Thursday, November 20, 2008

What I Love About Germany: Kaffee und Kuchen

There aren’t a lot of things I love about Germany, but there is one thing that I do enjoy. It’s the afternoon tradition of Kaffee und Kuchen. Around 3:00 PM all business stops and people gather around a table for a slice of cake (or pie!), a cup of coffee, and conversation. I was able to participate in the high-caloric relaxing ritual this past Sunday in Stuttgart when I was visiting my friend Foong (I know Foong from an intensive German class I took four years ago).

Now remember, this is Germany and NOTHING -- except for gas stations -- is open on Sundays. Gas stations and bakeries, that is. The bakeries are allowed to be open for a few hours on Sundays, but this is only after successfully arguing that since the gas stations were selling fresh bread on Sunday mornings bakeries were losing their Saturday business.

So on Sunday, after arriving at Foong’s, we jumped in the car and drove to the neighborhood Konditorei before it closed at three.

Arriving at Rosenstoeckle, we saw cars coming and going, and a line of customers that stretched out the door. This gave me plenty of time to inspect the assortment of tarts and cakes filled with creamy layers and luscious fruits. I was so taken by the colors and textures, imagining each of the delicious flavors on my tongue, I told Foong I wanted take a picture.

“You should ask first,” warned Foong. Yes, she was right. I had been reprimanded many times during the three years I lived in Germany for (inadvertently) doing something wrong – like not laying my wine bottles down on the conveyor belt in the grocery store or bringing my wedding dress to the dry cleaners with Champagne stains – so I knew asking was the right thing to do in order to avoid the predictable public humiliation.

Darf ich ein Foto machen?” I asked the woman behind the counter. To subdue her shock (or was it horror?), I explained that everything looked so delicious, especially to an American. To my great relief, her face relaxed and then she turned toward me holding two plates of Schwarzwälder Kirschtorte, known in English as Black Forest Cake. I had meant that I wanted to take a picture of the bakery display, but to see her standing there offering such a generous smile, posing with the plates, I snapped the shot and smiled back.

We took our four pieces of cake home – though what we chose was more pie than cake (rhubarb, apple, and plum each nestled in a bed of vanilla custard) – and devoured them around Foong’s dining room table. Her husband Karl and son Oscar joined us, and we chatted about their upcoming travels to Asia, Oscar’s school, and Obama's win as the cold rain fell outside. As we laughed and ate and finished our coffee I relaxed, reminded that there's something good in everybody and in every place. And that includes Germany.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

A Mother-Daughter Pie Lesson in Germany

What else does one do when in Germany but teach their hosts how to make American apple pie? As Stuttgart, Germany was where my month in Europe began and ended -- due to the non-stop Delta flight I booked round-trip to Atlanta -- I found myself making a promise when I first arrived at my friend Julia's house in mid-October and fulfilling that promise before departing in mid-November. If it hadn't been for that apple tree beckoning with its ripe fruit right outside the kitchen window the topic might not have come up. Then again, I know there's no avoiding the pie subject. Julia had come to my first pie-baking party in Portland, Oregon more than one year earlier when we were both living there. (She got a big promotion and transferred back to Daimler headquarters, while my husband got transferred to the hinterlands of high-altitude Mexico.) Julia was determined that I give her a refresher course. (Which, by the way, was a completely fair exchange for the beautiful guest room she was letting me stay in.) Her mother was equally determined. Like mother, like daughter, as they say.
All business: Julia approaches her apple peeling the way she does her job a Mercedes Benz -- fast and efficient.
Many hands make little work, or Viele Hände machen bald ein Ende, as they say in Germany.
Frau Beck knows what she's doing. She's clearly made a number of Apfel Kuchens in her day!

Apples -- and the pies they end up in -- know no cultural boundaries. Whether Germany or the USA or some other country, apple pie is always delicious, the deliverer of happiness, and something that brings people together -- and this one was no exception. Neither do apples and pie care about age differences. Not only two countries, but two generations came together to create something so sweet and satisfying, so delicate and mouth-watering.
Frau Beck and Frau Beck Jr. earned an A-plus in teamwork and final outcome of their mother-daughter pie. We ate the pie for dessert that night and had more for breakfast before I flew off. I look forward to hearing their stories next fall when the apples on their tree ripen again. And for all that I have complained about Germany (for which I apologize!), I hope I can return next November, stay in that beautiful guest room overlooking the autumn-colored hills of Stuttgart, and bake pie -- be it American-style or some European recipe-- with these gorgeous and generous German women.

A Month of Contrasts, A Month of Pie

(PHOTO: View out of my Monte-Carlo hotel room)

It is my last day in Europe after a five-week journey. I was in five countries, spoke five languages, spent money in four currencies, and baked eight pies. My travels started in Mexico and took me to Germany, Switzerland, England, Monaco, and back to Germany. It’s a fascinating thing to move between so many cultures, landscapes, and languages. During this month I have perused the halls of the Frankfurt Book Fair, hiked in the Swiss Alps, driven through The Cotswalds in England’s countryside, walked the length of Kings’ Road in Chelsea, and dined with Prince Albert (OK, so it was along with 300 other people) in Monaco. Tomorrow I return to Saltillo, Mexico.

(PHOTO: Close encouters with cows during a hike in the Swiss Emmental)

I feel very privileged to be able to live a life as rich and varied as this. “Varied,” however, may be the wrong word. “Schizophrenic” may be more like it. To underscore this, just yesterday I was working on the publicity for a conference in Monte-Carlo, Monaco. Today I was baking apple pie in Stuttgart, Germany. Yesterday I was dressed in my pin-striped Armani suit. Today I wore my ratty jeans and running shoes. Yesterday I was elbow to elbow with high-ranking media executives. Today I was up to my elbows in pie dough with my friend Julia and her mother. Yesterday I was asked, “Voulez-vous aller à l'aéroport dans la Bentley ou la Masarati?” Today I was asking, “Haben Sie noch mehr Äpfel für den Pie?” Tomorrow I will be saying decidedly less interesting things like, “Tengo que lavar mi ropa.” (I have to do my laundry.)
(PHOTO: Looking toward the Battersea Bridge in London)

What continues to amaze me through all this international travel is the common language of pie. No matter what country, I would always find that people love pie. I discovered so many kinds of pie and pie-lovers this month – from the British palm reader who told me of the Stargazy Pie to the French CEO who reminisced about his grandmother’s Pear Tatin to the waiter in the Chelsea pub who recommended the Steak & Mushroom Pie over the Fish & Chips. No matter whether a pie was filled with fruit or fish, cheese or chocolate, people were always eager to share recipes, stories, bites, and a smile.

Though I have no idea where the journey will take me next, clearly, I will continue to find pie. Or, as is more often the case, pie will find me.