Thursday, October 22, 2009

Day 17: Wine in Saarland

When I got up this morning, I said a tiny, itsy bitsy, tiny thank-you prayer that my grandfather and I weren’t rowing today: my butt hurt like I’d been on a really bad bike saddle for all that time yesterday. After a rich and decadent breakfast of: bread with lots of fancy spreads, Opa and I took off. He kept asking if I wanted to go to the castle, downtown, or a raptor farm, since I didn’t want to go rowing with the rest of the group. I wanted to take him by the shoulders and say, “Look, I wanted to go rowing! We can do whatever the hell you want to do in Saarburg and I’ll be fine, but don’t make it out to be that I was the one who wimped out!” I decided to skip the raptor exhibit, given that, oh, we have raptors in Alaska and Montana.

Before we headed up to the castle, we strolled through Saarburg (with my grandfather pointing out helpful observations such as “There’s the waterfall,” and “There are grapes on that hill”). We stopped for a while at the old bell foundry, which went under and is now a museum. It was so cool, bells were made there for more than half a millenia. The museum is mostly arranged like there was a fire drill rather than meltdown in the old-timey bell business. I got to touch things and go up stairs and ladders! Unfortunately one annoying Dutch tourist decided to start RINGING one of the bells, which was ear shattering in close proximity and closed quarters. One time was enough, but oh no, he was hell bent on calling Fraüline Maria from the hills like the regular church bells.

The castle is super duper old, I think I saw 936 as the first date on the German sign. Looking up inside the structure walls, I could see the square holes where beams once were to support upper floors, and holes in the wall that were appropriate for stories no longer there. The tower part was kind of shaped like a bullet, so on the bottom, there was a donut of a floor to hang out on and let other people pass on the (recently installed) tightly wound spiral staircase. At the top, however, I had to duck to keep from banging my head on rock. The view was amazing.

Opa didn’t join me in the tower, but he did hike over the rest of Saarburg with me. He would walk with his hands clasped behind his back, and being older and more clumsy than he’d like to be, he kept tripping on the uneven steps and slippery rocks. This would immediately make my stomach jump into the back of my throat, afraid he’d take a bad fall, fracture his hip, and bleed a lot. Opa knew exactly how to turn my fears into other emotions: he’d lecture me on the finer points of how I needed to be careful. I’m not too proud to use the handrail, I’m not tripping! You be careful!

For lunch, we went to a little French café, fittingly named, “Petit Café.” I could barely keep from laughing or gagging when I stepped inside. I think this place was what J.K. Rowling was inspired for Madame Tufty’s or whatever, the sickeningly sweet coffee shop that Harry had to take Cho for Valentine’s Day. Yes I am a nerd. Anyway, this place was ridiculous. There were doilies everywhere, including the ceiling, cherub figurines/paintings/carpeting/motifs everywhere, dolls hanging from the walls in a somewhat creepy way, gilted mirrors, roses, angels, and even a real live accordian player. What I said about this place being romantic? Okay, it knows it, and flaunts it, and cancels itself out.

The food was much better: we both got flammkuchen, which is like the French-German take on pizza. I will try to make it when I get back. It has a very thin crust, which gets grease logged and soft in the middle (maybe not supposed to?) and crispy like a cracker on the edges. Instead of tomato sauce, there’s a creamy-eggy-cheesy mixture, I’m thinking kind of like quiche filling but richer, maybe quark and eggs, but very thin. On top, diced salted pork (think thick bacon without the white stuff) and onions are sprinkled, and it’s thrown in a very hot oven. Salty, greasy, savory, crispy, it was delicious.

Over lunch, I also got my grandfather to tell me stories of my mom and her siblings from their childhood. My aunt, as a very young kid or old toddler, peed her pants when my grandfather fetched the car to go home, because she thought he had forgotten her. I didn’t get any really good dirt on my mom, except that she was hard to find: one time she disappeared in a Parisian playground and they had no idea where she went until she popped back up, and one morning she couldn’t be found anywhere in the house, but they finally found her sleeping UNDER the bed. I hope I can dig up more dirt in the future. It’s an interesting topic of conversation and leaves me feeling impish and grown-up all at the same time, with no frustration!

