Thursday 12 November 2009

When in Germany

I've spent the week in Germany, where I've been performing a safety audit on a device made by a German subsidiary of a Swiss company on behalf of an English subsidiary of a French company. I write this sitting in France, fifty metres from Switzerland, while waiting for a plane to fly me to the Netherlands and thence home to Scotland. It's all remarkably painless.

But let's talk about Germany. Lots of the things you thought you knew (or I thought I knew) about Germany turn out to be true - or at least, turn out to be true of small towns on the fringes of the Schwartzwald. My view might be slightly influenced by the company I was auditing, by the fact that that Swiss-owned engineering company was absolutely obsessive about quality in everything they did (including hospitality). It was engineering of the kind I associate with Germany: always up to a quality, never down to a price. Over-engineered rather than under-engineered; good and thoughtful design, but emphasising sturdiness and durability over style.

The taxis were spotlessly clean, their drivers unfailingly courteous. The factory was clean and efficient and all the staff positive, relaxed, confident and happy to explain their work. The hotel was extremely well fitted and comfortable (and clean), the rooms generous and luxurious, the staff helpful, friendly and welcoming. They were mostly middle aged, not young; I think almost entirely local; and the ratio of staff to guests higher than you'd find in anything but the most upmarket British hotel. Yet the cost of a room was exactly the same as in a grubby corporate flea-pit in East Kilbride - where you would not have got the delicious and varied breakfast.

Which brings me to food. The company we were auditing treated us as guests; not only did they provide us with restaurant-quality lunch each day in their staff canteen, they took us out to dine every night, at a total of three different restaurants; twice the one belonging to our hotel, once a modern restaurant in the local administrative centre, and once... I'll come to that.

So what is German food like? Sausages and sourkraut? Chips and cream-cakes? Errr... no. We did eat a little sourkraut - several varieties of it, all good. We ate noodles, of kinds I'd never heard of before, let alone seen - nothing like Italian noodles. We ate dumplings. We once ate chips - once. We ate a simply extraordinary quantity of meat. We ate home made icecream. I didn't eat sausage at all (although a number of varieties were available at breakfast). Slightly to my disappointment I didn't eat a proper Schwartzwald Kirsche Torte - I could have, but I simply didn't have room (my abstemiousness at breakfast was for the same reason). I have eaten more this week than I eat in an average fortnight.

So, what is the food like? In one word, delicious. Extraordinarily good. Exceptional. Second, in my experience, only to Malaysia. Everything was of superb quality, freshly prepared, not over fancy. The effete over-complicated confections of British television cooking were nowhere to be seen; nor was fast food, or junk food. In the urban centres we did see a few Indian, Chinese and Vietnamese restaurants, and we did see sausageinnabun shops. But the places we went to served food which was proudly local, unashamedly German, unquestionably fresh-cooked and utterly excellent.

Until the very last night - last night - which was completely different. We drove up into the forest, up steeply climbing twisting roads which would be a joy to cycle in summer, to an ancient farm-house turned gasthof. The whole place was wooden, over four hundred years old. We went into a simple, homely dining room which would hold twenty people at the most, but which was empty but for a man sitting alone and the four of us. A pretty young waitress who spoke no English brought us simple paper menus, and came back after a few minutes to take our order. I chose a venison ragout with noodles, which sounded good.

So much, so normal. And then it all changed.

Mien host came in, a tall and powerful old man called Sago, wearing casual countryman's clothes. He spoke a little English but was much more comfortable in German. He sat down with us for a few minutes, talking, and then said he'd shot a wild pig, and would we like some? After not a lot of discussion, we agreed we would. Was it spit-roasted, someone asked? No, it had been baked in the oven, after the bread he'd be serving with it. Sago also said he had some mead, would we like to taste?

He disappeared into the back, and shortly reappeared bearing an enormous ox horn in a wrought iron stand. I joked that it must be an aurochs horn, but in truth I don't know where he got one so big; it wasn't old, and was by far bigger the horn of any domestic breed I know of except perhaps a Texas long-horn. He offered this to us and I realised it was full of mead. How much mead fills a horn like that? I haven't a clue, but it must have been at least two litres. I was certain that between four of us - and one a driver - we'd never empty it. So we chatted round the table with Sago, and drank his (wonderful) mead, passing this epic horn from hand to hand, until the chef appeared.

The chef was a man as big as Sago, and with the sort of belly on him a good chef should have. He greeted us, spoke to Sago, and they both disappeared into the back. After a few moments they reappeared, bearing a trencher. A trencher? it was at least four feet by two, of sturdy oak. It filled the table, clearly leaving no room for such effete nonsense as individual plates. On it. besides two baked quarters of a substantial pig and a large loaf of rough bread cut into thick slices, were two large crocks of gravy, baked apples, baked potatoes, sweet corn, and a mountain of roughly chopped mushrooms (which, it transpired, were the only ingredient which had been bought in). Oh - and four very sharp knives. No forks.

Four people - four people could not possibly eat all this.

Four people very nearly did. There were some potatoes left at the end, and an apple, and perhaps a kilo of pork on the shoulder. We gorged ourselves. We all gorged ourselves, despite having already overeaten for three days, because it was so extraordinarily delicious, so utterly delectable.

And when, finally, we thought we had eaten all we possibly could and the trencher had been removed, the pretty waitress (who, it transpired, was not German but from Drakula's home village in Transylvania) persuaded us all to have some home-made ice-cream with advocaat; and Sago reappeared and persuaded us to have a schnapps. The waitress and the other guest (an engineer from Bratislava in Slovakia) joined us, and together we conversed in a happy mixture of German, English, French, a bit of Italian, a bit of Dutch, and some Slovak, while the mead horn continued to circulate.

We could have had that meal - in that place, in that environment - any time in the past four hundred years; there was an electric light but it was no brighter or more intrusive than a candle lamp. Apart from the potatoes and sweet corn, we could have had it any time in the past millenium.

At the end of it all we went back to the hotel very late. I was drunker than I've been in twenty years - and probably happier. The mead horn? It was empty.

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