Monday, April 26, 2010

Special Celebrations and Get-Togethers

Each year, on one of our birthdays, we go to the Hotel-Restaurant Schwarzer Adler for a special evening.  This year was no exception.  The birthday celebration this time was mine.

The Schwarzer Adler in mid March

We had driven down to Oberbergen, the small town in which the restaurant is located in the Kaiserstuhl, to reserve a table  a week prior to my birthday.  Not that we couldn't have phoned, but we prefer booking in person.  That is always part of the enjoyment beforehand.  One passes through some lovely wine villages and over some steep grapevine-terraced hills that comprise this slate covered area that is known as the Kaiserstuhl (literally translated it means the emperor's chair).  It was formed by an erupting volcano many eons ago.  It isn't far, just 35 minutes southwest of us.

 Below, the small, medieval walled town of Burgheim.  It is located just a few kilometers from Oberbergen.  I will write about this town and others another time.

Below, later in March, with a pause amidst spring-blooming bushes and trees in the vineyards

 The Kaiserstuhl is an area slightly northwest of Freiburg--a university city of about 200,000--and rises like a mountain spur from the valley around it.  It is the warmest area in Germany and is renowned for its wines, fruit and picturesque villages.  Most grape vines are planted facing south and as you drive along the narrow, curving roads, the terraced vineyards almost surround you, some below and some above, depending on where you are at any given time.  The Romans, it is believed, planted the first grape vines there over 2,000 years ago on their way north.

The Kaiserstuhl is not only well known for its wine but also for its fine cuisine.  You'll find many excellent restaurants and Gasthaeuser in the towns scattered over this region and any of them can be reached within minutes of another.  Many of those restaurants own vineyards and thus offer their own wines.  Oberbergen, in the heart of the Kaiserstuhl, has been a Weinort (wine town) for hundreds of years and is well known for its wines.  The Schwarzer Adler in Oberbergen is as well. 

Franz Keller, who inherited a more simple Gasthaus from his father many years ago, turned it into one of the finest hotel-restaurants in the Kaiserstuhl and, in fact, in this part of Germany.  He also turned it into a wine operation with the largest restaurant wine cellar in southern Germany.  His son, Fritz, took over the restaurant when his father died two years ago and is upholding the tradition of what is the oldest Gasthaus in the Kaiserstuhl.  (The first mention of a Gasthaus on this site was in the middle 1400s.)  He headed the vineyards and the wine making for some years--still an important part of their business--before he and his wife began running the hotel-restaurant.  The restaurant and the winery stock many of the finest Bordeaux and Burgundies and, as well, their own well-known dry whites and reds.  If wished, you can buy their wines at their small store beside the Gasthaus.

Below, I am standing at the main entrance to the Gasthaus 

I first enjoyed going to the Schwarzer Adler in the mid 1970s when I lived in the Canadian military community in Lahr with my husband and family.  The restaurant at that time was a Michelin 2-star.  It became my husband's and my favourite.

During those years, the maitre d'hotel was quite a character.  He had traveled the world, working in various restaurants, so had many stories to tell.  We had gotten to know him, and on each visit we received special service.  Unfortunately, I no longer remember his name, but I do remember that he was outgoing and would try to talk us into a wine he thought was extra-fine--though not necessarily extra expensive.  My sister Anne's then partner was most unhappy when they went there for lunch (on my recommendation) during a visit to Germany in the mid 1970s.  That same maitre d' hotel tried to talk Michael into a particular wine, one he did not wish.  Michael became annoyed.  He did not enjoy his lunch that day!  On our own visits there, we took it all with a grain of salt and just enjoyed the repartee back and forth, sometimes taking his suggestion and sometimes not. 

Below, one of the dining rooms with a glimpse of our table in the forefront

During that same era, my husband's Commanding Officer, Gerry, was not sure he wanted to go to the restaurant, as he thought it was too expensive.  But then, he usually suggested one just as expensive himself, such as the Ritter in Durbach (also a two-star restaurant at that time) or the Hirschen in Glottertal.  Five couples (the five men all worked at the same unit at Canadian Forces Base Lahr) got together each month and outdid themselves finding special Gasthaeuser or fine restaurants in which to dine on those occasions.  Each month, one couple chose the restaurant and the husband chose the wine for the evening.  We finally talked Gerry into going to the Schwarzer Adler by picking that restaurant for one of our monthly get togethers.  The other three men were on our side!  The women were, too, including Peggy, Gerry's wife.

