Triple checking my bag leaving Amsterdam, crossing the border into Germany I didn’t want the same experience as the last time I left and arrived in Paris. All good, bag is clean and I’m on route to Stuttgart to visit with a great friend I met in Thailand. As always, I choose the night bus. Uncomfortable as all hell, cramped, and no actual sleep ever really comes, but I’m cheap saving me a hostel and from wasting a day on a bus. Ten hours later, I clamber off the bus haggardly, blinded by the light I was trying so hard to avoid through my squinted eyes only intensifying the throbbing in my head from sleep deprivation, and the sudden movements generating a cacophony of groans, grunts and wails like a herd of dying animals from my stomach.
Regaining my balance to some degree, I notice him waiting by one of the platforms. We met in a different realm of this world in the heat of the misty jungle surrounding Chiang Mai, and again in Hanoi. Almost exactly two years prior to now, this was a remarkably surreal moment I’m sure for both of us. Loading up my bags, we shortly thereafter took flight on the autobahn, as I’m informed Germans don’t drive fast but fly low. Cruising around 160km an hour which isn’t considered that fast here, I couldn’t take my eyes off the scenery once we were outside the city and into the rolling hills of the countryside. Fields painted the landscape, vineyards scaling all the steep inclines, and patches of trees dressed with vines were scattered throughout.
Surprisingly doing absolutely nothing, uncomfortably on a bus for 10 hours with a potential hour or so of unnoticeable sleep builds quite the appetite. A quick stop at the market bakery, rounding up supplies for a simple breakfast spread to bring back my even keel, before heading home into the beautiful, small town of Hofen (reminding me of Thorndale where I grew up, stuck in the boondocks with its massive populace of 800). Fresh rolls, pretzels, liverwurst, and some sort of ham-ish sausage in a can, (an indisputable love for sausage in a can is quite evident, similar to spam for Hawaiians, just way better) left with us. Showing me his coop behind the house with a dozen or so plump quails, as fresh as possible, straight from the bird’s ass, sunny-side up quail eggs joined our plates. Almost knocking me out for a nap, filling up the void in my stomach, it was my first lesson on the hearty, heavy, starch and meat based meals common to Swabian fare. Followed up by an early welcome to German beer, a brew before noon always sparks some temporary energy, as we headed out for a long walk through the countryside with his more than eager Chocolate Lab. Briefly bringing me back nearly 20 years, roaming the fields and bush behind my first house as a child, I was stunned with the similarities between the two areas.
I was being brought to the local fire hall for dinner, where the volunteer firefighters, retired, current and trainees, of which my friend was one, get together monthly to eat, drink and socialize. I was introduced to my favorite beer during my stay that night, Paulaner Hefeweizen, a wheat beer with a citrusy flavour, similar to Hoegaarden with an orange slice, yet incomparable. It was a light meal consisting of fresh farmer’s bread, pickles, pickled red pepper and another type of liver sausage with mustard, dropped off personally by the local butcher. So great to feel the sense of community here, supporting local businesses opposed to the massive, overtaking supermarkets.
Getting invited to catch a glimpse behind the scenes at his shop, I couldn’t pass that up. It was definitely just a crash course in German meats and sausages, its unfathomable how many tubed shaped meats get produced in just one shop. Multiple kinds of blood sausage, liverwurst and salamis just to name a few, it would take years to learn them all, but afterwards you could get your bachelor of meat as he put it. Two types of meat grinders, one producing a regular course grind, the other emulsifying the meat and fat into a paste as a base for many different smooth textured sausages, like the currywurst. Trying to show me the size and capacity of the smoker, I only got a glance at the pounds of meat in there before the smoke saw its chance to escape, enveloping the room, choking and burning our eyes. Crates of Maultashen, which is a very traditional Swabian dish. Created by the monks, similar to a large ravioli, it was initially made to hide the meat from God during the days of Lent. As long as it helped them sleep at night, but regardless eating my fair share, pan-fried in butter or in a broth, they were phenomenal. Spaetzle, also originating in Swabia, another friend showed me the proper way of whipping the batter off a wooden board into boiling water. An art form in itself, to say the least mine were quite inconsistent.
