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Thursday, July 26, 2012

Cochem - A Jewel on the Mosel

Cochem from above the Mosel.  The Reichsburg is on the right.

Market Square

Inside the Ratskeller

A trio in Russian uniforms singing the Ave Maria!  No joke!




(more photos follow the prose)

The Mosel (Moselle in French) nestles in a valley like a carelessly thrown necklace on folds of green velvet.  Half-timbered towns, some large, some small, dot the necklace as the river threads its way north, as it has for thousands of years.  Above the towns, row after row of green-leafed vineyards line the sunny hillsides.  This is wine country, one of the best and most productive in the world, and has been since Romans marched in.

Before the days of railroads, trucks, and cars, there were boats on the river, and thin laned roads on either bank.  The Mosel has always meant commerce and commerce always means money.  Dotting the crests of the steep hills, the remains of castles stand as ruined reminders of money’s powerful pull.

Beneath the castles, boats carrying ore, timber, wine, and other products of civilization curve the river’s path in near silence.  River traffic has also been here since men first ventured from their caves.  As the boats passed, in the old days they stopped and paid tolls in coin or goods to the castle owners.

Germany, Europe, and the world have come a long way since then.  Borders are gone. Money changes hands with the speed of electrons. The castles are long since converted to homes, or restaurants, or left as jagged memories for the eyes of tourists.  Tolls, along the Mosel and other rivers, are long forgotten.  Huge barges stacked with coal or containers, colorful tourist ferries, and small motor craft still wind past the towns these days, idly observed by shoppers, and sightseers who sit in riverside cafes, sipping and enjoying the comforts of the times.  Hotels and restaurants abound.

The castles, many of them dating to the first millennium, mark the passage of time, of war and peace, good times and bad luck.  You can see timelines charted in the walls, with rough hewn stones marking the beginnings, and newer, higher walls, as well as towers and bridges, leading toward the present.  A question I often hear on these quests for knowledge is:  How old is this castle?  The answer always depends on what you’re asking.  When was it begun?  When it was destroyed? When did it start to look as it does now?

The Reichsburg at Cochem is no different than many other Mosel castles, although more opulent and better preserved than most.  The first stones were laid shortly before 1000 C.E.  Over the centuries, the castle swapped ownership a number of times, finally being destroyed by the troops of Louis XIV in 1689.

Which brings us to a startling discovery.  Europe has lived in constant war and turmoil almost since the beginning.  In the past three centuries, France and Prussia (later Germany) especially have been at each other’s throats and especially in the general region of Alsace.  When we come to the late 19th Century to the middle of the 20th Century, Europe saw the French-Prussian War 1870-71, then World War I 1914-18, and finally World War II 1939-45, which some regard as Act II of the world war.

Since 1945, there has been peace, at least in Central Europe, some 67 years of it.  Although, as the philosopher Plato famously said, only the dead have seen the end of war.  Still 67 years is a grand start on the side of peace.  Never have military forces been so overpoweringly strong, yet we have had peace in Europe.

After the Sun King’s forces did their worst, for near 200 years, the castle at Cochem remained a ruin.  Then in 1868, a rich merchant, Mr. Louis Ravené, renovated it, turning it into a 19th Century chateau.  In 1942, his descendents were forced to sell the property to the German Reich, and in 1978 it became the property of the town of Cochem.  Outside it is still possible to glance at bits and pieces of the old castle, but inside it is definitely 19th Century.

There’s much more to do in Cochem than climb the steep streets to the castle (or take a shuttle bus).  Shops and restaurants abound.  Stroll through the park near the river, or stay a while, pick out a shady spot and picnic.  Buy some of the justly famous peach schnapps.  I’m told a touch of it in a glass of champagne is a delight.

Get the whole Cochem story, along with activities and schedules for buses and tours at www.reichsburg-cochem.de

We stopped in at the Ratskeller, a cellar pub right on the market square.  Good choice, although I’m sure there are others.  Wonderful sandwiches, wine and beer cost about $22.  Later, we had a parting snack at the Burg Hotel, on the upstairs terrace, overlooking the Mosel.  The view alone was worth the price for coffees and smoked trout.

