Friday, December 25, 2009

Christmas on Lake Constance

In the Southern-German city of Konstanz, you can begin dinner with a light salad of mâche grown on the nearby Reichenau (also known as the Gemüseinsel, or "vegetable island"), continue with fried trout that was caught in the Bodensee that very morning, and pair it with a Konstanzer white wine. In the village where I'm spending Christmas, the butcher and his slaughterhouse are in the middle of the town, so you really know where your meat comes from and how it got to your plate. None of this requires an elaborate ideology or a well-advertised locavore movement. Nor does it require outrageous effort or an enormous investment of cash. It's just, well, it just happens to be normal to eat food that grows nearby, and when it's in season.

I write this because as attractive as I find the idea of eating locally, organically, and seasonally, I do wish it were less of a hassle. Grocery shopping and daily cooking are work enough on their own, without having to do a Master's thesis on the sourcing of pork butt before I even start the marinade.

Ah, but to the fun part of local, seasonal eating: the Weihnachtsmarkt. Now, as anyone who has ever been to Germany knows, the main reason to go to a Weihnachtsmarkt is to consume Glühwein, or mulled wine. What you may not know is that some of the Christmas markets, the Konstanzer one included, have an event on the last market day known as the Glühweinaustrinken. That's German for: "We need to get rid of this mulled wine, so we'll practically give it away." At my first Glühweinaustrinken, I wore a white coat in the midst of several hundred people each of whom was smoking and carrying five mugs of wine (failure). I also got free dinnele, a kind of Swabian pizza or tarte flambée with onion, ham, and cheese, as well as a shot of schnaps from the dinnele cook (success).

This year, I had something even more exotically local. Among the stands offering Hungarian, Moroccan, Turkish, and Chinese food (to say nothing of the Wurst), there was one booth that offered Höri-Ochsenfetzen, shreds of oxen-meat, the oxen hailing from the Höri peninsula near Konstanz. These were fried up with spices, and then served in a foot-long bun with a dollop of herbed butter on top. This was the kind of dish that does its own advertising: I had seen someone eating it and asked them about it, and when I was finally eating mine, several people asked me about it. As one person put it, this is "the German döner." It was so delicious and filling that I didn't even have space for roasted chestnuts or the (very traditional) crêpes with Nutella.

Before closing, I'd like to add that, although I've never been there, the Höri peninsula has a special place in my heart. This is due to the fact that the place has its own onion varietal, the Höri-Bülle. They grow it, they eat it, they make cakes out of it, and every year they throw a festival in its honour: the Büllefest. If I'm to believe the Wikipedia article on the Höri-Bülle (and believe me, I will check the reference), onions were brought to the area in the eighth century to improve the diet of Reichenauer monks. Sounds like something to look up in Walafrid Strabo's On the Cultivation of Gardens, or De cultura hortorum, one of the earliest guides to local food.