Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Showing my German roots

Either I don't have a good memory of cold weather in Southern California, or this has been one of the coldest Novembers I have experienced here. Cold weather with sunshine - not a bad combination - the days are bright and beautiful, but short and sweet, and crisp and cold too. I've always liked to call cold wintery weather good eatin' weather, calling for more hearty dishes and desserts. So it seemed natural that my own cravings led me to the Authentic German store Alpine Village in Torrance, where the butcher shop makes its own sausages and smokes its own hams, and sells the best ham hocks for making split pea soup that I know of.

I've made this soup a number of times, and it is always in a slow-cooker that works wonderfully - the recipe is easy, and the olive-green split pea soup turns out rich and thick and full of ham flavor - all because of that very good smoked ham hock.

While I didn't grow up as a child eating pea soup, it was available, and when it was, it was known more as a French Canadian staple that you could get out of a can. But I did grow up in a place that surrounded me somewhat with German foods. How did that come about? I'll tell you all about it.

Yes, to look at me, you'd think I'd be more suited, appearance-wise, to selling Sake than Riesling. True, I'm not blond and blue-eyed, and would look a bit weird hoisting liter-sized beer mugs full of wheat beer while wearing a low-cut dress. Fortunately, I'm not asked to - ever. But yes, I grew up exposed to more Black Forest hams and wurst than sushi and sashimi. Though I like them all just as much, now.

For example, did you know that my father studied German as a foreign language when he was in university? It's true. It wasn't French or Spanish. Maybe German was what was offered, or it was the popular second foreign language to study during his time, but yep, my dad gave me tips on how to say "Guten Morgen," "Auf Wiedersehen," (I say Auveederzen) and "Das ist sehr gut!" (das is zer gute!)

Anyhoo, when my family moved to Canada, we moved to an area where immigrants seemed to gravitate toward. Lo and behold, the immigrant wave who was there before us seemed to be Germans. We lived closed to a German bakery that baked the most wonderful cakes, that it seemed natural that they were named "Wonder Bakery." We would get Swiss rolls there, which were giant jelly-roll type cakes, except they weren't jelly rolls, but they were rolls of chocolate cake with the most irresistable chocolate frosting. I have yet to find Swiss rolls anywhere else since. There were also the most luscious binge-inducing layer cakes, for $4.99 - the most beautiful and full-bodied chocolate cake with a layer of custard through the middle and frosted all over with chocolate icing. Not to mention all the apple turnovers, pies, cookies, rum balls, and all sorts of breads and things that the place cranked out.

Of course, the bakery no longer exists, except in memory.

I remember when I was a kid and went to that bakery and loved it, and heard rumors about the kid who was the kid of the owner of the bakery and that he was really obese and life was hard for him.... I felt bad for the kid.

Nearby, there was a Konditorei. I never knew what this word meant, but now I know it means pastry shop. This was a fancier establishment, with a European-inspired window with lots of fancy pastries and cookies. But I never liked the baked goods as much as I did from the more humble, more pedestrian, and I think busier Wonder Bakery.

Next to the Konditorei was the Delicatessen. My father was a particular fan of this authentic German deli. They had the best bread and made sandwiches from their wide assortment of sausages and other meats. My dad always recommended requesting the "Kaiser buns" on which to get your sandwiches made - I was not a fan of buns usually, but these buns were on another level - bread that was so crisp and delicate on the outside, and so soft and chewy on the inside, like a cloud, but not a wet, mushy cloud in your mouth, a flavorful, slightly salty dough that was something special contributing to a sandwich, not just a wrapper for your meats. Then there were the fillings - your choice of thinly shaved Black Forest ham, or various wurst, or meatballs. Again, these meatballs were no regular meatballs, but super flavorful ones.

I don't remember the name of this deli, but I do remember how authentically German it was, how homemade everything tasted, and how I naturally took to it.

Of course, this deli and the next door konditorei are now both long gone.

Like immigrants in many places, perhaps they retired, their kids got good educations and went into various professions, and the shop served its purpose. And with the shop went all those delicious goodies from a place far away.

Fortunately for me, my taste memories have led me seek out foods from all sources. And when I learned of Alpine Village in Torrance, home of an annual big Oktoberfest celebration in the fall, I went there to seek out some of the familiar flavors of my past. While I haven't really found Kaiser buns, I have found weiners which are the best "hot dogs" in the world. I cannot eat hot dogs in the packages found in the supermarket or at the Staples Center when I'm there for a hockey game - they are incredibly salty and lack any meat taste. But weiners which you can purchase from Alpine Village Market remind me of those exact ones I had when I was a kid, and my parents bought them from the deli, and at that time I recall they were called European weiners. They have that "skin snap" you get when you bite into them, and they taste a world different then the weiners or frankfurters or hot dogs you get in the supermarket. Try them sometime.

So, the weather has been turning me on to this type of food. And maybe subconsciously I am getting my mind and body in gear to head to Germany in less than 2 months. I need to build myself up for the severe weather conditions. I have also watched a couple of German movies over the past couple of weeks (I didn't choose them, but I enjoyed them). I'm starting to pick up the language. It's starting to be like French, where at least I can pick up a few words in a conversation, and I know when they are saying "danke," "Und?" "tschus," "nicht," "spater," and.... I guess that's it.

So that's it! I'm off to go warm myself up with some of that pea soup I made. If you're in the Southland and want some good wurst, and other Deutsches goodies that are sehr gut, visit:

Alpine Village Market
833 Torrance Blvd (the Torrance exit off the 110 Freeway)
Torrance, CA

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