Friday, February 26, 2010

Ash Wednesday's Pickled Herring and Bean Soup

After six or more weeks of celebrating Fastnacht, it is quiet everywhere.  Lent has begun and during this period few fests--if any--will go on.  I must add, though, that every year we are surprised to find a fest somewhere.  During this quiet pre-Easter period, in order to keep business going, Gasthauses frequently advertise special meals on the weekends, things such as Schlachtplatte (sauerkraut with sausages) and game--venison or Rot Hirsch (a very large reddish-coloured deer, similar to an elk in size).  Many take their annual holidays at this time--before Easter and the summer season get underway.  (A note:  I have been using the Canadian way of spelling and saying Gasthaus in the plural.  The German word and spelling is "Gasthaeuser.")

The Gasthof Engel in Doerlinbach at right

It was busy the last week prior to Lent with parades, dances and early-morning closings at various entertainment events.  On the last Sunday we drove to Doerlinbach (a 20 minute-drive) to watch a small, local parade.  It was different from most as it was strictly the town celebrating.  It wasn't fancy, though the town band led it with witches following.  Mothers and children walked along as well. 

While awaiting the start of the parade, we sat inside the Gasthaus Engel, where Hans had a Pils and I, a glass of Weissherbst (rose) wine.  Hans says that Uli pours the best Pils (beer) anywhere, though he also says that about the Gruenen Baum in Keppenbach, where Hans had a Vesper recently and I had Steak Madagaskar.  Both Gasthauses take a lot of care in making sure of a perfect head on the beer.

The perfect Pils!

The Engel is a family-run Gasthaus where we know the entire family:  Martin, the chef; Uli, his brother, who looks after the Gasthaus; their mother, Frau Grimm, who ran it with their father for many years; Martin's wife, Monika, who works in the kitchen with Frau Grimm, who still helps, and Martin and Monika's four children.

You'll note that the lettering on the Engel says "Gasthof Engel Pension" while the sign below, which stands outside the Gasthaus, calls it "Gasthaus Engel."  The sign is fairly new.  The word "Engel" means angel.


Uli serving our table.  He is proud of his Pils!  We were a group of six.

Martin and I and one of his famous steaks!  That's for another story.

At left, Moms and their children in the parade.
 Below right, the band.

The picture shows a view of the town and the crowd below the church in Doerlinbach.

Rosenmontag is always the biggest day of Fastnacht, with parades in many towns and cities, including a large one in Freiburg, 30 minutes south of us.  On that day, stores and businesses close between noon hour and about 2 p.m.  Our bank closes for the entire day.                                                                                In northern Germany, the parades in Mainz, Koeln (Cologne) and Duesseldorf are shown on national TV.  They are colourful, with thousands of onlookers and thousands in the parades as well.  Candy and chocolates are thrown out to the crowds, and Schnaps is offered from the floats in the parade to adults lining the streets (another good reason to go to the parades!). 
Fasching or Karneval up north dates back to the 1700s and 1800s.  Here in the south, Fastnacht dates back to the Middle Ages.  Thousands of wrapped candies are tossed to the children in our area. 

No pancakes here for Shrove Tuesday as in North America or Great Britain.  Instead, it is more parades and the "burning of the witch" in some towns.  That supposedly gets rid of the evil spirits before Lent.  A huge bonfire of branches is lit, with a "witch" facsimile being thrown in.  Hard to imagine what it was like back in the 1700s and 1800s when that happened to real people in various countries.  Afterwards, everyone heads to the Gasthauses for one final night of revelry.

Aschermittwoch or Ash Wednesday officially ends Fastnacht and begins Lent.  The streets are quiet on that Wednesday, with many nursing their heads I have no doubt and also tired out from all the late nights.

Our group of German and Canadian friends traditionally meet for lunch at the Krone in Allmannsweier on Ash Wednesday, with traditional German Lenten dishes served that day.  Ellie, who runs the Gasthaus with her husband, Peter, is also the cook.  She offered pickled herring in a sour cream sauce and Bohnensuppe (bean soup), both typical dishes at the end of Fastnacht.  She also offered Bockwurst (a big fat sausage that looks like a chubby wiener).

Shown below, Ellie serving some of our group.  Even though she was suffering from a painful toothache, she maintained her usual friendly and pleasant manner and managed to prepare our food as well as ever.

A few other dishes are also traditional, such as Matjes--herring fillets from immature herring.  They are very slightly pickled and salted (almost raw).  They are one of Holland's favourite national fast food snacks.  They can also be bought in Germany, but they are not as popular as the regular pickled herring.

