Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Munich: Happy 850th!

June 14

Munich is a city that knows how to celebrate. When it comes to planning an 850th birthday party, here’s a city with plenty of history to provide a focus and plenty of past experiences hosting huge events: think no further than the annual production of Oktoberfest! It’s no surprise then, that over the course of this summer, Munich has set aside three weekends to celebrate the anniversary of its founding. A mere 850 years may be barely middle age for a European city, but Bavarians have a knack for finding reasons to celebrate and 850 years is no small achievement, after all. For the first round of birthday parties, June 14 and 15, even the weather cooperated. The rain that had been a constant for the previous two weeks retreated and the sun made a valiant effort to penetrate the clouds.

Of course, my way of celebrating this auspicious day included a fair amount of eating. By the time I hopped off the train at the Hauptbahnhof, about 9:30, I was famished, despite having put away a normal breakfast several hours earlier. So I headed for the Viktaulienmarkt, the large, open-air market in the heart of the old city. Among the stands of fresh fruit and vegetables from nearby and around the world, several vendors specialize in freshly squeezed juices. These are not just the usual orange and grapefruit juice, but juices based on the season—like apple-asp
aragus in the spring or a hot elderberry ginger juice in the winter. I ordered a glass of carrot-apple-ginger juice and drank it while I sat people watching under a linden tree.

I finished the glass but still felt peckish. I noticed as I walked by one of the
market’s cafes that I could get a Weisswurst, just one Weisswurst, not the usual pair. That was exactly what I wanted. What better way to begin celebrating Munich’s birthday than by eating a sausage native to the city? Weisswurst even has a birthday, 22 February 1857, (also an occasion for celebration) and a birthplace, a butcher shop on Marienplatz, within a stone’s throw of where I sat.

, made of highly perishable fresh
veal and pork, seasoned with fresh parsley, onion, pepper, mace, and lemon, is meant to be consumed fresh—so fresh that according to local tradition Weisswurst must not hear the church bells ring noon. Although the development of refrigeration has made observation of that tradition optional rather than mandatory, a few restaurants, including the nearby Weisses Braeuhaus, refuse to serve the sausage after the 12 o’clock bells. So Weisswurst is still considered breakfast food here, along with a chewy, salty pretzel, sweet mustard, and a glass of Weissbier (wheat beer). This trinity of accompaniments is set in stone as indelibly as the Ten Commandments.

I ordered my Weisswurst and Brezn (pretzel), but since it was not yet 10:30, I decided Weissbier probably wasn’t in my best interest. Showing highly uncharacteristic virtue and restraint, I settled for a rhubarb spritzer, hoping that no one I knew would happen by and see me. The spritzer, a bit sweet and a bit sour, turned out to be a more than satisfactory stand-in for the beer.

The snack was just enough to give me the strength to face the crowds gathering on Marienplatz for the opening ceremonies of the birthday party. As I walked into the square, jammed with people both seated on benches at long tables and standing, I jostled my way through the crowd to get a view. On the stage the Schaeffler dancers performed.

The Schaeffler were the coopers, the beer barrel makers, long an integral craft in Munich. Their dance dates to 1517, one of the numerous years that the plague penetrated the walls of Munich. Life in the city had come to a standstill. Only two of the city gates were open and very few people were allowed to enter. Any coins brought into the city had to be soaked in vinegar and letters were fumigated with smoke upon arrival. Finally, the disease seemed to have retreated, but Munich’s citizens continued to huddle in dark rooms, behind tightly shut windows. Streets were empty except for gravediggers.

During these grim days, a member of the coopers’ guild understood that the town’s residents needed a bit of comic relief and organized the members of his guild to participate in a performance that would cheer the local population. The coopers marched to the marketplace and began performing a circle dance with boughs of evergreen. The sound of music and celebration penetrated into the dark rooms and people flocked outdoors to the marketplace. Church bells began to ring, calling people to services of thanksgiving. People were reunited with old friends and acquaintances they were certain had died. Thanks to one man’s idea and the support from his guild members, the dark mood had been banished and the city returned to life.

The Schaeffler dance still survives. The mechanical figures in the Glockenspiel at the Rathaus perform it twice daily high above Marienplatz. But seeing it danced by humans requires planning: it’s performed once every seven years (during the pre-Lenten Fasching celebrations), and for special occasions, such as an 850th birthday.

