Winter postcards from Black Forest.

Life in Stuttgart can be a little, there is no other way to put it, boring. The city is uptight and businesslike and living here can feel a little like living with a British cousin only without the wry sense of humor or the adorable nasal accent (whom you never saw eye to eye in the first place!) It’s Europe’s economic zone (think Bangalore’s E-city but way modern and less traffic) and is filled with automobile industries of all kinds and banks. So, industrial.

Morning dawns in Baiersbronn.
Morning dawns in Baiersbronn.
The train tracks are snowed in!
The train tracks are snowed in!

But and this is a big BUT. Hop in the Deutsche Bahn and travel an hour south west and you arrive at the most breathtaking forest ranges in all of Europe – Black Forest. Yes, that’s where the namesake multilayered dark dessert comes from (although the Black Forest cake you find in the region or anywhere in Germany, has cherry brandy and real sour cherries and hence tasted nothing like it tasted anywhere I had before). It is also the Black Forest of the cuckoo clock.

A restaurant inside the forest area.
A restaurant inside the forest area.
Far in the background, you can see the skiing track.
Far in the background, you can see the skiing track.

Just as Christmas touches down, a carpet of snow descends on the entire Black Forest area and envelopes the tiny villages and towns in its embrace. Just this weekend, gleeful of this secret we decided to set on a little weekend trip to the beloved Schwarzwald – Black Forest. We picked a tiny town called Baiersbronn on the Murg river, in the middle of the region and during research stumbled upon another very interesting, wallet unfriendly piece of info – that the town has 8 Michelin stars to its credit.

In which I thought I was the focus but I wasn't!
In which I thought I was the focus but I wasn’t!
Murg - the river - is all frozen in parts!
Murg – the river – is all frozen in parts!

If I had read fairy tales while growing up, the image I would have conjured up when I saw Baisbronn enveloped in a heavy carpet of snow would have been that of Snow white’s queen mother sewing and injuring herself with a pinprick and asking for a wish for a girl who had “skin as white as snow, lips as red as blood, and hair as black as ebony.”

From a view point, Baiersbron through the trees.
From a view point, Baiersbron through the trees.
The tall pine trees, pregnant with snow.
The tall pine trees, pregnant with snow.

But no such luck, I grew up on a steady diet of reality and unadulterated pessimism about the dangers lurking in the world and hence all I could think was the wood chipper scene from Fargo. Or strangely, the eerie visuals from The Human Stain, of Nicole Kidman driving on a winter day and her even eerier conversation with the crow. Suffice to say, there are many crows fluttering about in Baiersbronn. And Eurasian Jays and other birds.

The wood chipper, I told you about? I never saw but hey it exists here! Proof.
The wood chipper, I told you about? I never saw but hey it exists here! Proof.
The gorgeous hiking paths carpeted with snow.
The gorgeous hiking paths carpeted with snow.

But none of these thoughts were overbearing enough to deter us from walking along these gorgeous pine laden forests, pregnant with snow as you can see from these images. Except snow dust inside our shoes, may be. But when your walk gets tiring and shoes get filled with snow, you can always settle in for a hot mug of cocoa (Zartbitter, as they say in German for mild-dark chocolate) at the nearest cafe you stumble upon.

Trees are twigs in winter.
Trees are twigs in winter.

Though I only saw a bit of it, Baiersbronn served as a breathtaking primer for the Black Forest region and I’ve no doubt that the other towns of Black Forest is enticing enough. I can’t wait to go back! Soon.

Baiersbronn from above.
Baiersbronn from above.

May be in the next trip, we will she some guilt about the cost and try a meal at one these Michelin star restaurants! Ah well, who am I kidding? May be we won’t (after all, the middle class South Indian guilt on splurging – on a meal, no less – is so incredibly hard to get rid of, you see).

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See, eerie, I told you?

Have you been to Schwarzwald / Black Forest? Leave a comment and let me know. Also, here’s wishing you all a super fabulous new year 2017!

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Notes from Berlin.

I am in Germany for three months on a fellowship. I didn’t expect it to happen but it did. I applied, was shortlisted, interviewed and was waitlisted. Then I was given the go-ahead. That meant, I got to spend three months in Germany and write about the country. A month had already flown by and I am now interning at the German Press Agency in Berlin (dpa).

