Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Alsace Across the Rhine

 We’ve made a couple of very brief visits to Alsace, the region of France right across the border from south-western Germany where we’re living.  Alsace was the area from which my dear husband’s dear mother’s paternal relatives, the Elferts, emigrated in the 19th century.  I posted photos of our visit to Strasbourg in February.  In April, on our drive home from Lausanne, we passed through this region again and stopped to visit Colmar, which is south of Strasbourg.  Colmar was a wealthy and important town from the 15th to the 17th centuries and had trade routes directly to several European cities.

I have a guidebook to France by Rick Steves on my Kindle Fire.  We were very glad of this because our huge “Europe” Lonely Planet guide gives only cursory information about even the largest cities, and hardly notices the smaller towns.  Rick Steves gives plenty of detail on Colmar, even walking us through the medieval center and pointing out buildings of particular interest (not that we followed him; we followed our own instincts and enjoyed what we saw without commentary or trying to read the Kindle screen in daylight).

Colmar blew us away.  Its old center is chockfull of darling half-timbered, dangerously leaning, variously painted little buildings.  I’m having trouble choosing just a few of our photos.  We both had cameras and we could hardly stop shooting.  It wasn't an especially pretty day and began drizzling after a while.  In the sunshine, it must be dazzling.

Alsace was at points in its past more German than French, and its cuisine makes this clear.  It’s a wine region, yes, but Rieslings rather than Burgundies.  Beer is enjoyed in glasses and recipes.  Choucroute Garni is perhaps the most famous of the regional recipes; sauerkraut “garnished” with smoked pork, ham and sausages.  Flammkuchen is the German name for the local thin crusted pizza-like appetizers topped with bacon, cream and onions.  All the bakeries we saw featured Brezeln as though they weren’t equally beloved in Germany!  You’ll understand that we found a lot to love in Alsace.

Not that we could eat all that stuff during our brief visit!  We'd arrived rather late for lunch and in this part of France, regular restaurants close their kitchens between about 2 pm and 5:40 or 6.  As a result, we had to eat in the sort of establishment designed for foreigners who don't understand the need for this type of regulation!  Chefs have to rest, you know.  They can't just keep cooking all day.  Creativity must be restored.

Colmar was still decorated for Easter, which had taken place two weeks before our visit.  We particularly liked these Easter decorations.

Here's a close up of the box over the doorway at the Brasserie des Tanneurs shown above:

Culinarily, and architecturally, I have come to feel that Alsace, Baden-Wurttemburg and northern Switzerland belong to one another almost more than they belong to their own nations.  Alsace speaks French (although I had a hard time understanding them) and Basel speaks German (its very own dialect which apparently few Germans can comprehend), and the Schwabisch dialect of Baden-Wurttemburg is unintelligible to many northern Germans.  The Rhine provides an easy means of commerce among these three areas which has been available since the most primitive times,  promoting strong cultural links amongst whichever tribes dominated each locale.  Of course, I never thought that crossing a man-made border would reveal a completely unrelated way of life, but the cultural integrity of this tri-nation region is particularly striking.  And perhaps that's one reason why we have enjoyed our visits here so much.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Switzerland and Its Cows

Switzerland is not just noted for its Alps, its chocolates, cheeses, watches and Smurfs (which they think are called Schlumpfs!).  No, Switzerland also has cows.   And as you may know, cows mean a great deal to me.  Of course, they recall for me my happy childhood summers in Vermont.  More than that, the sight of cows floods my being with peace.  These creatures have distilled life down to (well, perhaps, never have progressed beyond) staying alive: eating and processing food, resting and sleeping; and maybe procreating if possible.  Would that I, too, could keep it that simple.  Because I cannot, the sight of live cows (not cartoon travesties) relaxes me like a deep lungful of oxygen.  Therefore, you will have no trouble understanding that my visit to Switzerland in April was joyful.

The cows of Switzerland live luxuriously in emerald green meadows with vistas of snow-capped mountains to contemplate.  Their milk, creamy-rich, is a steady source of income for the Swiss as it forms the basis for their expensive cheeses and chocolates.  This vat is full of cows milk being turned into Gruyere cheese.

