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!

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