Travel does more for me than show me ‘stuff’ I haven’t seen before.  With only a modicum of reading and listening, it gives me a sense of time and place, allows me to at least plant a toe into the sandy soil of another culture, and best of all, I get to drink some great wine and beer.  Prost!

The Reichsburg - Cochem Castle

View of the city from the castle.

Entry to the castle.  On the right you can see the earliest walls in rough gray stone.

A glimpse of the magnificent 19th Century ceiling.

One of the many wine shops in Cochem.

The lower floor of the Burg Hotel and restaurant.

Smoked trout with a light horseradish cream, dill and marinated onions.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Pigging-Out in Rothenburg ob der Tauber

Rothenburg is old, but there are some fabulous restaurants in the old, stone buildings.

The Dining Room of the Friedel Hotel Garni

The Farmers' Market is small, but interesting.

Buying Schnee Balls, the local pastry.

Inside a Metzgerei.  The hanging smoked sausages are real!

Pork Knuckle and Potato Dumplings.

Steak with Pfifferlinge


Rothenburg is a fine town for strolling ancient streets, tripping down small, hidden alleys, visiting museums that celebrate the town’s medieval past, and breathing the air of history.  But, that’s not all there is to this quaintest of medieval towns.  There’s beer and wine, restaurants galore, outdoors cafes, and sweets that’ll make your tongue quiver like a well hit number one driver.  On Saturdays, there’s a morning farmer’s market, bursting with colors, fragrances, and freshness that will make you yearn for your kitchen.

Then, there are the metzgerei (Deli) , the bakerei (bakery), the sucre bakerei (sweet bakery), and all those other lovely food shops that make you wish you had more time and a bigger stomach.  One of the traditional sweets is the schneeball, or snowball.    Sweet dough, fried in a crisp ball and coated with any number of temptations, such as chocolate, vanilla cream, coconut, and so many others.

To keep from leading you on, I’ll tell you right now I’m not going to furnish a list of specific restaurants.  Wouldn’t do justice to the wonderful array of places to eat and drink.  Same with hotels.  We stayed at one hotel and poked our noses in others.  Rothenburg is a walking town.  I’ve no doubt you’ll find exactly what you’re looking for!

We stayed at the Altebrauhaus, or Old Brewery, but alas, they no longer brew beer.  Doesn’t mean you can’t find beer and sensational Franconian wines.   Back to the Old Brewery Hotel.  For 5 Euros you can add a breakfast to your bill and it’s well worthwhile, if you enjoy buffet style.  Two things I don’t like about buffets:  the quest to try everything expands your waist and ends in failure; also,  buffets are germ magnets.   I waited patiently while a middle aged woman picked up several rolls, weighing her options, a battle against the tides of meritocracy, in a search for that one perfect roll. Hope she found it. I moved on.

The man in front of me at the cheese and ham table coughed.  Fortunately, he turned his head aside and brought his hand up to his mouth.  Unfortunately, he picked up the ham and cheese serving piece.  Toast was pretty safe.  I scorched mine thoroughly, then ran it down the smoldering hole again.  You can’t play it too safe.  The coffee was hot.  The eggs had been boiled and I got to them before the roll-lady played hot potato, or Mr. Croup christened them like a demented priest with hay fever.   Stealthily, I scanned the breakfast laboratory to spy kids idly expanding their nostrils with a nervous forefinger, or mothers giving the diapers a quick change on their way to the cereal bar.  Saw none.  Sighed in relief.

Get your shots up to date before you go to a buffet.  I stuck with toast, a boiled egg, and another cup of coffee.  Better safe than suffering.

Supper was a different matter.  My frau opt for a thick sirloin, smothered in a pfifferlinge cream sauce, with a side of potato croquets.   The steak was melt in your mouth perfection, just short of charred on the outside, nicely pink within.  I went with a house and Franconian specialty, Schweinshaxe (pork knuckle), stewed in beer, then grilled to the fall-off-the-bone stage.  It did.  And, I picked it clean.  With large weisen brews (wheat beers), the bill came to something about $60.  Not bad considering we dined in a fab and ancient restaurant in the midst of the tourist center of Germany.

