Thursday, May 21, 2009

Reflections on a German Holiday

A Bollerwagen with Wood

Today is a holiday in Germany: Ascension Day. It also is Father's Day. Father's Day is an import from the US, I believe. At its most traditional/scurrilous, German men take wagons filled with cases of beer and other alcohol and wander around and get drunk. The wagons sometimes are referred to as Bollerwagen.

Here and here are a couple of websites showing traditional wagons, as with the picture above. Gotta love the covered wagon and the one called "Bollerwagen Texas". I wonder if they had Bollerwagen on the Oregon Trail? The Bild Zeitung has a post with several pictures of souped-up Bollerwagen for father's day.

Digging a bit deeper, I noticed that the Bollerwagon also has a tradition in northern Germany and parts of Scandinavia for transporting alcohol in what is known as a Kohlfahrt which literally would be translated as a "cabbage trip", but which refers to a tradition of a pub crawl in winter built around eating hearty meals with kale (Grünkohl). A kale king and queen also get crowned. The alcohol allegedly helps fight off the cold. (As any outdoorsman knows, it also increases the likelihood of hypothermia.)

A hearty meal with kale

Some of the father's day tradition can center around a sort of initiation rite by including younger men in the peregrinations with the Bollerwagen. In any event, I'm in charge of cooking fresh asparagus and trout today and do not have a Bollerwagen.
Photo: Wilfried Wittkowsky, 2003 (Wiki Commons)

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Curd Nerds

I just added a new blog to my list. It's about cheese. Love the title.

This morning I had an assignment to buy two items at the Kleinmarkthalle, neither of which is very expensive. Unfortunately, the order for "hand cheese" (Handkäs) took me to my favorite cheese stand. Hand cheese is a simple, low-fat sourmilk German cheese that the locals eat marinated in oil, vinegar and chopped onions. Even at one of the best cheese stands in Frankfurt, the hand cheese only cost 60 cents a piece. One piece sliced on buttered rye bread is a simple lunch. Two pieces will keep you satisfied for several hours. I'm trying to stay on some sort of budget in these hard times and not overindulge. But the hand cheese was right behind the sheep's milk cheese from the Pyrénées. I had resigned myself to eating hand cheese this weekend. To add to my misery, the customer ahead of me ordered half of a Tourmalet, the sheep's milk cheese that I'd had my eye on since getting in line. Naturally, I broke down and ordered a quarter of a Tourmalet, only about 200 grams, really. I thought that would be a minor expense. Oh well, at EUR 44 a kilo, that little piece of cheese still came out to eight Euros, more than the combined total of the other two items on my shopping list. I am going to scrape off very thin slices to make it last. Later, I found out that the manufacturer, Christian Pardou sells the cheese for less than EUR 30 per kilo retail in Laruns. I'm already trying to figure out a way to pay for a vacation in the Pyrénées with my "cheese savings".

I've walked the valleys where Tourmalet is made. I fell in love with the area many years ago. I will never forget the day when a shop lady in Béarn suggested that I try "pur brebis". I found this description on the web: "Biting into a piece of Brebis Pardou seems to transport you to a pastoral paradise with bright green rolling hills and statuesque mountains. It tastes wonderfully fruity without being overly sweet. The slightly nutty tang towards the finish gently tickles the back of your throat and leaves you craving more." Couldn't have said it better. Watch out for products mixed with cow's milk. They are not bad, just different, milder. Pur brebis is a classic mountain cheese. You can make it one of the main ingredients of a picnic lunch or a finish for a nice meal.

The Tourmalet that I bought was fairly mild. Next time, I'm going to ask for something a bit heartier. I noticed on the portion of the label left on my piece of cheese that it was made from pasteurized milk. I wonder if that explains why the taste was milder than I had expected. I need to consult with the cheese vendor next time I'm feeling flush at the Kleinmarkthalle.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Kleinmarkthalle II


One senses that France is not far away.

Upstairs there are a few wine bars, including this raw bar.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Kleinmarkthalle I

Tucked away between the main shopping street and the cathedral area is an unseemly structure from the 1950s (picture above, on the right). If you did not know what was inside, you'd probably just walk on by.

