Follow by Email

Saturday, June 30, 2012

Not Evil, Medieval – All’s Fair at the Fair

Lichtenberg


Leather mask, handmade, hand painted

Entry to the castle



"Spinning wheels got to go 'round..."



I know the question that’s burning in your soul.  You there. Yeah, you, the one waving your hand like a battle flag.  What does medieval mean???

Medieval is usually spoken of (in polite society, e.g. those that don’t still eat with their hands and throw bones at the yapping dogs) as the time between antiquity and the Renaissance. So put the years between the fall of Rome and when the lights came back on, from about 476 A.D and the fall of Constantinople in 1453.  There was no light switch.  More like a lingering sunrise that took a couple of hundred years.

But, we usually don’t think of the Middle Ages that way.  We picture knights, fair ladies, jousting, feasts, colorful tents. We overlook lords and serfs, a complete lack of physical hygiene, rotting teeth, women’s bodies worn out from having a score of babies, and death by the age of 45.  Hollywood does wonderful things to reality.

Camelot!  Hey, that’s the ticket.  Utopia, mostly, except for evil knights, etc.  Ok, let’s go with Utopia, the quest for the Holy Grail and stuff like that.  We’re talking gooooood times.

I went to a place like that on Saturday at the 6th annual Medieval Market at the Lichtenberg Market near Kusel.  (Burgstraße 12, 66871 Thallichtenberg).  Lots of lords, ladies, colorful tents, great food and a host of ancient handicrafts.  Friendly crowds.  In short, the Middle Ages, as they should have been.  Jugglers.  Sword fighting.  Blacksmithing.  Leather crafts.  Shoes with turned up toes.  Damsels in long dresses, with pretty smiles and braided hair.

This market is gone until next year, but look around and ask at any tourist office and you’ll be steered to another Camelot.  Well worth the drive, for the pageantry, a view from a castle, seeing friendly force of arms, and best of all a belly full of handmade sausages and old-fashioned mugs of ale.




Pizza - a medieval favorite...



Farewell to the Fair

Thursday, June 28, 2012

A Chat with Fellow Author, Dac Crossley

Available on Amazon
Dac Crossley is a long standing friend of mine, having met in a writers' group at the University of Georgia in the mid 1990's.  It was a wonderfully strange group that spawned many writers and many books.  With a few books under our belts, here's what Dac and I discussed about writing.


Dac: We met some real characters in that class, didn’t we? The ex-weatherman, ex-highway patrolman, a bunch of ex-teachers. And some people I won’t speak to in line in the post office.

Bill:  What I really enjoyed about the class was that it taught you to be helpfully critical and nonjudgmental.  I got a lot of great feedback, much of which I incorporated in writing Cassavora County. (available on Amazon.com)  Plus, there was the peer-pressure to keep writing so you could contribute to the weekly presentations.  You just couldn't allow yourself to arrive in class empty handed.  Plus Harriette's rules tested your skills and ingenuity.  Remember?  No overt sex.  No nasty words.  No animals killed or injured.  Jeez, I had to reinvent my whole vocabulary.

Dac: I’ve gone the route of self-publication. I have three books in the corral and one in the chute. I’m happy to be self-published. I had an agent for a few months. Westerns are hard novels to sell in New York City (“This Davy Crockett, was he a real person?”).

Bill:  I was fortunate not to have to go the self-publishing route.  Serendipity dealt me a happy hand.  After many unwarranted rejections by hopelessly inept agents and editors, I chanced to have coffee with another author, who suggested I contact his publisher.  I sent samples, they replied with many happy words and assigned an editor.  The result you can find on Amazon.

Dac: I’ve offered my novels as e-books but I’m ambivalent about it.

Bill:  Would love to get Cassavora County as a Kindle/Nook version. (please see an earlier blog for a sample of the book)  It's the future of writing and publishing.  Just think, if someone wants to read your books, they can get them RIGHT NOW!  In today's ground swell of instant gratification, e-books are the ticket to improved sales.

