Monday, December 30, 2013

FoodTrek: Wine and Dine on the River Rhine

"So, what did you guys do on your trip to Germany?" My gut (har-har) response is, "We drank a lot of local wine and ate a lot of local food." You really do explore a region through its meals, because for places that are centuries-old like Germany, a lot of its living history is in its traditional cuisine. We weren't necessarily having nothing but bratwurst and sauerkraut for the duration of our visit, but we did try to eat and drink things that were directly related to the places we were at. If I were to sum up our visit through Germany, cruising along the Rhine, what we had on the plate and in our glass certainly added additional flavor to all the incredible sights we were treated to.

View from atop Heidelberg Castle - a true feast - Photo by Wasabi Prime

We visited multiple cities along the Rhine, many smaller ones that may get missed if you're hitting the larger, metropolitan cities. The nice thing about going to these smaller places was that there was more of a feeling of an Old World, cultural preservation. I realize a great deal of Germany was heavily damaged or flat-out destroyed during both World Wars, but a lot of it was restored, with the notion of keeping as much of a building's history as possible. We saw a lot of that rebuilt/preserved history, spending a morning exploring the city of Koblenz, which is a city along the German Corner - Deutsches Eck - where the River Moselle joins the Rhine. We could see the history of the city in its buildings, from the Basilica of St. Kastor, Koblenz's oldest church built around the year 800, all the way through more relatively recent Gothic structures like the Liebfrauenkirche (Church of our Lady). A fountain even marked the city's history of multiple French occupations -- a common theme in these Rhineland cities -- the Schaengel (Little Jean) who spits water, at least in the summer when they turn the fountains on. The "Little Jeans" were the nicknames of the many children local women had with French soldiers during the occupations. Ah, Germany, and your sense of humor.

Morning in Koblenz, with a big helping of history - Photos by Wasabi Prime
We saw a lot of castles, of course -- the underlying theme of this trip was a tour of castles along the Rhine. Marksburg Castle was a great example of Medieval life and a reminder of why you should never, ever, ever get any romantic notions about living in a big, stone-walled castle atop a drafty, cold mountain. That was harsh living. And we didn't need to be convinced by the resident torture chamber (although that was chilling enough) to get a sense of how tough life was during this era. Freezing cold in the winter, forever vigilant to keep out incoming marauders, tiny and uncomfortable beds where women typically slept upright to keep their fussy coiffures intact -- this was no vacation home. It was interesting to see the castle's kitchen area -- rustic, for sure, and even more interesting, they rent out the dining area for parties, so you really can live out your Medieval Times fantasy, if you so wish. We were more curious about the gigantic press that looked more like a torture device, as the Mister insisted with his pose, and after all that exploring, walking rather precariously over some Medievally uneven walkways, and hiking up a fairly steep hill of steps to get to Marksburg Castle, they had a little cafe that served beer! Although I'm lame and had a rhubarb soda because I wanted something fizzy and fruity-fresh. The "fass" on the label wasn't referring to a wine barrel -- absolutely no boozeahol in this bottle. But my liver was needed elsewhere...

Medieval Times at Marksburg Castle - Photos by Wasabi Prime
I was looking forward to visiting Schloss Vollrads, one of the oldest winemakers in Germany located in -- of course -- a castle. Something I had to get used to, which is probably nothing to people who have lived in Europe, was the notion that almost every sizeable old building was called a castle. Whether it was a richly-decorated manor home or a big, scary-ass Medieval military fortress, it was just called a castle, or schloss. When we visited Schloss Vollrads, this was more of the castle we goofy Americans imagine, a beautiful, palatial estate built upon Roman ruins, with some structures over 3 centuries old, surrounded by hills of vineyards. Tasting wine at a castle vineyard? Hells yeah.

Getting to know the local Riesling - Photos by Wasabi Prime
Schloss Vollrads can say they're one of the oldest winemakers in Germany because they still have the bill of sale dated from the year 1211 showing a wine transaction with a local monastery. That's a pretty impressive rep. It makes that prized signed baseball you have seem kinda dull. Since then, the noble family Greiffenclau has been making wine for generations, primarily the Riengau Riesling -- Riesling from the Rhine region, which I'm sure is fairly obvious. We saw from the previous day, coasting down the Rhine, all the beautiful hillsides of vineyards which flourish in the region. All small, private plots of land, they were likely growing Riesling grapes, which do well in the Rhineland's mild summers and damp, chilly autumn -- very similar to the Pacific Northwest, which also grows Riesling. Clearly some grapes don't mind a bit of rain and gray skies. It was nice to do a full tasting of the different styles of Rieslings at Schloss Vollrads because it was a reminder that this varietal, while associated as a sweet dessert wine, can also be pleasantly dry. The terms we learned to keep an eye out for were halbtrocken (off-dry) and trocken (dry), when searching out the less-sugary Riesling varietals. Just to make sure we didn't forget our drinking lessons for the day, we made sure to bring some bottles home for further study...

Exploring Speyer and meeting the Speyer-Spider (I made that up) - Photos by Wasabi Prime
Just because we weren't eating schnitzel and sauerkraut until it came out of our ears doesn't mean we weren't seeking out and eating local food when we could. Oh yes, and disturbing giant arachnid playground decor -- seriously, Germany, WTF?? We had most of a day to ourselves in Speyer, a city that's actually one of the oldest in Germany -- 5,000 years old -- before it became part of the Roman Empire. That Roman history is all throughout the country, in the symbols of lions that are everywhere, and even the food. The dishes are often described as "Palatinate favorites," referring to the historic state of the Holy Roman Empire. We had a nice, laid-back lunch at the Hausbrauerei Domhof, which was basically the local brewery right by the very large and impressive Speyer Cathedral (dom).

