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

Thursday, November 18, 2010

German wines aren't sticky, the notions are

"German wines really haven't taken off in the United States," an elderly gentleman firmly announced at the last social wine tasting I attended in Orange County. He was a man with solid beliefs, beliefs he shared openly, such as the government being too big, and Meg Whitman being the better candidate for Governor. I told him that German wines take off well enough for me to make a good living at it. "Well," he scoffed, "you make a good living at selling them, but I still don't think they have taken off here. They might make good wines in Germany, but there are a lot of good wines, and I just won't pay to drink German wines."

The fact that one old-school gentleman doesn't want to spend his hard-earned cash on German wines is fine with me and doesn't warrant much more than shrug of the shoulders, but the generalizing is what turns me off and has me shaking my head. YOU don't want to pay money to drink German wines, therefore, all of American probably don't want to.... is this a logical conclusion?

Fast forward to yesterday, I am in a German owned restaurant in a very nice city, hilly, full of trees, quiet. It is close to lunchtime, and I have brought 4 dry German white wines for the owner to taste, as he has already made it clear to me that dry German wines are where it is at, and the sweet Mosel stuff, in his opinion, is just not as good as the dry wines of Baden (where he is from), Wurttemburg, Franken, and Rheingau. So I brought him a Riesling Spatlese trocken from Robert Weil, a Silvaner from Hans Wirsching, a Pinot Blanc from Salwey, and a Pinot Gris from Heger. He likes the wines, appreciates that I even carry German wines that are not the typical array found in my competitors' wine bags. Appreciates that I know where Baden is, where Franken is, where Wurttemberg is, etc. because I've been there, more than once, soon to be 4 times. Anyway, he's happy with the wines, but he laments that his customers don't get it and don't want quality and aren't willing to pay for it. I nod sympathetically.

Several of his wine-loving customers start streaming in the door; they are carrying bottles of wine and heading for a large table set for 12. Noon is approaching, and it becomes clear that they have convened to share a lunch and a wine tasting. Owner waves a few patrons over to join in the tasting of my wines, which I happily oblige, because the more people that taste Rudi Wiest Selections wines, the better, because then more people become educated about them.

Three people sit down to taste, and 2 of them love the wines, expound how fresh and zippy the 2009 Hans Wirsching Silvaner is, how tasty the 2006 Robert Weil Estate Riesling Spatlese trocken is..... then the loudest of the customers announces, "I just don't like German wines, because they are always sweet!"

Owner says to him, these are not sweet wines, they are bone dry. I don't even have to speak; my customer is doing my job for me.

Well, his customer, mind already made up, says the wine on his palate, because it is German, is sweet.

Then, same customer says, "But I'll tell you what. If you bring me an Eiswein, then I will taste that! There's NOTHING in the world better than a German Eiswein."

My customer, the owner of the restaurant, turns to me, and says, "You see, these guys.... they want Eiswein, they don't get how rare that is, how expensive that is. They want me to break open an Eiswein for them, then yeah, they'll taste it and get excited. But will he buy a bottle off the list?"

He may not. His bizarre evaluations, such as saying the dry wine in front of him is sweet, but at the same breath asks for an Eiswein, may make him not a great candidate for making rational decisions. But yes, there are customers who will buy an Eiswein off a restaurant list. And there are customers who will order a dry German wine off a list, too. And all variations of wines in between.
Shocking, but yes. But we do need to get over some hurdles. Hurdles in people's brains.

Each day is a teaching opportunity, every inhale through the nostrils and every sip folks take of these wines, whether dry or fruity/sweet is valuable. It's a chance for the thinking person to evaluate something for what it is, instead of rejecting reality. That's the alternative to pulling out an old file from the mind that tells one to just spew out what's already in there.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Germany Version 4.0 - coming soon

So the annual Rudi Wiest corporate trip has been booked for January 2011, a mere 2 months away. 10 days in Germany, plus two days of flying, during which I will unfortunately miss my husband's birthday, but we'll celebrate early, in style.

I've named it Version 4.0 as it will be my fourth Germany trip, my 4th Rudi Wiest trip, and my 4th trip to these estates nestled in the valleys of the Rhein, Mosel, Nahe, and Main rivers. These estates that I've come to know so very well, better than I thought I would imagine knowing. I remember my first trip back in the fall of 2007, when I was so elated to put names of vineyards I learned on bottles to actual hillsides, and met the people behind the wines. Now, more than 3 years later, the winemakers, while still on pedestals, are more like friends than strangers. Such is the environment created by my importer boss that makes this business so intimate. No longer are names and people a mystery, but are instead the meat and potatoes of the business. And so it becomes less like a wine business than a people business. And in the end, that is what really counts.

