lovely city with a beautiful Marktplatz beside the cathedral.  Every morning (except Sunday) a huge market is held in that square where one can buy vegetables, fruit, nuts, olives from the barrel, Schinken (ham), cheese and myriad other things.  What we always have when we go is a Bratwurst, one of the best you'll get, covered in fried onions.  Today, though, there is no market.  We are just in the city to pick up our friends.

Anita had made reservations for us at a Gasthaus in the small town of Kirchzarten, about ten kilometers east of the city.  Hans and I had not been there before.  We have been to many lovely eating places with Anita over the years and often to ones we didn't know, which always means a new experience.  On these occasions the Gasthaus chosen is always a bit more special than ones we go to on a regular basis, with larger menus and generally beautifully decorated.  Today's was no exception.

We arrived at the Gasthof Sonne (also a restaurant/hotel) at about 12:30 p.m. with several hours ahead of us to eat, drink and talk together.  We were greeted at the door by the gentleman who owns the Gasthaus and by our waitress.

Shortly after sitting down, we were given the menus and, along with them, a small first course "on the house," which is common.  A crock of Quark and a basket of mixed bread were placed on the table.  So while we waited for our meal to arrive, we sat and talked, drank our wine and had pieces of bread spread with Quark.  I had my usual glass of Weissherbst wine (made from the red Spaetburgunder grape), Hans had a beer to start, and Lina and Anita had a Muller Thurgau each, a white wine from the grape of that same name.

Enjoying our main course: me on the left, Lina and Anita.

The Gasthaus was busy as is usual on a Sunday, with lots for us to take in:  candles glowing, a beautiful Christmas tree, and paintings on the walls.  The nearby tables were full and the people at them took their time as did we.  I chose duck, Anita a fish dish, Hans and Lina a specialty of the region, roast beef with a horseradish sauce.  The town that is renowned for its horseradish is about 35 minutes north of where we live, just outside the city of Offenburg, thus the reason for many Gasthauses serving it.

What is always interesting when with Lina and Anita is the conversation.  Lina is never short of words and is direct.  Hans asked about a former male friend of Anita's; he is now 96.  Anita had mentioned before that he had expected her to pay her own way whenever they went out, which annoyed her.  Lina said there was no way that she'd even look at a man who expected her to pay!  This wasn't the first time she'd said this.  A few months ago at another Sunday outing together, the same topic came up.  Lina said then that she wouldn't stay with any man who expected her to pay or to cook on a Sunday!  A woman a couple of tables over heard her; she was with her husband.  She told us her husband had wanted her to stay at home that day, but no way was she going to do that on a Sunday.  She wanted to go out and enjoy herself!  Thus the conversation went, from one table to the next, with people none of us knew.

Lina and Hans on another Sunday outing.

Lina has an opinion on everything, from politics to food to men.  She told us she'd had several men friends during her hay day, including two or three husbands.  "Only one was any good!" she told us.  She still writes letters of complaint when she has something to complain about.  We can well imagine those on the other end not knowing how to deal with her.  She doesn't mince words and is certainly never at a loss for one.  She is always meticulously groomed with hair freshly done, not your every day 94-year-old or even one years younger.

Anita and I

Anita is much quieter and, like me, tends to listen more than talk.  Not that either of us doesn't get our two cents' worth in though.  Both these women had interesting lives, living through the war and its aftermath.  And though they don't get around much now, they still enjoy good food, wine and conversation with friends.  At ages 83 and 94 they've both had quite the lives and continue to have still.

Hans and I got home around 4:15 p.m., just in time to light the third candle on our Advent wreath.  It had been a great day and one to be thankful for:  good friends, good food and a special Gasthaus.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Advent Season and the German Christmas Markets

Above, Saint Nicholas, the German equivalent of Santa Claus.

First Advent, the fourth Sunday before Christmas, signals the official start of the Christmas season in Germany; it also signals the many Christmas markets to come. The first market in our area is in Ettenheim, on the Friday evening of first Advent weekend--this year on 27th Nov. As always, we were there. 

Ettenheim is a walled town and is entered through one of three gates. The old houses, shops, Gasthauses, church and town hall are clustered inside the wall. The cobblestone streets meander in all directions, along quiet byways and along the busy main street. Our village is six kilometers away, a five to ten-minute drive.