Brathering (fried herring), minus heads, are fried in a batter and then pickled and preserved.  These come in shallow tins in Germany and are available everywhere.

Another favourite is Rollmops, where a cucumber pickel is placed inside a pickled herring fillet, rolled up and held together with toothpicks.

In the old town of Lunenburg in Nova Scotia, settled by Germans in the mid 1700s, herring pieces in a jar with slices of onion, vinegar, pickling spice and a little sugar is known as Solomon Gundy.  This is available in supermarkets in Nova Scotia.

Below, a plate with pickled herring in a sour cream sauce and accompaniments

On this past Ash Wednesday, the pickled herring in a sour cream sauce was served with boiled potatoes (Hans says to buy the best you can find, such as Yukon Gold), sliced, raw onions, apple slices and a dill pickle.  The sauce, of course, is important as is using sour cream for it.  Most of our friends ordered this, including Hans, who said it was one of the best he's had.  The reason for eating pickled herring, it is said, is that the salt and vinegar restore the electrolyte salts from over-indulgence the night or nights before!

Below, a bowl of Bohnensuppe (bean soup) with a wiener on top.


Several ordered the Bohnensuppe, which is served everywhere during Fastnacht and Lent.  It should be hot and well spiced.  It can also include peas and lentils.  The classic is made from fresh vegetables, kidney beans, Speck (pieces of ham) and a beef or vegetable broth.  It is served with a wiener on top of the soup (or sometimes a Bockwurst instead of a wiener).  Fresh hearty bread is served alongside it.

I had neither of the above dishes.  Three of us had the Bockwurst, served with potato salad and Feldsalat.  It, too, was excellent.  See it below. 


     Ellie taking another order.
By now, we were paraded out and getting weary, and though we enjoyed it all over the weeks, it was time to settle down with no more celebrating.  There is always a bit of a let-down at the end of Fastnacht for those involved in it, but we are looking forward to Easter, fests and spring.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Narri, Narro!

Baden-Wuerttemberg is Alemannisch, so most people born in this province speak the Alemannisch dialect--as well, of course, as Deutsch/German.  Some children speak only Alemannisch until they go to school; there they learn, speak and study only Hochdeutsch.  If you are a visitor or have moved here from elsewhere in Germany, it is often impossible to understand what is being said as many use Alemannisch as their language of choice.

A brochure from the town of Muenchweier written in Alemannisch.

Narri, Narro is the traditional greeting during Fastnacht.  (Narren means fools.)  Narri is a female fool and Narro is a male fool.  These two words will be sung out at every parade or upon entering a Gasthaus during Fastnacht.

Schmutziger Dunschdig (Alemannisch) or Schmutziger Donnerstag (Deutsch) starts off the final week of Fastnacht with the "Hemdglunker-Umzug" (night shirt parade).  Dirty Thursday--as most Canadians here call it (schmutzig meaning dirty)--is the last Thursday before Lent, this year on February 11th.  On that night, kids and parents, the young and older dress in various forms of white shirts and gowns and parade through the streets, usually led by one or more bands.

Below, a small boy next to a fireman.

Below right, a mom and young daughter

Tradition is that "Wieber" or Frauen (women) are free to do as they wish on Dirty Thursday!  Some do, no doubt, as the day and night belong to them.  Men wearing ties generally have them cut off by the Wieber. (Hans always wore his worst tie to work on that day.)  Everyone--men, women and children--eventually ends up in one of the local Gasthauses after the parade to continue the celebration into the early hours of the morning.  From then on until Fastnacht night itself (the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday), the celebrations get bigger and louder and more rambunctious. 
Below, a view of the Gasthaus decorated for Fastnacht.

This year we joined the celebrations early at the Gasthaus Rebstock in Muenchweier.  We arrived there in late afternoon and had supper while awaiting the parade and the first of the revelers.  About an hour later a group that meets there each Thursday arrived for supper as well.  In good weather, many of them have a walk first.  All were in their late 80s. 
Below, two pictures showing some of the crowd inside, including a group of older people and the Stammtisch at the back right corner.

It was a snowy night and chilly, so we wondered if anyone would want to walk along the streets.  At sharp 7 p.m., we wondered no more.  A long line of white-clad celebrants walked down the middle of the street past the Gasthaus and on to the town hall.  They would eventually pour into the Gasthaus where the large party room was set up with tables and chairs and with music to come.                            
Below, a glimpse of the night shirt parade passing along the street and one of the participants outside the Gasthaus.