Afterwards, we found a secluded café for coffee and vanilla ice cream with hot raspberry sauce.

Don’t let the $60 supper scare you.  You can go less expensive and still eat well.  For one lunch (at the Hotel Garni) we had the best weisswurst I’ve eaten.  Matter of fact, there were a pair of them, herbed perfectly and served with soft pretzels straight out of the oven, and full-grain, sweet mustard.  Cost was about $5.  The hotel itself is an old world delight.

But, let’s get back to the main menu.  Just in case you don’t know what pfifferlinge are, the name normally used in the U.S. is chanterelles.  They come in season in Germany in August to September, but I’m beginning to see them a bit earlier than usual.  If you live in the States, you can probably find them in Whole Foods.  If you do find them, give yourself a tiny taste of Rothenburg ob der Tauber.   As you slurp your soup, picture stone, 12th Century walls, cobblestone streets, winsome frauleins, and Franconian cuisine at its best.  Try not to cough.

Pfifferlinge Soup

15 oz or 400 grams of pfifferlinge, or substitute brown mushrooms, thin sliced
1/2 large onion, finely chopped
3 Tablespoons butter
2 rounded tablespoons all-purpose flour, mixed with enough cold water to form a milky solution
1 Can Campbell’s beef consume, with one cup of cold water added
3 Tablespoons whipping cream
1/3 Créme Fraiche, or substitute sour cream
2 egg yolks
2 Tablespoons medium sherry
Salt and pepper to taste

Melt the butter in a large saucepan, or Dutch oven.  Add the chopped inions and cook over medium heat about 10 minutes or until the onions are golden.  Don't rush this. Add thinly sliced mushrooms and cook another 5-6 minutes.  Heat the consume and water and add it to the onion/mushroom mix.  Bring to a boil, then turn the heat down and cook another 10 minutes.  Add the flour-water mixture and stir until blended.  Mix the egg yolks, cream, crème fraiche and sherry, and then add it to the soup, stirring to blend.  Once you add the cream mixture, do not let the soup boil.  Scoop a ladle or two of the soup into a blender.  When blended, add it back into the soup and stir.

Serve with toasted bread.  Baguettes work well.

Pfifferlinge - Chanterelles


Monday, July 23, 2012

Racin' to Rothenburg ob der Tauber


St George fountain (1608), 8 meters (26 ft) deep, with a capacity of 100, 000 liters.

In good weather, cafes are everywhere.

Stroll the old market square.  The buildings date from the Renaissance. 

...or sit in the market square and enjoy a cup.

(more photos follow this sparkling epistle to travelers)

Rothenburg,  pronounced Row-ten-burk, is one of the primo tourist attractions in all of Europe.  Amazing that it is not yet a UNESCO World Heritage Site. 

When people first began to stack rocks and roast deer in Rothenburg, Native Americans were running rampant through Manhattan, Conquistadores were searching in vain for the cities of gold, and the U.S. wouldn’t be a nation for another five hundred years.  Lots of cities in Europe make the same boast; however, most don’t have a well-preserved medieval wall.  I’m not talking about a collection of loosely organized stacks of rocks, but a well laid out town, with a high, unbroken wall, complete with towers, narrow gates, half-timbered buildings galore, and cobblestone streets.  In the past few hundred years, they’ve added some swank hotels, restaurants and shops, and cappuccino emporiums bubbling out onto the market square.

While I’m a fan of cobblestone streets in theory, the reality is, they’re tough on your feet and ankles, unless you were born in the 12th Century and feature cobblestones as a significant improvement over muddy lanes, slick with horse droppings, and smelling of garbage and human feces.  Ah, the good old days.  Take a deep breath.

Why here?  Why did a city arise and prosper just above a small, insignificant river?  As the realtor said, location, location, etc.  Seems the east-west trade route from Turkey to Paris intersected the north-south trade route just a few hundred meters outside of Rothenburg.  The city of 5,000 folk prospered.  Until the middle of the Thirty Years War, when a Catholic army, through a stroke of bad luck, came to this Protestant town.

