Monday, 19 September 2011

up brockenback mountain

The proposition of an impromptu trip to Germany initially left me feeling - well - nichts much. A self confessed Francophile, I am generally biased towards France, Spain and Italy. Germany has never really appealed if I'm honest.
Due to meet a very lovely old friend in her German boyfriend's hometown near Hannover, I googled said city and read the usual (museums, gardens, church, river, zoo…) Expecting a weekend of generally pleasant sightseeing, supping kaffee und kuchen and laughing at unfeasibly long German nouns was about the sum of what I expected during my Deutsche weekend. How wrong I was.
ilsenburg lake

view from the brocken

First off, Hannover was a distant 2 hour drive away from the picturesque small town of Ilsenburg, nestling at the north foot of the Harz mountains. No busy roads, thronging tourists, overpriced schnitzel here - just simply beautiful Hansel & Gretel style houses, all with their own burst of individuality and painstakingly tended gardens awash with colour and quirky touches. So peaceful as to be almost silent, we hardly ever saw people walking through the streets - far from being eerie (although a few Fritzl comments were made - cellars anyone?!) this lent the town an olde worlde feel. People just generally seemed happy pottering in their homes and gardens, at one with nature. Excess water was all collected in butts for gardens, there's no wastage - herbs are hung up to dry, berries left fermenting in bottles for home brewed booze. Swans paddled slowly across the big lake in the town centre, as the sun shone over lush woodland rising up the mountains beyond. Enough of the picture painting - lets get down to the heart of the matter - the food.

For someone who loves cheese and bread, a German breakfast ticked all the right boxes for me - freshly baked rolls and rye bread with butter and homemade jams, fresh fruit, ham and cheeses of all varieties was a hearty way to start the day and fuel us for mountain climbing up the aptly named Brocken (back), the highest peak in the Harz mountain range. We hopped on a steam train which wound it's way up to the summit, where we watched a load of sorry souls reaching the halfway point of an ardous marathon and being whacked on the bum with a broom by the legendary Brocken witch. Lunch at the top of the mountain consisted of a savoury warming Kartoffelsuppe, a potato broth, with the most wonderfully creamy rice pudding or Milchreis, I have ever had the fortune to sample. Topped with a sprinkling of cinnamon sugar and a slick of cherry or apple compote I was honoured to be eating not only the best rice pud ever but the highest in Northern Germany


Walking back down the mountain took it's toll on my knees, however we diverged from the beaten track onto the soft floor of the dense woodland, stepping on lichen, fern and an abundance of wild mushrooms. The national parkland that surround Ilsenburg is full to bursting with gourmet shrooms, including chanterelle and porcini, which sell for a handsome price to the surrounding high class restaurants. Accompanied by a pilz expert, I was shown how to hunt down the vivid orange hue of the pfifferlinge and how to twist and pull it from the earth, dust and cut it's stem and check for worms/dryness/age. I also discovered the pepperpilz, a spicy tasting mushroom, the blood mushroom with a reddy orange stem, the hex mushroom which turns a witchy blue when cut, the devil and goat's lip mushrooms and a plump specimen which only 10% of the population find deadly… I also found a giant porcini the size of my foot, or bigger, which gave me the giggles.
With a bag full of chanterelles, the tip from the top was to fry them lightly with some butter and garlic, and eat simply with pasta, a dash of cream and a sprinkling of chives. Divine.

the forest
chanterelling hard

The Germans love their soup. We had our fair share of supping suppe when sitting down to have drinks al fresco, as we ordered from an extremely limited bar menu. Thin, watery soup with processed noodles and veg, a meaty concoction and what can only be described as a bowl of lardons coated in thick cream and melted cheese, were presented to us with local beer. Oddly enough the soups slipped down ok, but this was more down to hunger than delicatesse. We had a delightful bbq experience dining with uber hospitable Germans. A fresh, herby, zesty tomato salad made with homegrown onions, cucumber and green and yellow tomatoes, followed by perfectly flame cooked bratwurst. Crispy, smooth skins giving way to tasty meat, accompanied with ketchup, mustard and tzatziki. Stuffed to the gills with tender steaks topped with wild mushrooms softly sauteed and crusty bread with homemade garlic butter, it was all we could do to huddle in the rustic summer house with a few morsels of dark chocolate and plenty of wine and home brewed liqeur. Many crystal tumblers later, we were all suitably sozzled on this wine coloured elixir - the only way to describe it is boozy ribena. Blackcurrants picked and fermented in glass bottles in the sun with just korn (a German colourless spirit) and a dash of brown sugar, this stuff was to die for. Hand luggage prevented me bringing a bottle back, but to be honest it's probably for the best - she was found, in a hazy stupor, lying in a pool of Germany's best blackcurrants…

super fresh salad
steak n shrooms

wine n liqueur
I noticed that the Germans don't appear to be huge fans of dessert. They would rather OD on cream, meat, cheese and booze (lots of it) than faff around with some puff pastry and icing sugar. In fact coffee and cake seems to the be the done thing, and a torte or heavy pie while we're at it. Dining out started and ended with booze, and the menu was brimming with fried schnitzel, pasta, potatoes in various forms, steaks, chicken and soups. A starter soup someone ordered can only be described as a bowl of garlic butter. Portions are generous and filling. Nobody is leaving the table full, or sober, for that matter.
My German weekend was a welcome relief from the busy busy, disposable days of London. I felt like I'd stepped back in time for a weekend. If you get the chance to visit Ilsenburg, I highly recommend it. And don't forget, if you get lost you are not on einbahnstraBe*…

*one way street. We wrongly assumed this sign was the name of the road we were living on. Could prove dangerous when drunk and searching for a signpost which does exist, but many times over!