Hard to believe that this structure is protected by the local landmark laws.

But wait ...

Inside is a truly top notch indoor market,

and on the balcony above the west entrance things get pretty lively on a Saturday morning.

Monday, May 11, 2009


Not only was Sunday Mother's Day, it also was Literature Day (Ein Tag für die Literatur) in Hesse (Hessen), the German Federal State where Frankfurt is located. I missed the boat on this event, but had to limit myself anyway because of family obligations in the afternoon. Nevertheless, I managed to catch one event, an open house at the German National Library (Deutsche Nationalbibliothek or DNB) . The national library goes back to 1913 when it was founded in Leipzig. After World War II, Frankfurt became the location of the German Library (Deutsche Bibliothek) that was supposed to collect a copy of every book published in the Federal Republic after the war. Leipzig also continued collecting German-language works in the GDR. After the reunification, Leipzig and Frankfurt became the two main depositories of the DNB, Leipzig with ca. 14.3 million items and Frankfurt with 8.3 million. Leipzig also appears to be the center for working on books (e.g. to deacidify them). [Frankfurt and Leipzig have a longstanding rivalry when it comes to books. Frankfurt usurped Leipzig's role after the war. The famous Frankfurt Book Fair is older than Leipzig's trade fair, but, according to Wikipedia, Leipzig's trade fair overtook Frankfurt's in significance starting at the end of the 17th century until the war.] I was lucky, because right after I showed up at the DNB, a tour began that took us back into the employee area and into the stacks.

The building is made mostly of grey concrete but is an interesting bit of architecture. I have a general aversion to naked concrete buildings, but I have to confess that the concrete walls had a certain appeal to the eye, making me want to touch the walls, upon which I was reminded immediately of my dislike of bare concrete. The offices all had large windows, so even with grey concrete walls the atmosphere seemed like it might be OK to work in. The main conference room has a great view of the Frankfurt skyline and Taunus hills. After that we went down to the stacks. Aside from getting to see the scooters that the workers used to drive around the stacks and the automated book shipping system used to move the books around between stacks, staff, and reading room, we were taken to the very first rows of books that were added to the collection starting in 1945.

As our guide explained, the books are assigned a number on a "first in" basis each year. Hence, the first book in the collection is D 45 1. The random sequence of books that results from this system certainly can make for strange bedfellows. Seeing all those rows of moveable stacks brought back vivid memories of my undergraduate days working in the main library of my university.

Book number 1, a 1945 translation of "My Dogs in the Northland" by Egerton R. Young originally published in 1902.

Germany Year Zero.
(Two shelves are all it takes to hold the entire German book production in 1945.)

A model of the DNB Complex

Just to the right of the main entrance, this structure houses a cafe, auditoriums and exhibition space.

The Main Entrance

D-45-1 (cont'd)

Deep in the stacks

The book scooters look like fun.

Main Conference Room

Taunus View from the Conference Room

Skyline view from the Conference Room

Friday, May 8, 2009

National Train Day

As part of this year's National Train Day celebration on Saturday, Amtrak is honoring the legacy of Pullman porters in Philadelphia. NPR's Morning Edition had a great piece yesterday about Pullman porters, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, and the role they played in building the black middle class and laying the groundwork for the civil rights movement. I never had the pleasure of traveling overnight on a train in the old days. My grandmother used to take a train to visit us in the South in the Sixties, but even then the connections were so bad that we drove two hours to pick her up and drop her off at a train station with a better connection to her hometown. I remember getting on the trains with her and my father to help her get seated and being impressed with the relative elegance of the train interiors. The old train stations were neat, too. I remember the quiet porters who helped us with the luggage. The NPR piece revolves around an interview with Larry Tye, the author of Rising from the Rails: The Pullman Porters and the Making of the Black Middle Class. Tye tells a few stories from his research and gives some background on George Pullman and the Pullman Company. Here is a link to an exhibit on Pullman porters at the National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C.

