August 21, 2015 Usually, I try to accompany my photographs with some sort of narrative. I’m interested in telling stories, after all, and words are the means to that end. Sometimes, however, the pictures just speak for themselves.
August 20, 2015 Before we head to Bayreuth, Katie and I are farm-sitting for friends in Kulmbach–sprawling stone farmhouse, beautiful views, pigs and gardens and physical labor and evenings in front of the fire. For me, it is a chance to get out of my head: I cook in the huge kitchen for hours every day, stack wood for the fire. There’s not much space to overthink things.
Today, we took a break from the work to spend a few hours downtown, along with the two other young ladies who are watching the farm with us.
Kulmbach, like almost every other tiny Dorf in northern Bavaria, is beautiful–not in a touristy, expensive way, but with the sort of effortless charm that reminds me of the villages in Vermont. We drank cappuccinos and then hiked up to the castle outside of town, in the rain, wearing wool sweaters. Autumn is almost here.
August 3, 2015 I spent the weekend on my favorite organic farm in Kulmbach, a tiny Dorf in the heart of the Bavarian countryside. We weeded and harvested and chopped and canned and pickled, and then on Friday evening went down to the local Beer Festival.
As I have written before, the part of Germany I am living in is the land of wine–to the South and West, along the banks of the Rhine River. The cities are full of Weinstuben, and in the summer there is some Weinfest or another on almost every corner, with lights strung up in the vineyards and rows of champagne flutes and wine glasses, fancy French pizza and slices of Zwiebelkuchen.
Here in Bavaria, however, the Weinkultur is replaced by Bierkultur: a little more insanity, a little less inhibition, and a lot more of what looks to my mostly-vegetarian eyes like enormous portions of raw meat. No champagne flutes here–you drink from a Maßkrug, a glass mug that holds an entire liter of beer. And you dance, not on the ground in front of the stage like normal people, but on the tables.
A tent full of some 2,000 euphoric, Maß-drinking Germans dancing on picnic tables to Schlager is a sight to see.
After the sun went down, I went back to the festival without my camera, and danced on the tables with strangers and sang along to all the Schlager, and also to Sweet Caroline for good measure. Good times never seemed so good, and all that. The pure joie de vivre in the air was absolutely redemptive.
When I arrived at the farm in Kulmbach last weekend, I was immediately assigned to the task of making sauerkraut–an entire day’s undertaking even for a relatively small batch, as I discovered. I was given a hand-written recipe and more or less left to my own devices, with liberal advice from whichever of the family members happened to be passing through the kitchen. It turned out pretty decent, if I do say so myself…not bad for an American. 😉
Ingredients: white cabbage, sea salt, caraway seeds
Instructions: Wash cabbage, remove several of the large outer leaves from each head, and set them aside for later. Cut the cabbage into small pieces. If you don’t have a traditional cabbage cutter (Krauthobel), a knife works just as well. Apparently, it is best to cut it into long, narrow strands–it tastes better that way, according to my hosts.
Beat the cut cabbage in a crock or large pot until enough liquid has come out to entirely cover it. This takes some hefty work–if you can’t seem to get enough liquid out, you will need to add a bit of water later. Let stand for an afternoon, or overnight.
Add salt (30 grams per kilo of cabbage) and sprinkle with caraway seeds. If you are making a large batch, it is best to work in layers–a kilo of cabbage, then salt and seeds. Stop between layers to compact the cabbage as firmly as possible. If you are making a small batch, this can be done in a glass canning jar–for a large batch, use a crock or pot.
Cover the shredded cabbage completely with the whole leaves (set aside previously). At this point, the shredded cabbage should be quite compact, and completely immersed in its own liquid–if not, add a bit of water.
Set some sort of press on top of the whole leaves, with a weight on top heavy enough to push everything down below the level of the liquid. We used a large plate, weighted down with a jar full of water. The most important thing is that the actual cabbage is fully submerged–this will keep it from spoiling.
Put a lid on the crock, jar, or pot, and set in a cool place. Ferment for five weeks, and enjoy! Geschafft!
23. November, 2014 I’ve just returned to Mainz after spending the weekend in Kulmbach, on the farm where I worked as a WWOOFer over the summer. Here in the city, I forget how wonderful perfectly silent, dark nights are. I forget how much I miss cooking for an entire family, what it’s like to structure one’s day around caring for livestock, and how splendid it is to sleep under down comforters in the freezing upper story of some drafty old house. A few years ago all I wanted to do was to escape that sort of life–but now, even a long weekend on the farm feels rather like going home.
