Wednesday 17 October 2012

A German meal: remembering a loved one

When I was 18, fresh from A-Levels, I took myself off to Germany for a gap year. This was at a time when a gap year was relatively uncommon, at least amongst anyone I knew - my classmates and friends weren't the type to go backpacking round Asia to "discover themselves". I'd applied to read German and French at Cambridge, but was dreading the point during the interview at which they would question my commitment to the subject, and ask how many times I had visited each country. Due to a combination of circumstances, finances and a family preference for holidays in the UK, I'd never actually set foot in Germany and had only been to France once. I was convinced I wouldn't get in to university (or *that* university, anyway) if it looked like I wasn't that interested in the cultures and countries I wanted to spend the next three years studying - though in hindsight I think I was completely wrong and this wouldn't have stopped me getting in! But at the time this worry was at the forefront of my mind so I blithely ticked the "defer entry" box on the UCAS form, not really thinking about what it would mean to spend a whole year abroad while all my friends were off to university back home.

I'm not entirely sure where the idea of being an au pair came from, but really I don't think I could have done anything else - living in one place, with a family who would look after me and (hopefully) treat me as one of their own was going to be a big enough challenge and probably the only thing that my parents would have agreed to, and I was hardly the brave, independent type who wanted to strike out on their own.

So with the guarantee of a place at Cambridge for the following year (in the end, the interview was a breeze, and they didn't ask me once how many times I had been to Germany!), I scoured the Lady magazine to find myself an au pair position, and ended up packing my bags and moving to a village just outside the beautiful southern German town of Freiburg. There I lived for 11 months with a wonderful woman named Gila, her two children and their two cats, made some new friends and explored lots of new places, none of which I will ever forget, had one very hairy attempt at driving on the other side of the road (never to be done again), discovered I was hopeless at housework, but good at helping with homework, and that I hated spinach, but that Miracle Whip is the best mayonnaise I had ever tasted, had my first takeaway pizza (which I loved), tried tequila (which I hated), hung out with au pairs from other countries (some of whom I am still friends with, 15 years later), had my dad tape every episode of Friends and send them over on VHS in the post, got my ears pierced, almost had my first skiing lesson but chickened out, and most importantly, learnt how to cook.

Freiburg cathedral and flower market

It's funny how some of the most vivid memories I have of my time there revolve around food. The first takeaway pizza I ever had, where I didn't realise we were going to get a whole pizza each, but when I asked for seafood, wasn't expecting it to have little tiny squid all over it, which I couldn't eat until one of the children took them off.... The local ice cream parlour, where you could have flavours I'd never seen in England, like apple or yogurt.... One of the children's favourite meals, of mashed potato, spinach and fried egg, all of which I hated and would cook for them then pick at, and fill up on Ritter Sport chocolate in my room later.... The time I made mashed potato too runny, and the children thought it was soup....The bowl of salad we had before every meal, which was a new concept to me, but to this day I still prefer German salad dressing... On my first day with the family, taking a huge gulp of water and discovering it was carbonated, which I'd never had before, and almost wanting to spit it out in disgust.... The long walks up to Shauinsland and drinking Apfelsaftschorle at the top....

Freiburg cathedral

Having to bring jars of Hellmann's mayonnaise every time I came over from England, as it was Gila's favourite and you couldn't buy it in Germany at the time.... The delicious German bread and all the different sliced ham and cheeses....eating a Bratwurst in a bun on my Saturdays off as I walked around the shops in Freiburg....the simple food we would eat during the week like potato and broccoli bake and then the big roasts and casseroles Gila would cook when she was home at the weekends...The fantastic triple-layered chocolate cake they made for my 19th birthday.... The amazing weekend brunches, where we would fetch fresh rolls from the baker, warm them in the oven, and lay out platters of ham and cheese. The orange juice had to be poured into wine glasses, and the stereo had to be playing classical music, then we could all sit down to eat and wish each other "Guten!".
A Freiburger Lange Rote

Sadly, Gila - the mother of my au pair family - passed away last month after a long illness. The last time I saw her was three years ago - when she found out I had been suddenly left by my partner of 11 years, and that new year might be a difficult time as we'd first met on a new year's eve, she immediately picked up the phone and invited me to Germany to stay. Which is how I found myself on new year's eve 2009 standing outside with neighbours who remembered me from over a decade earlier, sharing hot drinks and soup as we watched the fireworks, then the Christmas tree getting knocked over as we all piled back in the house (it wasn't me, I swear!) - and feeling like despite only having lived there for a year, more than ten years earlier, a little part of me felt like I had come back home. It seemed somehow right that in the eulogy at her funeral, a great deal was made of her generosity, her willingness to open her home to family and friends (or waifs and strays - I remember the time I was with her in the car and she picked up a hitchhiker, and insisted on buying him lunch). She was also an excellent judge of character, a perceptive listener, and full of energy - I remember her taking up flamenco lessons, but it was more than that - more than anyone else I've ever met, she had a lust for life and a sort of calm inner strength that had taken her through heartache and tragedy and yet made her always seem to enjoy life.