Two questions that are always thrown at a writer are:  How do you get your inspiration and do you write everyday?  Dac, what are your answers to those?

Dac: I take long walks. I try to picture my characters in trouble, and ask myself, “What would they do?” Then it’s back to the computer and splay it all out. Yes, I do write every day. Sometimes not much, but I think you need to touch your story every day.

Bill:  I agree with you totally.  You have to know your characters, as well or better than you know anyone else in your life.  Anyone who has read Escape from the Alamo, or Guns Across the Rio, or Return of the Texas Ranger knows you know those guys!  Read one of your books and you can smell the raw sweat of the horses and see the stubble on your Ranger's chin.  Best of all, you follow the  writer's creed:  Draw the reader into the plot and make him desperate to know more about the what's going to happen.

Bill: Another question.  Why did you decide on the Western genre?

Dac: As you know, Bill, our writing class concerned itself with murder mysteries. Like others, I tried writing in a campus setting (killing off a college president). When I tested the Western waters, teacher said, “I think you’ve hit your genre.”

Bill:  I'm not sure exactly why I happily loped into mysteries.  Maybe it's because I enjoy a good story.  I always say, no matter what you write, fiction or nonfiction, always remember you're telling a story.   I've tried writing in the first and the third person.  One thing for sure, the third person is definitely easier.  You can attack the story from so many different facets and involve a host of separate characters.  Sometimes in the first person, you're forced into some square corners and have resort to literary tricks to work in things your character really shouldn't be able to know.

Do you write at a special time each day?

Dac: Mornings for me! The creative juices run hot before noon.

Bill:  Definitely mornings.  By noon I'm thinking errands and planning supper.

Dac: Okay, Bill, when are you coming home?

Bill:  I like to visit the U.S. every now and again, but I really enjoy living overseas.  Two reasons. I love learning languages and being isolated from the churn of mainstream America, sharpens my sense of what America is and what America is like.

Dac:  I’ll keep the latch string out.

Dac also has a wonderful blog that delves into some of the fine points of Texas history. Good for finding out what really happened in the old west and winning bar bets!  You can find a link on the right margin of this blog.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Couscous Salad – a ‘Go-To’ Dish



Plumping the raisins


Whenever my spouse starts off, “Sweetie, I forgot to tell you,..”  I know I'm going to be doing some fast-enough-to-stop-your-heart cooking.  It’s seven in the morning and the brunch is at ten, or it’s five in the afternoon and she needs a dish for the seven p.m. church supper.  I’m Pavlov trained.  I race for the pantry when I hear ‘Sweeetie.’

Like any good fielder, ya gotta be ready when the ball is smacked in your direction.  No excuses about ‘I wasn’t ready!’ or ‘That ball took a bad bounce.’  You’re either a cook or you’re not.  You either pull something out of the oven/off the stove, or you’re just another wannabe cook and full time whiner.

What’s fast and delicious and a crowd pleaser?  Man, I already gave you some biscuit choices:  plain, cheese, sugared, scones, and shortbread.  Those recipes only require you to keep a normal, well-stocked pantry.

Couscous salad is another addition to your ever-expanding repertoire of ‘got it covered’ recipes.  Check the recipe below.  Everything comes straight from the cupboard except for celery and spring onions, which everyone always has handy, and a bit of fresh cilantro, mint, or parsley.  I use cilantro, but your choice.  Mint grows like a weed.  Plant some now and it’ll last until the first frost and be back even stronger in the spring.

Couscous is one of those ubiquitous pasta-like dishes that stretches from shore to shore around the Mediterranean.  Serve it hot.  Serve it cold.  It’s everywhere, by itself and as part of elaborate stews.

Besides speed, why would I pick something like couscous salad to serve to unsuspecting diners?  It has the freshest of tastes and compliments any dish you’d care to name.  No weird or offensive ingredients. Vegetarian if you want it to be.  Versatile is the word I’m looking for. Spans cultures.  Spans ages.

Don’t be timid.  Charge right in.  First time is a charm.