Below, the head waiter is curing the wine glasses with the sommelier (wine stewart) looking on

We had a beautiful dinner that evening in the 70s.  Though that was long ago now, I well remember what Peggy ordered.  Peggy asked for lamb.  When she ordered it, she asked for French fries instead of the Kartoffel gratin (potatoes gratin) that accompanied the lamb.   Our maitre d' (yes, the same one) then said, with eyebrows slightly raised:  "Madam," he said, "you can have French fries anywhere, but not at the Schwarzer Adler!"  Peggy, being the nice person she was, just smiled and agreed.  I'm sure she was pleased she did as the gratin was outstanding.  The lamb was so plentiful that it was impossible for her to eat it all.  It had come on a large platter surrounded by fresh vegetables.  When the maitre d' asked Peggy if he could pass it around to the rest of us, I took a little.  It was superb.  (I don't remember my own choice that night, though it might have been duck, as I have that whenever it is offered and I have had it there.)

The picture at right shows Herr Pfingsttag, the maitre d'hotel for the past 20 years or so, speaking to Hans.

Several years after I had returned to Germany to work and live, Hans and I went to the Schwarzer Adler for the first time since those 1970s' days.  That occasion was also to celebrate a special birthday of mine.  That was 15 years ago and we've gone just about every year since.  (French fries are still not part of their special menu and as much as I like them myself, I much prefer their potato gratin, Roesti when they have it (Swiss-style Bratkartoffeln) or croquettes when having a special dinner.)

That maitre d'hotel of the 1970s is long gone from the restaurant, but the present maitre d' hotel, whom we've gotten to know in these past years, always remembers us and makes sure we get a good table.  Another reason for reserving in person.  Hans has had many conversations with Herr Pfingsttag who is Alsatian and has been at the Schwarzer Adler for over 20 years.

Another view of the dining room below left

For the past number of years the Schwarzer Adler  has been a one-star Michelin restaurant.  The food is as good as ever, although not as generous in the servings as in earlier days--but certainly enough.  It is beautifully decorated with oil paintings, flowers in large bowls, magnificent draperies at the windows, wood-paneling on the walls and wooden beams overhead.  The snow-white tablecloths and napkins, gleaming silverware and wine glasses all make for a wonderful relaxing atmosphere.  The only word for it:  Gemuetlich!

We usually order from the Feinschmeckermenue (gourmet menu), though in the 1970s none of us did.  Then, we ordered a la carte.  For a special occasion--and going only once a year means it is--we order the five- to seven-course menu and spend about four hours enjoying the meal, the wine and the ambience.  We keep saying we'll go again before long and order a la carte; perhaps we shall, but then, the time goes by quickly and the next year always arrives before we know it.

This year we ordered the five-course Feinschmeckermenue, our head waiter being a young man from northern Germany who had finished his training four years ago and was now a full-fledged Oberkellner (head waiter).  Herr Felix Wallenhorst was full of good humour and went out of his way to please us. (He is pictured at right.)  I started with a glass of Sekt (German-style Champagne) and Hans, a beer.

Hans chose a bottle of white wine for the first part of our meal, one from the area, a Mueller Thurgau, the most-planted grape in Baden-Wuerttemberg.  We usually don't choose that wine, but this was an older vintage, from the area, and a Kabinet (second grade up in the German wine-quality rating system).

For the main course, Hans chose a bottle of red, a 2001 Beaujolais Villages, recommended by Paul Bocuse, the renowned three-star chef and food writer in France.  (One of our favourite Bordeaux wines we had here for the first time on another occasion was a Chateau Cos d'Estournel.  Hans bought a case of it sometime later at a wine fair in France to enjoy at home, at which time Bordeaux wines were more reasonably priced.)

The picture above is of the Beaujolais we had with our main course.  This was decanted.

Our meal started with three various canapes, served separately, all of those "on the house."  An assortment of fresh bread and butter in small dishes accompanied the canapes and the following first two courses.  Below, freshly made cheese sticks, my Sekt and Hans' beer.

