My poor husband. I mean, it’s not like he didn’t know what he was getting himself into when he committed himself to a life with a food-obsessed wife: a wife who reads cookbooks morning, noon and night; in the kitchen, in the bath, in the bed. A wife who bothers him with important questions about regional cuisine during a film’s gripping climax; someone who asks him what he fancies for dinner when he’s barely awoken from a peaceful, wifeless sleep.
I imagine that ever since I decided to try and learn how to cook like a German, things have been much worse. Five of my six German cookbooks are, believe it or not, in German, so for a while, B was frequently subjected to quickfire vocabulary queries from his overenthusiastic life-partner as he lay in bed quietly trying to read the newspaper before going to sleep. He has only just managed to persuade me not to stick up a notice in the stairwell asking whichever grandma it is that cooks a proper hot German lunch every Sunday to take me under her wing and show me how it’s done.
However, I’m pretty sure that he secretly loves it. I mean, he does eat very well and on some level, I think (hope) he finds it rather endearing. Or at least, he finds it funny: his mirth was more than slightly apparent when I announced last May that my friend (S) and I had enrolled ourselves onto a day’s cooking course in Mainz to learn some closely-guarded “secrets from Grandma’s drawers”. And so one Saturday morning, giddy with excitement, I packed some knives and a roomy tupperware, and headed off to a workshop that’s regularly run at a local school by the nationwide adult education school, the VHS. And because I was so excited about the cooking, despite the fact that the whole thing was run by Germans for Germans and my German is presently not at a particularly high level, I wasn’t in the least bit nervous.
S and I found our way to our schoolroom (above: and it genuinely was a schoolroom, but I tell you what, we didn’t have anything like this in my day) and greeted our teacher. There were ten of us students altogether, all locals with unbounding enthusiasm for the regional cuisine, and once we’d all arrived we settled around a table and our teacher handed around print-outs of the recipes and explained a little more about the course.
I won’t lie: we were all rather disappointed. All of us being enthusiastic home cooks – none chefs, but some serial cooking-class attendees – keen to learn some magic tips and tricks handed down through the generations, we were instead confronted with a collection of rather uninspiring-looking recipes that didn’t look like much they were going to teach us anything new. For S and I, it was still going to be a learning curve on both culinary and linguistic levels, however, so we remained positive. We were allotted a recipe in pairs and sent off to our individual cooking areas, me very much pretending I was on Masterchef.
S and I were given a simple dish to prepare: gefüllte Pfannkuchen – pancakes, stuffed with cheese, ham and vegetables. At this point I must say I was very pleased to be paired up with a Frenchwoman. We got straight to work with making a standard pancake batter, chopping up a hunk of dried pork belly as well as some cabbage and leeks; and mixed together lots of butter, cheese and cream. The pancakes all came out well, and filled and sprinkled with freshly-chopped herbs, I don’t think they looked half bad. They tasted better than they looked, however: could have done with some substantial seasoning and I’m currently trying to work through personal issues with dill, but the recipe isn’t to blame there, and I wouldn’t have sent them back if I was served them at lunch.
Which was lucky, because it turned out that precisely the same filling had been used for the ham and herb quiche made at the other end of the kitchen. I can’t say I’ve ever thought of quiche as a German speciality, but there we are. It looked good, featured bought pastry, and it tasted alright. By which I mean, it tasted exactly like the pancakes.
The next secret Grandma pulled out of her drawers was two platefuls of puff pastry squares stuffed with either ham and onion or cream cheese and herbs (that’s not to say I couldn’t taste the difference, I mean there were two different kinds). I seem to remember one of them being quite tasty, but I can’t imagine I’ll be whipping out the recipe at home and serving them to friends.
The recipe for Bratwurst mit Äpfel (sausages with apple, above) was one handed down to our teacher by Aunt Selma of the Eifel region. It’s pretty hard to go wrong with a couple of lovely bangers, some chunks of apple and a generous glug of cider, yet the chap in charge of the Brootwuesch met Äppel (the same dish in the Mainz dialect), experienced a cook as he was, despite the fantastic locally-produced pork and fennel sausages and a lovely regional cider, produced an insipid and gloopy dish that remained virtually untouched in the middle of the table when we finally sat down to eat it. Even by me. Luckily I’d noticed he’d had his fair share of sausages during the cooking process, so at least one of us didn’t miss out entirely.
I spent most of the day awaiting the making of the Knöpfle, the egg noodle-cousin of my much-adored Spätzle, so-named because of their shape – looking as they do (allegedly) like “little buttons”. Well. Having already recently wrestled with three different Spätzle-making devices in recent attempts at home, I was excited to be introduced to a fourth (above), one that looked considerably easier to use than any of the things I’ve had a go with, and much more fun. And by fun, I obviously mean messy.
The Knöpfle turned out a little more Spätzley than Knöpfley (to my untrained eye), but they tasted delicious, which is more than you can say for its accompanying chicken stew, which not only looked like something I used to get served up at school (not a compliment), but tasted like something I used to get served up at school as well, by which I mean it was totally devoid of any flavour at all. Quite some feat.
Last, but by no means least – quite the opposite, in fact – was dessert. There were two: Herrenspeise and Apfelschnecken. The former, a chocolate and vanilla pudding, which translates literally as MAN FOOD (though according to the recipe list, “also for women!”), was epically ruined by the ladies who’d taken charge of it and rendered it virtually inedible. The Apfelschnecken (“apple snails”) on the other hand, though they’d all stuck together in their oven dish, were an absolute delight: chunks of apple mixed into a quark dough, sprinkled with cinnamon crumble and baked till fluffy in the middle and crunchy on top. They were almost worth the course fee all on their own. Almost.
I know I’ve well and truly slated pretty much everything we produced off our kitchen benches, and I feel rather bad for doing so, but the food was well and truly, hugely disappointing, and the course itself not what any of us expected from one with such a promising name. It didn’t shed much – if any – light on any traditional dishes or culinary techniques, and I was frustrated that the food wasn’t any good because I know just how very good German food can be. These recipes didn’t do it justice. Where were the real classics? The Sauerbraten? The dumplings? The Spargel? (It’s MAY, for goodness sake).
It’s not to say I didn’t have fun. I was terrifically proud that S and I had spent the best part of a whole day following German recipes alongside Real Live Germans and speaking lots of what might be considered almost passable German without being laughed at once. And our teacher was lovely: attentive, helpful, and extremely patient with the two idiotic foreigners at the back (us).
On the off chance that I was completely wrong about the food and that what we’d produced was in fact a series of culinary triumphs, I packed a few select leftovers into my tupperware and took them home for B to try. B’s reaction was, it has to be said, brief and not very kind, but let’s just say it turned out I was right. And that I’m probably a step closer to being allowed to stick up that sign in the stairwell.
The Volkshochschule (VHS) in Mainz offers a variety of cooking classes, in German, at very reasonable prices. This post was originally published on my old blog, Letters from Frau Dietz.