Friday, 28 February 2014

The Passion of Swabia

             Triple checking my bag leaving Amsterdam, crossing the border into Germany I didn’t want the same experience as the last time I left and arrived in Paris. All good, bag is clean and I’m on route to Stuttgart to visit with a great friend I met in Thailand. As always, I choose the night bus. Uncomfortable as all hell, cramped, and no actual sleep ever really comes, but I’m cheap saving me a hostel and from wasting a day on a bus. Ten hours later, I clamber off the bus haggardly, blinded by the light I was trying so hard to avoid through my squinted eyes only intensifying the throbbing in my head from sleep deprivation, and the sudden movements generating a cacophony of groans, grunts and wails like a herd of dying animals from my stomach.
Walking the vineyards in the countryside
                Regaining my balance to some degree, I notice him waiting by one of the platforms. Meeting in a different realm of this world in the heat of the misty jungle surrounding Chiang Mai, and again in Hanoi almost exactly two years prior to now, this was a remarkably surreal moment I’m sure for both of us. Loading up my bags, we shortly thereafter took flight on the autobahn, as I’m informed Germans don’t drive fast but fly low. Cruising around 160km an hour which isn’t considered that fast here, I couldn’t take my eyes off the scenery once we were outside the city and into the rolling hills of the countryside. Fields painted the landscape, vineyards scaling all the steep inclines, and patches of trees dressed with vines were scattered throughout.
                Surprisingly doing absolutely nothing, uncomfortably on a bus for 10 hours with a potential hour or so of unnoticeable sleep builds quite the appetite. A quick stop at the market bakery, rounding up supplies for a simple breakfast spread to bring back my even keel, before heading home into the beautiful, small town of Hofen (reminding me of Thorndale where I grew up, stuck in the boondocks with its massive populace of 800). Fresh rolls, pretzels, liverwurst, and some sort of ham-ish sausage in a can, (an indisputable love for sausage in a can is quite evident, similar to spam for Hawaiians, just way better) left with us. Showing me his coop behind the house with a dozen or so plump quails, as fresh as possible, straight from the bird’s ass, sunny-side up quail eggs joined our plates. Almost knocking me out for a nap, filling up the void in my stomach, it was my first lesson on the hearty, heavy, starch and meat based meals common to Swabian fare. Followed up by an early welcome to Germany beer, a brew before noon always sparks some temporary energy, as we headed out for a long walk through the countryside with his more than eager Chocolate Lab. Briefly bringing me back nearly 20 years, roaming the fields and bush behind my first house as a child, I was stunned with the similarities between the two areas.
                I was being brought to the local fire hall for dinner, where the volunteer firefighters, retired, current and trainees, of which my friend was one, get together monthly to eat, drink and socialize. I was introduced to my favorite beer during my stay that night, Paulaner Hefeweizen, a wheat beer with a citrusy flavour, similar to Hoegaarden with an orange slice, yet incomparable. It was a light meal consisting of fresh farmer’s bread, pickles, pickled red pepper and another type of liver sausage with mustard, dropped off personally by the local butcher. So great to feel the sense of community here, supporting local businesses opposed to the massive, overtaking supermarkets.
                Getting invited to catch a glimpse behind the scenes at his shop, I couldn’t pass that up. It was definitely just a crash course in German meats and sausages, its unfathomable how many tubed shaped meats get produced in just one shop. Multiple kinds of blood sausage, liverwurst and salamis just to name a few, it would take years to learn them all, but afterwards you could get your bachelor of meat as he put it. Two types of meat grinders, one producing a regular course grind, the other emulsifying the meat and fat into a paste as a base for many different smooth textured sausages, like the currywurst. Trying to show me the size and capacity of the smoker, I only got a glance at the pounds of meat in there before the smoke saw its chance to escape, enveloping the room, choking and burning our eyes. Crates of Maultashen, which is a very traditional Swabian dish. Created by the monks, similar to a large ravioli, it was initially made to hide the meat from God during the days of Lent. As long as it helped them sleep at night, but regardless eating my fair share, pan-fried in butter or in a broth, they were phenomenal. Spaetzle, also originating in Swabia, another friend showed me the proper way of whipping the batter off a wooden board into boiling water. An art form in itself, to say the least mine were quite inconsistent.
