Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Monastery holidays

More than 60% of Germans officially are Christians. Even though many are not the strictest believers and might only see the inside of a church for Christmas (and maybe Easter) there is also a wide array of monasteries with practicing orders of various kinds. Most of them occupy the most idyllic locations and in their houses and halls you can breathe the air of ages long past. 

Schwarzach Germany Roman-Monastery
Many orders do live self-sufficient, growing their own food and have limited contacts to the outside world apart from maybe a little shop selling produce. Some are more involved in the communities of the surrounding villages and towns, detaching teachers or social workers. But some orders actually go the reverse way and open up their doors and even their lives to the people. They allow strangers (including non-believers and those of other confessions) to live in the monastery for a while and take part in the order’s everyday life. For us this was one of the best experiences ever. 

Getting up at 5am in the morning, after a night in a bare chamber, and spending the day on a mix of prayers, work and mediation is a schedule which might at first not seem too appealing but let me tell you, it is more invigorating to spend a week like this than it is to go to a beach resort for twice that time. There are several types of stays. At some orders the guests are expected to follow the exact same principles and chores as the nuns or monks do. In others guests will be granted free time or voluntary activities. 

Maulbronn Monastery
What’s a bit problematic is that usually there are either men’s orders or women’s orders, which only accept guests of the according sex. So vacationing in a monastery as a couple is rarely available (there are guesthouses attached to some monasteries though where it will be possible). Another thing to heed is that most convents, following their religious duty, mustn’t charge travelers staying with them. This should though only be taken advantage of by those who made a vow of poverty such as travelling clerics and not by well-situated travelers who can well afford a donation.

Written by Anna-Barbara Schmidt

Wasserwandern _ Try water Hiking in Germany

There’s plenty of water in Germany; lakes and ponds galore and of course streams and rivers. The latter have evolved into a recreation seeker’s paradise.

One increasingly popular activity is Wasserwandern, also called Kanu-Wandern. It is basically canoeing but with the extra of an actual network of dedicated waterways and the according infrastructure. It is a wonderful way to explore the country in a leisurely way.  Since official routes are mainly on very tranquil rivers it is great fun for people of all ages. For thrill seekers there is a fine selection of rougher patches – or
you might well just resort to wild water rafting, which is also available. But Wasserwandern is not only a day’s activity. It can be a way to spend the whole of your vacation on Germany’s 37.000km of navigable waterways.
There are different options ranging from hiring a canoe and just setting out, organizing it all by yourself, to booking guided tours with full board and accommodation. It is real easy though to do a tour on your own as getting lost following a stream is generally unlikely and with well-maintained equipment it’s a rather safe affair as well. Along designated routes canoe-focused guesthouses and campsites exist where it’s just one step from the landing to the bed (or therm a rest….) . And quite often those guesthouses will be cute little, traditional, family-run enterprises where just a few guests will find a homely atmosphere and home cooked food.

We like to mix it up a bit when we hit the water. We usually hire canoes where a one-way rental is possible (i.e. there is either a second office for drop off or the company will pick up the canoes at the end point of the tour). Many canoeing companies offer baggage transport from one stop to the next but we like to take ours with us to be more flexible in where we stop. We also like to bring our foldable bikes so we can have some ‘on-land-intermissions’. Sadly those bikes are not readily available for rent but need to be purchased. If the canoeing bug catches you when you try it out: Germany is also the starting point of the longest canoeing route in the world which will take you down the Danube river all the way from Ingolstadt in Bavaria to the Black Sea, travelling through 6 countries and over 2000km.

Written by Anna-Barbara Schmidt

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

What is a Smoked Beer?

It’s not always easy to add or change the flavor of a beer in Germany. By law, it is not allowed to mix in anything but hops, grain, yeast and water. So any flavor of the beer has to derive from those ingredients.

Rauchbier is one of those beers that managed to come up with a highly distinct taste by manipulating one of it’s components. Rauchbier means ‘smoke beer’ and that’s exactly what happened to it’s malt – it’s been smoked. Bamberg is probably the best known town for this beer.

As the legend goes one brewer’s malt storage caught fire one day and by the time the fire was put out the malt had already taken on the flavor of the smoke. As it would have been the brewer’s ruin to loose his whole stock, the product had to be sold. So the brewer just went on with his business and used the smoked barely for his beer brewing. In the end it turned out the customers actually appreciated the taste quite a lot and the brewer from then on took up the habit of smoking his malt.

Technically many beers in centuries long past were smoke beers. The reason for this simply is that smoke was used to dry and preserve the malt, which in that period of little technological advancement was the only alternative to sun drying.  The latter of which was way inferior when it comes to achieving prolonged storability. With the emergence of more modern desiccation processes the smoke flavor started to disappear. Still some smoke beers have lived through modernization though as there still is quite a share of beer drinkers who at least once in a while opt for their strong and distinctive taste. Imagine the flavor to be like drinking beer while eating a really intense piece of gammon. Or actually, if you want so, one might even be inclined to compare it to a strong barrique wine, which also has those smoky flavors.

Written by Anna-Barbara Schmidt

Maultaschen, a Tasty Swabian Delicacy

Our German food is generally not known to be particularly refined (which is not necessarily true by the way) but there definitely is a wide variety of it and regional specialties without end. And what’s more: plenty of those specialties have a history.

