2000s Archive

Germany's Secret Garden

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Within moments, I am given a menu and a glass of Riesling, pale gold with a streak of spun copper from a drop of liqueur. “The wine is bottled just across the way,” says Frau Serr, the proprietress, stopping at my table, her voice as soft as crushed velvet. “My husband makes the liqueur himself. Jos-ta-beeren,” she says, writing it in my notebook. “A cross between a black currant and a gooseberry.” Chilled and not too sweet—the floral backdrop of the Riesling set sparkling with a note of fruit—this apéritif takes the high road around any Kir Royale that has touched my lips (and there have been a number).

Over the next several hours, as the dining room fills and empties (Frau Serr keeping gracious vigil), I eat my way through a meal of startling imagination and execution. There are cubes of rare salmon in a jellied mosaic served with molded spoons of herring tartare dressed in a brilliant tincture of fresh chives and herbs; a layered terrine of goose liver, artichoke bottom, and morels in amber oxtail gelée. There are crisp seared duck livers that flood my mouth with the texture of hot pudding, and roast baby quail resting on threads of pale cabbage and lentils dressed in oil made with bear’s garlic, a wild spring green with a mild garlic flavor. “The cabbage,” says Frau Serr, leaning over my table, “is the first harvest of the spring. The leaves are tender and only lightly furled. When they are julienned they release a milky acid that sours them slightly. My husband dresses them with salt, pepper, caraway, Sherry vinegar, and oil.”

A purée of wild nettles arrives with a toasted brioche crouton painted with garlic oil and paved with thin slices of smoked duck liver. Strips of blond calf tripe in a sauce of veal glaze and cream, made pleasantly piquant by a splash of Riesling, come in the company of a dainty liverwurst dumpling, a spoonful of blood pudding, and lozenges of fried pork sausage. I drink a bright, honeyed Riesling from a nearby vineyard and eat everything placed before me.

Then comes a shoal of freshwater fish: skin-on perch, crisped and shiny with bacon fat, on a sauce scented with lemon thyme; panfried brook trout on strands of shaved spaetzle in an elder-blossom butter sauce; pan-roasted pike in brown butter with the sweetest tips of green and white asparagus surrounded by firm, lightly pickled field capers. Field capers? Frau Serr sketches a dandelion quickly on my pad. “The unbloomed flowers are here,” she says, the tip of her pencil pointing to the base of the plant, “and in season just a few weeks in March. My husband gathers and pickles them.”

At last, with a glass of local Spätburgunder (Pinot Noir), perfectly cool and plummy, I eat tender lamb medallions, in a sauce with whole mustard seeds, and buttery new potatoes. Three “eggs” of bittersweet chocolate mousse and a warm poached pear in a cloak of rum sabayon go down surprisingly smoothly. I have just finished one of the best meals of my life.

If his wife embodies the hushed tones and silken rustle of the front of the house, Herr Serr, arriving at my table after service, embodies the vigor and banter of the back. Yes, everything is made in-house—and half of it’s hand-foraged. I mention the capers. He laughs. “Three hours in the fields with my apprentice for a handful of those damned things,” he says, shaking his head. He prefers the young asparagus, “about fourteen days old,” for garnishing. “I dip them in boiling water or sauté the tips briefly in butter until they’re tender.” Why, I ask him, does Baden have the best food in Germany? “Because they all stomped through here—the Romans, everyone,” he says. “They all left something behind.”

Somewhere in the thick of a lengthy, sometimes explosive discourse—which begins with a defense of tripe and ends with the theory that Germans like sour, salty foods because they are frequently hungover—Herr Serr mentions Vesper, a cold snack prepared in farmhouses and traditionally served to field workers. He dashes off an address and presses it into my hand. “Go here tomorrow,” he says.

It is 3 a.m. when I return to my hotel, grateful for this extraordinary experience, thankful for people like the Serrs—people with deep traditions and commitment, with a near-mystical relationship to the land.

The following afternoon, a day as smoky as a Berlin pub, I drive over the Schwarzwald-Hochstrasse (“Black Forest High Road”). As I enter a valley on the other side of the mountain, the fog is swept away and I am delivered into a quintessential Black Forest landscape. Following Herr Serr’s directions, I cross a set of tracks and drive up the side of a mountain on a ­single-lane road. A sign points down a cobbled walk spilling with flowers to the main house, where a radio on the stoop plays the bouncy accordion of German folk music. No one is in sight. I enter a small paneled dining room with five wooden tables. Empty. Drifting outside, I see—on a stone terrace set with rustic wooden tables beside a little stream—an ancient dog. He glances in my direction, throws his head back, and begins to bark, his front legs lifting stiffly with each breath. Moments later, a handsome woman of about 60 rounds a corner, drawing gardening gloves from her hands.

I introduce myself and ask if I may order Vesper. “You are alone?” Yes. I see in her eyes an appraising twinkle. The old dog lowers himself on the damp stones at her feet, shaking slightly.

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