While neglecting my blog for the past two weeks, I went to Germany. Why Germany? Well, we like to travel, and we’re interested in going anywhere in Europe, so when we find we have some time coming up and money, I just play travel agent and shop for good deals in interesting places. I was especially proud of myself heading into this trip because I actually learned some German, via CDs rented free from the library, and it came in mighty handy. In general, there was less English going around than we had expected (silly Americans, I know). This had a significant impact on our dining experiences.
As evening approached in a city like Freiburg, we’d wander around from restaurant to restaurant, peering in the windows to assess the atmosphere and scanning the menu posted outside. Usually this only took a second because the menu was entirely in German, so all we could check was the price range. Thus informed, we’d continue to wander around until we gave up and just picked somewhere. It always turned out fine, usually better than fine, and although you don’t need to go to Europe to experience this phenomenon, vacation led me to a renewed appreciation of food and dining.
On vacation, my husband and I appreciate meals in a way we usually don’t during the day-to-day. We sit down for at least breakfast (a meal I don’t even usually EAT at home) and dinner with no distractions—no TV on, no laptop, no to-do list—and give our full attention to each other and to food. I forget how amazing this is! Rather than the simple act of putting sustenance in our bodies, meals become an experience again. We linger far longer than at home, and we found in Germany that no one would ever rush you out of a cafe or restaurant; you were free to take up space as long as it suited you. Our last night, we passed upwards of three hours at a restaurant called La Cicogna, without once being asked if we wanted our check. Thank you, German waiters.
Travels also open my palate to new flavors. Before our trip we’d asked a German friend what we should eat in Germany. He—who grew up in Germany—made a face and said he’s not much for German cuisine, that it’s very heavy. To hear a German speak ill of the native food was surprising, but I think I see what he means. I have never seen so much cured meat products in my life. Sausage is everywhere—a food we eat on rare occasions at home became a borderline daily staple, because it was always on sale on toasty buns at the Christkindlmarkets we’d wander each evening. Healthy, no… but tasty, yes.
After we’d been in Germany for two days, I realized I was having vegetable withdrawal. Despite seeing produce for sale in street markets, we weren’t finding much on menus (though perhaps this was a language barrier issue). Everything was, as Monty Python might have put it, Ham, ham, ham ham, and ham, with a side of ham. So in Rothenburg at a traditional German restaurant, I ordered the “German Meatball” specifically because it came with “potato and vegetable.” What arrived was a meatball the size of a baseball (made of something game-y and tasty, though it was about four servings for me) with separate side dishes of boiled potatoes and steamed green beans. Plain and simple, but I made myself eat as many of those green beans as I could. Another night at Hausbrauerei Feierling, Tim ordered what we thought would be the Nurnberger sandwich, three little sausages on bread. What he got: SIX sausages, a pot of mustard, and some boiled cabbage. I am pleased to report he did not drop dead in the night, but anyone older or with cholesterol issues might want to refrain.
Besides sausage, the other staple of our vacation diet was gluhwein, a hot mulled wine served at the open-air Christmas markets. It’s so nice to hold these steaming mugs (and I love that you get a true mug, not a styrofoam cup. Don’t want the mug? Return it and they’ll give you back a Euro or two.) on a cold evening, in the shadow of medieval buildings, with lights and trees and craft vendors… the atmosphere is so beautiful, and so wintery.
We don’t eat out a lot at home (for financial reasons), and so vacation is a treat for someone like me who loves to cook, because I get to experience chefs’ cuisine repeatedly. It’s inspiring, and I always come home wanting to try new recipes. After we went to Portugal, I bought a Portuguese cookbook and tried my hand at salt cod. After Greece, I finally picked up the gorgeous volume Vefa’s Kitchen (and I just drool over the photographs and think, Why am I not in Greece?). Now, believe it or not, I want to try making sausage. If I do, you’ll hear about it.