Couscous Salad


3 T unsalted butter
1/8 t powdered turmeric (This is strictly for color)
1 1/2 Cups chicken stock  (one can is about 2 cups, so you can up the couscous to 2 cups)
1 1/2 Cups dry couscous
1 1/2 Cups diced celery
2/3 Cup currents or raisins, plumped in hot water
1/3 Cup thinly sliced scallions
1/3 Cup lightly toasted pine nuts (or almonds, or cashews)
1/4 Cup minced fresh cilantro
1/4 Cup fresh lemon juice (1 large lemon)
1/4 t ground cinnamon
1/2 Cup olive oil

In a large skillet with a lid, melt the butter at medium heat and add the turmeric.  Add the stock and bring to a boil.  Stir in the couscous, cover the skillet and remove it from the heat.  Let the mixture stand for 5 minutes, then uncover and transfer the contents to a ceramic or glass bowl, breaking up any lumps. 

Toast the nuts in a small, ungreased pan.  When they take on just a bit of color, they’re toasted. Add the celery, scallions, raisins, pine nuts and parsley to the couscous.  Toss the mixture.

In a small bowl, whisk (I use a blender) together the lemon juice and cinnamon.  Continue to whisk while adding the olive oil in a slow stream.  Whisk the dressing until it is emulsified.  When emulsified, the dressing will look creamy.  Drizzle the dressing over the salad.  Toss the salad and season it with salt and pepper.  The salad may be made a day ahead and kept covered and chilled.  Decorate with sprigs of greenery. Serves 6.

Whenever and wherever I serve it, this dish never fails to disappear.  It has one of those complex, yet satisfying flavors that make you want to have ‘just one more’ spoonful.

No longer will ‘Sweetie, I forgot to tell you…’ strike terror.  You’re no longer just a cook.  You’re a kitchen warrior!

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Diemerstein Valley, Casle and Villa

Diemerstein Castle

Villa Denis

Inside Villa Denis

Wonderful place for meetings and conferences


Once a brewery, now a gasthof



Diemerstein is a small valley settlement near Frankenstein, which is also a small town, a village really, and except for the name, you’d never notice it while driving the winding road through deep valleys and verdant forests.  But the name is catchy.  Let’s see…humm, Lon Chaney?  Monster?  Bolts of electricity and bolts through the neck?  Ah, you immediately think of you know whom, although the monster’s real name is never reveald in the book by Mary Shelly, Frankenstein: or the Modern Prometheus.

This Frankenstein also has a castle called Frankenstein Castle.  No connection, and besides we weren’t going there.  On the Kaiserslautern side of Frankenstein, our destination is the Diemerstein Castle, a smaller ruins dating to the early 13th Century.

Confused yet?  German names tend to blend and melt on the English speaker’s tongue.  ‘Berg’ this, ‘burg’ that, ‘steins’ galore, and ‘bachs’ without number.  Well, here’s a clue:  Stein means stone.  Franenstein means Stone of the Franks.  Diemerstein means Stone of the Diemers.  Some say the Hoy Roman Emperor, Frederick I (Barbarrosa) had the castle built.  But in about 1215 Rudegar Von Diemarstein  probably resided in the Diemerstein Castle.  After that, the provenance becomes cloudy until Swedish soldiers apparently sacked the valley and destroyed the castle in the 17th Century, during the Thirty Years War.  Damn those Swedes! 

In the 18th Century a group of Mennonites moved into the valley and were permitted to worship unmolested.  Their private and very secluded graveyard is still there and still in use.  It’s a peaceful place near a stream, tastefully tended, and laden with growing flowers and plants.  Somewhere along the line, townspeople became vary of their Mennonite neighbors and a law came into effect that made the Mennonites carry their dead through the forest, rather than by road.  Doesn’t sound too odious until you see the valley and realize those valley walls are steep and thick with trees and bushes.

Back to the castle.  At one time, eleven families co-owned the castle and apparently lived there at the same time.  Say goodbye to privacy and modesty.  To see the ruins now you’d never think it possible, but in the past, the grounds were more developed, and the castle was surrounded with stone houses.  Now the homes are gone, without evidence, and the hillside overgrown with massive trees.

