The second trip started with three days in the Mosel, surely one of the most gorgeous wine places on the planet. The valley looks like someone decided to plant a section of the Grand Canyon with grape vines almost two millennia ago. The producers we visited in the Mosel were all stars including the likes of Mönchhof, Wegeler, Dr. F. Weins Prüm, J.J. Prüm, Fritz Haag, Schloss Lieser, and finally Rheinhold Haart in Piesport. At every stop we were tasting the 2000 vintage which had just been bottled. We also had the opportunity to taste a lot of older wines which was wonderful.
After our time in the Mosel we drove for several hours to Iphofen in Franken, traditionally called Franconia. Our one stop in region was at the Hans Wirsching winery. While the Mosel is the epicenter of Riesling, in Franken the Silvaner grape is king. Few, if any, do Silvaner better in Germany than Wirsching, much less anywhere else on the planet.
A note about Silvaner. More often than not, the grape (sometimes spelled Sylvaner) is about as thrilling as an old Toyota Camry. In other words, it gets you places but no one is excited. Not so with the Wirsching wines. Their top Grosses Gewächs Silvaner wines from the Iphofer Julius-Echter-Berg and Iphofer Kronsberg vineyards are among the finest wines made from the grape anywhere.
After tasting the entire range of stellar Wirsching wines from the new vintage, we went next door for lunch. The meal was set up in a long, wood-paneled room with the walls filled with various trophies of small game animals that had met a sudden and tragic fate by being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Lunch was comprised of a theme and variations on Vitamin P—pork. Platters of sausages of every shape and kind, some resembling Dr. Seuss creations, were passed. After I piled my plate high in an assortment of wurst I asked the woman serving us for some mustard. She didn’t speak English so I quickly turned to the son of the importer to translate. He rattled off something in German to her. She first stared in disbelief at him—and then me—before quickly turning on her heels and striding back into the kitchen. After many long minutes she returned with a small, ancient metal can of powered mustard. She then made a huge gesture out of showing me the can before sharply whacking it down on the table in front of me. I paused, thinking that if I asked for anything else my head would quickly join the others displayed on the room’s walls.
I was stunned. What was a kitchen in Germany without real mustard? I was also in a quandary. I had to use the mustard for the sake of appearances, if not survival. Using a table knife, I managed to pry the small lid off the top of the can and then scooped a mound of the yellow-brown powder on to my plate. For the record, it looked like rust from an old pipe. Then, using the skills of a four-year-old first encountering broccoli, I moved the mustard around my plate after eating the delectable sausages. Problem solved and international incident avoided.
Fast forward to the end of the trip. The second to the last day we were in the Pfalz region just across the Rhein from Alsace. The Pfalz, formerly the Rheinpfalz or the Palatinate, has historically been the sunniest and warmest region in Germany. The wines of the Pfalz, especially the Rieslings in both dry and sweet versions, are opulent, powerful, and utterly delicious. As for history, some two-thousand years ago the Romans conquered the area to take advantage of its thriving agriculture and strategic geographical location on an important trade route. I mention this because the entire region is literally strewn with Roman ruins and artifacts. I remember our car pulling up to a stop sign on a country road at one point and looking over to see a stone sarcophagus in someone’s front yard that had probably there for the better part of 2,000 years.
Lunch that day was in the town of Bad Durkheim at a famous restaurant called Dürkheimer Fass. Why famous? Because the restaurant is located in what is believed to be the world’s largest wine barrel. It’s nearly 50 feet in diameter and if filled with wine would hold almost 550,000 gallons. In other words, it’s a really big-ass barrel.
Victuals involved another huge plate of sausages (when in Rome) along with real honest-to-god Wiener Schnitzel. The latter was tender and juicy with a light crispy crust lathered in an artery-stopping cream sauce. No wonder so many of the older Germans seated at the tables around us were shaped like smaller versions of the restaurant.
On being served my plate of sausages I once again pined for mustard. After the previous episode I was hesitant about asking for anything. But I mustered the courage (ha!) and asked our waitress, who spoke perfect English, if I could have some mustard. She immediately smiled and said, “of course.” Within seconds she returned not with an ancient tin of caustic powder, but a large tray filled with various jars of locally produced mustard. It goes without saying that I was beside myself with condiment bliss.
I thanked her profusely and then told her about my experience at Wirsching. She listened intently, her frown growing and her eyes narrowing the longer the story went on. When I finished the tale she looked at the floor for a long moment and then looked up at me hissing the phrase, “filthy barbarians.”
Later that afternoon in the car I thought about her response. In the olden days, the mustard provocation at Wirsching could easily have ignited an incident. If the exchange had happened with nobles around the table it could have been deadly. Someone’s face would have been roundly struck with a heavy glove and a challenge issued. Chairs would have been pushed back violently and a medieval version of the Jets and Sharks would have ensued sans dancing and snappy Leonard Bernstein soundtrack.
In the end, food regionalism—even of the mustard variety--runs deep. I think about sweet tea in the American south, what passes for chile in any other part of the U.S. outside New Mexico, and the vast and mysterious universe of BBQ. I’ll never be able to fathom the latter. Whatever the case, there’s just one thing:
Never, ever, screw around with mustard.