General Tilly, with his army of some 40,000 was passing by in 1631 when a drenching rain turned the roads to brown muck, stalling caissons and cannon, and bringing the army to a dead stop. Unlucky for Rothenburg.  What to do with an army of that size that needed feeding and housing?  Send word to the town to surrender.

Tilly didn’t get the answer he expected.  Siege and victory.  Rape, pillage, and plunder followed, and afterwards the black plague delivered a second crippling blow, bringing ruin and two hundred and fifty years of poverty.  But, everything has a bright side.  The city grew no more.  The walls remained, preserved until the present day.

Later, tourism peeped in, with a joyous smile, and saved the fortunes of the town.

There are a number of interesting stories about Rothenburg, one of which occurred during the last days of the Second World War.  But, you really need to visit this fine old city, take a room for a night or two, enjoy some Franconian beer and wine, and by all means go on a tour at dusk with Hans Georg Baumgartner, The Night Watchman. He’s been plying his trade for some twenty years.  As everyone knows, the watchman sees all and in this case tells all.  History delivered with wry sense of humor right out of the Borsht Belt. Secrets of Rothenburg revealed.

Walk the walls, visit the Kriminalmuseum and see how justice has changed, not always for the better.  Check out the ‘twin violins’ that latched people together until they could agree to get along and stop arguing.  Let’s take a collection and send a few hundred pair to Congress. 

Visit St Jacob’s Church, as magnificent as any cathedral.  Take a chance and go to hell…..an inn called Hell, that is.

What kind of money are we talking about?  Rooms run from the super reasonable, to the super expensive.  Bed and Breakfasts abound.  Eat well for a hundred dollars, or for five dollars.  This city doesn’t gouge its guests, it welcomes them, and has since the 12th Century.

View from the Palace Gardens.  The Palace itself was destroyed in an earthquake.

A small view of the magnificent wall.

Also destroyed in the 1356 earthquake,
the prison was rebuilt in 1400.

Beauty, beauty everywhere.

Walk the wall for views like this.

The Night Watchman, a tour not to be missed.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Wheat and Whatnot





Germany is the eighth largest producer of wheat.  Top three?  China, by a big margin, then India, then the land of “amber waves of grain.”  Germany grows enough to feed a population that eats 192 pounds of bread per person, per annum.  That doesn’t even count the pasta, cakes, pastries, and beer.  Yes, they brew vast quantities of Weißbier, or wheat beer.  It’s a so-called sour beer, although it tastes plenty sweet to me.  Another thing about wheat beer is that by German law it’s a top-fermented beer.  For my money, that means less fizz and more flavor.  Lots of varieties of wheat beer, which also uses barley in the brewing mix.  I had a lovely dark wheat beer last night at the local bier stube.

But, back to wheat.  There are great fields of it in this part of Germany and one is right outside my door.  German wheat is of the hard winter wheat variety.  What’s that mean?  Winter wheat is planted in late September through October and not harvested until late July, or August. Winter wheat needs vernalization (cold temperatures), where spring wheat does not.  It sprouts, then goes dormant, then resumes it’s growth in the spring.  Remember, I said 'hard' winter wheat.  The term ‘hard’ comes from the firmness of the kernel.

Any differences between winter and summer wheat?  Plenty, but the thing to remember is that winter wheat has more protein (at least 12%) and more gluten.  High gluten is best for bread baking. 

I’ve often wondered, as I sit on my porch, overlooking my garden and the field of wheat beyond, What does it all mean?  All-purpose flour.  Cake flour.  Organic flour.  Whole wheat flour.  Cauliflower.   Nope, scratch that last one, it’s in the cabbage family.

All-purpose flour is usually a mix of spring and winter wheat flours (hard and soft), meaning less gluten and less protein.  Cake flour is a low protein (6-8%) flour made from soft winter wheat.  Organic is supposed to mean free of chemicals.  Whether that is true or not depends on the manufacturer.  I have some Organic Gold Medal All-purpose flour.  On the side panel it says it’s made with certified organic wheat, but is also 'enriched' with a lot of vitamins and minerals.  Is that bad or good?  I haven’t the fainted idea.  Are they natural vitamins or are they derivatives from petroleum byproducts and toxic waste.  Don’t know.  All vitamins are not manufactured or collected in the same way.

