Packing for the northern hemisphere winter during 30C heat in the height of the Australian summer is a difficult task at best. For one thing, the glaring sunshine and midday humidity make it near on impossible to recalibrate one’s sense of temperature perception (unless you’re packing for a sauna & spa luxury getaway). No, it usually culminates with a predictably small pile of jumpers smelling like mothballs, a couple of pairs of jeans and some hiking socks. Then there’s the false sense of satisfaction in adding a few scarves to the mix, like you’ve given yourself some hard ammunition to beat whatever Mother Nature may throw at you. Take that! you think triumphantly with an inward smile before throwing on your swimmers and heading to the beach for one last dip before you go. If only it was that easy.
My recent trip to Germany to visit my German Love God’s family began in a similar fashion. However, a quick check online confirmed my worse fears – Europe had plunged into a state of frozen animation. According to the media, small children and the elderly were fearing for their lives as temperatures plummeted to what was surely going to be a dark and icy couple of months.
Two years earlier I’d made the same mistake and arrived in Germany tanned, fresh faced and freckled to ‘SNOW CHAOS’, as every newspaper sensationally put it. Indeed the whole of Germany was cloaked in white as large snowflakes fell consistently from the sky day and night. Luckily my GLG’s family had been generous in lending me a knee length puffer jacket on this occasion and I wrapped myself up like a mummy, eyes peering out from above my zipped up collar and woolen beanie, ready for action.
Truth is, I actually love the snow. I first laid eyes on the cold white fluffy stuff on a ski trip as a child, and I’ve been chasing the feeling of wind in my hair and powder on mountains ever since. This trip to Germany however, was different. It didn’t snow (except to herald our arrival in Frankfurt). I harbour a secret belief that this was because it was too cold to snow with temperatures plummeting to -16C (I have since investigated this further and while very cold climates make it difficult to snow, it isn’t impossible.) Humph.
So what does one do when it’s so cold outside that your nostril hairs freeze in mid breath? Settle in for some serious feasting, that’s what. Luckily this was not going to be a problem – especially with the warm generosity and hospitality of my extended German family.
One thing you need to be aware of when traveling through Germany is that your digestive system is going to be in for a rude shock. Prepare yourselves. I suggest fasting for a few months prior then slowly building up your meat and potato tolerance a few weeks before you arrive. Having come from a summer full of tropical fruits and salads, I was propelled head long into a kind of food-induced delirium filled with the highs and lows of carb loading.
Indeed, the Germans sure know a thing or two about home cooked comfort food in the cold of winter. Pig fat called schmalz is lovingly enjoyed with a chunk of fresh bread before digging into a hearty meal of würste (sausages) and sauerkraut (fermented cabbage). Schnitzels the size of dinner plates are served with waxy potatoes and sauce. Knödel (dumplings) are enjoyed with a slow-cooked sour roast, dark gravy with cranberries and red cabbage before being washed down with a glass of weißbier (wheat beer). It’s a wonder Germans haven’t taken on the siesta, as I certainly needed a rest between each meal! Of course, they’re far too efficient to rest on their laurels for long.
My favourite winter feasting tradition in Germany is the Green Cabbage festival. In the northern town of Osnabrück, where this vegetable is a seasonal specialty, the event is called the Onsabrücker Mahlzeit and it attracts around 1,200 men at the beginning of February each year. It is during this event that a Grünkohlkönig or Cabbage King is crowned, further proving that the Germans sure know how to praise their finest and fittest. I can only imagine that this chosen individual must know a thing or two about hot air and perseverance (they’re usually politicians I’ve heard). Interestingly enough, the secret to tasty Green Cabbage is to pick it once it’s been exposed to a single frost. How about that.
In between experiencing the local culinary delights, I did manage to venture outside and visit the historic towns of Osnabrück, Münster and the surrounding countryside. Rolling fields and forests separate small little villages and traditional half-timbered farmhouses with smoke billowing from chimneys. In the wintertime, the sky is a pale blue and the light shines with a soft clarity casting long shadows. Darkness creeps in early during these short winter days, and you’re rewarded with stunning orange sunsets that blaze bright behind the feathery black silhouettes of naked trees on hilltops.
As always though, it wasn’t long before the warm puff of my breath in the chilly air and the promise of hot chocolate and warm waffles with plums enticed me back into the cozy and familiar surrounds of our home away from home.