At right, an elderly couple walking through a gateway into the main part of the town of Ettenheim.

The  picture on the left shows a view of town after entering through the gate.  This was a day or two before the market was held.

At the Christmas market, one booth after another, side by side, invites one to stop and look and perhaps buy what is on offer. Many are local booths where things have been handmade: wooden ornaments, hand-knitted children's clothing, Advent wreaths (we usually buy ours there), Lebkuchen (traditional Christmas cookies), Linzer Torte--a spicy type of pie that is almost cake-like with cloves, cinnamon and almonds in the batter, and with a top and bottom crust. Those are just a few of the things available, which also includes ready-made wear, slippers, socks, special kitchen knives, wine and beer openers, and many other gadgets.

Other booths offer local Schnaps or farm Schinken (ham) and, of course, Gluehwein, the hot and spicy red wine concoction that warms the hands as well as within on a cold evening. Another offers Sekt (Germany's Champagne-like wine), white or red wine from the local area. Each booth, with the owners in fine spirits behind the counter, will have a place to stand beside it to enjoy a glass or two of one's choice. We usually sample a Gluehwein (similar to mulled wine), especially on a cold day or evening.

Above, a customer checking out the Schnaps

Same booth with a variety of Schnaps and other drinks along with farm-made fresh bread

You'll find one or two tents set up or someone's private garage open with a warm stove inside along with tables and benches and offering small meals. I think there are almost as many food and drink booths as there are ones selling products!

The wonderful aroma wafting throughout the market such as Bratwurst, wieners (German style), Gluehwein, and Flammenkuchen made right in front of your eyes, inspires one to get into the spirit of things quickly. Wieners, by the way, are not filled with preservatives but are made from beef and pork and are longer in size than the North American variety. They come with a Broetchen (roll) and German mustard. Bratwurste are fried on a grill and served similarly, though often with fried or uncooked onions added. I love them with fried onions piled on top and then mustard on top again. (In summer, barbecue them; they are delicious served that way with mustard and/or barbecue sauce.

We always make a point of going to Ettenheim's market as it marks the beginning of Advent with the lighted trees and decorated stores. It means, "the Christmas season is underway!"
One of our very favourite Christmas markets is a small one in the country about 20 minutes from us and over two mountains. It is held on the premises of a large clothing store, "Fischer," one that specializes in German Trachten, the traditional dress. That market is always held on Second Advent weekend, on both Friday and Saturday.

On the right, sausages hanging on a hook awaiting customers.

The market is sponsored by the locals (mostly farm families) and only local specialties will be found here. We go every year to get our spruce boughs for our front door. (We used to get our own but now we get them at the market from the farmer who cuts them.) But we also go to enjoy the special atmosphere. We were part of it this past Friday afternoon, the 4th of December.

 Above, a view of Fischer's clothing store and the Christmas market.

This market attracts hundreds of people on both days. One can feel oneself slowly becoming immersed in the Christmas spirit: it's the music (a musician plays and sings traditional Christmas songs and carols), the wonderful fragrant smell of Bratwurste and Gluehwein and the freshly baked farm bread, the scent of fresh spruce, the home-baked sweets. We have gone here for several years and recognize some of the people behind the counters and they recognize us. This year the sun was shining; last year, it was raining. Regardless of the weather, we--and everyone else--enjoy it tremendously; in particular, the children, as St. Nicholas (Germany's Santa Claus), makes an appearance.

The store, "Fischer," has a cafe on the premises so that attracts many with its freshly made cakes and tortes, hot coffee, tea or chocolate drinks. I bought a Trachten costume inside the store a couple of months ago. It is the only store where such a selection is available in our area and where one gets personal service (about 40 minutes northeast of Lahr, past Schweighausen). I spent an hour and a half with one of the saleswomen, who found everything I needed: the combination dress and apron, a shawl and two jackets--I couldn't decide between the two!