Another one of the volunteer firefighters was the announcer for the local hockey team the Beitigheim Steelers. Learning that I had never been to an actual stadium hockey game in my life, which is weird to say as a Canadian, and my lack of understanding of anything being said, they were scheming right under my nose that first night. Giving us tickets to the home game on Friday, I couldn’t believe I was going to see my first game in Germany. As he started his announcements, very unexpectedly, he gave me a special welcome as I was pointed out to all. Then after the second period I was proclaimed fan of the night, with my face thrown on the jumbo-tron, and the stadium yelling ‘drink’ as I pounded back one of my fresh pints. Afterwards, invited onto the ice to hand a six pack of the beer sponsor to the captain and received a couple shirts, one getting signed by the team. Ruining any future hockey game for me, as my best game I’m sure I will ever go to was also my first, but couldn’t have asked for a better time and surprise. I also thought before this game that people were hockey fanatics back home, until I witnessed what the fans here are like. Only comparable to what I’ve seen of the Japanese with baseball. The drum beats constant vibrating my skull long after I left, the incessant clapping leaving my hands red and throbbing, not to mention the solid high fives given to all within reach whenever they scored. There was steady and almost uninterrupted chanting only ceasing for the megaphone holder to belt out the beginning of another war cry for everyone to follow giving the troops moral. True fans, jumping, screaming and the odd toss of a drink on the ice at the opposing goalie.
The Besen, where the passions of Swabia come to unite. Community, friends, family, local food and wine. No strangers exist, only friends who have yet to meet. Only open about four months of the year in the off season, they are constantly packed, loaded with wine produced from there vineyards, and for us the third time was a charm. Fitting around forty people or less, the first one we attempted to get a table in was full with people continuing to pull in one after the other. Waiters and waitresses skilfully weave around tables, chairs and people glowing with wine and pleasure, like an orgy without the sex. The level of noise rising with every glass put to lips. The harmonious ring rippling through the room as glasses met in the middle clanging together followed by Prost, or cheers, with a subtle meeting of the eyes. Without eye contact you condemn yourself to seven years of bad sex. Something not worth risking and was happy I was informed quickly of this upon arriving in Germany.
The second besen we went to was just as full, even smaller with what seemed like just as many people. Once again proficient servers somehow snaking around the same obstacles with the addition of some who rose up with the beginning of the accordion. Arms spread, swaying, waving their arms as the sung along lightly bumping the tops of heads of those still seated. Possibly intentional as a get up and join in or the copious amounts of wine leaving them off balance. My brain was screaming ‘get me out of here.’ I was too sober for this but on the other hand if I came in with a head full of schnapps and wine, I would have joined in like I understood the crowed room as I did in Vietnamese karaoke.
After hope was almost lost of getting the besen experience, an open table was found at the smallest one we had been to so far. Rushing over to our last chance for the evening, we stepped in to find a table for six while we were a group of eleven. Clown car style, we squeezed in crammed elbow to elbow, we made it work. Wine was poured, food was ordered and good times ensued. Taking the recommendation of my friends, I ordered the Schlachtplatte, which is more or less a sausage and meat platter. My hunt for fresh German blood sausage was over, exploding as if I hit a main artery with my knife squirting blood all over my plate leaving plenty to be mopped up with the freshly made bread. Liverwurst with a texture of haggis, bursting, turning inside out as I punctured the casing to reveal its insides. Liberal slices of tender, melt in your mouth braised pork belly and pork neck on top of a mound of warm sauerkraut. All followed by a hefty slab of moist apple and peach bread pudding with vanilla ice cream. Bottles of local wine flowed making this my most memorable meal, with a few new friends, unspeakably great food, a warm, inviting and seasonal atmosphere in what seemed like someone’s personal dining room.
I was given a true Swabian experience throughout my time here, falling in love with the people, culture, gorgeous countryside, food and drink. Only really scratching the surface, I was left with too many reasons to return, and plan to do just that to dig a little deeper.