Meat platter from the butchers
                Another one of the volunteer firefighters was the announcer for the local hockey team the Beitigheim Steelers. Learning that I had never been to an actual stadium hockey game in my life, which is weird to say as a Canadian, and my lack of understanding of anything being said, they were scheming right under my nose that first night. Giving us tickets to the home game on Friday, I couldn’t believe I was going to see my first game in Germany. As he started his announcements, very unexpectedly, he gave me a special welcome as I was pointed out to all. Then after the second period I was proclaimed fan of the night, with my face thrown on the jumbo-tron, and the stadium yelling ‘drink’ as I pounded back one of my fresh pints. Afterwards, invited onto the ice to hand a six pack of the beer sponsor to the captain and received a couple shirts, one getting signed by the team. Ruining any future hockey game for me, as my best game I’m sure I will ever go to was also my first, but couldn’t have asked for a better time and surprise. I also thought before this game that people were hockey fanatics back home, until I witnessed what the fans here are like. Only comparable to what I’ve seen of the Japanese with baseball. The drum beats constant vibrating my skull long after I left, the incessant clapping leaving my hands red and throbbing, not to mention the solid high fives given to all within reach whenever they scored. There was steady and almost uninterrupted chanting only ceasing for the megaphone holder to belt out the beginning of another war cry for everyone to follow giving the troops moral. True fans, jumping, screaming and the odd toss of a drink on the ice at the opposing goalie.
Schnapps Tasting
                The Besen, where the passions of Swabia come to unite. Community, friends, family, local food and wine. No strangers exist, only friends who have yet to meet. Only open about four months of the year in the off season, they are constantly packed, loaded with wine produced from there vineyards, and for us the third time was a charm. Fitting around forty people or less, the first one we attempted to get a table in was full with people continuing to pull in one after the other. Waiters and waitresses skilfully weave around tables, chairs and people glowing with wine and pleasure, like an orgy without the sex. The level of noise rising with every glass put to lips. The harmonious ring rippling through the room as glasses met in the middle clanging together followed by Prost, or cheers, with a subtle meeting of the eyes. Without eye contact you condemn yourself to seven years of bad sex. Something not worth risking and was happy I was informed quickly of this upon arriving in Germany.
                The second besen we went to was just as full, even smaller with what seemed like just as many people. Once again proficient servers somehow snaking around the same obstacles with the addition of some who rose up with the beginning of the accordion. Arms spread, swaying, waving their arms as the sung along lightly bumping the tops of heads of those still seated. Possibly intentional as a get up and join in or the copious amounts of wine leaving them off balance. My brain was screaming ‘get me out of here.’ I was too sober for this but on the other hand if I came in with a head full of schnapps and wine, I would have joined in like I understood the crowed room as I did in Vietnamese karaoke.
Meal at the Besen
                After hope was almost lost of getting the besen experience, an open table was found at the smallest one we had been to so far. Rushing over to our last chance for the evening, we stepped in to find a table for six while we were a group of eleven. Clown car style, we squeezed in crammed elbow to elbow, we made it work. Wine was poured, food was ordered and good times ensued. Taking the recommendation of my friends, I ordered the Schlachtplatte, which is more or less a sausage and meat platter. My hunt for fresh German blood sausage was over, exploding as if I hit a main artery with my knife squirting blood all over my plate leaving plenty to be mopped up with the freshly made bread. Liverwurst with a texture of haggis, bursting, turning inside out as I punctured the casing to reveal its insides. Liberal slices of tender, melt in your mouth braised pork belly and pork neck on top of a mound of warm sauerkraut. All followed by a hefty slab of moist apple and peach bread pudding with vanilla ice cream. Bottles of local wine flowed making this my most memorable meal, with a few new friends, unspeakably great food, a warm, inviting and seasonal atmosphere in what seemed like someone’s personal dining room.

