Locus Amoenus I: Farm Kitchen

In ancient Roman literature, one common trope is the locus amoenus–the lovely or pleasing place. Usually a garden or woodland, the locus amoenus is a spot of inherent safety, comfort, and natural beauty. The concept features in works by authors as early as Homer, and it was reveled in by the later pastoral poets before being passed on to the writers of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Locus amoenus is a place to retreat to, often with overtones of Elysium on earth.

IMG_0367The kitchen in Kulmbach.

It’s no Virgilian garden, and certainly not beautiful in any classical sense of the word, but one of my most treasured loci amoeni is the farm kitchen in August. Some of my earliest memories are of our kitchen at home, during harvest season–standing on a chair at the sink and pushing zucchini through the food processor, steam billowing off the pots of sterilizing jars on the stove. The whole process was somehow magical, my mother some sort of goddess of cooking. How does she know how to do all that, to transform hundreds of pounds of vegetables into something we can eat for the next six months?

There was a rhythm to it all which I found comforting and intimate. Harvest, wash, snap, cut, boil, strain, can, bag, label, freeze–after so many Augusts, I have the feeling that I could do it almost in my sleep. And when the garden is at its peak, it’s a race against time. Put up the food or lose it.

IMG_0365Pesto-making station–fresh basil, garlic cloves, roasted hazelnuts, olive oil. 

Here on the farm in Kulmbach, in August and therefore at the height of harvest season, I’ve worked in the kitchen nine hours a day for the past three weeks. It’s the same locus amoenus from my childhood, now thousands of miles from home. I have all the recipes from my mother, the same laundry baskets full of beans or squash or apples, the same damp cutting boards and buckets of peels and pits left over afterwards. It’s so strange, to be doing this in a foreign country, alone, without my family, in someone else’s kitchen–and even more strange, how familiar it all is. It seems like there is nothing separating me from all those past Augusts, or from the current harvest season at home in Vermont, where my mom and sister are standing in the kitchen doing the exact same thing I am.

Last week, though, I wasn’t alone. There was a little girl here from France, Sofia, who spoke fluent German and Italian and babbled on for hours about her recent vacation in Sicily. She helped me make apple sauce, and I gave her the pot to lick when we were finished. “When you were little and helped your mom in the kitchen, did she let you have the pot when everything was done?” she asked. “Yes,” I said, “Yes, she did.”

IMG_0417The all-important Speisekammer, with everything that has already been canned or preserved–almost full and it’s only mid-August!

Recipe: Zwetschgenknödel

IMG_0350

Last night I learned how to make Zwetschgenknödel, a traditional Austrian dish that translates to something like plum dumplings. My host’s little brother Adrian was kind enough to show me how everything worked, and to let me copy down his recipe afterwards–passed down from his father. He told me that his family usually makes them when all the children are at home, and have a contest to see who can eat the most. And I can see why…I ate about five myself.

Plum_tree_with_fruitZwetschgen–plums–in the garden.

Ingredients

1/2 Liter flour

4 egg yolks

10-12 small potatoes

Stick of butter

A bit of sugar

1 cup coarse flour, like semolina (Grieß in Germany)

20 small Zwetschgen, of course–just normal plums in America

Instructions

Cook and peel the potatoes, then mash completely until there are no more lumps. Let cool.

To make the Teig (dough), combine the cooled potatoes, egg yolks, flour, and a pinch of salt. It should be quite sticky.

Carefully cover each of the plums in a thin layer of dough–these are the Knödel (dumplings). You will need to cover your hands with flour first, or the Teig will get everywhere.

Place each of the  Knödel into a pot of boiling, lightly salted water. They are finished when they rise to the top. Remove with a slotted spoon.

In a large flat-ish pan, boil the butter, a bit of sugar, and the GrießPlace the Knödel into the mixture, a few at a time, and fry on high heat until they are nice and brown. Remove, and serve right away.

To eat Zwetschgenknödel in the proper German manner, cut each one in half and sprinkle liberally with sugar.

IMG_0343Ingredients for the Teig.

IMG_0344Wrapping the Zwetschgen.

IMG_0346Boiling the Knoedel. 

IMG_0348Frying in butter and flour.

IMG_0349Finished—ganz lecker!!

IMG_0369The top-secret recipe, translated above. : )