Once the rowing group returned, we met up for a wine tour by “planwagon.” I thought the “planwagon” was the support van for the rowing trip, but no! It was a trailer, with two long bench seats down the side and a thin long table down the middle, with a frame over and canvas-plastic removable covering. All this pulled by a tractor. All the retiree rowers filed in as my grandfather pulled me over and introduced me loudly to the tractor-driver, “Hier is meine Enkelin! Sie kommt aus Alaska! Meine Enkelin!” The man and I both had slightly bugged out eyes conveying our surprise at the violent introductions, but then he relaxed and shook my hand, chuckling, “Die Enkelin? Hallo.” Then he said a whole bunch of other things in German that I didn’t understand. A while ago I told my grandfather how I was craving the company of people my own age, rather than just family, I wonder if in his eyes, Marion and Bernd, mid 40’s I’d guess, were in the same age group as me.

Since there were too many of us rowers, I sat with two other rowers in the front of the wagon facing forward, Gisela and Hardy on seats and me on a crate in between them. We stopped in the middle of a huge hillside-big conglomeration of grape-plots, where our guide had learned how to make wine. We drank sekt, the German name for sparkling white wine made outside of Champagne, France. I soaked up the beautiful scenery, huge monoculture, and chilly sunny air around me as Bernd, the owner and winemaker of Weingut Eilenz, explained chemistry and plant science I understand in a language I don’t. By the time I got back into the wagon, I was giggly and consciously careful: a little drunk for the start of a six-wine tour.

At the next stop, we drank a trocken (dry) Riesling spätlese, while our handsome, charming, deep voiced, and did I mention married tour guide showed us his own vineyards. Don’t worry, dear friends, I did not hit on or flirt with the man, it would have been impossible anyway armed only with a few choppy phrases, a blank smile, tasting wine glass, and innumerable dankeschön’s. He had an experimental plot started only in 1986 with ash and poplar interplanted like the Romans did. I hope one of the two works out well, as much as I love wine and feel classy in a vineyard, the huge swaths of formerly forested land dedicated to Riesling made me think of Iowa corn. I know it’s not much, but isn’t a tri-culture (tree, grape, cover crop) better than just grapes?

Finally, we got to Bernd’s restaurant/hotel/really big house, and drank a ton more wine. We ate like a family rather than like at a restaurant, and it was nice. The meal started with a soup that was based on a dark broth with clear balls on the bottom (tapioca? Something more sinister?) and bone-marrow knödel. I grimaced at the thought of bone-marrow knödel, but ate and enjoyed it anyway. What kind of hypocrite am I if I get all interested when Julie Powell makes a bone-marrow sauce for steak and can’t even stomach it mixed with breadcrumbs in dumplings?

The next/other/final course was over-steamed broccoli, over-steamed cauliflower, roast, and a sauce that strangely reminded me of thousand-island dressing; creamy with pickles. We drank, ate, and talked until 11 or so, with Bernd’s wife slaving away in the kitchen, his daughters helping clear the table, and his son trying to get his attention but only getting goofy faces from me. Bernd explained that it’s a family operation: he makes the wine, his wife and kids help out with running the show, one young apprentice is learning how to make wine, and he hires extra hands at harvest. Someone asked him if he liked being his own boss. Bernd said, “I work for myself, but I‘m not the boss, (pointing up) grants or denies my weather requests.” I caught all that in German! My Deutsch comprehension is much better than vocalization. Ich ferstehe meher als ich kanne spreche, or something like that. Anyway, when it all got settled up, we each owed 32 euros for the entire seven hour experience. I paid almost that much to cover 1.5 people’s share of beer and food at the bar in Trier!

We left in two groups because we couldn’t all fit into the van to get back into Saarburg. I had decided to buy some wine, and still had to settle up for that. My roommate came in and warned me that my grandfather wanted me to leave in the first group with him, he was very worried I wouldn’t be able to get into the hotel/find my room/get into the room. She then followed it with, “I know you can, I’ll leave the door unlocked and you’ll probably get there before I get to sleep anyway, I’ll help your grandfather relax.” It was yet another example of how my grandfather is an extremely sweet and caring guy, but unfortunately he treats me like I have the competence level of a six-year old.

When I bought my wine, I under calculated my bill by four euro (remember, multiple glasses of multiple wines). Once I realized my mistake, I tried to give Bernd the extra four euro I still owed. He said, “No, it is okay, close enough.” With a panicked desperation, I thought, ‘Oh no, it is not okay, he can’t be personally nice to me! He knows about my one-night crush on him! Oh no, it’s not okay, he can’t be nice to me!” So I kept trying to give him the four euro more, which was exactly the flirtation I was trying to avoid. I finally snuck it in with the cash of another rower, rather than trying the old slip-it-in-the pocket ruse. That would have been much too much.
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