Saturday, June 28, 2008

Gathering the Daily Food

5 June

The end of the week is in sight, a signal that I must restock the refrigerator and pantry. Adherence to this weekly routine helps me to avoid waking on Sunday morning and realizing the main ingredient for the evening’s dinner is not in the refrigerator. If that happens here, you’re out of luck—almost every shop in town is shuttered until Monday morning. If I am missing an essential ingredient, I must either substitute it, find a different recipe or eat out.

Food shopping strategies that I learned in the US are not always effective here. In Washington, during the winter, I make a sweep of Whole Foods and Safeway and come home with just about everything I’ll need for the week. In the summer, I switch to the farmers’ markets, mostly the Sunday market on Dupont Circle or the New Morning Farms Saturday market, as the source for most of my fruit, vegetables, dairy products and meats. And I still make the occasional foray to Safeway and Whole Foods for the non-perishables.

If you want good quality food, shopping in Garmisch, and Germany in general, tends to be much more decentralized. The grocery stores suffice for any staples you might keep on your shelves, but I wouldn’t want to depend on these chains for fresh fruits and vegetables. Judging from the contents of carts that I notice as people stand in line to check out, I don’t think too many Germans rely only on the supermarkets for fresh produce either.

My impressions of supermarkets here are generalizations; some of my friends seem to have much greater success finding fresh fruit and vegetables in the supermarkets. Several supermarkets offer a decent array of produce, make efforts to source food locally and create appealing displays.

But overall, while chain stores sell produce more cheaply than greengrocers, the supermarket fruit and vegetables can look pretty industrial, often tired, sometimes limp and uninspiring. Peppers and tomatoes come pre-wrapped; lettuce, sometimes sold by the head and other times in see-through bags, can look wilted; onions are stuffed into net bags that discourage close inspection and hide any major defects. Most supermarkets sell organic fruits and vegetables, but they may be only marginally better than the non-organic produce.

And then there are the store hours. Supermarkets generally open from 7 or 8 am to 8 pm—six days of the week. And if you must do your grocery shopping late in the day, expect to find scarce pickings.

The quality and prices of produce sold in the chains illustrate a negative influence of globalization, an influence also evident in many US mega-stores such as Wal-Mart. According to an Oxfam study, transnational supermarkets with their huge marketing arms, buy mass quantities of food from developing countries at prices that do not provide the local workers, often women, a decent return for their labor.

Comparing what these supermarkets sell with other available sources for fresh, local products, I opt for the smaller shops. For me, gathering and eating my daily food must be an aesthetic experience, something that appeals to my senses of taste, smell, touch and sight. Eating is a political act, and supporting exploitive aspects of globalization ruins my appetite.

So, I buy most of the fruit and vegetables I eat at small, independent green grocers or at the weekly market in Garmisch or Partenkirchen. Two shops are nearby, within a five minute walk. The owners take pride in displaying their produce attractively. After you have gone to the shop three or four times, you’ll be recognized and often addressed by name. Most of the fruits and vegetables available now have been shipped from Greece, Italy, or Spain, but German strawberries and asparagus are also abundant at the moment. Most produce is not truly local because with the exception of strawberries, apples and Damson plums, crops produced nearby aren’t prolific enough to be sold in markets.

The hours for these green grocers are even more challenging than the chains—my favorite shop opens about 8 am, closes around 6 pm (depending on business) Tuesday through Friday. On Saturday it closes at 1 pm and remains closed until Tuesday morning. Of course it is also closed on holidays—and Bavaria has a lot of holidays!

Garmisch-Partenkirchen, two separate, rival
towns until the 1930s, has two weekly markets. Every Thursday in the Rathaus (City Hall) parking lot, the Partenkirchen Wochenmarkt takes shape, beginning about 8 am. Walking among the various stands, I can buy local jams (dandelion and elderberry blossom jams at the moment); trout not long out of mountain streams and smoked in the market; flowers, herbs, and plants for the garden and balcony; fruits and vegetables from farms near Lake Constance; Alpine cheeses flavored with herbs; organic sheep and goat cheeses made just a few miles south of Partenkirchen; organic lamb chops, an array of antipasti, and other local foods.

A similar but larger market takes place in Garmisch on Friday. Vendors in both markets pack up by early afternoon, so if you work, taking advantage of either of these markets is a challenge. And to be truthful, if you work, it is difficult to patronize the smaller markets. The only real opportunity is Friday afternoon, (the work day ends around 1 pm on Fridays for many people here) and Saturday morning.

As I write this, it’s now Saturday afternoon. A small Turkish festival is underway several houses down the street from me. Strains of Turkish music float up through my open windows, mingling with the laughter of children bouncing on one of those huge, garish inflatable toys. Shops have closed, but the refrigerator is stocked well enough to get me safely through to Tuesday morning. And, just as an extra piece of security, I checked out the edible offerings at the fest earlier today: long skewers of beef sizzled over hot coals, a huge hunk of meat for succulent doner kebab stood ready for carving nearby, tables of dolmas, kibbe, stuffed peppers and eggplant, bourekas and baklava beckoned. No chance that I’ll go hungry this weekend!

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Sandstorms and Asparagus

29 May

We're in the midst of a sandstorm from the Sahara. The southern winds on which the sand is hitching a ride have brought very warm, humid weather--it's in the upper 80s during the day, very warm for here, although the nights are cool enough to use a feather comforter. Yesterday I mistook the sand for a haze and hoped we might have rain that would bring cooler weather, but instead I just have a fine layer of sand all over the inside of my apartment because I didn’t close the windows. I would have preferred a thunder storm, but I must be careful what I am wishing for.