I went out to see the sunrise on Saturday morning, before breakfast. In Vermont in November, everything is monotone–black branches, gray-brown fields, gray-white sky. Here, there’s still color, but it’s all pastels, pale blues and greens and golds. So different from the hyper-saturated vibrancy of last August, but perhaps even lovelier.
…And then back to the farmhouse, to make tea and get the breakfast on the table: German meat-cheese-homemade bread, American oatmeal and pumpkin pie. A most excellent start to the day.
Herr: Es ist Zeit. Der Sommer war sehr groß.
Leg deinen Schatten auf die Sonnenuhren
und auf den Fluren laß die Winde los.
Befiehl den letzten Früchten reif zu sein
gib Ihnen noch zwei südlichere Tage
dräng sie zur Vollendung hin und jage
die letzte Süße in den schweren Wein.
Wer jetzt kein Haus hat, baut sich keines mehr
wer jetzt allein ist, wird es lange bleiben,
wird lesen, wachen, lange Briefe schreiben
und wird auf den Alleen hin und her
unruhig wandern, wenn die Blätter treiben.
Lord: it is time. The summer was immense.
Lay your shadow on the sundials
and let loose the wind in the fields.
Bid the last fruits to be full;
give them another two more southerly days,
press them to ripeness, and chase
the last sweetness into the heavy wine.
Whoever has no house now will not build one anymore.
Whoever is alone now will remain so for a long time,
will stay up, read, write long letters,
and wander the avenues, up and down,
restlessly, while the leaves are blowing.
Rainer Maria Rilke
30. August, 2014 When I was in German 201, which seems like decades ago, during the first week of September our professor made us read the Rilke poem out loud again and again and again. It’s lovely, filigree-fine–impossible to translate into good English.
Suddenly it is autumn on the farm. The tomato plants are turning brown, the plums are falling from the trees, the leaves perhaps aren’t as green as they were two weeks ago. Summer’s over….strange.
And I’m moving on, too–I’ll be in Mainz by this evening, where I will have the chance to unpack my suitcase for the first time in two months. It will be good to get there.
23. August, 2014 Yesterday, I walked down into the valley and up the other side, to the castle which is visible from the high fields here. The Plassenburg–on the outside, much more rugged and Medieval than the Festung Marienberg in Würzburg, but quite lovely and elegant within the walls.
Afterwards, I walked back down to the old city. I got entirely lost on the way, and ended up in the maze of narrow alleys and overhanging balconies and stone steps that seem to dominate the quieter parts of every small town in Bavaria.
Below, the town square, which I finally found–complete with mandatory cobblestones, outdoor cafe, fountain, Rathaus with wooden beer barrels in front, view of the castle in the background. I ordered a Milchkaffe and read Siegfried Lenz and looked at the Plassenburg.
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.
The 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.
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.”
17. August, 2014 In Germany, everyone goes walking on Sunday afternoons. Here on the farm, even the animals come–two dogs, two donkeys. We walked through the woods, up to a high field where we could see the whole windswept valley, corn and wheat fields and rows of wind turbines in the distance.
Autumn came all at once last week to Kulmbach–two days of pouring, freezing rain, and now bright sunshine and cold wind. You can tell it’s autumn in Bavaria, we learn one morning at breakfast, when the plums in the garden are no longer warm to the touch. Herr: es ist Zeit. Der Sommer war sehr groß…
When we come out into the field above the farm, there’s a tiny red-roofed dorf on the left, and the local castle, the Plassenburg, on the right. A castle. This constant proximity to 1200-year-old fortresses will never cease to astound me. In Würzburg, the Marienberg was visible from almost any point in the city–no small wonder, to take the bus to the Innenstadt every morning with a castle on the horizon. “Yes, marvelous, but think about everything behind it!” the professor says. “Suppression of the lower classes, cruel feudalism, some prince or other lording it over the masses in the stinking city and hauling up the occasional girl for his enjoyment….” “Sometimes you can think too much,” I say.
In the end, it’s amazing how fast I am falling in love with Bavaria. And not the sort of touristy, there-and-gone in a weekend sort of love, but the sort of love I have for Vermont–deep-seated, rooted in the people, the land, the way of life. I’m almost sorry to be studying in Mainz, all the way over in Rheinland-Pfalz. Still, I am here to learn and see as much as I can, and not to put down roots. In the end, it’s all good.
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.
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
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 Grieß. Place 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.