Imagine yourself outdoors on a sunny day sitting at a long wooden table with six or seven other people, a stein of beer in your hand and a plate of schweinsbraten and sauerkraut in front of you. A brass band is playing oom-pah-pah music somewhere nearby, and several people are dancing on a grassy spot in front of a huge tent.
As far as your eyes can see, there are other enormous tents and acres of long wooden tables just like yours. Sturdy women wearing dirndl dresses scurry between the tables, their hands clutching the handles of as many as six brimming steins of beer which they plunk down in front of waiting customers.
Others hurry from tents to tables with plates of steaming food, everything from apple pancakes to pork knuckles.
Where are you? In the middle of a 100-plus acre field called Theresienwiese, Theresa’s Field, in Munich, Germany, and you’re in the midst of a 16-day festival known as Oktoberfest. It claims to be the world’s largest fair, with some 6 million visitors every year.
When I first walked in through the entrance to Oktoberfest, I was overwhelmed, intimidated and amazed. Had we not been with relatives who were “locals,” and knew their way around, I believe we’d have turned around and left the scene.
Fourteen enormous tents, each holding anywhere from 1,000 to 10,000 people, fill the 42-hectare field, each with its own outdoor table area. Inside the tents, which are crammed with people sitting at small tables or standing around the perimeter, music plays constantly, while small kitchens turn out rotisserie chicken (hendl), schweinhaxn (pork knuckles), schweinsbraten (pork roast), steckerlfisch (fish on a stick), wurstel (sausages) with sauerkraut, knodeln (dumplings), kasespatzle (cheese noodles) and one of my favorites, reiberdatschi (potato pancakes). The food at Oktoberfest is legendary, and I couldn’t believe what I saw coming out of those kitchens.
Each tent draws its own brand of beer, brewed especially for Oktoberfest and stronger than usual, something unsuspecting tourists aren’t always aware of. Drinking a liter stein of Oktoberfest beer on a warm autumn day can lead to what locals call the bierlichen, or beer corpses. There are small tents set up along the aisles between the larger ones and specifically designated as “recovery” tents. The unfortunates who fall victim to Oktoberfest beer are taken on gurneys to those tents and allowed to sleep it off under the watchful eye of attendants.
From brass bands playing traditional music, to accordians, fiddles, even rock bands (only in the evenings), every tent has continuous music, some much louder and raucous than others. But, when I heard wonderful yodeling coming from one tent, I was delighted. I’d have stayed with the yodelers for hours, but my companions were not as enthralled as I, so we strolled on to sample other tents, beers, music and food.
Munich’s famous Oktoberfest is copied now in many, many cities and towns throughout the U.S., usually held at the end of September into early October, which means you can probably find one going on nearby right now. Good music, great food, a stein of good beer; what better way to enjoy these last fine days of fall and forget about what lurks in the next weather forecast. PROST!
There are many variations of Schweinesbraten, which basically means roast pork. It is on every menu throughout Austria and Germany. This recipe is from an Austrian cookbook I have, and it’s an excellent way to serve pork loin, with a lot of flavor.
ROAST PORK LOIN WITH BEER SAUCE
2 T. butter
1 large red onion, sliced
2-4 cloves garlic, minced (to your taste; I use at least 4)
1 t. ground cumin
½ t. ground ginger
¼ t. allspice
2 bottles/cans (12 oz.) beer (don’t use dark beer)
½ cup Dijon mustard
¼ cup honey
1 3-4 lb. pork loin, tied
2 T. vegetable oil
1 T. butter, at room temp.
1 T. flour
In a skillet, melt the butter. Add onion and saute until tender and golden. Add garlic, cumin, cinnamon and allspice; stir 1 min. Add beer, mustard and honey; bring to a boil. Remove from heat and puree in batches in a blender until smooth. Cool to room temp.
Pour the pureed sauce into a baking dish; add the pork loin, turning to coat all sides. Refrigerate 8 hrs. or overnight, turning the roast occasionally.
