The unpredictability of the weather continued throughout our journey across countries; we witnessed extreme temperature variations within such a short span of time that we were unused to in India (here its usually always hot, unless it’s the colder months – no surprises there). Velbert and Essen for example were much cooler than Cologne, whereas as we moved to Amsterdam, it was about 8-10 degrees perhaps due to the canals all around us. Paris was cool in the mornings and evenings, and warm during the day, however when we moved to Prague, it was not only chilly but quite windy and even drizzling on certain days, adding to the chill. We heard of the flooding in Venice and a few other Italian cities around the same time and were thanking our stars we did not venture that side. Like most Europeans therefore, we learned to look up weather forecasts before we planned our outings thanks to this uncertainty. As global citizens however, it was scary and sad to experience climate change from such close quarters.
Our stay in Velbert was our best and most memorable of the entire trip. And staying with family had a lot to do with it, apart from the fact that German towns and German people were unassumingly beautiful in themselves. The towns were pretty, clean, organized and disciplined, and the people helpful and real. Velbert is a small hill-town close to Dusseldorf and Essen, where we were staying with our in-laws. In the days to follow we spent hours regaling at stories of their Indo-German wedding almost four decades ago, in a world that was so different from the one we now live in. What was amazing though was the ease in which both German and Bengali flowed into conversations in the house. Luckily for us though, breakfast, lunch and dinner continued to be German thanks to our lovely aunt who laid out an amazing spread at every single meal. The evening we arrived, we were greeted by a large plate of warm lemon sponge cake accompanied by piping hot Darjeeling tea. Contrary to our presumption that the cake was baked on special occasions (such as guests like us arriving – yes, I know it reeks of misplaced self-importance), we were told it was a regular feature in their households and a family sized cake gets baked twice every week. We looked at each other and said “aww we should do this too”. We said this pretty often in the days to come. For example, every morning when the breakfast table was laid out, replete with a variety of cold cuts, cheeses, fresh breads, butter, cottage cheese spread, homemade berry jams, fresh fruits, whistling kettle of tea, fresh flowers on the table and music in the background – it made us go aww. The quality of German meat cold cuts need no introduction; what I was amazed with though is the fact that in Germany and mostly across Europe, the use of preservatives in food products were bare minimum. Cold cuts were preserved in salt, and by natural processing such as air-drying or smoking or even fermenting. It felt safe to eat. And our uncle and aunt ensured we ate to our heart’s content, followed of course by enough walking around every day. Our septuagenarian hosts were much fitter than us, and had a much more physically active lifestyle than ourselves – notwithstanding running, cycling, swimming and sweating it out at their urban farm. We visited the farm one day, pretending to help, but ended up spending a lot of time laying on the lawn soaking in the sun admiring the bountiful apple tree over us.
Aunt is an amazing cook and needless to say we used to eagerly look forward to every meal time – she had a surprise for us every single time, having meticulously planned the menu ahead to accommodate everything typical of the region which she thought we must be fed. For one such dinner, there was Salmon in cream sauce on a bed of spinach served with buttered rice. We delighted at the freshness of the salmon as much as the simplicity of the seasoning that heightened the flavours of the cream in the sauce, the buttery rice and of course, the salmon itself. There was stir-fried champignons (mushrooms) with toast on another night; the typical way to stir fry mushrooms German style is to stir-fry a lot of coarsely chopped mushrooms in garlic and adding an egg in the end so that it forms a semi-omelet of sorts that you topple over a toasted rye bread. There was a Swiss-style meat in gravy with crisp hashbrowns, and then on our insistence, there was the hearty and rustic Sauerkraut with meat and onions which we mopped up with creamy potato mash. The taste lingered on much after we had left Germany and I decided I have to give it a try at home – I did manage to pickle a small batch of sauerkraut in a mason jar later back home but that is a story for another day. Our larger takeaway from these home-cooked meals was freshness of ingredients and simplicity in seasoning – two things we probably don’t often get right in India. We – or perhaps it’s just me – tend to add garlic to every European dish whereas I found out that garlic isn’t really used as an all-purpose ingredient there. Most dishes are seasoned with just salt and pepper, some of course with a helping of local fresh herbs. Strong flavoring agents such as garlic and ginger are usually not required, especially when the subjects are as fresh as one gets them there. It was one lesson learnt, apart from the fact that I made a conscious choice to cook with seasonal produce in the market – as that is the only way to assure oneself of its freshness.
Our stay in Germany was ridden with road-trips to neighboring towns and a lot of eating-out and other adventures including getting caught in a terrorist-attack situation, would spill the beans on those in the next post…