 I was given a true Swabian experience throughout my time here, falling in love with the people, culture, gorgeous countryside, food and drink. Only really scratching the surface, I was left with too many reasons to return, and plan to do just that to dig a little deeper.

Thursday, 13 February 2014

Round Two

             Down cobblestone alleys, over canals amongst centuries old buildings, like giants towering over, the intoxicating aroma of pancakes and weed permeate the air. The faint whispers for Charlie or coca in my ear, and the not so subtle incessant pounding on glass doorways from the flaunting porn star like girls as I mosey through the streets barely putting one foot in front of the other, captivated by the mesmerizing aura set off by the glow of the red lights. I’m back, round two… Amsterdam!
              The Anne Frank House, no thanks, the line was astronomical even for this time of year. Van Gogh Museum, Heineken Brewery Tour. Nope and nope, well I walked by at least, if that counts for anything. Not a fan of line ups or tourists traps (falling for one in an attempt to be social, it was sadly an hour of my life I will never get back), I chose to take the slower pace of life, sitting in cafes and coffee shops (yes, they’re different, simply coffee shops have a more unique menu, generally no food) just taking in the sights, sounds, smells and tastes of this promiscuous city.
              Staying at The Flying Pig Downtown hostel, I was right in the district this time. A relaxed and laid back environment, where travellers could chill out in the smoking room, some people forgetting the caliber of the pot, they became so incapacitated I swear they never left, and a bar with the cheapest bottle of beer (2 for 4 euros) I could find. Amsterdam in general is quite expensive to drink, charging way too much for Heineken thinking it’s better than it is, and for a mixed drink, 4 euros for a shot and 2 more for the coke. I’ve never seen a bigger scam, well that’s a lie, but nonetheless. This was probably all in all a good thing for me, giving my liver a bit of a break.

              Surprised by the haze my head was in last time, I found myself actually capable of navigating my way through the city. Somehow I actually found my way back to the places I remembered so vividly, as if instead of returning I just woke up from a six year dream and continued my trip. The city was etched into my brain, permanent and unchanging. First things first, I cross Dam Square, down a narrow alley, containing a calming herbal scent, and following my nose, it’s just up ahead. An oval sign, lit up with fluorescent neon lights screaming out Abraxas. Upon entering this hobbit hole like shop, all weights fall from my shoulders as I’m greeted with your not so average menu. Discussing and purchasing some of their wares, I order an Americano and the best juice I’ve ever had, Looza. Personally I prefer the banana, pear and mango, but they all deserve equal merit. After returning from my first trip, I hunted this sweet nectar down, driving to the US (at that point my only legitimate reason for ever going) to find it, I just needed another taste. Managing to balance everything while I slowly made my way up the coil of stairs, I settled in to renew myself in the art of rolling.

              Sitting in these shops is otherworldly, time slides by as I slip into a state of trance. I watch life pass by before my half open eyes, observing, in what I feel is deep thought, yet feeling unable to take part, as if looking through a window. Listening from a distance to giggles from nowhere, rambling of forgotten points and the odd, ‘Hey bro, can I borrow your lighter,’ I’m perfectly content with my coffee, looza, spliff and wandering mind. Continuing to puff away, I zoom out on the microscope, falling further and further away. Currently as I sat in a state of limbo, or at least extremely unmotivated, slowly but surely focus comes back and hunger draws near. A new dilemma approaches … what to EAT.

              With way too many ideas floating through my head at once, I remember Chipsy King. Primarily a French fry joint, I figured I couldn’t go wrong with a Dutch classic and typical stoner food. Thick cut, pre-blanched, perfectly crispy exterior, light and fluffy interior, these people know their fries. Finished only with mayonnaise, peanut satay sauce and chopped onions. Sure you could get ketchup, but why do something stupid like that. Not that I don’t have my hands full, I find myself being drawn somewhere else. Subconsciously I know what I want and realize I shouldn’t think anymore and leave it up to my stomach, letting my feet just carry me forward. They’ll take me where I need to go, and they did. Poffertjes, tiny little Dutch pancakes. Like taking a bite of a cloud coated in butter, dusted with powdered sugar, my mouth had an orgasm drooling from the side, leaving them more enticing than most of the girls in the windows. I prepared myself for a coma and ordered another lot.