Cookies and other things

Following is Hans's recipe for Gluehwein, a great way to greet guests on a cold evening. We have served this several times over the years at our annual Christmas party. His recipe does change somewhat from time to time as he tends to add a bit of this and that or a little more or less of some things. (Gluhwein in German is without the 'e' but with an umlaut--two dots above the 'u'; as my Canadian-set-up computer does not have an umlaut, an 'e' must be inserted instead.) This is basically how he makes it (in his words):

Gluehwein: 2 bottles or so of red wine (not an expensive wine nor a strong one; perhaps a Beaujolais or something similar); rum and Cognac, a shot or two of each or more if desired (Hans has used Cointreau instead of Cognac on occasion); white sugar, about half a cup or to taste; some orange or lemon juice to your taste; 2 to 3 cinnamon sticks; 2 to 3 cloves. Mix all together and heat to coffee temperature or as hot as you like it. Cut a large orange into slices.

Serve in heat-proof glasses (preferably small mugs) and add a half slice of orange per glass/mug. This should make enough for 12 small to medium-size glasses or mugs (depends on how much wine you use and how large the bottles). Enjoy!

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Cat Tales

I never wanted a cat! In fact, I was somewhat afraid of them. It's not that I didn't like them, but they made me nervous. Hans, though, loved cats! Every cat he came upon he wanted to take home. He tried some unusual methods, as you will see.

One year in Spain, driving around one of the small Mediterranean towns, we saw cats on every corner. Most were strays. Hans spied a kitten and insisted on bringing it into the car. His excuse was that he was doing it a good turn! I, of course, argued that this wasn't the time: perhaps it belonged to someone already or it would mean we wouldn't be able to travel. He didn't listen. The kitten went back to our trailer at the campsite. I refused to let it near me, so I closed the door at one end and slept behind it. The next morning, Hans decided that, "Yes, it might belong to someone!" So off we went to town and put the young cat back where he had found it. That ended cat talk for a time.

A few weeks later, we were driving in the hills about an hour from home and stopped at a Gasthaus for a bite to eat. Inside, a young cat was wandering around looking for attention. Hans was again smitten! This time, he asked the owner if he could have the cat. The owner agreed: "Yes, that cat bothers some of our guests, so that's fine with us!" So again, back one came in the car with us. The following morning I reiterated that we still wanted to travel and besides, company was coming so it wasn't the right time. Amazingly, he agreed and back that young cat went as well.

The next day, our friend, who had just arrived, and I went for a drive. I began developing guilt feelings, so when we returned I told Hans that maybe we should have kept the cat. That same night, he drove all the way back to retrieve it. In the darkness he couldn't find it and was too embarrassed to ask the owner about it. That ended that episode, too, but it showed his dedication to becoming a cat owner! And with me, capitulation was in the offing.

The following summer I was in Nova Scotia on a holiday. The day I returned to Germany I noticed a scratching pole in the TV room. Hans had forgotten to hide it. So my first question was: "Okay, so where's the cat?" Out from under the sofa slid a small greyish brown little tiger cat. She was timid and nervous and wouldn't come near me. Initially I wasn't too pleased, but little by little she looked me over and I looked right back. She was cute! She was a stray and about four months old. Hans had found her sleeping in the outside window well; it had taken him three days to entice her into the house. He named her Tammy--after the song sung by Debbie Reynolds, who played Tammy in the first "Tammy" movie. There was no way I could send her back outside; she now liked her new warm home with all the food with which Hans was spoiling her. He had also made sure she received all her shots and many toys. So she was here to stay.

Well, little by little she and I became friends and eventually she became my little cat. She still loved Hans, but it was to me that she always came to first. We--I should say, Hans!--bought every book he could find on the subject of cats. It was like following Dr. Spock's advice for a new baby in the house.

Tammy did halt a lot of our travelling. Hans had been sure we could take her to Spain or elsewhere, but not I. However, the following summer off she went to Nova Scotia with us, accompanying us back and forth for several years.

That very first summer in N.S. she received a gift: yes, another cat! Hans, up to his old tricks, fell in love with a kitten in a pet shop and he felt it would be company for Tammy. Tammy felt otherwise. No way, she said in many ways, some not so wonderful--like using the couch for her bathroom for a week or two. With this development, Hans phoned my sister Carol in the States to get her advice as she and Derek had had cats for years. She told him that Tammy would eventually accept Fritzie and not to worry! She was right.

Fritzie was enamoured with Tammy as he saw her as a cat to chase and taunt and he did that from the very first day, as small as he was. Tammy learned to tolerate him over time and eventually came to like him, always, though, on the watch for him. He did recognize--as did the cats that joined them--that she was the queen. And all of them certainly recognized him as the king, including Tammy! I'll write about Fritzie and the others at a later time. We lost him just last spring and Tammy, two years ago.