As we drove around Switzerland last week, my dear husband had to endure a steady stream of “Look, cows!” exclamations from me.   He even insisted on buying a little stuffed cow for me (her name is Heidi) who went nearly everywhere with us.  Sometimes, she posed with fake cows.  She has a very big silly smile.

Thanks to my dear husband’s wonderful career, we were the guests of some former colleagues of his who unaccountably prefer to live in the middle of Europe and accept a million dollars every year from the Swiss government as a starting point for their scientific research at one of the best technical universities in the world.  The Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne (EPFL) is only about 40 years old but very well funded and growing fast.  We were put up in a hotel next to the campus where we had this incredible view across Lake Geneva.

Another of Switzerland’s riches is languages, of which it has four.  Well, one of them is really more of a mascot than a communication tool (Romansch is only spoken by like 1% of the nation), but practically everyone speaks two of the following and sometimes all four: French, German, Italian, and English (which isn’t a national language but might as well be).   EPFL was founded so that there would be a technical university in the French-speaking part of the country, in addition to ETH (where Einstein worked) in the German-speaking part.  This was lucky for us, because during our stay we were treated to world-class fine dining, mostly French style.

Lausanne lies along the long north side of Lake Geneva, on hills that rise quickly from the lake shore.  In the city, this topography creates neighborhoods where the front door of a house may be at ground level, but its back door could be on the third floor.  Sometimes, the grade is so steep that there are flights of stairs instead of sidewalks.  You get a real workout walking around here.

In the country villages outside Lausanne, vineyards are terraced along these steep hills.  Some hillsides are so perfect for growing grapes that every square inch is terraced and planted with vines.  

We were able to sample quite a few Swiss vintages as our main host is a connoisseur, and very generous to boot.  We had a lovely meal at his home one night.  I snapped this photo of his view of Mont Blanc from his living room!

As he drove us to his house, he pointed out in a neighboring village the small castle which had briefly been the home of the mystery author, Georges Simenon, who wrote several of his famous “Maigret” procedurals here.  Simenon only rented this little place; he was a successful enough writer to buy a much bigger home north of Lausanne (which I failed to visit).  I was already envious enough of this place.

At the suggestion of our host, we drove about an hour north of Lausanne to visit the town and the castle of Gruyeres.  The Swiss weren’t always carefully neutral.  At one time, they fought battles as bloody as any.   Gruyeres was the scene of attacks from other Swiss cities!  One attack was thwarted when the women of the town tied burning brands to the heads of their goats, and drove them at the sleeping enemy! Eventually, the duke or earl (whatever!) lost the battle of finance:  in deep debt, the castle was taken by the nearby city of Fribourg.

Later, the castle was purchased by a wealthy businessman for his artist brother, who invited his friends in to decorate the music room.  The castle is now used by the nation to encourage art, and to reap millions in tourism. 

Wherever we went, we saw beauty up close, and at a distance; in the city, and away.  Concentrating on staying out of wars for more than a century has allowed the Swiss to focus on the art of living.  The Swiss have refined this art in their husbandry of their land and its products, and in their nurturing of their citizens through generous government funding.  To receive the stamp “Swiss”, and thus be most expensive, all meat and poultry must be free-range, grass-fed, and probably entertained by classical musicians.  The Swiss believe such meat tastes much better than feed-lot animals, but they also know that the animals they consume have enjoyed life as much as their consumers.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Not Really About Israel

If you want to see photos of the many unique, fascinating and beautiful places we went and saw during our ten days in Israel, check my Facebook posts!  Seriously, maybe I’ll take you on a tour some other time.  Meantime, here is one photo, showing a leafy kibbutz down near Eilat: 

Israel itself was intense: a tiny country with a wide variety of landscapes, a deep history of watershed moments for multiple cultures, and many kinds of people living intensively in case they’re at war again tomorrow.  I can’t begin to describe the emotions it evokes.

What I can do is share the culinary discoveries of Israel.  Thanks to the many prosperous agricultural businesses and kibbutzes, the Israeli table groans with a huge variety of fresh vegetables mostly presented (at least, at the many hotel buffets we troughed at) as salads in endless combinations of color and dressing.   With a population coming from all over the world, Israelis enjoy exposure to all sorts of cuisines and flavor combinations.   By combining old Europe with African and Middle Eastern tastes, Israel presents many food delights.  The vegetable stand shown above was in Nazareth. 