I have fond memories of an eleven-hour train trip that we took a few years ago from New York City down the East Coast right before Christmas. I'm really glad I took that trip. It gave me a chance to see a side of America that one rarely sees if one hops from suburb to suburb in a car or from airport to airport in a plane. There were no porters in sight, but the passengers were about seventy to eighty percent African American. Several of the passengers I talked to had been born in the South but migrated north for work (and more freedom). They were headed back south to spend Christmas with family and friends. There were a few glitches along the way with Amtrak's service, but the scenery and the company made up for the shortcomings.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Simple Pleasures

These strawberries were placed on a bed made from standard (sponge) cake batter (Rührteig). Just add freshly-whipped cream, and you're good to go. With a bit of patience, you can find great-tasting strawberries here that aren't too expensive. There are several "pick-your-own" farms on the outskirts of town, too.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Bread Lines

No, we're not experiencing hyperinflation or chronic shortages, but this picture is significant to me on several levels:

German bakeries open on Sunday morning;
Germans standing patiently in line; and
Germans as late sleepers on the weekend.

I'll return to these themes at a later date. The picture was taken at about 10:30 on a weekend morning, and folks were still lining up to buy their (oh so late) breakfast rolls.

The last theme segues well into the main theme of this post: Sunday mornings. I'm a morning person. I usually get up early on the weekend. It is really hard to find a place to eat a decent breakfast before nine or ten a.m. When the kids were little and up with me, I'd find myself looking for a place to have breakfast as early as 7:30 on a weekend. Now, I'm the only one awake at six or seven, so I make coffee and eat at home. I'll never forget the thrill on my last trip to New York when I had to drop off a rental car in Manhattan before 8 a.m. on a Saturday morning. I dropped off the car and walked around the corner on the Upper West Side to the first diner that caught my fancy. I sat down at about 7:50 and was one of the only customers. In the course of the next thirty minutes the diner filled to capacity. I am not alone in the world! (In fact, I think I'm pretty typical for a certain kind of American. I can recall lots of early risers on weekends in the last major US city where I lived.) Now, I sometimes take my camera and shoot pictures of Frankfurt on Sunday mornings. Before 9 a.m. on a Sunday hardly anyone is out and about. The city is peaceful. What Brassai was to Paris at night, I shall be to Frankfurt on Sunday mornings. OK, I'm puffing a bit, but I look forward to documenting what I'm talking about.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009


The Frankfurter are proud of their skyline. They like to refer to the city as "Mainhattan". To a New Yorker the comparison is silly, but Frankfurt was, and perhaps still is, the only city in "Old Europe" that permitted skyscrapers to be built in the heart of town. Currently, the two tallest buildings in the EU are in Frankfurt: on the right in the picture, the Commerzbank Tower at 258 meters, and on the left in the background (the brown building with the cone-shaped top), the Messeturm at just under 257 meters. The Messeturm was built before the Commerzbank Tower, so you can see that the latter was built just high enough to surpass the former. I've always thought that the Commerzbank Tower, with its ugly elevator / cell tower platform, reminded me of a kid stretching his hand in the air as if to say "I'm taller than you are". There are two things in particular that I like about the way the Germans have approached building skyscrapers in Frankfurt: first, the towers are required to be spaced sufficiently apart from one another to allow sunshine to reach nearby homes at least part of the day and to reduce wind; and second, Germans generally insist that all office workers (I'm sure there are some exceptions) have a workplace with exposure to natural light. I don't recall seeing windowless cubicles in any of the office buildings I've visited in Frankfurt. The building spacing allows the Westend-Süd to maintain a fairly high residential quality in spite of the proximity to the banking district. Lately, the trend has been for families with children to move back into the city.

I've noticed that Moscow and Istanbul now have the tallest buildings in Europe (as opposed to the EU) and that Madrid appears to have built several tall skyscrapers these past years. I don't recall seeing towers near the center of Madrid on my last visit, so they must be going up on the edge of town. By way of comparison, the two tallest towers in Frankfurt would not even make it into the top 25 list in North America. But local patriotism allows us to ignore these inconvenient facts. Our bank towers are more Gemütlich.