White flour uses only the grain, with the bran, germ, and endosperm eliminated; bleaching seems to get rid more of the natural goodness.   Whole wheat has all of it, containing many natural vitamins.  The downside is, whole wheat doesn’t do a good job of rising without a lot of leavening agents.

Bleached or unbleached?  Why bleach at all?  Makes the flour white. That's it.   In the good old days, bleaching meant the flour was out in the sun for awhile. With the advent of the industrial age and mass production and distribution, bleaching came to be done with chemicals, usually chorine.  Recently, unbleached flours have gained favor.  I use them.

Lots of information.  What are some bottom lines?  I try my best to buy organic, unbleached, and unadulterated flour.  If you live near a co-op, or a well-stocked health food store, ask them about their flours.  Otherwise, I’ll mention two brands, with their web sites: http://www.kingarthurflour.com  and http://www.hodgsonmill.com .

For American breads, I offer two bits of advice:  the first is, Read the label!, and the second, bake your own bread!  After reading the labels, you may die of fright, or you may reevaluate whether you’re truly allergic to the gluten in flour, or to the chemistry set that’s tucked inside your store bought bread, favorite cake mix, or box of industrial strength cookies.

Meanwhile, I’m going to sit on my patio, overlooking a field of grain, and enjoy another Weißbier, made with hard winter wheat and brewed to the highest German standards of purity.




Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Beer Bread and Other Short Stories




I like simple.  Why?  Well, my so-called better half- I say so-called because apparently one person disagrees; anyone else with me? – likes to suddenly invite people over for coffee, breakfast, lunch, dinner, and other times that interfere with my alcohol assisted tranquility.  The other day she actually asked me if I couldn’t find another use for beer besides drinking it to point of no return, or in my words, X-T-C.

Being a ‘people person’ and indulgent of others’ eccentricities to a fault, I quickly replied, “Of course, Dear” and proceeded to bend her over the bathtub and wash her hair.  I could tell almost immediately, from the high pitched squeal penetrating my Earbuds, even with my iPod at full volume, the involuntary nature of what I’d done.  You do what you can to please a woman and what do you get?  It’s not a rhetorical question. The answer is unpredictably random. Chaos theory.

I was shocked.  What else can I do with beer?  Make bread?

Her hair curls even more after a beer shampoo, but even so, she smiled.

Beer bread?  Why the hell didn’t she just say so to begin with?  Let’s see.  Two cases in the garage, two six packs in the fridge.  Maybe I can spare a bottle.

This is just the thing for when guests (only one of you expected) suddenly appear at your door, hungry eyed and hopeful.  Yes, it is beer bread, but go out on a limb and serve it for breakfast; that is if you’ve already tired of those delicious biscuits and scones I’ve shown you ingrates how to make.

Beer Bread

3 Cups all-purpose flour (384 grams)
2 Tablespoons baking powder (45 grams)
1 teaspoon salt (I use kosher salt)
3 Tablespoons sugar (45 grams)
1 12 oz bottle of beer (355 ml)
1/4 Cup butter (57 grams)

Melt the butter in a small sauce pan.  Mix the dry ingredients in a bowl.  Add the beer to the dry mixture and mix to the lumpy stage.  Pour the batter in a greased loaf pan.  Pour the melted butter over the top and pop the pan in the oven.

Bake for about 40 minutes, but unless you are very sure of your oven and have made this bread before, it’s best to check the bread at the 30 minute stage and adjust your time from there.

I told you this was simple.  From grabbing the ingredients, to mixing the bread and getting it in the oven, to making your kitchen spotless once again, the total time is ten minutes.  Which leaves plenty of time to grab a cold one out of the frig.

“Honey is your hair dry yet?  No rush.  I’m going to need another hour on this bread.” 