Eating and drinking traditional favorites at the local brewery - Photos by Wasabi Prime
We had some of the local beers to go with our meals, as one should, and we ordered a lunch as far from a hamburger n' fries as possible. Brock had a venison stew with a side of wonderfully fluffy potato dumplings called knodel or kartoffelklosse, and because it was called a "Palatinate favorite" on the menu, I had a plate of liver dumplings -- leberknodel -- which are also served in soups, but these were topped with a rich bacon gravy and a side of sauerkraut. If you're not a liver fan, don't fear, these were really mild and delicate in flavor, and surprisingly light in texture. Although don't let the sensible portion sizes of German food fool you -- you think you've had a pleasant, relaxing lunch and then the Food Whammy hits. This lunch gave us a major Food Coma and required a bit of napping afterwards. Who'd have thought two little dumplings and a side of cabbage would put the Whammy on you like that? I guess the beers probably had something to do with it, too. We bid Speyer and it's slightly disturbing Speyer Spider playground auf wiedersehen, and eventually meandered to our next adventure.

Heidelberg Castle, made all the more magnificent with the glowing orb in the sky - Photo by Wasabi Prime
Not unlike our homeland of Seattleandia, gray skies and rain can frequent Germany. We were by no means devastated by less-than-perfect weather, but it definitely made for some dull, gray picture-taking. We had sideways rain and wind in Koln and some days when you wondered if the constant spittle-rain would ever stop and if your fancy camera was slowly rotting from the inside. But the Vacation Gods smiled upon us when we were in Heidelberg, visiting the castle that overlooks a most charming city.

Heidelberg's castle has some of the most beautiful Renaissance-era architecture in that part of Europe, but it's been a work in progress since the 1200s, when multiple segments of the castle were built, major sections were struck by lightning and then rebuilt, and it had to survive wars, fires, and more rebuilding. It housed royalty and imprisoned popes -- this castle's walls could tell tales. On the day we were there, the tale we enjoyed the most was the one happening right before us, as the clouds parted, blue skies prevailed, and gorgeous sunlight bathed the whole castle in an amazing warm hue, illuminating one of the most beautiful views you'll ever see. The city of Heidelberg set against autumnal-painted hills, sliced through with the ribbon of the Rhine, snaking its way through the landscape. It was one of those moments that you're reminded: holy crap, this is why travel is amazing, so leave your Interwebz behind and pack a suitcase!

Maybe the sad lion tried drinking from 60,000-gallon wine barrel - Photos by Wasabi Prime
Another reason to travel to old castles is to marvel at the fact that for as much as you love wine, the people who lived in those castles loved it a lot more. Like, 60,000 gallons more. At least, that's the estimated amount the Heidelberg Tun is supposed to hold, but really, after the 10,000th glass, who's counting? I took a photo of the Mister standing atop this Monstro-sized barrel that's housed in the castle's wine cellar. It supposedly took nearly 130 oak trees to construct the thing, but despite the preference (and health safety) to drink wine over water, it wasn't the primary wine vessel of the castle. There were other wine barrels that were maybe a quarter of this beast's size (and still plenty huge) that were likely more readily used. I'm guessing the Heidelberg tun was a show-off piece used for wild and crazy parties, acting as a festive wine kegerator when things got rowdy at royal house parties. Which makes it all the more fitting that the city of Heidelberg is a college town, encompassing a university with the same name. It keeps the city youthful and fun, pairing nicely with its built-in Old World beauty. I really loved Heidelberg and could have easily spent more time there, exploring the mix of shops, bars and cafes. And I still don't know why the hell there was a Star Wars joke on that espresso shop's clapboard, but I'm content to revel in the mystery.

Don't forget to have a bit of dessert - some Black Forest Cake - Photos by Wasabi Prime
We were in the Black Forest region, but regretfully, we didn't actually tour the forest itself. The thing about visiting new and exciting places is, you can't see everything, you make choices to do some things in place of others, and a chance to see the famed Black Forest slipped through our fingers in lieu of another adventure. But that's okay, because we did have Black Forest Cake, soaked quite heartily in kirschwasser (cherry-flavored liqueur), which pretty much got you drunk after one slice. So maybe we didn't see the forest, but if we had enough of this cake, we could convince ourselves that we did. There was a cooking demo on board our river cruise ship, and it was one of those unhurried mornings made all the more perfect with dessert.

Stick with this food/travel roller coaster, as I've got one more post summing up our time in Northern France, the Alsace, which was a marvelous combination of German/French influence, and my new obsession with the cheesy-bacony goodness that is flammekuchen.


  1. Looks like your cruise trip was a real fun. My first cruise was perfect . Now it is like addiction. I have been in a cruise last vacation. I’m a big fan of river cruising because, I can eat great meals. Do power walking, sit on my balcony and do almost everything. River cruising was hilarious. All my expectations were exceeded and I will never ever forget this experience. Really loved the whole experience and looking forward for doing another cruise adventure trip in future.

  2. Looks like your cruise trip was a real fun. My first cruise was perfect . Now it is like addiction. I have been in a cruise last vacation. I’m a big fan of river cruising because, I can eat great meals. Do power walking, sit on my balcony and do almost everything. River cruising was hilarious. All my expectations were exceeded and I will never ever forget this experience. Really loved the whole experience and looking forward for doing another cruise adventure trip in future.


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