It always seemed very apt that the nearest train station to their house is called Himmelreich - Paradise. That Christmas three years ago was the last time I saw Gila, though we'd been in touch since, and this summer her son came to stay with me in London - it was amazing to see that the little boy who had been 7 when I was his au pair was now a strapping young man of 22! At the funeral I met some other au pairs, including an English woman who had come a few years before me, who I'd always heard the kids talk about, and a Czech girl who came the year after me, who greeted me with the words "Finally I get to meet the au pair they always talked about!". I think it's a wonderful tribute to Gila that there are so many young women and men around the world who had opportunities and experiences they may not otherwise have had, in some cases for those who came from poorer countries for a better life, and who may have only lived with Gila for a year, but who were treated like part of her family for the rest of her life. Sie wird uns fehlen.

I feel like it would be a fitting tribute to the woman who - other than my own mother - taught me how to cook - to make myself a little German meal.

My wanderings around Freiburg also took me into a supermarket, of course... I intended to maybe just buy a jar of Miracle Whip to take back home but went a bit overboard and ended up bringing home a suitcase that weighed 5kg more than on the way out!

So in memory of happy times, I started off with a glass of Apfelschorle - apple spritzer, made from apple juice and soda water in whatever ratio you prefer. I bought the glass as a souvenir too!

I didn't want to bring back fresh food in my suitcase so I popped into Lidl the day after I got back, and bought some Bockwurst

I also decided to make Kartoffelpuffer - potato cakes. To begin, peel some potatoes

Then grate them, raw

Put into a bowl and squeeze out the exess liquid. Mix in one egg, and enough plain flour so the mixture can be handled and isn't too wet. Also season with salt and pepper.

Heat a frying pan and add a little oil. Take a handful (or spoonful) of the potato mixture and flatten into a circular shape in the pan. Fry for a few minutes on each side until golden.

When ready, serve with Apfelmus - it comes in a jar like apple sauce but is smoother, like apple puree.

I did take a photo of the final meal on a plate - I had two Kartoffelpuffer and a Bockwurst. Until I realised that the shape - and the slightly puckered end of the sausage - looked quite dodgy and not the sort of thing I should be uploading to the internet at all! I only realised after I'd finished eating and looked at the photo so it was too late to take another but trust me, it was quite funny!

For dessert I couldn't resist opening my stash of Ritter Sport I'd brought back from Germany. This is only a small part of it as I gave a lot to my boyfriend too. There are some new flavours I haven't seen before, but 15 years ago my favourite was the yellow packet on the left, which has cornflakes in the chocolate.

I also made myself a packed lunch to take into work the next day, with the aforementioned Miracel Whip:

Some German bread and Mortadella sausage

This looks quite simple and doesn't make a great photo but tastes delicious!

The other shopping I bought back from Germany: Haribo gold bears and fizzy turtles, ice tea mix, Mezzo Mix - which is Coca-Cola with orange - some Spaetzle, which is like pasta, cheese fondue mix (bit random I know), salad dressing, vanilla sugar, and Dr Oetker carrot decorations for the next time I make a carrot cake.

I also bought some Christmas decorations - Germany does it so much better! - and a Freiburg chopping board...

... and a Freiburg/ Black Forest umbrella, that looks pretty cool when it's opened

A Baden (Freiburg is in Baden-Wurtemburg) cookery book, in German of course

And finally I was quite excited when I found a bundt tin for only 10 euros, as I don't actually have one yet but had been considering buying one for a while. I knew it would be a bit of a pain getting it back in my suitcase but decided it would be worth it.

When I got back to the house with all my shopping, we popped out to Aldi for some dishwasher tablets.. and lo and behold, they had the exact same size bundt mould, but in silicon (so a lot easier to carry home) and only 3 euros 50! So of course I had to buy this one as well.

And I may as well buy the mini bundt tin too! After all, the word bundt is derived from the German word Bundkuchen, a ring-shaped cake.

I'm looking forward to enjoying some German food and using my new bundt tins and next time I go back to Freiburg - for go back I will - I'm definitely taking my boyfriend with me. I can't wait to show him where I lived and I hope you've enjoyed me sharing these memories with you as well.


  1. What a beautiful post. It's so nice to hear that after all these years you can still call Freiburg home even though you weren't there very long. Gila sounds like a remarkable woman and I'm sure her family would be pleased to know she had such a positive impact on your life.

  2. good brought tears to my eyes reading it.

  3. I lived in Germany for a year in 1996/97 so this post has reminded me of many of the things I used to have at that time. One of the teachers in the school where I was language assistant used to make Kartoffelpuffer for me. She had a young daugher so it's strange to imagine taht she'll be grown up now too.

    1. I know exactly how you feel! Which part of Germany were you in?

  4. ooh I've been to Freiburg, we went to the area on holiday about 8 or 9 years ago. It's a great place.

    1. That's cool, I always think more people should go on holiday to Germany, it's lovely!

  5. What a great post Caroline, Gila sounded like a wonderful woman and what an adventure you had in Germany! So great you got to go back there and that you still have so many fond memories!


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