My first food discovery was the Israeli breakfast.  Coming from Europe, I was accustomed to the inclusion of meats and cheeses with breads and rolls, and touches of vegetables:  sliced cucumbers, a lettuce leaf, chunks of unripe tomatoes.  The hotels where we partook of huge breakfast buffets in Israel never included meats of any kinds, but usually featured half a dozen types of fish, prominently tuna (the canned sort).  With salads, cheeses ranging from yoghurts to Edams, and multigrain rolls, I grew to love Israeli breakfasts right away.

From the first morning, I noticed small bowls of what looked like mashed red peppers, labeled “Yemeni Hot Sauce”, and it was almost never absent from the breakfast buffet.  Nothing else was labeled “Yemeni”, so I did some research as soon as I could get my hands on some internet access.  Yemeni Jews were among the first immigrants to the area even before the nation was founded.  They stuck together and kept to their usual home recipes for decades.   But gradually, possibly thanks to street food vendors and restaurants, the secret got out.  Yemeni food was delicious.

Then, of course, I became obsessed.  I visited the Yemeni Quarter when we were staying in and around Tel Aviv.  There was an extensive and complete market, open-air but sheltered like a souk, featuring produce, spices, meats, housewares, and clothing, right on the edge of the Yemeni Quarter.

Here I found a restaurant run by a Yemeni family for decades, where I had the opportunity to try grilled Yemeni-style chunks of goose liver.  Probably spiced with the blend called “Havadji” (and spelled all sorts of ways), it was seared just enough to seal and crisp the outer edges, while the inside of each chunk remained buttery soft, and richly meaty.  Pretty much like ambrosia.

My guidebook had enticed me into this place with the magic words “Spicy Yemeni Oxtail Soup”, and I was disappointed that this cold-weather concoction wasn’t offered in spring.  After some research, I decided that what I needed to bring back from Israel, in order to try this recipe, was some Havadji.  And when I found it, I somehow found myself buying an entire pound of it.

Oxtails aren’t that easy to find, and upon returning to Germany, I had to satisfy myself at first with using some Havadji to season a couple of chicken dishes (which it did very well).  (Havadji ingredients vary from one cook to another, but most usually is composed of cumin, black pepper, turmeric, cardamom, coriander, and sometimes saffron, finely ground and blended.) Finally I located a couple of pounds of oxtails, and simmered them for four hours with generous amounts of Havadji, chopped tomatoes, onions and garlic, and the zest and juice of an orange.

Once this was done, and all the bones and fat removed, we ate this with rice and some chunks of carrot, seasoned to taste with the fresh Yemeni hot sauce (called “zhug”) we’d snuck home in my suitcase.  It’s a smooth, rich stew with a deep blend of flavors which encourages you to eat way more than is good for you.  Doesn't look especially exotic but is very rich both in spice and meat.

I have also used Havadji generously in Yemeni Chicken Soup.  Simmer some chicken legs, skimming the surface till it’s clear, then add a bunch of cilantro (not chopped), onion, garlic and Havadji.  After about an hour, when the chicken is cooked, remove and discard the skin and bones, and the cilantro.  Simmer carrots and potatoes in the broth until tender, return the chicken to the broth, and add more Havadji!  We liked this with plenty of Yemeni hot sauce.  It reminded me strongly of a family favorite recipe I’ve used for many years for Morrocan Chicken, and the flavor combination is also reminiscent of Chicken Mulligatawny.  In the winter, especially if someone has a cold, Yemeni Chicken Soup and Oxtail Soup would be downright medicinal.

Yemeni hot sauce may be obtainable in the US—I’ve found internet sources suggesting that Kosher delicatessens in Brookline, Massachusetts carry their own blend.  I might try to make it myself in my little grinder using lots of dry chili peppers, garlic, cilantro, cumin, coriander and cardamom seeds, black pepper, and a hint of cloves.  Obviously, it’s hot stuff, but complex, and exotic.

So I didn’t return from Israel with quite what I expected.  My Dear Husband had remembered Israeli food from 15 or 20 years ago as being pretty bland and uninteresting, but he has long since eaten those words.   Truly digesting all the sights and history we encountered all over Israel will take a long time.  Happy to say, however, that we are well along in digesting our discovery of Yemeni cuisine.