Wednesday, December 28, 2022

Pizza is Now U.N. World Heritage !

                              Pizza from the city of Naples has been recognized by UNESCO

The art of making pizza has been declared by the United Nations World Heritage (UNESCO) as an official cultural treasure.  Actually, this accolade went to pizza from the city of Naples where this internationally beloved dish originated.   Neapolitan pizza, however, has very humble beginnings in that it was used to feed the poor.

While pizza in Naples can be traced back to the 18th century, bread's history actually goes back to 8,000 BC.  Bread in some form has been instrumental for feeding human societies.  The ancient Roman Empire, however, took the art of bread-making to another level.  Romans not only made enhancements to milling techniques, but were the first to produce flour which could be made into bread.  Naples was an important cultural center of the Roman Empire thus bread-making has deep roots in the Neapolitan cuisine.

      Naple's tomatoes, grown on the volcanic slopes of Vesuvius, taste like to other in the world

One cannot discuss the history of pizza without mentioning the tomato.  First, one has to remember that the tomato wasn’t brought to Europe until the early 1500’s.  It was first brought to Spain from South America by Spanish conquistadores.  It took another 50 years for the tomato to make it to southern Italy.  Thought by many Europeans to be poisonous, tomatoes took nearly a century to catch on.  In Naples, poverty was rampant.  People could starve to death, or try to survive by eating the tomato.  Today, the local tomato San Marzano, has become a world-wide brand.

The first recipe using tomatoes can be traced back to Naples in 1694.  A Neapolitan chef wrote in Latin a recipe for a sauce using tomatoes, onions and herbs.   Even then, this tomato sauce was shunned by the wealthy and viewed as a food for the poor.  Rich Neapolitans ate meat.  Poor people living in Naples ate vegetables, and this vegetable was particularly interesting because it could be preserved through a drying process, in olive oil, or in a paste form.

                Margherita is a classical offering in nearly every pizza spot around the world

While all of the ingredients for pizza were present in Naples for nearly 200 years, it took the visit to Naples by the King of Italy in 1889 to put pizza on the map.  During this visit one of Naple’s chefs created a dish named after the King’s wife Margherita.  The creation cleverly had the 3 colors of the Italian flag:  red, green & white.  Today, this Neapolitan classical pizza Margherita is served at restaurants around the world and includes bread, tomato sauce, mozzarella and basil.

The art of making pizza belongs to the people of Naples who created it in order to survive.  While now an art form around the world, the accolades belong to the humble poor of Naples who had nothing much more to eat than bread, and took a big chance on tomatoes.   Let's remember that in the New Year.

Tuesday, December 13, 2022

Heidelberg: the World's Largest Wine Barrel

          The castle, as seen from the Christmas Market, dominates the entire town of Heidelberg

Heidelberg is one of Germany's (and Europe's) most charming cities.  The city boasts the oldest university in Germany (1386) which has produced eight Noble prize winners.   The university is extremely popular---one in four residents of Heidelberg is a student.    Heidelberg has long been an attraction for great literates including Goethe, Victor Hugo, and Mark Twain.   (Twain wrote much of his Tramp Abroad in the city.)  With its riverbank setting, spectacular old town filled with stunning buildings from the medieval, Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque periods, it is an architectural jewel.  One of the most special buildings is home the largest wine barrel in the world.

                        Original illustration
                    Mark Twain's illustrator captured the cask in the book A TRAMP ABROAD
The mammoth size wine barrel is located in the wine cellar of Heidelberg's iconic hilltop castle.  The castle's construction began in the early 13th century, but there have been numerous centuries of construction efforts.  At one time, the castle was even divided into two separate palaces.  While German Kings in the 1400's claimed the castle as their residence, the next 500 years would bring decay from several fires, along with destructive wars.   There have been multiple attempts at rebuilding and restoration.  Regrettably, the ravages of time and forces of nature have destroyed much of the former castle but, fortunately, there are a few parts of the palace remaining.  Yesterday, Wine-Knows had a private tour of the castle and its still intact wine cellar...home of the monstrous wine barrel.
The castle ruins provide the perfect backdrop for a cup of hot mulled wine.

