Sunday, June 27, 2010

The Charms of Suggestive, Deceptive Beauty

I woke up Saturday morning to the sun shining through my window of opportunity—and I decided to grab my chance. Just possibly, this long-desired, rain-free day might coincide with the wild orchids blossoming along the path to the Elmauer Alm, a mountain meadow not far from Garmisch.

Shortly before 11 a.m., the local bus dropped me off in Klais, a tiny village 20 minutes east of Garmisch-Partenkirchen. After a wrong turn or two, I found the trail, probably a logging road, leading to Hotel Kranzbach, close to where I remembered seeing orchids last spring. The sun was decidedly warm and I was getting sweaty enough to wonder why the parts of the road leading uphill, the parts that required a bit of exertion, were never shaded by trees.

After 45 minutes and a few huffs and puffs, I reached a valley and walked around the back of Hotel Kranzbach, the only Arts and Crafts-style building in Germany. In a prime example of terrible timing, Mary Portman, an aristocratic English woman who had studied music in Leipzig, decided to build this Scottish-style castle shortly before World War I. The war destroyed her plans for using the “castle” to host her musical and artistic friends. Over the intervening decades, the building survived use as a church recreational area for children from the industrialized Ruhr region; housing for the 1936 Garmisch Olympics; and a hotel for American troops after World War II. Then, in 2006 and 2007, the old building was renovated and reopened as a “wellness hotel.” It’s a fine place to spend a week hiking, sampling the local food, and restoring one’s sanity.

Skirting the buildings, I walked between the parking lot and front lawn and saw my first wild orchid (Orchis mascula )—in profuse bloom. The stalk, clustered with tiny blossoms rising from spear-shaped mottled leaves, snuggled among blue, white and yellow wildflowers in the meadow at the end of the lawn.

Not long after finding the first orchid, I branched off onto the path leading toward Elmauer Alm and for the next 45 minutes walked through a karst landscape dimpled with potholes covered with soft grasses. The pastures shimmered with yellow, blue, pink, purple and white blossoms—a sea of flowers, undulating gently as the wind blew. The orchids, listed under CITES and protected by law, seemed to thrust up from the meadow floor like exclamation marks and quite obligingly grew along the side of the paths, giving a perfect opportunity for a very close view without trampling nearby plants.

Sheep graze occasionally in the pastures, but the grasses and plants are mowed only once annually, in the fall after plants have produced and dispersed seed—this assures lush new pastures for the next year. Smack in the middle of the meadows I noticed five or six bee hives. The bees are not only the source of the honey served in Hotel Kranzbach’s dining room, but also the pollinators of the orchids. The orchids, though, play a game of deception, luring bumblebees and other bees to perform the deed of propagation but giving nothing in return: the Orchis mascula is nectarless.

Orchids, one of the largest plant families, are adapted to widely diverse habitats, so it’s no surprise to come across wild species growing in this region. These purple spikes are locally called Knabenkraut, (literally “boys’ weed”). In Britain, some of the more colorful local names include bull’s bag or priest’s pintle. A quick glance at a scientific illustration, particularly the tubers, will suggest the reasoning behind the names. (If your Greek and Latin are rusty, the plant’s Linnean name means ‘robust testicle’.)

The plant was used in folk medicine to treat colds and coughs, but it also served both as an aphrodisiac and as an anaphrodisiac. Orchis mascula found its way into the supply cabinet of practitioners of the magic arts, the multi-tasking charm, ever ready to attract or repel a benighted husband or lover.

If it’s possible to be charmed by a wildflower, I was—maybe those practitioners of magic were on to something. I wanted to know more and a bit of research revealed quite a story behind this plant. This orchid, it turns out, grows in wooded regions and open pastures across Eurasia, from Ireland to North Africa and Western Asia. In Britain and Ireland, it frequently complements endangered bluebells, creating a rhapsody of blue and purple meadows.

Despite the beauty of this small orchid, it’s acquired some dark connotations. In northern England, children called the plant “dead man’s thumb” and believed the stalks to be the finger of murderer, who had not been buried.

In one of those puzzling verses from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Gertrude’s tale about Ophelia’s drowning describes a pastoral setting filled with flowers, including this orchid:

"There is a willow grows aslant a brook,
That shows his hoar leaves in the glassy stream;
Therewith fantastic garlands did she make
Of crow-flowers, nettles, daisies, and long purples
That liberal shepherds give a grosser name,
But our cold maids do dead men's fingers call them. . . ."

Four hundred years after Shakespeare wrote those words, while I was walking across an Alpine meadow, I could easily visualize Ophelia’s death, right there by the gently curving stream flowing through the sweet-scented meadow dotted with purple and white flowers.

Yet another surprising connection turned up purely by serendipity. Orchis mascula has been used for culinary purposes—or perhaps this is not surprising, considering that other orchid that provides us with vanilla beans.

In North Africa and Turkey, where Orchis mascula grew abundantly, the tubers were ground into a flour, the prime ingredient in salep, a fortifying, satisfying drink still popular today. Salep spread westward to Europe and became the working man’s alternative to coffee or tea in England in the 17th and 18th centuries.

In Turkey, salep is still seasonal: it’s served throughout winter months to relieve the miseries of colds and coughs. Only the most potent tubers, fresh from the previous summer’s growth, are used to prepare the drink.

Packages or jars of salep are sold in Turkish and other Middle Eastern markets. If you find it, check the ingredients—most salep today is not made with the tubers, which even in the Middle East are becoming less abundant; other thickeners are frequently substituted and most often the preparation is pre-mixed with sugar, cinnamon or other spices. Even if you can’t find the genuine article, give it a try. Reminiscent of chai, it will warm you up on a raw day.

According to food scientist, Harold McGee, the tubers contain a mucilagenous carbohydrate, glucomannan, which enables the living orchid to retain water during periods of low rainfall. Put to a culinary use, glucomannan performs a role similar to cornstarch: it thickens the liquid.

McGee also describes a “chewy” ice cream, maraƟ, that takes salep one step further. This popular Turkish street food was originally produced by hand, but today a machine, a dondurma maker, does the work: it pounds and stretches salep to which mastic (an aromatic resin) has been added. After a 20-minute pounding process, which performs a function similar to kneading bread to develop the wheat’s gluten, the water forms ice crystals and the mixture begins to freeze. The crystals crowd the glucomannan into less space and bonds begin to form. The end product, cut into serving size portions with a knife, forms a dense, elastic mass resistant to melting. It’s the perfect solution for those of us who like to savor an ice cream cone slowly, but race against the drips coursing down the cone in summer months.

* * *

Summer was fleeting that day on the Elmauer Alm. Eating lunch above the meadow, I noticed the clouds gathering over the Zugspitze to the west and a chilly wind blowing across the fields. I turned back, coming down the trail at a faster clip than I had come. I hurried through Klais, and hopped on a train heading back to Garmisch. I arrived back in town just as the rain and two weeks of November weather descended on the valley—weather perfect for a cup of salep.