Berlin's iconic brandenburg gate and a tour guide offering walking tours.
Berlin’s iconic brandenburg gate and a tour guide offering walking tours.

This also explains my two-month absence from blogging. My last month has been filled with lectures and meetings and visits to newspaper offices in Germany, I barely had time to Instagram. But that might be a lie; as and when possible I instagrammed like crazy. It feels like I arrived early this morning but my first week in Berlin went quicker than the time it takes me to chomp down a slice of German volkorn bread.

The Gendarmenmarkt, Berlin's square has its concert hall and churches.
The Gendarmenmarkt, Berlin’s square has its concert hall and churches.

No matter the city, a homebody loves home wherever he is. Berlin is no exception. While the historic yet hipster city breathes heavily under clear skies and strolls with its gentle human commotion, sometimes I seek solace in the confines of my empty flat. It overlooks Checkpoint Charlie – the erstwhile checkpoint between East and West Germany. I could see the outpost if I pressed my cheeks really close on the glass windows of my airbnb room.

Tier garten, Berlin the erstwhile hunting ground of Prussian kings.
Tier garten, Berlin the erstwhile hunting ground of Prussian kings.

I could see the men in fake green military uniform, dressed up so to attract tourists who take pictures with them for a Euro. The wall museum outside it is brimming. But I stay in. I do a quick shopping trip and make myself a comforting meal of rice and vegetables an settle down with House of Cards. The light refuses to die down at least until 9.00 pm and the sky takes the colour of a brooding blue, watching over the huge buildings outside my window.

Berlin's turmeric yellow U-bahn.
Berlin’s turmeric yellow U-bahn.

Berlin is different. Berlin is cool. Berlin coexists. There are organic supermarkets next to Turkish donors. Women in headscarves are as common as tattooed men in fluorescent blue hair and multiple piercings. There are wall murals depicting virgin Mary and Jesus, except that Mary is a bear. Or a dog. Its U-bahn trains are turmeric yellow with white signage of the Brandenburger Tor littered all over their body.

The famous 'My God, Help Me to Survive This Deadly Love' mural on the Berlin wall.
The famous ‘My God, Help Me to Survive This Deadly Love’ mural on the Berlin wall.
Part of the Berlin wall in East Side Gallery and the Soviet Era Trabi cars.
Part of the Berlin wall in East Side Gallery and the Soviet Era Trabi cars.
A provocative mural on the TAZ newspaper building in Berlin.
A provocative mural on the TAZ newspaper building in Berlin.

Everyone has a story to tell and each story deserves to be heard over a sparkling glass of Hefeweizen. Its street musicians wear donkey masks and stand naked, their pants rolled down their calves in terrible cold and strum their guitars, belting out pitch perfect songs of their own production.

Berlin parliament, Bundestag, at sundown.
Berlin parliament, Bundestag, at sundown.
Brandenburg gate on an evening.
Brandenburg gate on an evening.

May be tomorrow I will go out and hunt for stories. Perhaps, I will also see the same stranger I saw in the train the other day, piss drunk and joyous and had a toothless smile and tried a conversation. We had no common language but we couldn’t stop smiling at each other and I surmised that his smile meant ‘welcome to Berlin.’

The river Spree runs through Berlin.
The river Spree runs through Berlin.

Walking the Christmas markets in Stuttgart, Germany

Europe is experiencing an unseasonably warm winter this year. The El Nino effect is heating up US and Europe and in Stuttgart, where I have arrived after a week in Poland, temperature is hovering around the 14C mark. A quick look at the weather for the week suggests only rains so no snow, typical of Christmas season, is in sight this year.

Which brings me to the next point. Christmas is in season and Europe is wearing its best to usher in the festival.  From the cobble stoned walkways of Krakow to the town center of Stuttgart, streets are decorated in glistening stars and fairy lights like shiny weeping willows falling from the branches of trees. Christmas is here, so to say.

The stars are bright.
The stars are bright.

The season has brought with it hordes of Christmas markets in each city square. These are congregation of stalls selling everything from mulled wine to homemade pizzas, coupled with performances for children and adults alike.

Some of them are themed, like the medieval Christmas market I visited in the suburbs of Stuttgart at the picturesque Esslingen by the river Neckar. On a sunny day, armed with Nishil ,his friends and my camera while braving the chill winds I went people watching, Flammkuchen binging and eating wafflen topped with pickled cherries.