              Waking up clear headed and hungry, there was two things wrong with this picture. I was in Amsterdam, at least this was an easy fix. Heading out in the opposite direction, and while crossing over a canal I noticed a line for another long established Dutch street food. These lines I’m okay with, just means it has to be good. Lightly brined herring with chopped onions and sweet and sour pickle, eaten by itself or on a bun. As I walked away taking my first bite, I reared to a halt and got back in line for another, imagining what it would be like in a maki roll, something I’ll have to experiment with. Getting my fill, I worked my way towards Dampkring, quite a famous coffee shop for, well the obvious.
My sweet tooth is kicking back in again, so I grab a Stoopwafel (the Dutch caramel syrup waffle cookie) for the directionless walk I’m embarking on. Crossing Dam Square, through the horde of pigeons, I just about back hand one away as it thinks I’m going to let it land on me for some of my Stroopwafel. Little does it know, I will 1- fight to the death for this cookie, and 2- I eat pigeon. There is plenty of other stupid tourists who think it is fun for them to land on you, and get a picture taken looking like the crazy bird lady from Home Alone 2. I myself, don’t see the joy in having flying shit rats all over my arms and head. Personally I prefer them not full of garbage and in a savoury pigeon pie.
Cheese, holy shit, it was everywhere, the cheese. I found a quaint little shop, Reypenaer offering a tasting of six cheeses, hand washed and aged under a master’s eye. Two goat and four cow’s milk cheeses produced in their warehouse. Already a fan of the goat cheeses I have tried, once again I was leaning towards the Wyngaard Chevre Gris. Aged ten months, with an ivory colour, scent of crème fraiche and slightly granular with a drier texture. Once the tasting concluded we were left to our own devices for five minutes or so to finish up our wine and port. This was a poor move for both parties involved. I ate as much free cheese as I could in that time frame making a six cheese fondue in my stomach, but this also led to me being unable to have a proper bowel movement the following day.
              It was time to go under the gun again, the slow cat scratch as ink is imbedded into my skin. The timeless and only real souvenir I need this time, I couldn’t wait, the first of many as I travel the world. The only downside is the price point, but being as it is Amsterdam, I couldn’t expect much less. It’s like paying for a brand name, the novelty of it all. Not to mention, a place where most of their business comes from ‘well planned out’, drunk and high decisions, so they were able to get away with it in this city of carnal sins.
              As I sit on the second floor of another coffee shop, watching the sun set over the horizon, the red lights begin to take over and the curtains slide open exposing the naked flesh of a multitude of women … well for the most part anyways. A little bit of whatever gives you that rise can be found here. It might be down a dark alley, only noticeable while exuding that warm luminescent glow from its hidden entrance welcoming all willing. Even though I’ve been here once before, there’s something about prostitutes in windows that never gets old, just my perception that changes. At the age of 19, being my first extended trip away from home with only a good friend, I thought of this as nothing but a spectacle and joke, a good laugh as I walked by. Now with a better understanding of the way things work, I felt a sense of remorse for these women, for having to resort to such lengths to support themselves, or even worse, forced into such a trade. One can only imagine the bullshit that weighs on this job and the person. Banging profusely on their windows, heckling with drunks, enduring blatant laughing and pointing, it would run someone into the ground. Unfortunately it is far from a perfect world out there, but try to keep in mind that this is not a choice they would make if other options were available. 

              Before I leave this kingdom of pleasure for years to come, I wander the streets one final time soaking in the atmosphere of a city that is like no other I’ve visited. I gorge on all things bliss, putting myself into dream state until I awaken again in Amsterdam for round three.

Wednesday, 5 February 2014

Beer, Beer, Food and BEER!

              Summing up what I did in England in a few words to say the least. An endless amount of unknown, undiscovered fermented liquids in kegs, casks and bottles that I couldn’t get enough of. Overindulging, exceeding responsible limits as often as possible, I became saturated as it flowed through my veins. A rewarding reunion with my family and friends I knew more through pictures, and an ongoing search for a figment of a childhood memory, comes to an end.

              It was a dark and stormy night… that shit made me miss my flight. It was white out conditions with some bumper to bumper action. I was already ecstatic to be leaving Canadian winter behind, now more than ever. Where’s the bar, need a drink. After performing a quick disappearing act with two beers, I jumped on the computer to find the next cheapest flight. Immensely soured and pissed off I click BUY, for the second time! Flight two is in nineteen hours, better set up shop in the airport and get comfortable. Too cheap to get a hotel now. As long as I was still on route to England, I could deal with a rocky start.

              English soil, made it, as I sit down, starving and exhausted from a day and a half in transit. I notice my cousin and aunt walk in so I crank my stone stiff legs up again to be able to make eye contact. With a slightly awkward hug of the familiar, yet unknown meeting for the first time as an adult, open arms were extended making me feel as if I had just been returning home from a long journey. After a much needed shower, I was treated to a plentiful as usual, perfect English breakfast. Bacon, sausage, beans, eggs, fried tomatoes, mushrooms and toast. Fighting against the last few bites, I tapped out. I lost that battle but I would beat the jet lag, so out we went to have a few drinks. Starting at a few anyways, it escalated quickly with Sambucca shots. Not only was I given a thorough introduction to the local pubs, but the drinks within having nothing twice. Sleeping it off, I was on track. It was the best way I could have imagined to kick off my stay with my cousins. The days ensuing were similar, going to watch a football match, Manchester United vs. Sunderland. I was getting spoiled being shown such great hospitality.