Monday, July 16, 2012

The Fest That Wasn't

Promises, promises...

Reality, reality...

Let's see...chicken or wurst...hummmm..oh, you have fries....hummmm

The prizes

I came to this chicken fest and all I got was this lousy wurst!


Alright, boys....torch 'em!



Saturday saw the annual Hahnenfest (Chicken Festival) in the quaint, narrow-streeted town of Queidersbach.  The thought spilled into my imagination.  Chicken festival.  Talking chickens?  Chickens winning games of tic-tac-toe?  Fairest chicken at the fair contest?

If there’s one thing I wanted, it was an “I survived the salmonella at the Hahnenfest” t-shirt, or maybe a hat, with the bill in the shape of a beak.  I was primed for some fowl play.  Would we stand in a big circle for a group chicken dance?

“How long is this line?” my wife asked.  Despair crept into her voice, like a chicken who’d just noticed the carving knife and bloody apron.

“You want that in miles, or kilometers?”

The first twenty or thirty minutes went by rapidly, meaning I had time to count the number of people, figure out the prime numbers, listen to the pair behind me whet my appetite with a riveting tale of blood sucking vampires and deathless zombies, and listen to Barbara and Dirk, the featured band, belt out Top 40 hits, while their electronics sucked the juice out of Queidersbach.  In the growing darkness, I could see the lights of the town begin to flicker and die.  I felt a kinship.

In another twenty minutes, the line had sped forward another twelve feet.

“Quit complaining,” my wife said helpfully.  “There’s chicken up ahead.”

This was not a fest.  This was a line on the top of a hill, leading to chickens.  There were no games.  There were no booths selling whatnots, no pony rides for the kids, no groups drinking half liters of brew.  There were no t-shirts.  No hats.  The teenager behind us murmured, “This is not a chicken fest; this is a line fest.”

We discovered a second line to buy drink tickets, which would allow you to go to another line to claim your poison.  I sent the wife for two beers and a bottle of schnapps. She returned with tickets for water and beer, but no water or beer.  I was the only one who noticed the discrepancy.

The guy in front of us had been clean-shaven when we started, but was starting to look a little shaggy.  Time did not march on.  Time had been laid off and was searching for another job.

“Why don’t you go check to see if there are still chickens?” my wife suggested.

She had a point and I sprang forward before my legs could atrophy.  I found the sticking point at the place where you ordered the food.  A mother and her three small children, in line since they were infants, trying to decide.  Bear in mind there were three choices:  chicken, bratwurst, French fries.  This was not a menu requiring the skills of Mr. Memory.  Flies buzzed.  People in line moved nervously.  Horses in the next pasture watched for a while, then got bored and ambled away.  Chickens mumbled, “Kill me now!”

At the two-hour point my wife said I shouldn’t talk so loud.  I thought I’d been talking to myself.  Hunger, thirst, and two hours of aimless standing on the side of a hill will do that to a man.

“Look at those flies,” I said, reaching out and trying to grab one.

“There are no flies,” my wife said.

“Well, there used to be.”

Two hours turned to two and a half.  The temperature, which had begun at a balmy seventy degrees, had dropped like my hopes and dreams to a chilling sixty.  The crowd began to nervously stamp its feet.  Some hunger stricken patrons pitched tents; others pulled their children close and cried openly as a family.  Priests roved around giving last rites.

At the three-hour mark, we were three patrons away from the ordering place.  I knew somehow this was false hope, meant to further confuse and demoralize.

It began to rain.  In Germany this time of year, rain does not mean drizzle.  It had been sunny when we arrived.  Sunny and seventy degrees.  I had also had a mild hunger.  Now I was battling starvation and losing.

At three hours and fifteen minutes, we reached the finish line.  I blurted out to the ordering maid, “three half chickens and two fries.”  Turned out that was the beginning of negotiations.  Did I have the correct change?  We searched our pockets and came up victors. 

“That’s three half chickens?” the ordering maid asked.

I told her it was.  The crowd behind me was getting restless again.  People get that way when they’re cold and being pelted by rain drops the size of marbles.

“How many fries?”