The smell of cheese being grilled and onions being fried in butter wafted through the market while Falafel stalls jostled for space with Bratwurst shops. I saw hippy couples selling incense and matted haired home brewers hawking Limoncello (of which I bought a bottle and hoping to bring back to India without breakage).

Not everybody likes their pictures taken.
Not everybody likes their pictures taken.
Children at the medieval christmas market
Children at the medieval Christmas market.
Hot apple juice, anyone
Hot apple juice, anyone?

People layered up in less than winter clothing (it was only 14C, remember?) ambled along. The Christmas festive spirit was palpable.

The Rathausplatz, where the Christmas market was being held, is adjacent to the Protestant Parish Church Esslingen am Neckar built in 1213. Its beautiful stained glass windows show scenes from the Old and New Testament ranging from Birth and Work of Jesus, The Wise and Foolish Maidens Martyers, Passion of Jesus and Life of Mary.

I did not waste a moment to plunge into an eating frenzy whilst there. Flammkuchen became a favorite. Flammkuchen is German for pizza, sort of. It has a super thin crust, giving a complex for the regular pizza’s thin crust, and its toppings are simple. They are usually onions and olives. Sometimes, there is also bacon bits adding flavor to the dish.

I also found interesting signage like this one. It means; ‘What is cooked with love reaches your heart and not your midriff.’ (PS: I take no credit for the (average) translation as it is only a loose interpretation of what’s written here!)

A quirky quote

Are you merry this holiday season wherever in the world you are? Leave a comment and let me know. A merry Christmas to all of you lovely people.

 

For the love of chocolate – inside a Swiss chocolate factory

The last time I was taken to a chocolate factory, I ate myself sick and drew little more than disapproving glances from my mother. But I was also ten at that time and didn’t know Lotte from Lindt. The availability of unlimited chocolates was all that mattered and my ten year old tummy was taut from eating so much that I had to forget anymore chocolates for at least six months after that.

Packed chocolates being stacked
Packed chocolates being stacked

More than two decades later, as I stood before Mrs. Devitore – whose coffee brown eyes and broad smile strangely reminded me of my mother – in southern Switzerland’s Giubiasco, I knew this was going to be a different experience. I was at the production facility of Chocolat Stella for a guided tour. Stella has been innovating on chocolates since its inception in 1928 and is attributed to developing Switzerland’s first sugar free chocolate in 1960 and bringing out fair-trade, organic chocolates in 1991.

Julia churning cocoa utter
Julia churning cocoa butter

There is perhaps something oxymoronic about the fact that Switzerland produces the world’s best chocolates without even being blessed with the basic ingredients – cocoa beans and sugar.  Though, pardoning the cliché, if you consider happiness among the ingredients, the Swiss have plenty of it. In fact, just recently the 2015 World Happiness Report by the UN ranked Switzerland as the happiest country in the world.

A visitor makes her own chocolate
A visitor makes her own chocolate

“We might not have all the ingredients but Swiss chocolate is known all over the world because we have learnt the secrets of making chocolate from our neighbours,” says Devitore. When she says neighbours, she means Spain, France, Austria and Italy where chocolate was introduced and gained prominence in the 16th century. Eventually, chocolate making arrived in Switzerland in 1819 when François-Louis Cailler started his Cailler chocolate company also considered the oldest Swiss chocolate brand still in existence (owned by Nestle now). Chocolate has evolved since then. The ancient chocolate was a drink – far unexciting from its varied forms known today. By now, I am inside the chocolate making facility, dressed in diaphanous lab suit covering head to toe complete with a cap to adhere to the quality standards. My shoes, wrapped in shoe covers, scraping the green concrete floor, I trail Devitore as she walks me along the hulking machines in stainless steel. A sense of foreboding takes me over as I feel diminutive alongside these giant metallic monsters churning to produce the world’s favourite food product.

Chocolate bars ready for packaging
Chocolate bars ready for packaging

We witness the churning of cocoa butter, sugar and milk powder to make white chocolate. The giant churner, fed with the mixture, clamps shut with the 350 kg mix and revolves with a grunt. We take a peek, the yellow mass turns into soft butter consistency. Julia Berna, the baby faced intern, wears her blue gloves, ready to check the churned butter. Temperature is checked, 35­oC, and the mass is sent for further processing to smoothen the mixture.