The first course was Lachs (salmon) with melon.  See below.

The second course was Rotbarbe (ocean perch) with a green asparagus sauce; the skin was crisp and the sauce delicious.

Hans' main course was beef fillet; mine, lamb with a Krauter (herb) and Riesling wine sauce.  Excellent.  (The lamb was offered on the special menu, but the restaurant is always willing to substitute if not to your liking, thus Hans had the beef instead.)  I forgot by that point to take pictures as we were too busy enjoying our food!

After our main course came Brie cheese with a filling which included nuts and served with French bread.


Our last course was dessert, a superb frozen raspberry concoction with a bombe on top, decorated especially for me because of my birthday.

At the very end, we were served a plate of petits fours "on the house."  One could say we were more than satisfied.

A specialty listed in the Michelin Guide in 1974 was their goose liver terrine.  I had never ordered it.  (We don't eat Alsatian goose liver pate due to the method in which the geese are force-fed.)  In 1995, Hans and I ordered their specialty of that time, the duck terrine; it was excellent.  The sommelier recommended as a wine to serve with these terrines a Gewuerztraminer Auslese, trocken (dry) which was superb, one we ordered for several years.  (For a pate, we suggest that same wine, perhaps not an Auslese--meaning selected very ripe grapes--but at least a Gewuerztraminer Spaetlese, trocken--the grade reflecting superior quality.)  One of the specialties listed in the 2010 guide is a fish dish called St. Petersfisch (type of sea or ocean flounder) with apple and caper ragout and beurre blanc.  We'll try it sometime.

A small story about wine on another of our previous dinners there:  Hans had ordered an old vintage bottle of Bordeaux.  The sommelier decanted it and Hans tasted it.  He said he thought it was slightly off, but not corky.  The sommelier told us he would let Franz Keller know that.  When Herr Keller came to our table, he tasted it and agreed with Hans:  it was past its peak and he apologized.  He invited us to go back to the bar after our meal for a special drink on the house, which we did.

Hans believes--and so do I--that when a dinner or a wine isn't right, one should say something to the owner or waiter.  Not every time you think it isn't up to par, but when you know something is definitely wrong.  We also believe that one should compliment a chef, waiter or owner for good food and service when it is above the norm or after a very enjoyable dinner.  In our experience, both have proven to be worth it.  Most chefs and owners do take both criticism and compliments to heart as they have pride in their business and wish to please their guests.  It can help to improve the service and food for future guests and you will be remembered next time you go--with a smile.

This picture is of Hans and I one year earlier, in March 2009 - we're almost the same!

The Schwarzer Adler is a restaurant for a special occasion--or all occasions.  Across the street, their Rebstock Winzerhaus is a very pleasant Gasthaus with reasonable prices and a regional cuisine.  We haven't yet eaten there, but we have stopped in during an afternoon drive for a drink.  We look forward to having a meal there in the future.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Badischer Flammenkuchen - Tartes Flambees

In mid March we were invited to a 60th birthday celebration.  Monika had decided that for this special occasion she would invite her friends and family for a Flammenkuchen evening.  Translated literally into English it means a flaming cake.  It is, however, more like a pie or tart with a thin crust, baked in a very hot oven, with burning wood just below the oven in which it is baked.  As with many such words in various languages, it doesn't translate well, so the original name is best.

Flammenkuchen with Grieben (crackly pork rind), at right, baking in the oven

Both in Baden-Wuerttemberg, Germany and in Alsace, France Flammenkuchen (in German) or Tartes Flambees (in French) is a specialty.  In the Badisch/Alemannisch dialect, it is called Flammkuchen (sometimes Flammkuchle); in the Alsatian dialect, Flammekueche.  You'll find it at almost every outdoor Fest held throughout the year.  Many Gasthauses and Vesperstuben also offer it on their menus.  Sometimes it will be served by the piece (at Fests) and sometimes as meal-size on a board (Gasthauses).  Tonight, we knew, it would be served on several boards and with different toppings.  It would be "all you can eat and drink!"  We had been to this farm before, so we knew we were in for a fun evening and for more food than we could possibly eat.