During these evenings, Gasthauses usually have a smaller menu than normal to make it easier to serve the numbers of people who eventually come inside. Hans ordered a Strasburger Wurstsalat and I, a Zigeuner Schnitzel.  The latter is pork Schnitzel (no bread crumbs on it) with a delicious sauce that includes sweet peppers, mushrooms and onions.  Wurstsalat is a specialty in Baden-Wuerttemberg and tastes differently everywhere you go even though it is basically the same.  It is the dressing that makes the difference.  It is made with meat (a type of cold cut) sliced into strips, with onions, spices, vinegar and oil. The Strasburger part of it is the cheese, also cut into strips and spread over the top of the salad.  Without the cheese, it is simply called Wurstsalat.  It is accompanied by a hearty bread.

Two views of Hans's Strasburger Wurstsalat

Some people take this final week off work and go out every night.  Businesses sometimes close for the entire week as so many of their workers aren't at their freshest the following morning!  Hans and I celebrated up a storm about 25 years ago or so.  We didn't take time off work except for one day, so we felt pretty worn out by the end of the week. One day my boss came into my office and asked if I'd been hit by a steam roller!  I felt like it!   That was after an all-night early-morning parade.  We got to bed at 5 a.m. and got up again at 7:15 a.m.  Needless to say we'd also had a few glasses of wine or beer during that night and morning.  Now we leave it to others to celebrate and wake up the next morning with a headache or worse!

Narri, Narro from the waitresses at the Rebstock Gasthaus.

Awaiting the start of the evening's fun.

Dressed for the occasion.

As I write, it is Rosenmontag, the biggest day of all during Fastnacht, with many parades everywhere.  Tomorrow is the last day when, in our area, some of the towns enact "the burning of the witch," with huge bonfires built in the centre of the town.  Supposedly that will get rid of any bad spritis before Lent begins on Ash Wednesday.  I'll write on these and our weekend next time and will include a couple of the traditional dishes served.  Narri, Narro!

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

All About Schinken--The German Way with Ham

Germany has many specialties as a whole, and here in Baden-Wuerttemberg they are numerous.  This province is the second most popular tourist destination in Germany and is renowned for its cuisine.  Many visitors come to Baden on holiday for that reason alone; also, of course, for the beautiful scenery of the Schwarzwald--the famous Black Forest.  (Berlin is the number one destination, as Germany's capital city.)  Of the 190 or so restaurants awarded Michelin stars in Germany, 52 of them are in Baden-Wuerttemberg. 

Today, though, I will talk about a specialty that is more often ordered in a Vesperstube or Gasthaus than in an elegant starred restaurant, even though it might also be available in one.  That specialty is Schinken (ham).  Classical "geraeucherte Schinken" (classical smoked ham) is a traditional German food specialty.

The picture at right shows one of my books on German cooking, its land and its people.  The lady on the cover ran a Gasthaus about 25 years ago, and that is where we met her. She was 80 years old at that time.

Hans is my expert on Schinken, so I went to him to get the facts.  Choosing a properly fed pig is the most important basis when it comes to eventually having good Schinken or ham.  Unless the Schinken is produced by a large manufacturer, where they do the smoking and curing throughout the year, it is generally produced only during the cold months of the year by private farmers.  It will keep in a cool, dry room for up to three months.  Keeping it in the fridge has a tendency to turn it salty, though it will still be fine to eat.

The picture below is of one of my cookbooks and shows a large piece of Schinken, white asparagus and wine.

Schinken is cured with salt and various spices for a minimum of three to four weeks, with each producer (or farmer) having his own well-guarded recipe.  After the curing, it is then cold-smoked with various types of hard wood, spruce boughs and spruce cones--and, at times, with sawdust--for four to six weeks.  It is then air dried for up to three months, so it is a lengthy process.

A good Schwarzwaelder Schinken (Black Forest ham) is usually recognized by an almost black outside surface.  Good Schinken Speck should be two thirds lean and one third fat.  Speck is normally eaten with the fingers along with bread--or used as one would bacon, frying it to add to a recipe.  In the old days, the saying went as follows:  no fork, no butter, no napkins!  (One was expected to wipe the fingers on his or her bread!) 

The traditional way to serve Schwarzwaelder Schinken is as a piece of approximately 150 to 200 grams in weight and served on a wooden board with a special sharp Vesper knife only. You then slice it thinly into small pieces and eat it with your fingers, accompanied by bread.