We loved those two cats dearly. They were our first. We now have four and we love them all. For some of them, I was the instigator--not Hans! I just don't go out looking for any to take home as most of them have found their way to our door without any help. One of them, Daisy, is in the above picture. She was the oldest but not the first. We still have her, a sweet and gentle cat.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Other Gathering Places: Getting together with Friends

The Gasthaus is the main eating and drinking spot for most Germans. That is partially because nearly every town and village has at least one, and for hundreds of years the Gasthaus has been a focal point of village or town life. But there are other gathering places that draw locals and visitors alike. The following three are common but not quite as many in number.

Restaurants: Many are also called Gasthaus-Restaurant or Hotel-Restaurant, the latter of course will have rooms; the former one, may or may not. Generally the Hotel-Restaurant will be more expensive, but not necessarily, as one of our favourites is a Gasthaus-Restaurant and it is a one star (Michelin) and their menu is fairly expensive. Usually, though, you will find at least one or two dishes on the menu that are not that expensive, but that depends on the place and just how fancy it is. One can usually tell just by looking at the menu posted. All eating places post their prices outside, whether it is a Gasthaus or restaurant.

The picture shown is of me at the Schwarzer-Adler, a one-star restaurant in the Kaiserstuhl, a large wine region built on former volcanic ash. The Romans planted the first grapes on their march north in this area.
Restaurants have much larger menus and will usually have dishes that one wouldn't find at a regular Gasthaus, such as lamb, duck, game or fish. The presentation will also be more elegant generally and perhaps a small first course "on the house" will be served. (Fish is usually only found in more upscale Gasthauses or in those that specialize in it; in the latter case, it might be quite a simple family-run Gasthaus with their own fish ponds out in the country). It is a good idea to reserve if you are anxious to dine in a particular restaurant. Weekends can be very busy, Sunday being the busiest day of all--noon hour and evening. Gasthauses, of course, can also be very busy and it is wise also to reserve for a Sunday or special holiday. With a group of more than four, I would always book ahead, just to ensure having a table available on arrival.

In summer, enjoy dinner on the patio or terrace as many restaurants feature them. Sit outside and enjoy the beautiful weather. During the Christmas season, they will be beautifully decorated inside; outside, most will have a tree glittering in white lights. At this time of year, we look forward to all of that, one of the loveliest times of year in Germany.

Vesper Stube: These are usually cosy places often found "in the middle of nowhere." Go up a mountain road and--if you are lucky--at the top or end of the road, you will find a Vesper Stube. Or driving through the forest on a small road, you come into a clearing with meadows greeting you and perhaps a farm with a Vesper Stube. Occasionally a small village will be the home of one, but mostly they are found in the country.

Generally these are small and simple, with wooden benches and long tables, though some do have smaller tables and chairs. Inside it is usually rustic with wood or even stone walls and a wood burning stove to keep everyone warm on cold days. Meals are simple, mostly cold dishes but with perhaps an egg dish, soup or Bratwurst offered as well. Beer and wine is offered, though the choice will be limited; Schnaps is nearly always available. Some Vesper Stuben have 'Most' on their menu; that is apple cider and it can be pretty potent. It's usually very cheap as it is produced, just like most foods served, by the farmer and his wife themselves. Some of the products that can come right from their farms are eggs, butter, bread, Schinken (ham) and cottage cheese or Quark. The Schnaps will come from the farm as well.

One needs distillery rights for Schnaps-making and the licenses can be handed down from father to son. Only so many licenses are given out, so if you aren't lucky enough to have a father or grandfather with those rights, you will have to wait and hope for the best that one will become available. In the small town next to ours, there are at least two with that license.

We go to a farmer out in the hills and anyone we've taken there with us says it is the best they've ever had. Hans thinks so as well. At that particular farm, the farmer loved his Schnaps (he has now retired and the son has taken it over). It was pretty difficult to get away without sampling a few of them! I rarely drink Schnaps myself, but will on occasion when it would be impolite to refuse. They are very high in alcohol, some 50%, so beware! Most are made from fruit-- cherries, plums and pears in particular. The world-famous Schwarzwaelder Kirchwasser comes right from here.