The local strawberries are in the greengrocers here. I bought a box yesterday and they are delicious--juicy, sweet and tender. I've had asparagus, both white and green, each day since I've been back. The white asparagus is a regional specialty. Much of it is grown just north of Munich around Schrobenhausen, in large fields. Dirt is mounded up around each spear as it grows to keep the sun’s rays from activating the chlorophyll, which turns asparagus green.

Preparing white asparagus is not complicated, but it requires a different approach than the green asparagus. The key to easy peeling is the asparagus peeler, an ingenious device that resembles big tweezers with a vegetable peeler blade inserted in each arm. No need to put it in the back of the drawer at the end of asparagus season either: it works well on carrots or any other similarly shaped vegetable.

I select the fattest spears I can find, shave off only a thin slice from the base of the stalk, then grasp it by the tip, squeeze the peeler together gently and run it down the length of the stalk to peel the skin. Repeat three or four times until all the skin is removed.

Peeling white asparagus seems counter-intuitive—why should something so tender, that never felt the sun’s rays, have to be peeled? Take my word for it, it does. Otherwise, you will have a bitter-flavored, stringy stalk and wonder why people rave and pay premium prices (about $8 per pound) for it. Peeling is also the reason you go for the fatter stalks. The thinner spears are more work, and by the time you are finished peeling, not much remains to eat.

During Spargelzeit (asparagus season), this delicacy is featured as a main dish in local restaurants. A serving, somewhere between a half pound and a pound, is presented on a platter, accompanied by either Hollandaise sauce or browned butter and steamed new potatoes. Schnittlauch (chopped chives) are scattered over the top and there you are, with a platter full of the colors of spring: the pale, creamy white asparagus and potatoes, lemony yellow sauce, and a confetti sprinkling of green chives. If you have worked up an appetite, you can order a small Schnitzel or Spargelschinken (a thinly sliced ham), but the asparagus is the central attraction of the meal. A glass of Weizen (wheat beer) or a Riesling keeps any thirst at bay.

Leaving Home, Coming Home

26 May

Lynne dropped me off at Dulles Airport with plenty of time to spare. I checked in at Lufthansa, managed to negotiate my way through security, then settled down with Three Cups of Tea and a sandwich of Virginia smoked ham I had bought at Washington’s Dupont Circle Farmers Market. Good thing I had the sandwich—which was substantial—to sustain me through the next two meals of airline food.

The plane pulled away from the gate early and we arrived in Munich on time. This was fortunate, because the flight was thoroughly uncomfortable--anyone is uncomfortable sandwiched into a space not fit for a piece of salami. The bozo in front of me reclined his seat as we flew over New York City and left it that way until we crossed the Rhein, where we began descending for the landing in Munich. I contemplated upending dinner—swill deemed edible only at 30,000 feet—but decided I couldn’t pull it off without having it look intentional. The fact that Bozo was sitting in an exit door aisle and had four feet of leg room in front of him didn’t make it any easier to refrain from subversive acts. The portly guy next to me had appropriated the entire arm rest and poked me in the ribs a few times for good measure. I dread flying and I think I bought my Garmisch apartment just to give me somewhere to hang out in Germany so I don't have to fly so often.

After I regained my freedom and straightened myself from the pretzel-shaped contortion I had been molded into on the plane, I caught the S-Bahn and then the local train to Garmisch—all on time. The green hills that begin just outside of Munich whizzed by the windows. Starnberger See, one of the huge lakes in the Alps' northern foothills, sparkled sapphires in the early morning sun. Cattle, recently released from their winter quarters in barns, munched the sweet grass and flowers in the fields. Finally, the mountains appeared in the distance, growing larger and more imposing with each mile of track that the train devoured. The miniature huts, used for dispersing hay storage in fields as a precaution against losing the entire crop to fire, dotted the pastures.

Approaching Garmisch, the tall spire of the Alte Kirche pierced the horizon. This is the town's old church, built in the 13th Century and modernized in the 15th Century. Finally, the onion-shaped towers of St. Martin's, a Rococo gem, appeared. The train pulled into the station, I wrestled my luggage off the train, down the station's steps, and headed to Ludwigstrasse. At St. Sebastian's, the chapel dedicated to the memory of soldiers killed in the World Wars, I veered to the left. Then, finally, at 9 am in the morning, 15 hours after I locked my door and left home in Washington, I was home again in Garmisch.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

In the Beginning

Gruess Gott!

In southern Germany and Austria, local people will greet you with these words. If you say "Gruess Gott" in return, you may not be local bred, but people will know you’re working on your qualifications! I’ve been working on mine since 1971, when I first set foot in Germany. On 2 September 1971, I arrived in Bavaria to spend my junior year at the University of Munich. I was smitten and spent 32 years scheming up ways to get back here on a permanent basis. Now I split my year between Garmisch-Partenkirchen, a small town in Bavaria's Alps about an hour south of Munich, and Washington, DC, a large town not far from the Chesapeake Bay. Both towns have distinctive flavors, special celebrations, and lots of good food, to say nothing about the beer and wine! So join me as I move through the year and let me introduce you to my two home towns! Food and culture are my main interests, so I’ll spend plenty of time on those topics, but there is so much else, that I’m sure I’ll range far afield.

Right now, I am in Garmisch. I migrated back here in late May, while the lilacs were still in bloom, huge puffs of them filling the morning air with sweet fragrance. The sky was clear and sunny, it was warm. That was for the first few days. Since then, it’s turned gray, clouds have shrouded the mountains, and rain has been a constant guest. And according to weather reports, it will remain with us for at least the next three weeks. What would Ben Franklin, with his proverb about guests and fish stinking after three days, have to say about our lingering weather? Despite the less-than-ideal weather, there’s plenty to do and see. . . .