Above a tower doorway, you’ll see an inscription from Ulrich von Hütten, who took shelter here, and was a major German figure during the time of the Reformation, circa 16th Century.

You ask yourself, why build a castle in such an out of the way spot?   The answer is obvious if you take away the autobahns and realize that for merchants and armies these valleys led from major settlement to major settlement.  In times of peace, there were tariffs to be collected and in time of war, there were towns to be plundered.

Although it is now mostly deserted, this valley was once a bustling core of businesses.  The nearby restaurant, Landgasthof Schlossberg, was a brewery.  Across the street, ruins of the old post office sit in idle protest of time and changing customs.  Before the railroads, the post office served as restaurant, hotel, stables, and hub of long distance communication.

Down the valley and in the shadow of Diemerstein Castle, sits Villa Denis, an example of Bavarian classic style.  Paul Denis, a Frenchman and partner in the establishment of the railroad built it in 1853.  Same story of industrial progress.  A better, faster, more efficient method of doing business springs up, displacing the old.  Now the Villa Denis serves as a wonderful setting for meetings and conferences.

Normally, both the villa and the castle are closed to the public.  This was a rare opportunity to step back in time.  How did I find out about an English tour of Diemerstein Valley?  The German tourist kiosk at Ramstein  KMC is a bustling nest of information.  It’s amazing what you find out when you ask and even more amazing when you find an opportunity and take it.


Monday, June 25, 2012

Le Cheval Blanc – Worth Every Penny


A corner of the main dining room

Crémont - the justly famous Alsace bubbly


Well, perhaps not every penny.  You must put aside a bit here and there, for rent, gas, and keeping the odd cobweb out of your wine cellar.  Nevertheless….

We threw money to the wind and had dinner at Le Cheval Blanc (The White Horse) in the half-timbered Alsatian village of Lembach.  (scroll all the way down for full address and tel)  From the moment we were greeted by the receptionist, shown to our table and offered wine, until we left some three hours later, we were never disappointed for even a fraction of a second.

What do you look for when you go out to eat?  I’m talking about you personally.  Ambiance?  A quick bite?  A dining experience?  If I’m spending more than pennies, I want it all and I want it better than anything I could cook at home.  As a friend of mine put it:  If you have an expensive meal and walk away thinking you could have done that yourself, you’ve wasted your money.  I may add, you’d also like to walk back in with a shotgun and suggest the Chef-in-Thief return your silver shekels, or lose what’s left of what he so proudly calls his brain.   But, of course civilized people don’t do that. We know when we’ve been robbed fair and square.   We tell all our friends to make reservations under different names and cancel at the last minute.

No worries at Le Cheval Blanc.  I guarantee that unless you are a master chef, with your own Michelin starred restaurant, there’s no way you can match this cuisine.


Delicate, little finger sized vegetable creams 


Which brings us to the whole question of La Guide Michelin and the meaning of their stars.  Without putting too fine a point on it (pun intended), one star means “a very good restaurant in its category.”  Two stars means the restaurant offers “exceptional cuisine and worth a detour.”  The coveted three star ranking means you should bow down and thank your lucky three stars that you could get a reservation this century and that you could afford it.  As of late 2009, there were 26 Michelin three star restaurants in France and 81 in the world.  Some have carried the distinction for years and others have just arrived and the kitchen staff is still drunk and celebrating.

Proudly carrying one Michelin star, Le Cheval Blanc offered one of the most superb meals I have ever had, for décor, service, and unbelievable deliciousness.  I walked away after happily parting with my money, armed with a broad smile that stretched across my face and down to my belly

Le Cheval Blanc offers an a la carte menu and also several compete menus. We decided on The Gourmand menu, which had so many courses I ran out of fingers, but you can count them yourself on their web site: http://www.idealgourmet.fr/930-restaurant-ideal-gourmet-presentation_mr-gb.html.  No meal in France begins without wine.  We selected a Crémont, the Alsace version of Champagne and were not disappointed, with it’s crisp, yet soothing taste.