The world's largest wine barrel was built in 1751 by the King of Bavaria.   At that time it was a status symbol to build oversized wine barrels in Germany.  For example, it was not unusual for towns to attempt to outrival one another with fashionable super-sized wine barrels.  Royalty had their own competition.   The Prince who earlier owned Heidelberg castle was in a rivalry with the Duke who owned Ludwigsburg Palace.   Both built immense barrels to outdo the other.  Everything came to a grinding halt when the Bavarian King built the barrel that was never surpassed---his barrel was in the castle at Heidelberg.
Timbered from 130 oak trees, Heidelberg's barrel holds about 58,000 gallons which translates to nearly 300,000 bottles.  That being said, it is no longer used to store wine.  Over the years, its oak staves have dried out and shrunk causing leakage.  Today, it's simply a display for tourists interested in wine.
                                 The wine cask is so tall that it requires a staircase to reach its top
Thirsty Wine-Knows, however, didn't stop after viewing the barrel.  Instead, we proceeded deep into the caste's cellar which is now a wine cellar restaurant.  As the castle was now closed to visitors, we enjoyed the entire cellar in a  private wine tasting.   All wines were dry one and included some of the area's most highly regarded wines.
Merry Christmas from Heidelberg!

Wednesday, December 7, 2022

Berlin's Enchanting Christmas Markets

         Gendarmenmarkt is one of Berlin's best known markets for discerning food-lovers

Berlin at Christmas time is a winter wonderland for Santa’s elves.  There are >80 Christmas markets spread throughout the city.  Like Christmas cookies, these markets vary in size, color, shape and flavor but there’s assuredly a favorite for everyone.   The largest of these markets have nearly 2 Million visitors during the yuletide season.  Christmas markets in Germany are not only immensely popular with Germans, but with other Europeans and visitors from nearly every country in the world.

   Gingerbread cookies are quintessential items at every German Christmas market

Christmas markets in Berlin have been documented for nearly 600 years.  Records from the early 1500’s indicate that the first markets were divided by the type of products being sold by vendors:  one market was known for selling sweets, another market for selling fish.  Today, the largest markets have as many as 400 vendors selling everything from specialty German holiday desserts to only-made-at-Christmas sausages.  Others offer homemade crafts ranging from jewelry to clothing, and every conceivable type of Christmas ornament.

                   A mesmerizing array of holiday jewelry entices

Yesterday, Wine-Knows visited their first Christmas market, Gendarmenmarkt, located in the epicenter of Berlin on a historic square flanked by the Berlin Concert Hall and two spectacular churches.  Floodlit at night, this square hosts one of the most captivating markets in the city.  A huge stage dominated the square where various artists provided yuletide entertainment heard as we strolled throughout the market.  There was a plethora of goldsmiths with unique jewelry items, artists representing all mediums from sculpture to painting, and even glass-blowers.  There was also a wine bar where strollers could opt for a glass of Champagne.  (Personally I preferred the hot mulled wine, a classic at every Christmas market in Germany.) 

                                      Sausages came in a mind-boggling assortment

The Gendarmenmarkt is one of the top Christmas markets for foodies.  Alongside the made-only-at Christmas culinary specialties such as the labor intensive stollen, this market offered huge heated tents for inside dining that were fully decked out for the holidays.   We saw sausages in every shape and size, many being grilled over wood fires.   No turkeys were in sight….roast goose is Germany’s preferred Christmas meat.  Side dishes included flavor-chocked red cabbage and traditional potato pancakes with a dollop of applesauce.   For dessert there were endless possibilities, the most popular of which was some form of gingerbread such as the Santa-shaped gingerbread cookies.  

                                     Stollen is a yeast bread studded with dried fruits

In contrast, today’s market was a medieval Christmas market in front of Berlin’s mammoth city hall (Rote Rathus).  There were organ grinders and performers in period costumes…all against the magnificent backdrop of an Old Berlin setting in a scene from another century.  One of the most visited Christmas markets in Berlin, this one has a 150 foot tall Ferris wheel with mindboggling views of the city stretching all the way from the Brandenberg Gate to the suburbs, and a gargantuan ice-skating rink.  The market was packed with children as this yuletide extravaganza has a petting zoo, historic carousel rides, as well as a child’s train through a fairy-tale forest.   We arrived just in time to see Santa in his sleigh flying high over the market.

           Christmas markets are a great way to combine culture, sight-seeing, history & shopping

Tomorrow, we’ll be leaving Berlin and moving on to Germany's oldest Christmas market in Dresden.   Nuremberg and Heidelberg will follow .  The we'll end the tour at the grand-daddy of all Christmas markets, Strasbourg, France.  Along the route, there will be wine tasting as well as important cultural visits such as the Court of the Nuremberg trials. 

Schöne ferien.....Happy holidays!