Winzerstube or Weinstube: A Winzerstube is owned and run by the vintner and the wines there will be his own. The Weinstube can be owned by a vintner but also by a co-op. If by a vintner, the wines will be his; if by a co-op, the wines will come from several vintners in the town (or nearby area), as their grapes go to the co-op to be turned into wine and bottled there.

Isele's, below, is a cosy Weinstuben with stone walls and a simple wood stove to keep it warm.

Both Stuben can be similar to a Vesper Stube or to a Gasthaus and can be small or quite large and elegant. They are naturally found most often in the grape-growing areas. Schnaps is usually available but seldom beer. Food is always available and the menu will be according to the size or type of the Stuben (elegant or simple). Most Weinstuben or Winzerstuben are nicely decorated inside, often having wooden floors and wood panelling on the walls and ceiling.

Isele's is in our next village, about one kilometer away.  He is a vintner and serves his own wine and also sells it for those who wish to buy any to take home.  Frau Isele does the cooking, offering a small menu of both cold and warm dishes. 

 Below, Isele's Weinstuben at night.

Wine tastings, if at a vintner's stube, are quite often available, though it would normally be given before opening hours. We have gone to many wine tastings but usually right at the vintner's residence, where most have a tasting room in part of the house or next to it. The Winzergenossenschaft (wine co-0p) is open every day and one can just walk in and ask to sample some wines. We make a point, though, if sampling, to buy at least a couple of bottles, as the tasting is usually free.

Germany is one of the few countries whose wines are made from one particular grape. Most wines from our area never get exported anywhere as they sell out right at home or within the province. Some varieties of grapes and their wines include Muller Thurgau, from which the largest amount of white wine is produced (it's the locals' everyday white wine); Weissherbst, which is becoming very popular once again; some interest in it had declined over the past number of years, though not with me! It's my favourite everyday drinking wine; Weissburgunder (pinot blank); Grauburgunder (pinot gris); Spaetburgunder (pinot noir), from which the German red wine is produced.

Hans is beside the small bar area talking to Herr and Frau Isele.

In an article later on I will explain some of the ways to determine just what that bottle of German wine you have bought or would like to buy will be like, as German wine bottles tell you quite a lot on their labels. Drinking and eating in Germany is an enjoyable occasion and their eating establishments are varied; they are places to sit, relax and contemplate life's pleasures. So eat, drink and enjoy a bottle of German wine at home or in Germany! Zum wohl!

Friday, November 27, 2009

Gathering Places: Food, Drink and Friendship in a Gasthaus or Cafe

I've been writing about eating and drinking in Germany, particularly about our area of the Black Forest in Baden-Wuerttemberg. Many around the world know only the word "Germany" as that is the English translation for Deutschland. Here, it is called Deutschland, and only Deutschland, though their products say, "Made in Germany"!

I plan to write this in two parts as there is so much to show you about the various eating establishments. I will talk about the Gasthauses, restaurants, cafes, Vesperstuben and Weinstuben, the latter three in my next article or Post. So now, on to "Essen und Trinken" (eating and drinking) and some characteristics of the typical food and drinking establishments found here.

The picture above shows a Stammtisch at a typical Gasthaus, the Deutscher Hof, and one that we know well in Biederbach.  Hans is on the far right side; others are German friends with Herr Burger behind the bar. 
Gasthaus: This is perhaps the most important of all eating places in Germany, and not just in our area here. It is a place where one goes to eat, linger and to enjoy a glass of wine, beer or Schnaps; to meet with friends or the "locals" for discussions about politics or the latest news. (In France, this would be at a cafe.) The Gasthaus can be simple or elegant, is mostly family-run and might offer rooms for the night. Some advertise outside as follows: "Zimmerfrei" meaning rooms available. If they have rooms but all are booked, you will see the word: "Besetzt" (full).

On the right, the Stammtisch at the Kleiner Meierhof in Ettenheimweiler where the regulars sit and discuss the events of the day. 

A few serve warm food throughout the day, but generally the eating hours are from about 11 or 11.30 a.m. until about 2 or 2:30 p.m.; and in the evening, from about 6 until 9 p.m. This is flexible, depending on the Gasthaus. However, small meals can usually be had throughout the day, mainly cold offerings such as Schinken (ham), sald and cheese plates or Wurstsalat, a Baden specialty. A few other things such as an egg dish or Bratwurst is often available as well.