 

Shaved slices of smoke cured beef

Beer bread and local farmhouse butter



Foie Gras - silky smooth and melts on your tongue

Cannelloni as you've never had it.  A glass of local, light Pinot on the side.

Rather than test the limits of language and endurance, I will exhibit great restraint and restrict myself to impressions of the cannelloni.   Why pick pasta?  Common point of departure. Everyone knows pasta and we all have our favorites.  None are in the same category as Le Cheval Blanc’s version of this Italian staple.

The pasta we’ve all eaten is doughy, heavy, with a mostly predictable topping of cream or tomato and beaucoup cheese.  Le Cheval Blanc’s cannelloni was as light as a crêpe.  The filling of duck foie gras and slivered, wild mushrooms rested in a reduction of black truffle emulsion, frothy and heavenly.  Each ingredient was individual, with nothing overpowering the effect of the whole.  Flavors soared!  I have never tasted such a divine blending of tastes and perhaps (depending on my investments and whether or not I choose to ever drive a car) never will again.  And yet, the cannelloni was only one of a parade of delicious surprises, many photos of which I had to exclude for reasons of space.

Each course and the many palate cleansing intermediate courses arrived like works of incredibly wonderful, stupendously interesting, tongue slapping works of art.  In truth, I had to restrain myself to capture the moment on film before reaching for my fork.

This was not a good restaurant, or even a great one.  It was far more.  Le Cheval Blanc was a dining experience that will live on my palate and in my dreams for decades to come.  If there are better restaurants, neither my taste buds, nor my wallet are prepared for the challenge.



Stuffed zucchini flower, with crawfish in a light, herbed cream.

Roasted lamb chop with purée of carrots.

Roasted duck breast

A spectacular cheese tray with some twenty selections.

Dessert:  Peach four ways, roasted, sorbet, mousse, and in egg custard

Le Cheval Blanc
4 rue de Wissembourg
67510 Lembach - France
Tel : 00 33 (0)1 45 72 07 14
House made, hand dipped chocolates, cookies, and gelées

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Jazz for a Lazy Sunday - Autumn Leaves- Jazz Violin



I've always loved jazz violin.  Stéphane Grappelli, Joe Venuti.  This selection features an Australian, Retaw Storer Boyce.  First take.  No score.  No practice.  Haunting and beautiful.  Retaw plays all kinds of music and you can checkout more at http://www.retawboyce.com/

If you like jazz, this man is a real find.  Jazz lives!!!

Friday, June 22, 2012

Spargel Soup: Too Delicious For All But Very Close Friends



Nick off about a half inch of each stalk.

Peel off the coarse husk.

Cook the reserved tips.

The end of spargel season is rapidly coming to a close in Germany and the tears in my eyes are not tears of joy.  But, there’s still time for one more taste before you lose the spargel pot in the undisciplined tangle of your overflowing cupboard.  Go ahead and put it away now.  You won’t need it for this dish.

Here’s a very simple recipe for a very special soup that serves you, your significant other and two greedy guests.

Spargel Soup

1 Pound (about 1/2 kilo) white asparagus (spargel)
1 Medium onion, chopped
4 Tablespoons butter
1 Tablespoon all purpose flour
4 Cups chicken broth
1 Teaspoon sugar
1/2 Cup heavy cream
Chopped chives for decoration

Nick off the ends of the asparagus stalks (see photo above) and peel off the tough outer layer of each stalk (see photo above).

Cut the stalks into 1/2 inch pieces, reserving about two inches of the head of each stalk (See above photo of cooking asparagus tops).

Melt the butter in a Dutch oven, add the chopped onion and cook over low to medium heat until the onion is translucent.  Do not let it brown.

Add the pieces of asparagus, except for the reserved tops.  Cook about 6 minutes.  Again, heat should be low enough to prevent browning

Dust the mixture with the flour and mix well.  Allow the mixture to cook long enough for the flour to lose its raw taste and pick up the tastes of the other ingredients, about 2 minutes.