Black pudding for breakfast, nothing like some coagulated blood to start the day, and off to extend my known family a little more, being introduced to another two generations. On the way to their house we stop at a place called Whittakers, which had stood the test of time, serving up pasties and pies. Leaving with a heavy meat and potato pie, I’m informed the way to go about this in Tyldesley is throw the whole pie between a buttered bun and sauce it up. Red or brown, Ketchup or HP Sauce.

Filling my stomach with a warming sense of nourishment I was off to Manchester for the night navigating my way by train and metrolink. On a slightly different note, Cuba, another trip, what seemed like another life. Through the drunken stupor of a week I met a couple who hailed from Manchester. With intentions on coming to visit sooner than I did, I was now on their side of the pond and chugging through the streets to their house. Arriving a little bit late, stepping off the metrolink I can see them waiting in the cold, wet station. Another reunion of the new and old, surreal, meeting six years prior in a different world. Where to first, the local pub for a couple brews before heading to their place for dinner. As we ate and drank late into the night the six year gap was filled. After a late breakfast and a stroll around the heart of the city, stopping at Krispy Kreme before I jumped back on the train to Tyldesley for my last night with my family. Out to dinner and the pub for the evening, where I was made to feel at home for the past week. Unfortunately not long enough, my time here was very beneficial and gratifying, giving me a second home in the world in which I plan to return to. Driven to the bus station, our sad goodbyes were said, and I was London bound.
Against all judgements and criticisms I give organised guided tours, I was on board for a bus trip. I was in Southern England such a short period of time and always fascinated with Stonehenge, I had to get to the ‘pile of rocks in a field’ as most British people referred to it. Cruising through the tranquil English countryside in our little bus through weather with a hormonal imbalance, we were taken to Stonehenge and Bath. Arriving in Bath starving and parched, I made a beeline for the recommended pub for something to stuff down my gullet, moistened by local ciders. Ultimately a ham and swiss sandwich done brilliantly. Shredded ham hock, sautéed mushrooms and gruyere cheese warmed on a crunchy roll and a grainy beer mustard. Parsnip soup with the warmth of chili was perfect for the dreary English winter day. The ciders were outstanding, leaving me with a greater respect for the apple elixir ranging from a dry, more pronounced flavour to a dangerously sweet, tasting just like juice. A full belly, warmed bones and glow of cider, I knew I would be getting some shut eye on the bus back to London, something I was getting a lot of practice at.

Getting in around 3:30am, early afternoon came quick. I dragged my ass out of my bunk and went on a bit of a foot tour. Caught a quick glimpse of Big Ben, Westminster Abbey and walked across London Bridge, before diving back into the river of beer I’ve been swimming up. I just didn’t care enough about Buckingham Palace, the London Eye, even what I did see this time, it wasn’t the London I came for this round. Finding myself in the first pub I came across, I notice symptoms of dehydration. I’ll have a beer, well a cask ale or real ale. It’s an unfiltered and unpasteurized beer that goes through a second fermentation, hand pumped from a cask without having to add the carbonation pressure of the regular draft. Generally served around thirteen degrees for the actual flavour, it suits England very well never really having to escape the extreme heat for a frosty one.
Relishing this nectar, I’ve gotten to know quite well over my short stay in England, I remembered I was on a mission. I was hunting for the fish and chips experience I had as a child of six. I recall a crispy fillet of beer battered cod, it seemed the size of my thigh at the time. A mound of chips, peas, tartar sauce and lemon. After searching when I was fifteen and returning home unsuccessful, I was bound and determined to find this meal of what was becoming to feel more like imagination. As I relentlessly ate fish and chips, I thought I might be trying too hard. Having a sudden epiphany during my fourth plate or so, I realized that I wasn’t looking for it to taste the same, look the same or even smell the same. It was a memory that did exist but was unable to be recreated. It was of a simpler time, very little care in the world, not having dealt with any of the trials and tribulations of my life yet. Sitting down at a restaurant I couldn’t name, with my Mom, Dad and sister as we laughed and smiled, brought together by food and travel.

As I was squeezing in a few more ales before catching my twelve hour bus out of the country, I was already looking forward to my quick return. After experiencing a bit more of the real England, there was something that drew me to this country. Was it the stunning landscape, the rich history, the memories of my childhood trip and family who made me feel at home, my heritage, the cosiness of the pub, the beer or food, I wasn’t sure. Regardless of the reason, I was hooked in and could feel my lip being tugged. It was only a matter of time before I resurfaced there.