A piece of Flammenkuchen with Schinken (bacon) and Zwiebeln (onions)

Herr and Frau Killius are the hosts and owners at this former farm--both of whom are heading into their 80s--and they have been doing this for quite a few years.  We had been here a few times in the past--with both Canadian and German friends, including my sister, Carol, who lives in New Hampshire and was visiting us from the States.

The Killius house, below, dates back to 1696 and is one of the oldest in the town of Nonnenweier.

The house we were going to in Nonnenweier is an old half-timbered farmhouse the kind you see in the towns close to the Rhine, many of which date back to the 1700s or earlier.  They are similar to those you see on the other side of the river, in Alsace, some of which go back to the 1500s.  Nearly all were at one time small farms and some still are.  To the side of the Killius house is a room with its own entry from outside which is used for these evenings.  It is filled with long tables and benches, cases of beer and mineral water (wine is stored in the wine cellar below), a couple of counters and, tonight, flowers on the tables.  

Opposite it, outside, is the bake house.  The picture above shows it on the left, facing the house. The door into the "party" room is to the left of the main door of the house and left of the bench.

The plaque shows the year the house was built and then renovated:  1874, 1922, 1975 and 1994.  The names of the Killius family members who renovated it are carved on the sign as well.

The picture, below right, is of the bake house, showing Frau Killius through the small window (the sign:  Unser Taeglich Brot --Our Daily Bread)

Tonight, Frau Killius and her sister--who lives in the Alsace and came specifically to help--would make the Flammenkuchen for 30 of us.  I went into the small stone bake house that is just off the courtyard to watch the preparations and baking.  The brick oven was heating up.  Flammenkuchen need a very high temperature to bake until they are crisp but not hard on the bottom and cooked through but not overdone on top.  Timing is important.  

The two of them were busy, whipping together the dough and rolling it out.  Once the dough is rolled to the proper size and thinness, the sour cream or creme fraiche (or a combination of both) is spread over it.  The toppings are added to it and it is then ready for baking.  That evening we would be served an assortment, with five or six different toppings.  Each Flammenkuchen would be made and baked as it was needed.

Frau Killius working with the dough and spreading the cream in the picture below it.

The crust is made from a pizza-style dough (called Brotteig in German) and rolled until very thin.  (Flour in Canada and the U.S. is not suitable, though a good pizza dough recipe should work.  If possible, buy some hard flour at a health food or "Country" store.)  Once the Flammenkuchen is ready for the oven, a special long-handled shovel is slipped beneath it in order to slide the Flammenkuchen into the oven.  The shovel is then carefully removed.

Below, the brick oven heating up (door on it closed) and two shovels--leaning against the oven--including the long-handled one

 The picture below shows Frau Killius adding the Grieben (pork rind) topping

The ovens are called Holzofens, because of the burning of wood inside them (Holz is German for wood).  Inside the oven floor are special flat stones on which a suitable amount of wood is placed (more added as needed) and then lit and left there until the proper temperature of the oven is reached (very hot, as high as 500F/260C).  Then, the wood is pushed to the back of the stove where it drops down into a container to continue heating the oven.  The baking surface is then cleaned with a specially-designed broom.  It is now ready for the Flammenkuchen to be placed inside to bake (the crust is placed directly on the oven floor).   

This is how bread was baked in earlier days and it still is at many farms in the Schwarzwald (Black Forest) and also at farms in small towns in this region. When seeing a sign outside a farmhouse advertising Holzofen Brot, that will be homemade bread baked in a Holzofen.  Stop and buy a loaf and perhaps other homemade products as well, including Flammenkuchen (if lucky), jellies or jams.

Flames rising from below at the back of the oven with the Flammenkuchen baking and almost ready.

Flammenkuchen should bake for about ten minutes or so.  Once baked, the shovel will be used to remove it from the oven.  It will then be served on wooden boards.  Most of these ovens are made of brick or stone and they are generally found inside small stone buildings beside or near the house.  We've seen portable ones at Fests, small heavy ovens that bake well.  If wishing to try baking one in North America, bake it as you would a pizza, using a very hot oven and watching it carefully.

Frau Killius' sister serving a board of Flammenkuchen.  Each person takes a piece as the boards go around during the evening.

