Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Always Room for Cake (Mosel River, Part 1)

I noted last post that London was something of a way point, a convenient entry to Europe thanks to mileage ticket availability. It was also something of a soft-landing, offering an easy transition to other cultures. I do not say that because of the language, although a (mostly) shared set of vocabulary and shared grammatical structure do ease the stress of travel. Rather, I say it because of the bedding.

A sure indication that you have arrived in “real” Europe is the prevalence in bed rooms of triple-folded feather comforters in lieu of sheets. I'm not sure what Germans have against the simple bed sheet, but I have yet to find one in use. I was first introduced to the comforter as an exchange student in 1987, when I was shown my room and left to stare and wonder whether I was supposed to sleep on, under, or in the damn thing. I climbed underneath, afraid to unfold it to cover the full length of bed or body, and as a result slept cold and fretful. I've since grown bolder and decided that the blanket should be unfolded for use. I now sleep with more than 2/3 body coverage, but such a heavy blanket is of no use on warm nights when I would, nevertheless, appreciate a thin sheet. I'm sure there is a reason to shun the sheet—Germans are, after all, a practical people—but I have no idea what it might be.

A second indication that we have left the United Kingdom and landed on the Continent is the reintroduction of the cigarette, something I've managed to all but forget about in the normal course of my life. I cannot speak for the U.K. as a whole, but tolerance for smoking in London seems to be on par with that of the States. Public buildings, including pubs, are smoke free, which is why, I suppose, there were always groups of bankers huddled out front of the bars rather than inside. Germany, in contrast, appears to abide smoking to a much greater degree. Our hotel here in Cochem, for instance, bans smoking in the guest rooms, but allows it in the lobby, permitting smoke to drift in thick clouds up and into our room. This was not a problem until a group of prolific smokers checked in. Their actual number is something close to six, but the passion with which they practice their habit gives the impression of a great host numbering in the thousands. We have also been struck by the number of cigarette vending machines lining the streets, date or production circa 1950. Somewhere Phillip Morris is sitting back and smiling.

Cochem is a small town on the Mosel River, a tributary to the Rhein and a region renowned for an altogether different vice than smoking. The Mosel has been a wine producing region since the Romans introduced grapes in... Roman times. Every little town seems to take a turn hosting a wine festival throughout the pre-, mid-, and post-harvest season, and Poltersdorf, a town 10 km upriver from Cochem, came up in the cue during our visit. We rented bikes to go take in the scene.

Wine at a wine festival is a no-brainer, but cake? Poltersdorf offered cake in spades. The Brits can keep their tea time, what with the funny sandwiches and fine china. I'll take the German kaffee and kuchen any time. Poltersdorf approached the German coffee and cake ritual like the Queen herself was about to forego tea for hardier German fare, with cake after cake, all made in neighborhood homes, presented in a buffet of staggering depth and beauty. How do you choose? I found it best to just guess, point, and to try and flirt with the Grandmothers of Poltersdorf to the best of my limited German in order to try and eek out an extra large slice.

“I have no idea what that is, but I would like a slice.”

“The raspberry torte?”

“Yes, it looks delicious.”

“I made it myself.”

“Well, then, I have no doubt but that it is delicious.”

“Oh, I hope, I hope!”

Like an addict forced to chase uppers with downers to maintain some kind of even-keel, we countered the sugar and caffeine with wine. The wine choices, like the cake before, were staggering too, and all sourced from the hills above town, cheap, and delicious. But all things come at a price, and here the toll was extracted by way of long-winded speeches from the festival dignitaries—the mayor, the wine queen, Bacchus God of Wine, visitors to the region being honored for 35- and 40-years of continuous vacationing, people who may have just randomly picked up the microphone. The Germans make a good cake, for sure, but also make a drawn out speech.

C's sister, M, who is traveling with us during this part of our trip, recently had the misfortune of banging her head to the point of drawing blood against Reno's bureaucracy in her attempt to permit a series of local food events in her home town. Among other things, she was required to submit a waste management plan with details for size and number of trash containers. She was therefore surprised to look around and find only a single trash can at the Poltersdorf festival to handle all of the waste for the entire festival crowd. But then a quick look at our table showed minimal waste despite the gluttony we were demonstrating. Cake and coffee were all served on tableware from people's homes, collected to be washed and reused. All drinks came in returnable glass. All wine was similarly served in glassware. In the U.S., the fest would have been billed as a green triumph, with marketing proclaiming as much on anything that would accept print. Here, it is simply the way things are done. The Germans take sustainability seriously. At the end of the day, we threw away a couple of napkins and screw tops, biked back to Cochem in the rain, and settled under confusing comforters to sleep, bringing to an end a successful day on the river.

(Looking down river at Cochem with its castle.)

(First stop at the Poltersdorf Weinfest: coffee and cake.)

(Five short minutes later, we had devoured the cake, downed the coffee, and replaced the lot with sausages and wine.)

(Bacchus, on arrival and moments before he started his speech.) 

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