One of my favorite memories dates back to shortly after the Berlin wall came down. I was driving along the main banking district street near the Deutsche Bank twin towers and ended up behind a Trabi or Wartburg full of East Germans who were straining their necks out the car windows to get a better look at the towers. I still see tourists from "flatter" European cities doing that, but this image would have made for a photograph suitable for framing.

Chard / Mangold

Chard (Mangold in German) is in season. I knowingly ate my first serving over the weekend. Chard is related to beets, but the leaves and stems are eaten, not the roots. The stems are thick and should be separated from the leaves and cooked longer. The leaves cook like spinach. The picture above is of red chard, which I have not tried. I had "normal" chard fried in garlic and butter. It has a strong, nutty flavor with slight bitterness. I can't say that I'll crave my next portion of chard, but I'm going to check out a few recipes to see if I can't find something that works for me. Chard is rich in vitamins, minerals and nutrients, but also relatively high in oxalates, which can cause kidney stones, so don't overdo it.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Sticker Price Shock

I just got back from my traditional Saturday morning hike into town to read a paper in a cafe and stroll around a bit. This morning I opted for the Café Hauptwache right in the heart of the shopping district. I ordered a Cappuccino and read my paper. When it came time to pay, surprise, the price had just gone up by over fourteen percent. In the middle of an economic crisis! Two weeks ago my Cappuccino cost EUR 2.80. That's a pretty expensive but common price for a (relatively small) cup of Cappuccino. I'd round up to EUR 3.00 and call it quits. (In Germany, any tip over 5% is OK. A ten percent tip is generous.) Now, with the price at EUR 3.20, I'm feeling under pressure to round up to EUR 3.50. That's over USD 4.50 at current exchange rates, and it really hurts. I can tell my age is getting in the way of clear thinking. Anyone who can remember gasoline at 29 cents a gallon is not suited for the modern world. Certainly there is some way to justify the need for such a price increase. I need a paradigm shift.

OK, I know that the monthly rents for shops on the Zeil are expensive, ca. EUR 180 per square meter per month (a square meter is 10.76 square feet if you really have to convert). The cafe is open for at least ten hours a day. My table and chairs take up about two square meters. I sat for one hour. Let's do the math. ((3.2 Euros x 10 hours x 30 days) / 2) = 480. Will someone check that? So, without having to sign a lease and incur a large, long-term liability, I am allowed to rent a table at a top cafe in a top location for an hourly rate that reflects a mere EUR 480 per month per square meter. I am relieved to see that the rent is still well below the shop rents in Hong Kong, not to mention Fifth Avenue in New York. I don't have to clean up after myself and don't have to hire anyone (i.e. give someone six weeks of paid vacation each year).

I am going to make sure to sit for at least one hour every time I order a Cappuccino at the Café Haputwache. Think how much money I'd save if I sat for two hours, assuming that I could hold out on just one drink for that long.

Of course, with my new paradigm, I don't think I can get my mind around the idea of ever eating a meal at that cafe again. But I've found a sort of inner peace. Whew, for a while there a small inner voice was telling me to cut back on cafe sitting. I really dodged a bullet.

Friday, May 1, 2009

History Comes Alive on the Web

Box and Toymaker Claus Schach ca. 1520 - 1558

Cook Anna Mulner ca. 1500 - 1582

Organ Builder Wolf Besler ca. 1558 - 1625

Last Sunday, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung ("FAZ") had a great article about a new website.

The Nuremberg Public Library together with the German National Library have posted the contents of two unique books that date back to the middle ages on the web.

Two retirement homes for impoverished workers kept records on each of their residents, and on the caretakers, over a period of hundreds of years. The homes opened in the late 14th Century, and the portraits go back to the first half of the 15th Century. Portraits were sketched of each person, and his or her trade was described. Over a thousand portraits exist. Now, the portraits have been digitalized and indexed and posted on the web here.

There is even an English-language trades index at the site that links to the portraits of the residents who practiced a particular trade. The rest of the site is in German. The FAZ article contains interesting background on some of the inhabitants as well as on the two charities that sponsored the retirement homes.

For all the talk about the Internet Age spelling death for books, this is a classic example of how the web has set a book -- a treasure -- free that otherwise would have languished in the rare book collection of the library and only been accesible by scholars.