This year, we'll be flying out in January instead of February, so expect more cold, more snow than last year, more yeast in still unfiltered wine, more untamed acidity, more wild flavors of fermentation. We're adding a new Rheingau estate, so I look forward to visiting a new property. And I look forward to seeing familar faces, those friendly rosy faces of those families that pass their craft on from generation to generation.

In particular, I look forward to tasting the Pinot Noirs of Friedrich Becker Estate and Rudolf Furst Estate. Both estates make hauntingly delicious Pinot Noirs that remind me of what I love in red Burgundy (though they are not exactly like red Burgundy, but just as complex and compelling). I also look forward to the Mosel Rieslings from Dr. F. Weins-Prum, Rheinhold Haart, Fritz Haag, and Monchhof. And it is always a treat to taste in the Pfalz estates of Von Buhl and Rebholz, estates known for their terrific dry wines.

I'm already beginning to get excited about going to Germany again. On the negative side, it will be cold and it will be work. But on the plus side, it will be a good time to hunker down with the team, exchange ideas, taste the new 2010 vintage, and see our favorite winemakers again. Oh, and eat some delicious German food - always a treat.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Happy Friday

It was a long week with a lot going on, but it ended up being a good, productive one. So what better way to celebrate than to make a great meal at home? And open some decent wines to wash the food down with?

The week included finally getting over the illness that had me totally flattened - I guess we all take our turns getting sick, and this time, it was my turn. My mom actually pointed out something astute about why I might have succumbed to illness this time, as usually my immune system isn't too bad - last month, I lost a territory - Northern California - a very beautiful place that I enjoyed working in very much... but it was meant to be a temporary gig, so I had it coming - at any rate, losing the territory meant not only not being able to go to San Francisco for work anymore, but also losing a rich source of income. In other words, a little stressful for little Miss Commission Earner. Anyway, perhaps that fueled my desire to work the Southern California market just a little bit harder, working days a little bit longer, doing a few more tastings well into the evening, until I caught a bug and got laid up for a couple weeks.

Now I'm fine, recovered. And this week, I even bought a new car! Yay, got wheels again. A good thing, after experiencing several car-less days. No, it is not easy to get around in Southern California on the transit system. It is about as efficient as walking, and that's not so efficient.

But I digress. The week was a good one, a productive one, and I'm glad we're into the weekend. Time for some R&R, some getting back into running so my slightly atrophied muscles can get back in the game.

To kick that off, a little Friday dinner starting off with an aperatif of 2007 Von Hovel Estate Riesling - tasting pretty good right now, not super sweet, but definitely refreshing. It's got a new slick and classy black label - do you like it?

Then onto a red wine from Piedmont, Italy - a Barbera d'Alba from 2008 vintage - I still don't know what the real name of the wine is, since the label is old school and promotes the region more than it promotes the name of the winery. But you see the label above. I like this wine a lot. It seems a bit new world style to me - like a rich, fruit-forward Californian wine without the high alcohol to boot - but I like it. It's not as high acid or high earthiness as some other Italian wines.... but I like it. At $15.99 from The Wine County, the wine is a steal and a deal. Get some! Whatever it's name is.

And for food, I picked up a couple of steaks from How's Market in Torrance. They have the best U.S.D.A. Prime beef that I've seen in a while, and the prices can't be beat. Friend Bennett introduced me to this place, and I'm not sure I've bought steaks anywhere else since. They are that good, like an old fashioned butcher place, even though they do package some of their steaks. My favorite is the rib eye because I'm not afraid of a little fat - I mean, that's the best part! I'm not a fan of ingesting a whole lot of animal fat all the time, but when I get my one steak a month, I want some marbling! But if you're not a fan of fat, they have some great filet mignons and other leaner cuts, as well as lamb, pork and other butcher specialties.

So I turned those steaks into the following two plates:

My initial idea was to barbecue the steaks, since during the day we hit the 90s for temperatures outside - it looked like the middle of July. But come dinner time, it was pitch dark outside, and I didn't feel like firing up the barbie - I broiled the steaks and they turned out quite nice. Did some potatoes in the oven (oven roasted potatoes) and steamed some broccoli and cauliflower (because they are tasty and very good for you).
Above is hubby's plate, below is mine, which is a bit messier, due to me trying to pile on more of those healthy veggies.

A very satisfying meal all in all. The steaks were juicy and tender. The potatoes were crispy on the outside and fluffy on the inside. The veggies were done soft enough, and offered the perfect non-rich side to the rich meaty main event. The Barbera went well with the food, and it all went pretty well with Duck's hockey on TV. That's a team in the NHL that belongs to Orange County. We are supportive even though many LA Kings fans hate the ducks. But we're okay with Orange County. They have a lot of nice restaurants there, and we have some friends that live down there too.
Have a great weekend, everyone! I hope you're eating and drinking well, and making merriment with your loved ones. Cheers.