The bread served with Schinken is often baked in special wood-fired bread baking ovens.  In North America, the normal bread found there will not be suitable.  Look for a German baker who bakes the traditional German hearty bread.

Bread and Broetchen are featured on the cover of this cookbook.

A friend of ours some years ago ordered Schinken.  It was served on a wooden board along with a sharp knife and some rye bread.  Mini placed the Schinken on the bread, folded it as for a sandwich and began to eat--except, she found it hard to chew!  We watched her struggle with it.  It's not that the smoked Schinken was tough!  It was too thick for a sandwich and should have been sliced into small pieces and eaten with the fingers.  Her remark at that moment:  "What in heck are they serving in this country anyway?"  (It was a somewhat stronger version!)  After Hans realized Mini was struggling with her piece of Schinken, he explained how it should be eaten.  We still laugh about that.

Shown below, a piece of Schinken that Hans had at home. 

Hans has had many discussions over the years on how to cut the Schinken:  Do you cut it from the fat towards the lean side or from the lean side towards the fat? 

He has had people on both sides vehemently take a stand:  Some say definitively that one cuts from the fat downwards.  The others say, "No, no, no, it's from the lean side towards the fat!"  Hans cuts it from the fat side downwards towards the lean  side.  He says that makes more sense as the fatty part of the Schinken will not tear away with that method.  That makes sense to me as well as it is easier cutting away from the fat than into it.

Hans demonstrating how to slice a piece of Schinken.  Be sure to cut the rind away from the fat first.

Most people drink beer with Schinken--though a few prefer wine--and along with it a glass of Kirschwasser or other Schnaps, which is good for the digestion.  (Try it after a heavy meal; it works.)

A Vesper usually consists of cold dishes, though egg dishes and toasts--various toppings and cheese atop the bread and then broiled--can be offered as well as Bratwurst.  The word "Vesper" means a late afternoon or early evening small, but hearty meal.  In former days--and still the case for some families--Mittagessen (noon dinner) was the main meal of the day.  The evening meal, or Vesper, was smaller, perhaps a bowl of soup, but normally some Wurst (cold cuts, ham)--including Schinken and sausages--some cheese and bread.  As most Gasthauses don't serve warm meals until 6 p.m., many people order a Vesper after an afternoon walk.

This past Sunday we drove to  the Gruenen Baum (the Green Tree) in Keppenbach, 35 minutes southeast of us. 

An inside view of the Gasthaus, at left.

Hans always has a Vesper there and swears it is the best in the area. 

Below, another view with our table in the foreground.

The Vesper itself comes on a round board with a smaller board on which to place what you wish to eat at the moment.  Not all Gasthauses or Vesperstuben serve it that way, but they do at the Gruenen Baum.  (I always have steak with a spicy and delicious sauce, along with her excellent Pommes Frites, also the best in the area.)

The two pictures below show what Hans was served. 
Above:  Note the mustard in the small pottery dish, butter on the lettuce leaf, the halved cooked egg, the pickle, onions, and several types of Wurst, with thinly sliced Schinken in the forefront.  The glass of Kirschwasser on the right and my wine pitcher, holding Weissherbst wine, in the background.  And note, too, the large basket of farm-type bread.

Below, The Wirtin's (owner's) perfectly poured Pils and a large piece of Schinken on the round wooden board that Hans will slice into small pieces on his smaller board.

Each Schinken produced, whether by a large commercial producer or by a farmer, will be distinctly different in taste and texture.  Look for very firm, dark red Schinken with an intense smoky aroma when wishing to buy your own.  Apart from smoked Schinken (the classic), there are many varieties, including cooked, slightly smoked and air dried.  (The Italian Parma--prosciutto--remains raw and unsmoked; it is salted only and then air dried for 15 to 18 months.) 

Smoked Schinken types are usually differentiated as Black Forest, Westfalia and Holstein.  Bavarian and Austrian Schinken are somewhat similar. Westfalian and Holstein Schinken are usually served thinly sliced on slices of buttered bread.  In general, the Black Forest types of Schinken have a more intense taste than the others, which are somewhat milder.  

Below, a huge Vesper celebrating Hans's birthday with family and friends in Keppenbach on another occaasion.

For those who love Schinken, visit the Schwarzwald and try it at different Gasthauses along the way.  Be prepared to take some with you when you leave, though, as the servings are generous.  Hans always takes a good quarter to half home with him.

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