Unlike many North American eating places (other than in pubs or taverns), one can stop and have an alcoholic beverage in Germany without having to order something to eat, whether it is at a Gasthaus or at any of the other establishments. Our custom is to drive through our area on a sunny day and stop at one of our favourites for a glass of wine (me) and a beer (Hans). We sometimes do it on a miserable day as well as what can pick up the spirits more than getting out and talking to the Gasthaus owner or someone at the next table, doing the same as we are doing: getting away from the weather!

On the left, Herr Burger in the Gasthaus Deutscher Hof in Biederbach, where we go most weekends for fresh Pretzels.

At the top or bottom of a Gasthaus menu, it will nearly always say that service is included. That doesn't mean, though, that you shouldn't tip. I have read articles saying tipping isn't then necessary. But we and everyone we know tip about 10 per cent when we have a meal; if just a drink or two, we either round off the bill to the next Euro or give what we wish to give. Keep in mind that next time or the time after that you will be remembered. Eventually, if you go often enough, you know the owners and they know you. Also keep in mind that alcoholic beverages are not looked upon as tabu, but are readily available in all eating establishments ( grocery stores and supermarkets as well).

On the right, a group of our Canadian and German friends at the Stammtisch at the Gasthaus Krone in Allmannsweier

Nearly all Gasthauses, simple or elegant, have a Stammtisch (local's or regular's table). It is the large wooden table in the centre of the room, along the wall near the bar or against the fireplace. It is reserved for frequent customers, usually men from the town, but women are often welcome (as I have been), and, unless invited to sit there, one should choose another table.

The Stammtisch will never have a tablecloth and usually it will have a large lamp hanging directly above it. All other tables--nearly all Gasthauses cover them with linen tablecloths--unless with a sign "reserviert" on it, are free and you may sit wherever you wish. It is not unusual to have someone ask if they may join you when no empty tables are available. We ask that ourselves on occasion and often it ends up being an interesting evening. We have met some great people that way, exchanged addresses and kissed and hugged on departing (though I'm sure the wine and beer helped!). Many Germans speak English and others will try, even if only with a few words. Hand signals work just fine even without the language.

In summer, sit outside in their beer gardens as most will have one, usually near the door before you enter. The typical Gasthaus at times can also be called a Wirtschaft or a Gastaette (the latter doesn't usually have rooms available). Its atmosphere is unique, and other than Germany it will only be found in German-speaking countries such as Austria and Switzerland.

At left, a beautiful Cafe in Brettental, Freiamt, about 20 minutes south of us

Cafe: The cafe is known for its cakes and tortes. Normally you choose the cake or torte at the counter, as that is where they will be, behind glass; it will then be served to you at your table. You can, of course, order any you wish to take home with you and we have done that from time to time as we have a cafe at the bottom of our street. People sometimes ask if I make German cakes or tortes and my answer is always, "No, I can't make them half as good as those at the cafe or Conditorei, so I will continue to buy mine." (A Conditorei is the place that makes cakes and tortes, as a bakery is where they bake and sell bread.) The Conditorei quite often has tables within where you can have something sweet, made there.

You will often find a small menu on the cafe table and can order from that. Some typical items may include ice cream and various sundaes but also such things as a soup of the day, Wurstsalat (a salad of cold processed meat, some cheese and dressing), and maybe even Schnitzel. Cafes will usually have outdoor tables in the warm seasons, often right next to the sidewalk.

At right, the elegant Cafe at the front with a glassed case of freshly made cakes and tortes.

Cafes, too, can vary from simple to elegant and the cakes and tortes can vary from normal portion size to extravagant. One soon learns where the latter are! One of the best we've had was out in the country, up in the hills and just before going into the forest. It was a farm cafe. We have never seen such huge pieces of cake, though some we've had since then come close.

All cities will have several cafes, including Lahr, the nearest city to us (about 50,000 population and where the Canadian military was stationed for 40 years, until 1994). Generally, though, the smaller the town or village, the more enjoyable the cafe. Not that they'll be less busy, but they'll be less hectic--and the more cake or torte you'll be served!