One especially tasty Swabian delicacy is Maultaschen. Maultaschen are kind of similar to an Italian ravioli just bigger, with a filling of spinach and meat. Where the current name comes from is unclear but formerly it was also called ‚Herrgottsbscheisserle’ which would translate to ‚little God cheating things’. And this aptly describes how the Maultasche (supposedly) was invented.

During lent monks weren’t allowed to eat meat but they still wanted to so they came up with all kinds of creative strategies like chasing pigs into water and then declaring them fish or the like. The Maultasche was also a cheat. The meat was chopped really fine and then mixed with the spinach to color the whole thing green. In the end that paste was wrapped into  noodle dough. Like this, so thought the monks, God wouldn’t see that they were actually eating meat as it was now green and hidden under a thick noodle cover.

Lent is actually still adhered to my many people in Germany but trying to cover up meat consumption is not en vogue anymore at all. Still the Maultasche has survived and is an extremely popular dish that can be found on almost any restaurant menu in the South-West part of Germany. For those on a low budget there is a wide variety of the ready made kind available in supermarkets. They can be eaten boiled in broth, braised or fried. Our favorite version is the braised or fried one with caramelized onions. Fret not if you are a vegetarian: With modern times comes modern style and vegetarian (all spinach or vegetable) Maultaschen are available too.
Written by Anna-Barbara Schmidt

Monday, April 7, 2014

Hallertau - Hops Region of Germany

The Hallartau is a region in Bavaria in between Munich and the auto-town of Ingolstadt. Here, one of the most important ingredients for great beer is grown: Hops. 

Hops is a bit huffy if the conditions aren’t to it’s liking which leaves only a handful of places in the world where it actually strives. First records of growing hops in this region date back as far as to the 8th century.  

Today more than 85% of the hops used in Germany is grown here. Two thirds of the yield is exported internationally though, which equates to a global market share of over 30%. Apparently this much hops needs a lot of space leaving the Hallertau as the largest contiguous hops growing region in the world. The region has over 2000 producers using 40,000 acres of land. The average size of each farm is about 16 acres form large producers down to small farms of just a couple of acres. One large consumer that gets it’s Hops from this region you might recognize – Amheuser-Busch.

The region is worth visiting any time of the year but we prefer to go between July and September which is the time of the hops harvest. It’s a stunning vista to walk through the hops
gardens and marvel at the plants climbing up into the sky as high as houses. The harvest itself is also worth watching and the season is accompanied by many a festival with folklore, dancing, music, hops related contests, handicraft shows and much more. Hops growing in the Hallertau region is in the hands of far more than 1000 family-owned businesses today and many of those hops farmers offer tours of their premises giving lovely insights into the hops business but also the locals’ lives.

We also enjoyed the one-off hops museum in Wolnzach http://www.hopfenmuseum.de  which isn’t only highly interesting and a perfect option for a rainy day but also offers tours with tastings of such rare delicatessen as hops cheese, hops bread and beer chocolate but of course also with straight forward classic beer.

Touristic information (German only): http://hopfenland-hallertau.de/index.php

Written by Anna-Barbara Schmidt

Meersburg at the shore of Lake Constance

 At the shore of Lake Constance nestles a gem with the name of Meersburg. It is one of those towns we can just visit over and over again being enchanted by its unique charm every single time. Its location is spectacular draping up some vineyard enframed inclines offering panoramic views of the lake and the Swiss Alps. The town itself is a cute little ensemble of perfectly well kept historic houses from varying epochs – from intricate stud work houses to renaissance buildings including the new chateau prominently towering on top of a cliff.
Not to forget is it’s eponym – the castle of Meersburg; icon of the town with a history of over a millennium now, during which it was continuously host to residents, some as famous as the poet Annette von Droste-Hülshoff, making it the oldest inhabited castle in the country.  A lovely way (in our eyes but not for the seasick) is to get a glance at the city from a different perspective by hiring one of the paddleboats that are available at two spots close to the harbor.
It’s quite a popular endeavor to paddle out with one of these so waiting times might occur, which are easily spanned by a round on the annexed mini golf course though.
Throughout the year many festivals are held such as a medieval market, one of the most famous wine festivals in the area and several concerts of various styles. For those who get hungry from all the activities that Meersburg offers we have found the perfect place to eat. The “Winzerstube zum Becher” has been sitting close to the castle for several hundred years already, ever up keeping its favorable reputation. Admittedly the building has burnt down – twice –in its history. But it has been rebuilt to its former beauty that has now been retained for almost 200 years. Vines climbing up the facade and the back-alley balcony, stained glass windows with the portraits of the family’s ancestors, who are running the place in 4th generation, and an interior of centuries old wooden carvings add to its vibrancy – much unlike many of the tourist rip-offs along the lakeshore. Of course a restaurant as traditional as the “Becher”, which it is called in short, also serves food of the kind. Next to an array of modern local fish dishes and seasonal specialties there is rarely found traditional local fare such as tongue or head of calf, sweetbread, kidneys and snails. Yes, it sounds like it might not appeal to the palate but it’s definitely worth the try! Make sure to have the server inform you about those dishes as they sadly are only listed on the German and not the English menu (as foreigners apparently seldom order them).

Written by Anna-Barbara Schmidt