A handful of chocolate
A handful of chocolate

I ask Julia if she likes chocolates. Does she ever get bored of them since she works with them all day? It is like asking a teller if he ever gets bored of currency. “Of course not.” she says with an expression that probably meant, “are you nuts?” The Swiss like Julia are what make the country the biggest consumers of chocolates in the world with average per capital consumption of 9kg a year.

A display of chocolate bars
A display of chocolate bars

I am now asked to make my own chocolate. A vessel of liquid chocolate sits next to a tray onto which I pour the chocolate, its ladle dripping the dark brown liquid onto its sides. I further embellish my bar with quinoa and almonds. After the decoration is done, the chocolate goes into the freezer. Among the other parts of the world including Central America, South America, Africa and Indonesia, Stella also works with cocoa producers in Kerala, India sourcing cocoa beans. Beans are harvested, dried in plantain leaves and pressed to extract butter before they are sent to the production facility in Switzerland.

Chocolate being made by visitors
Chocolate being made by visitors

We arrive at the packaging plant where I see men and women in lab coats and blue caps busy stacking freshly packed chocolate bars jumping out of the machine into cartons. Occasionally they pop a square or two into their mouths. Stacking chocolate bars in cartons can’t be exciting, surely. It must be the prospect of working with chocolate and often consume as and when desired that keeps them going, I imagine. Stella’s specialty is custom made chocolates. “If you need any specific flavour combinations, we will be able to deliver that,” Devitore had said earlier. As I walked towards the exit, on a table, a spread of chocolate varieties greet me – custom made chocolates for clients with agave nectar, camel milk, blue potato chips, baobab.

A display of chocolates at Stella
A display of chocolate bars at Stella

I taste each one of them, not without recollection of my earlier chocolate factory visit. After all, who can get enough of chocolates? But as the trip ended, I leave a little tummy space for the chocolate I made and would take home with me – a large bar with a star (Stella) in the middle, sprinkled with quinoa and roasted almonds. A version of this appeared in The New Indian Express and can be viewed here.

Bellinzona – Switzerland with an Italian accent

I usually do not make travel wishlists but if I did Italy would top it. So I was pleasantly surprised when this Switzerland trip came along and as I jumped at it, I noticed the plan covered Ticino, Southern Switzerland – a part very close to Italy. So very close that Europe travel expert Rick Steves called the region ‘Switzerland with an Italian accent.’ Bellinzona’s cuisine, architecture, its sunny disposition and even the language spoken is influenced by Italy in a big way.

I spent a couple of days in Bellinzona, explored its Castle Grande, walked its alleyways peeping into its delis, the display cases of which are filled with local cheese and other produce. During my stay I discovered that white Merlot exists (pictured here too) and that it is possible to get drunk on food. I polished plate after plate brought to my table that it was assumed that I must have been very hungry from all the walking. That was only partly true. I simply enjoyed all that cheese and wine and meat and vegetables.

Some pictures from the trip.

The main street that leads to the town square, Bellinzona, Switzerland
The main street that leads to the town square, Bellinzona, Switzerland
A sort of ariel view of the town, Bellinzona
A sort of ariel view of the town, Bellinzona
Bellinzona town square
Bellinzona town square
The town square - Bellinzona
The town square – Bellinzona
View of Bellinzona from the Castle Grande
View of Bellinzona from the Castle Grande
The walkway to Castle Grande, Bellinzona
The walkway to Castle Grande, Bellinzona
The vineyards of Castle Grande
The vineyards of Castle Grande
A wall, Castle Grande, Bellinzona
A wall, Castle Grande, Bellinzona
Bread, the crackling bread
Bread, the crackling bread
Chicken roast, Bellinzona
Chicken roast, Bellinzona
An art installation in town square, Bellinzona, Switzerland
An art installation in town square, Bellinzona, Switzerland
The white merlot, Bellinzona
The white merlot, Bellinzona
A pastry with a squishy, egg-noggy, center.
A pastry with a squishy, egg-noggy, center.
Castle Grande, Bellinzona
Castle Grande, Bellinzona

Have you been to Switzerland? Or Italy? Or Bellinzona itself? Leave a comment and let me know.