At noon, I stood in Marienplatz and listened as church bells all over the city pealed the hour. This time the ringing did not have to summon a frightened population—the whole city already seemed to be packed into Marienplatz, waiting for the ceremonies. The chiming of bells gave way to strains of Carmina Burana and extravagantly-clad dancers performing some of the songs from that medieval cycle of poetry. Teams of horses pulling the Loewenbraeu and Spaten Braeu beer wagons neighed along to the music from the fringe of Marienplatz in front of Becks, the fashionable department store.

At the the Alte Rathaus, Munich’s medieval city hall, a man dressed as a baker howled from an iron cage. An actor in a living history performance, he played the role of a baker who had not maintained the expected high standards of cleanliness, which resulted in illness for his customers. An actress, obviously enjoying her role, taunted him and egged on spectators.

By 1 pm I could feel hunger gnawing away once again. Back at the Viktualienmarkt, I bought a Bratwurst, Semmel (a crusty roll), and a (finally!) a Weissbier and sat in one of the beer gardens, munching away. A Spanish family sat next to me and struggled with a Weisswurst, trying to eat it like any other sausage. I showed them how to remove the skin and eat it properly, like a true Muenchnerer. (To see a demonstration of how to eat a Weisswurst, see the link at the bottom of this posting.)

Throughout the afternoon at Odeonsplatz, a few blocks north of the Viktualienmarkt, folk dancers from all over Europe performed and craftsmen, including the coopers, demonstrated their trades. Crafts associated with home-making were concentrated in the Alte Hof, one of the courtyards of the royal palace. Children participated in some of the tasks required to run a home—or a palace—before the days of modern conveniences. Kids helped cook a pot of stew over an open fire, washed dishes in a big basin, took turns at doing laundry in galvanized metal tubs, and tried their hand at throwing pots and bowls on a pottery wheel.

Throughout the summer some of the major restaurants in Munich are offering a special meal for 850 cents in honor of Munich's 850th. I tried the rendition at the Rathskeller, the restaurant in the vaulted space under the Rathaus, the neo-Gothic City Hall on Marienplatz. The waiter presented a plate with a juicy stuffed pork chop, vegetables and a generous serving of barley seasoned with herbs. I drank a wine from Franken, the wine-producing region in northern Bavaria, and thought it was a very good meal that I would not mind repeating.

With just 45 minutes until I had to catch the U-Bahn to the train station, I headed out to the central courtyard of the Rathaus and found a place to squeeze in among the long tables and crowded benches. A Bavarian band played traditional dance music and I chatted with the people sitting next to me. I boarded the train to Garmisch with several minutes to spare, ready to sit for a while and contemplate the next round of the 850th celebrations in July.

For more information (and amusement), have a look at these links:

Historic photos of Munich: http://www.sueddeutsche.de/app/muenchen/slidermuc/

How to eat a Weisswurst: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cW-J84hYMfc

Schaeffler dance:

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

It's Spring . . . Somewhere!

7 June

I got up before the birds began their chorus this morning. Snug under my feather comforter, I opened my eyes to a leaden sky and a fine, penetrating rain and suspected the still-snoozing birds were smarter than I. But I had a schedule to keep and by 8 a.m., I was on one of the local buses, heading to Glentleiten, a folk life museum of Oberbayern, the Bavarian administrative district which includes both Garmisch-Partenkirchen and Munich. Earlier in the week I had signed up for a seminar on traditional spring plants and their uses. Of course, I had anticipated walking among blooming plants under blue skies and mild temperatures. The reality? Well, let it be noted that today, 7 June, I wore my down coat and huddled under an umbrella.

Glentleiten’s head gardener, Peter Miller, and his assistant greeted the dozen or so people who turned up for the program. They led us through a series of gardens with typical plants from the 8th and 11th centuries up to the 1940s. Moving through each garden and time period, the plant species became more diverse, the result of trade, contacts abroad, and immigration. By the 18th and 19th centuries, the influence of the Americas was very pronounced as evidenced by the proliferation of squashes, tomatoes and beans, all crops developed by American Indians.

