Setting the scene
When friends from New Zealand came to visit last week, we stole them away to Franconia in Northern Bavaria, and specifically to that glorious mountainous castle-y part dubbed Fränkische Schweiz / Franconian Switzerland by the artists and poets of the romantic era. German romantics were the first ‘tourists’ to the region, their travels and musings coinciding with a renewed interest in local heritage; the Burgen and Schlösser of times gone by became objects of much Schwärmerei in Franconian Switzerland, which boasts no less than 170 castles, palaces and ruins! The view below is taken from Ruine Neideck.
The region is notorious for its caves, castles, strange rock formations, a proud and conservative population, deep-rooted traditions, fruit trees growing in abundance, so many mountainside beer cellars, beautiful smoked sausages and locally distilled fruit schnapps. In summer, when it is very hot, there are often gorgeous thunderstorms nodding into the evening. Taken together, I would like to think that the average Franconian is quite the Genussmensch – they like their food and drink, and are equally fond of celebrating it.
Eating and drinking in leafy quarters
Before we go any deeper into the woods, I must tell you what I know of the wonderful tradition of Bierkeller / beer cellars. Prior to refrigeration, the favoured method of storing beer over the summer months was to dig deep cellars into hills and mountains, much like one might imagine the behaviour of trolls. In winter, the cellars were filled with ice and this kept the beer consistently cool until late summer. This tradition is still very much alive, and in May each year, when the weather warms, the cellar doors open to the public. From this point on, the Fränkische Schweiz is abuzz with beer gardens of all sizes, selling fresh beer and simple food very affordably. The Kellerwirt disappears in and out of the cellar, with ceramic mugs brimming and many a whoosh of cool air. Patrons are seated under the trees in good company and the atmosphere, importantly, is laidback. The concept of drinking beer from a door in a mountain charms me utterly. And if the tunnels connect (which in some cases they do!) they would form the most extensive underground network of beer and sausages.
Franconian Brezel are softer than Bavarian Brezel, and very wonderful. And perfect with beer.
And here we have a deep-fried sweet thing, made of egg yolk, soured cream and flour, which is then fried in butter fat and dusted with icing sugar! It is called an Urrädla, as the round, crinkled form is said to be reminiscent of clockwork (Uhrwerk / Räderwerk). The Urrädla is made to be shared among many at ceremonious events – each person at the table should break off a piece. The Urrädla is specific to the Fränkische Schweiz, and this one is from the Reifenberger Keller, which is tucked in below a tiny chapel above the little town of Reifenberg.
Pictured below is the river Wiesent, which flows through the Fränkische Schweiz between Hollfeld and Forchheim; many towns are situated in the valleys along its winding path. The Reifenberger Keller is on one side of the river, and Pretzfeld is on the other. We stopped inbetween for a swim.
By happy coinicidence we arrived in Franconia just in time for the annual Kirschenfest hosted at the sprawling hillside Pretzfelder Keller, in adorable Pretzfeld. After the swim in the river Wiesent, we wandered amongst fields and gardens, and up the cherry tree hill to arrive at the bustling cellar where a traditional Bavarian brass band was exploring its repertoire of what might have been drinking songs. We grabbed beers immediately.
A Cherry Festival, it turns out, has very little to do with cherries, but involves copious amounts of beer and pork knuckles. Merry groups of Franconians were seated at long tables under the foliage, raising their heavy mugs to one another in beer-y salute. Groups of children, all the while, spent the evening running about and exploring the extensive grounds and all its hiding places. We shared an excellent grilled mackerel and there was inevitably Currywurst. There were also plates of cheeses with bread, and sausages and grilled meats. Simple food, with little fuss.
While we are on the subject of food, it is important to address the Leberkässemmel, which is by no means exclusively Franconian, but has been, however, standout in my experience of the region. Leberkäse translates literally as liver cheese, while paradoxically containing neither liver nor cheese! Leberkäse is actually made of finely ground meat and onions, which is then baked as a loaf until it acquires a browned crust. Every local butcher would sell a Leberkässemmel – two slices of Leberkäse in a bread roll (Semmel) and it ought to be gefenstert (fenestrated) – having a crackled surface, as shown below. We also bought tart cherries from a roadside vendor. Pictured below the picture below are peppery cold-smoked sausages called Pfefferweißer – delicious, fatty Würstchen!
Rocks, ruins and Burgenromantik
German romanticism flourished in the Fränkische Schweiz, as it did eslewhere, wherever rivers, forests and castles were found; the natural scenery and its historical ambience presented ample opportunity for nostalgic reverie. Alongside restoring ruins, the romantic spirit found expression in the gentle manipulation of natural landscapes. We travelled north to the town of Sanspareil, to see the beautiful Burg Zwernitz and the adjoining Felsengarten / rock garden, which was landscaped in the 18th Century.
And oh my, the romance of the carefully arranged, meandering rock garden. As you walk along its wooded paths, you come across wistfully named rock formations and grottos. Pictured below is the Naturtheater / Ruinentheater, hiding away at the furthest end of the Felsengarten.
The ‘natural’ theater was built as a fake antique ruin, and has remained remarkably intact since its completion. A bizarre venture, and a happy irony. The romantics are smiling. They’d like you to stage a play.
In another sense, I am inclined to romantic ponderment with regard to the community wood-fired ovens found in each small village of the Fränkische Schweiz; the very thought of stoking a fire and baking loaves for a whole village is heart-warming, or so I’ve imagined (picture, here, a village of eclectic personalities dedicated to kindness and the sharing of exquisite food, and who gossip in only the most charming and good-natured manner, and it smells like fresh bread all the time).
Many ovens are still, at least sporadically, in use, and in summer there are Backofenfeste galore! We missed all of them, sadly. But I am assured that a Backofenfest, much like the Kirschenfest we attended, also involves a great deal of beer and pork knuckles. But there would also be bread, fresh from the oven.