As the evening progressed, we were served one after the other of the Flammenkuchen with their various toppings.  The one we loved best was the Grieben (crackly pork rind), but we liked them all, including the most common ones served everywhere:  Schinken Speck (bacon bits) with thinly sliced onions, and another with Schinken Speck only.  Along with all the slices of Flammenkuchen we could eat, as much wine, beer and soft drinks we could drink were available throughout the evening.  As we finished the last bite of almost the last Flammenkuchen, the lights were turned out and Frau Killius, using Calvados, flambeed the Apfel Flammenkuchen, the apple dessert being a perfect ending to the meal.

Frau Killius below, readying the Apfel Flammenkuchen

 Frau Killius and her sister talking to some of the guests, and underneath that picture, Herr Killius and Monika

After everyone had eaten all they possibly could, Herr and Frau Killius disappeared briefly to change their working clothes for German Trachten (traditional dress).  Out came the accordion and we were treated to an hour of Herr Killius playing and Frau Killius singing.  She sang mostly German folk songs but also many well-known beer garden songs, with everyone holding arms, swaying to the music and singing along, a fitting end to a lovely evening.

Herr and Frau Killius entertaining us, their guests

Flammenkuchen at Isele's Weinstube

A couple of weeks later, we joined a small group of WWII German veterans at Isele's Weinstube in Munchweier.  On that occasion, I ordered Flammenkuchen topped with Muensterkaese (Munster cheese).  It is, I think, both Hans' and my favourite topping.  Munster cheese in North America is not the same as Muensterkaese in Europe.  It may be called the same, but it is not.  Here, it is a soft cheese with an orange rind and is quite odorous (to say the least!).

Below left, my Muensterkaese Flammenkuchen.  On the right, a couple of us about to enjoy our choices.

I normally am not a fan of Munster cheese (Hans loves it at any time), but as a topping and baked in the oven, it is delicious.  I have it occasionally at the Kleiner Meierhof in Ettenheimweiler as well, where Sylvia and Erich also serve it.  We had actually told Erich about it, as we had had it elsewhere first, and they then put it on their menu.  Tonight, Sunday, where we had gone for supper, a couple near us had ordered just that.

Straussenwirtschaft and more Flammenkuchen

This past Friday evening, we joined friends at a Straussenwirtschaft that is not far from where we live.  The "Strausse" is a special seasonal type of Stube.  They are advertised on the road or nearby with a witch's type broom standing on its end, with the broom part itself standing upright and with streamers flying off from it to showcase it. (They are also advertised in the local papers.)  When the broom is up, the "Strausse" is open.  You see these brooms in Austria as well in the fall when the new wine is ready; there, the vintners' Stuben are called Heuriger.

The Straussenwirtschaft below, with Hans in the background.  The broom is up and the "Strausse" is open. 

The Straussenwirtschaften here are owned by vintners who have the right to sell their own wine and food in their own establishment for three months a year.  Most are open for six weeks in the spring and six weeks in the fall.  On Friday evening, our friend Helga ordered a Flammenkuchen with a mozarella and tomato topping.  She said it was excellent.  I noted that a few others in the room ordered it as well.

Helga's shown below, with mozarella and tomato topping .  This by the way is for one person!

Later, Wolfgang ordered one made with apples, though one without the Calvados flambe; instead, he ordered one with cinnamon only.  I had a couple of pieces and it was delicious, sweet but not over sweet, reminiscent of apple pie with cinnamon in it.

Wolfgang's with apple and cinnamon.  This is also for one, but it is easily shared as is Helga's.

Straussenwirtschaften are well worth visiting as they are usually filled with people in a great mood, dress is always casual and most of these, including the one we went to on Friday evening, are cosy, warm and filled with atmosphere.  In German, the word to describe them is "gemuetlich."  (Gemuetlich is another example of a single German word that would take several words in English to say the same thing.)

The only downside of the "Strausse":  they do take away a lot of business from the regular Gasthauses who make their whole living in that manner, whereby the Straussenwirtschaften make their main living from farming and/or grapes.  A "Strausse" is a sideline for them.  Regardless, though, they are popular and they offer good food and a pleasant and memorable sojourn.

Below, an inside view of the Straussenwirtschaft we visited.  
Every table was taken.  Hans is at the bar to buy a loaf of their homemade bread.

Below, the Wirt (owner) entertaining the crowd