“Two.”

“Ok, that’s three half chickens and two fries.  Is that correct?”

Behind me, I could hear discussion, followed by threats.

“You’ll have to wait a moment on the fries.”

Behind me was the sound of cocking pistols.

Before war erupted, we grabbed our order and raced away to a friend’s house to eat our chicken and soggy fries. 

“This chicken is ok,” I offered, “But not worth three hours.”

“No chicken is worth three hours,” my wife said.

Now she tells me.

Friday, July 13, 2012

English Cuisine is Underrated - Shepherd's Pie





So, ok, you can forget the fantastic, silky sauces mastered by the French, and the elegant pastas and fish from the Mediterranean world, as well as the superbly smoked meats of northern Europe.  Still, there is a narrow window of down-home English cooking that fosters images of an amber pint of bitter, a roaring fire, and the conversational prater of the Queen’s English, floating through the air in a dark paneled pub.

Yes, I am an anglophile.  I like the damp, cool weather of England that pervades in the all but the hottest days of summer.  I look forward to sipping a pint in yet another historic pub, and the elegance of an evening at the theater.  I love the picturesque phrases that flow so easily off the British tongue to exactly capture the moment, in tones that only the English can master.  In a train station’s almost bare coffee shop, I heard a matron murmur, “The refreshments are woefully inadequate.”  What would an American say?  “There’s nothing worth eating,” or “This place stinks.”  Both are woefully inadequate.

Which brings us to the question:  What is worth eating in England?  The fish and chips are famous, but experience teaches this most well known of all English dishes ranges from the superb, crispy take-away, with memories of the sea, to the soggy and best forgotten.

Don’t forget the uncrowned king of the world’s breakfasts, the full English, with lean bacon, pork sausages (bangers), sunny-side-up eggs, baked beans, grilled tomatoes, and grilled mushrooms.  (See a previous post!)

What else?  On the special side, few things compare to a well-cooked standing rib, what the English call a joint of beef, some Yorkshire pudding, browned in beef drippings, deeply golden roasted potatoes, and some well-cooked vegetables.  Makes me think of that English institution, Simpson’s In the Strand.  By the way, well cooked doesn’t mean well done!  The Brits appreciate rare beef as much as anyone.

What about cheeses?  No, the English can’t compete with the French in variety, or subtlety, but the cheeses the English do produce are wonderful:  The quintessential Stilton, of course, plus a range of blues, and cheddars. Next time you’re in a top-end grocer’s, try a bit of English cheese and savor the full flavors and delicious complexities.

But, you get to the heart of longed-for English dishes when you step through the inviting doors of a traditional pub.  I refer to the so-called Pub Grub.  Steak and kidney pie.  The kidneys are finely minced and you don’t notice them, but they add flavor.  Steak and ale pie.  And, -roll of the drums-, my all time favorite, Shepherd’s pie.

None of these are difficult to make, but let’s make my quick version of the favorite.

Shepherd’s Pie


2 lbs ground lamb (or substitute 1 lb ground pork and 1 lb ground beef)

2 cans Campbell’s condensed beef consume

1 cup dry red wine

1 cup water

1 large onion, diced

1 large (16 to 20 oz) package of frozen, mixed vegetables (I use Birdseye Classic Mix)

1 tablespoon oregano

1 tablespoon marjoram

1 heaping tablespoon, chopped fresh dill, or 1 measured of tablespoon dried dill

2 heaping tablespoons flour, mixed with enough cold water to make a milky consistency

salt and pepper to taste

7 large baking potatoes

Cook the meat in a large skillet, breaking it up and stirring until all the pink has disappeared.  If you don’t have a large enough skillet, use a Dutch oven.  When the meat is done, pour off any excess grease.  Add the diced onion and cook until it’s translucent. Pour in the cans of beef consume and the cup of wine.  As it comes to a boil, add a cup of water and the vegetables and herbs.  Cook until the vegetables are tender.  Add the flour/water roux and mix.  Cook until the gravy begins to thicken.  Set the pan aside, while you make the mashed potatoes.