As we walked through cultivated plots and fields of wild flowers, Herr Miller talked about the horticultural history of the plants and supervised as we harvested what we would transform into our lunch. Anyone non-forager might consider much of what we picked to be weeds—sour grass, stinging nettles (yes, they really do sting—painfully!), plantain, and yarrow all grow wild and abundantly in the fields and meadows. However, the local farmers and herbalists value these plants, which have been eaten in this region for centuries, prizing their high vitamin and mineral content and healing properties. We also gathered more familiar herbs, dill, savory, burnet, borage, a wild spinach called Guter Heinrich (Chenopodium bonus-henricus), crisp rhubarb, and to my great delight, huge piles of elderberry blossoms. Picking the elderfowers competed with plucking a basketful of rose petals from bushes of the fragrant Rosa gallica var. officinalis, the rose used by the apothecaries, for the most enjoyable task of the day.

After spending an hour and a half jumping over puddles and mud holes in the gardens, I was chilled to the bone despite my coat. I think most everyone else was as well and we retreated happily to a small building with a massive open fire place built of rock, a roomy dining area with a long table, and kitchen. When we entered the dining room, the Kachelofen, a tiled stove traditionally used to heat Bavarian homes, was fired up and producing a warmth that my bones welcomed. I parked myself next to it, soaking in the heat, and sipped a hot elderflower tisane.

No time for lollygagging, though, we had lunch to prepare. We began by separating and laying out our morning’s harvest on long, wooden tables to see what ingredients we had to work with. Then, with a staff member’s supervision, we began cooking a typically Bavarian meal, but one that bore no resemblance at all to the huge platters of pork roast, sauerkraut and dumplings most people consider to be traditional fare. For the next 45 minutes, we washed, chopped, diced, and cooked. We arranged individual salads of tender greens, arugula, and finely minced herbs garnished with nasturtium and borage blossoms and tossed with a sweet-sour oil and vinegar dressing. We cubed potatoes then fried them brown and crisp over an open fire in a big iron pan. We strewed them with handsful of minced herbs, scooped it all into an oversized bowl and set it on the Kachelofen to keep warm until the rest of the meal was prepared. We pounded the arugula into a pesto using a locally produced rape seed oil.

Finally we prepared the nettle leaves and elderberry fritters. We coated each leaf and umbel individually in a tempura-like batter and then plunged them in small batches into another cast iron pan over the open fire. This turned out to be a great way to deep fry something--the smoke from the wood fire covers up the nasty smell of the hot oil and given the nature of the fireplace, little clean-up was needed!

Most surprising of our preparations, visually and flavor-wise, turned out to be the rose gelee. We emptied the small basket of petals into a pot, covered the petals with water, brought it to a simmer, then added Gelier Zucker, a sugar with pectin already added that is widely sold in this region and used to make jellies and preserves. In no time, the rose gelee was ready to bottle, a gorgeous, fragrant pink that not only smelled like a rose, but tasted like one as well. We spooned the gelee onto slabs of Bauernbrot, a two-foot round of sourdough rye bread baked in the museum’s brick oven, along with hunks of homemade butter.

To quench our thirst, we drank more of the elderberry tisane and rhubarb lemonade, a drink that anyone with an over-abundant rhubarb crop would appreciate.*

By the time we finished eating, the sun began to break through the clouds. The birds had decided it was safe to leave their roosts and as I retraced our earlier route through Glentleiten's gardens, raindrops sparkled like crystals on the leaves and flowers—a beautiful day after all, just in time for the return trek to Partenkirchen.

*The recipes we prepared were of the “folk” variety—they are not set in concrete, were handed down from mother to daughter, and do not have exact measurements. However, to prepare the rhubarb lemonade, simply slice rhubarb into a large pot and cover with water. Add a bit of sugar, lemon slices and citric acid (the citric acid prevents spoilage). Bring this to a boil and then remove from the heat and let sit overnight. Strain before serving. I did not discard the strained rhubarb--I used it in my breakfast muesli.

Bavarian desserts and drinks such as the rhubarb juice are not highly sweetedned. Try using some restraint on the amount of sugar you add to the rhubarb—after all, rhubarb is a spring tonic, for “cleansing”, so excessive sugar is not the goal here!