Remove the pork from the marinade, reserving the marinade. Pat roast dry. Heat the vegetable oil in a heavy, large skillet. Season the pork with salt and pepper and put in the skillet. Brown pork on all sides, then transfer to a baking sheet with a rim. Roast in a preheated 375-degree oven ¾ to 1 hr., or until the roast reaches 155 degrees on an instant-read thermometer. Transfer pork to a cutting surface, reserving any pan juices.
Add pan juices to the reserved marinade, combining in a saucepan. Bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer. Make a paste with the butter and flour and add this to the sauce, whisking in until smooth. Simmer until the sauce thickens, season with salt and pepper to taste. Slice the pork loin and serve with the sauce poured over the pork.
Remember those apple pancakes I mentioned at the beginning of the column? At Oktoberfest as well as every day in the streets, there are vendors selling many delicious “take away” goodies from curbside carts.
Apple pancakes sprinkled with cinnamon sugar are popular with young and old; you can do these easily at home.
APFELSCHMARRN (Apple Pancakes)
1 generous cup flour
1 2/3 cup milk
¼ t. salt
1-2 T. sugar
4 eggs, separated
3 apples, 2 if they’re large
1 T. lemon juice
4-5 T. butter
2 T. sugar mixed with ½ t. cinnamon
Using an electric mixer, mix together flour, milk, salt and sugar. Add egg yolks, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Let batter stand about 10 min.
Peel and core apples; slice into wedges. Place in a mixing bowl and drizzle with the lemon juice, stirring apples to coat.
Beat the egg whites with a few drops of lemon juice until very stiff. Fold gently into the batter.
Melt butter in a large skillet. Pour in about ¼ of the batter and arrange apple wedges on top. Fry pancake on both sides, turning carefully. Sprinkle with cinnamon sugar and serve warm, sliced into wedges. Cook remaining batter in the same way.
One of the most traditional Oktoberfest dishes is sausages and sauerkraut. When I was there, I would have to choose among so many different types of sausages, it was bewildering.
We don’t have that luxury here, except in some specialty shops in Seattle, but this dish is still outstanding if you use brats, kielbasa, even chorizo (definitely not traditional but tasty); whatever sausages you can find that appeal to you.
BRAISED MIXED SAUSAGES
2 cups thinly sliced red onions
3 cups thinly sliced yellow onions, divided
3 bay leaves, divided
4 bottles (8 oz.) hard cider
1 bottle (12 oz.) lager
1 head green cabbage, sliced
8 links of sausage (bratwurst, kielbasa, etc.)
3 slices bacon, chopped
1 T. minced garlic
3 large Golden Delicious apples, cored and cubed
1 t. whole black peppercorns
1 t. juniper berries, crushed
2 lbs. sauerkraut, rinsed well under cold running water and drained
2 T. light brown sugar
1 t. salt
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Using a sharp knife or a fork, prick each sausage a few times. In a large skillet, combine the red onions, 1 cup of yellow onion, 2 bay leaves, cider and lager; bring to a simmer over med. heat. Add cabbage and sausages and poach until almost cooked through, about 5 min. Remove the sausages and set aside, reserving the rest of the cooking liquid.
In a large pot, cook the bacon over med. heat until crisp. Remove with a slotted spoon and drain on paper towels. Add the remaining yellow onion to the fat and cook, stirring, until very soft (5-6 min.) Add garlic and cook, stirring for 1/2 min. Add the apples and cook, stirring, until apples begin to soften, only about 2 min. Add the remaining bay leaf, peppercorns and juniper berries and cook, stirring, for 1/2 min. Add sauerkraut and then add the sausage poaching liquid, pouring through a sieve. Add the sugar, salt and pepper and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer uncovered until everything is tender, stirring occasionally, about 1/2 hr. Remove the sauerkraut from the heat and discard the bay leaf. Stir in the cooked bacon, adjust seasonings, if necessary. Arrange the sauerkraut on the platter with the sausages and serve, with rolls and a spicy grain or hot mustard. Serves 8.
Note: If you wish, you can put the cooked cabbage/onion mixture left from the poaching on the platter as well, or serve in a separate bowl on the side.