But, first, take a second to heat your oven to 350ºF (190ºC).

If you choose to use powdered potatoes, don’t!  Disappointment lurks around the corner, as appetizing as a flaccid French fry.  Start from scratch.  Peel the potatoes, and slice them into chunks.  Plop them in salted, hot water and bring to a boil.  The potatoes are cooked when a fork easily slides into one of the big chunks.

Drain the potatoes and put them in a large bowl.  Add a stick of butter, cut into pats, and use a pastry cutter, or potato masher to break the potatoes up and mix in the butter.  Time to drag out the hand mixer and finish the job.  Depending on the consistency of the potatoes, you may want to add a half-cup of milk while you’re getting the potatoes fluffy.

Back to the vegetable-meat mixture.  Put it in a large baking dish and use a spatula to spread the mashed potatoes evenly over the top.  When the surface is fairly smooth, use the tines of a fork to make a decorative pattern in the potatoes.

Slide the Shepard’s pie into the oven and bake it until the potato topping is looking crusty, with edges and peaks of light brown.

Grab yourself a Newcastle Brown Ale and serve your Shepherd’s pie to admiring guests and fellow anglophiles.  Let the French scoff.  When you mention anything English, they  scoff anyway.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Homburger hof

In the courtyard

Typical German reads atypical menu

Alt Bier - hummmmm

Beauty is in the details

Homburger hof is dog friendly.  They even provide a water bowl

Mixed grill, with potatoes and herbed butter

Rump steak, smothered in onions and gravy, with bratkartoffeln

Schnitzel and fries

Scharf Käse - mixed vegetables, cheese, and hot peppers


Rondell 3  66424 Homburg, Germany
06841

Tele:  +49 6841 8090802

One of the first things you learn about Homburg Saar (pronounced Home-berk and not to be confused with Hamburg, in the far north) is that the Homburger hof is the only restaurant whose hours are dependable.  1000 to 0100 daily.  Period.  None of these closing at 1400, or not open on Wednesdays annoyances.  And yes, they serve breakfast, lunch, and dinner.  Der hof is also the biggest building in town, so it’s tough to miss.  By the way, hof often means courtyard and I guess the crowded tables out in front count.

For the past few decades, it’s been owned by the Karlsberg Brewery, also located in Homburg.  But, that’s not the beginning of the story.  The building was completed in 1907 and has been a military headquarters and a hotel before the brewery bought it and made it a restaurant.

Ok. Ok.  All of that is fabulously interesting, but is it any good?  I like it!  When someone even whispers about going there, I come running.  Karlsberg beer is some of the best around, especially the Alt Bier, or beer brewed in the old style, with the fermenting yeast forming on top of the wort (wheat or barley mash).  What about top-fermenting yeast?  Less fizz.  Usually alt bier runs from 4.8 to 6% alcohol and for my money is smooth as glass.  The Karlsberg variety is at the low end of the scale. Reminds me of English ale, also made with top-fermenting yeast.  The color varies, but is predominantly a deep mahogany.  If you think all dark beer is a little bit harsh and rough around the edges, alt bier will teach your taste buds a new lesson.

What about the food?  Earthy and delicious.  There’s nothing startling on the newspaper menu, but you can order without fear.  Traditional and dependable.  I love the salads, the schnitzel, and the rump steak smothered in onions and dark gravy.  The bratkatoffeln (pan cooked potatoes) are not to be missed.

You said ‘newspaper’ menu?  Yep.  Looks like a newspaper.  Reads like a newspaper, with specials replacing the normal newspaper ads.  Speaking of specials, there’s a different one each day of the week, which gives you a price-break of a couple of euros.  But, even without the price-break, the Homburger hof won’t shred your budget.

When you go to the Homburger hof website, check out their recipes, most of which feature beer, including three types of beer soup!

Now you’ve done it.  A heavy thirst is rising like a tsunami. Time to kiss off the errands, bundle the wife into the car, and chill in the hof and people watch, while the alt bier does its magical, psychological work.  If you can't drink a beer right now, just keep repeating this mantra:  I don't need a beer to be happy...I don't need.....