Add the chicken broth and stir well.  Allow to cook for ten minutes.

In a separate pan, add a pat of butter and a few tablespoons of the cooking broth. Place the reserved asparagus tops in the pan.  Stir and allow the delicate tops to cook a couple of minutes.  You want them cooked, but not mushy.  Set aside.

Use either a hand-held blending wand or a blender to purée the chicken broth mixture. (Not the asparagus tops!) If using a regular blender, blend only one cup at a time to keep hot soup from splashing all over you and your kitchen counter!

Return the blended soup to the big pot.  Add sugar to taste.  Add the heavy cream.  Soup should be only very mildly sweet.  Add the asparagus tops and stir.

Decorate each bowl of soup with the chopped chives.

Serve with a crusty baguette and your favorite white wine.  Listen as the dinner conversation drops off to a low, appreciative whine.

Voilá!  You’ve just created one of the most delicious soups in the world!


A German Garden: the inside scoop

Even a quick glimpse is a pleasure.



A little serendipity always helps.

A carelessly beautiful arrangement.




Germans, like the English, are wonderful gardeners.  Don’t believe it?  Drive through any German village, town, or city and see that every nook and cranny is bursting with flowers.  Must have been women who did those.  Window boxes.  Front yards.  Back yards. Along driveways.  Flowerpots by the door. Bicycle baskets still on the handlebars. Yes, I have seen these.  Inspiring. 

I am not a gardener, but I have friends who are and some are even German men.  For a bier and a wurst, they’ll willingly share the secrets they’ve gleaned from their years of playing in the dirt; which is a polite way of saying, put a beer in their hand and they’ll spill their gardening guts.  But, after a few hours of pils, who’s equipped to remember Latin names, or the best time to plant rhubarb, and why slugs don’t make good escargot? 

Well, I remember a few secrets, such as:  plant flowers in the sunshine, except for impatiens, which apparently adore some shade, as I do.  Details fade.  Beauty lingers.

Which brings me to the expression ‘nook and cranny.’  Anybody know what that means?  Nooks are small, out of the way spots only women know about, and crannies are small crevices even more difficult to find.  All of them are evil.  Would I use the phrase in a sentence?  Of course.  My wife finds nooks and crannies to be great organizational tools, which is why I’m developing a nook and cranny eradicator.

In fact, men are born hating nooks and also express great distain for crannies, preferring to place eyes-only items, such as the receipts for the new shotgun and full surround sound media center, in more secret places.  Twice locked strong boxes, labeled ‘Only to be opened in the case of my death,’ for example.

But, back to my friend’s garden, which is a delight and shows great foresight in avoiding the use of nooks. Also, back to two of his best secrets.  Secret one:  When you have a bare spot in your lawn, lightly till in some dark earth.  Next, put grass seeds in a watering can and fill it with water.  Then water the patch and the grass seeds will spread evenly.  Secret two:  To figure out where best to plant flowers in your garden, take twenty years of trial and error, and never give up hope. 

You can tell if you have a really good garden.  It’s like a living painting you can sit and stare at for hours.  A place to enjoy your morning cup, or to relax with a sherry at dusk.  The question is, what makes a garden good?  What takes a little greenery and a few bursts of color out of the realm of mere plantings and into the world of living art?  One thing I’ve noticed is that pockets of single color anchor a well planted garden. Diaspora of types and colors is great, but only if balanced by strong monochromatic patches that draw the eye.  There must also be a balance of differing heights and backgrounds of various shades of green.

If none of this comes naturally to your eye and imagination, visit some professional gardens, check out internet photos, or diligently spy on your neighbors, while ignoring their habit of nude sunbathing.  Careless balance, of form, size, and color is the key.  Yep, takes a lot of time and work to achieve carelessness.

Time for another beer, while you lovingly gaze at some photos of a wonderful backyard garden.  Meanwhile, I’m taking a fly swatter to those beastly crannies.

See how the heights, colors and shades of green come together!


A wonderful unbalanced arrangement compliments a well trimmed hedge


Visitors Welcome!