Farm fresh: Can you dig it? Yes, you can!

Fresh berries in Herzogenaurach, Germany

It’s a cliché that one of the best parts of summer is the fresh produce, but it also happens to be true. We had planned to visit a nearby village to get some post-dinner ice cream, but decided to kill some time and amble down a different road.

Dairy cows in Herzogenaurach, Germany

We should have known we were headed for something special when we passed this scene, just a few feet from the car.

As we passed through a small string of tiny villages, we got the sense that we might be in for a treat. And there it was: Rising out of the corn and wheat fields, a clearing with picnic tables, play tractors, hay bales, a small store and acres of produce. The Neidermann farm of pick-your-own produce!

The store was our first stop and it was sensory overload in the most wonderful way. Literally bursting with fresh produce and baked goods, the smell of fresh strawberries permeated the air. Customers were lined up with buckets and containers full of their just-picked choices. We bought some ice cream and sorbet and scouted the area.

strawberry sorbet in Germany

Sorbet made with fresh-picked strawberries? Yes please!

 

Bread and jams at German farm store

Fresh bread and home-made goodness. So hard to choose….

Around back were signs directing you to all the fruits and vegetables that were ready to be picked. The evening we were there the strawberries, lettuces, garlic, mini-cucumbers, radishes, and rhubarb were ready. They even had a chicken coop so you could gather your own fresh eggs!

Pick your own produce in Herzogenaurach Germany

Grab a wheelbarrow and head out to the field!

I expect a mid-summer dance-off between these vegetable divas.

I expect a mid-summer dance-off between these vegetable divas.

Next to the farm store was a park-like area filled with families enjoying picnics and playing games. There was a petting zoo, a fort of stacked hay bales to climb on, a corn crib to play in and open space for soccer and general running around.

playing at the farm stand in Germany

King of the hay-bale castle.

As expected we needed a large box to bring home everything we bought. But in this case, our eyes were not bigger than our stomachs. When it comes to fresh berries and cherries, gluttony is the only option.

Produce from farm store in Herzogenaurach Germany

Our take-home box included berries, cherries, honey, walnut bread, tomatoes and fresh milk.

 

 

 

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Gasthaus gastronomy

The tiny village of Tegau, Germany has a church, a bike trail, a restaurant…and not much else. According to Wikipedia, it has a population of 389—a generous number, I’d say. But we had left the Autobahn on our way to Berlin in search of lunch. And the food gods smiled down on us in abundance.

We got lucky. I don't think it's open every day....

Ready to take a chance on what lies behind the gate.

We were greeted by the proprietress and the token old guy drinking his noon beer. As we struggled to ask for a menu in German, the worry set in. Was the kitchen even open? Was this a dinner-only thing? I think we scared her with our ineptitude. The host scurried into the back and in a moment an English-speaking server appeared. Menus were offered, meals were ordered and smiles exchanged. So far, so good! And the dining room was sunny, warm and quintessentially German, right down to the ridiculous music being piped in. (Selections included a remake of Laura Brannigan’s “Gloria” and hits from the “Grease” soundtrack.)

The dining room was a time capsule, bearing the stamp of dozens of years of serving hungry travelers and locals.

The dining room was a time capsule, bearing the stamp of dozens of years of serving hungry travelers and locals.

Some sweet, and unexpected, mid-century chairs made me love this place even more.

The sweet mid-century chairs made me love this place even more.

And then came the food. Schnitzel can be many things, but any type of meat with breading seemed like a safe bet and easy to share with the 3 year old. It was, in a word, glorious. I fully admit that traditional German food isn’t really my favorite. It can be heavy, greasy and bland-yet-salty. But for some reason, this schnitzel, in this setting, gave us a taste of the German good life. Friendly people, a slower pace, a room unchanged for decades and time to enjoy a delicious meal together.

Flavor! Seasonings! Vegetables! We finally found the German food we've heard about.

Flavor! Seasonings! At least a few green vegetables! We finally found the German food we’ve heard about.

Well done, Germany. Well done.

Altendorf Pumpkin Festival

Altendorf, Germany pumpkin festival

The pumpkin festival was gourd-eous!

We are happily discovering that you can spend most weekends in Germany visiting various festivals and markets and never hit the same town twice. Our first weekend here–tired, jetlagged and still a little fuzzy, we spent Sunday in Altendorf. (Don’t look for it on a standard map. You probably won’t find it.) Their annual Pumpkin Festival–always held on the first Sunday in October–seems like a great way to spend a warm and sunny fall morning without making us think too hard. A co-worker of Ken’s who grew up in the area told us about it–in the best way possible: “You know Stars Hollow? On Gilmore Girls? It’s like that.” SOLD!

IMG_3105

This really, really small town goes all out for all things pumpkin. It seems that every house, barn and building is decorated with pumpkins and gourds. Some painted and decorated, some stacked like autumnal cairns and some just placed on window sills and steps. But everyone participates. The most amazing part of it is that the festival is only for one day. It must be a ton of work to haul out, decorate and place all these pumpkins, but I’m sure there is an awful lot of town pride attached to it.

Decorated pumpkins in Altendorf

It should be noted that apparently pumpkins are blue-eyed when personified.

The area farms and clubs set up food and drink tents and sell all kinds of seasonal delights, from the tasty Federweiser (I think it’s similar to a vino verde, where the wine is sweetish and slightly bubbly) to pumpkin-infused prosecco to soups, sausages and all manner of pastries.

A delicious glass of Federweiser.

A delicious glass of Federweiser.

The pumpkin display that got the most oohs and ahhs was a diorama of decorated gourds meant to look like an undersea adventure. There was Nemo, turtles and crabs, seahorses and schools of fish, all loving created from gourds and hung by fishing wire against an aquarium-like backdrop. Amazing!

Gourds on display in Altendorf

This Enchantment Under the Sea display stole the show!

We couldn’t leave without picking out at least one pumpkin of our own to take home. The challenge was deciding which one!

Selecting a pumpkin in Altendorf

In retrospect, the choice of pants was a mistake. We almost lost him several times.

On the border: Biel/Bienne

Biel/Bienne old town

Certainly one of the most interesting things about Switzerland is how the country is segmented into sections not only by geography, but by language and culture as well. When these regions meet up, the result can be fascinating.

German and French culture intermingle in Biel/Bienne

In Biel/Bienne, you can choose German or French food as the mood strikes you. The city is equally divided by both language and culture.

We hopped on the train to Biel/Bienne, a city that is so perfectly divided between French and German that it is officially referred to by both versions of its name. A small city known for watch-making (80s flashback alert: We strolled right past the headquarters for Swatch!) Biel/Bienne has a lovely lakefront, abundant shopping and a charming old town.

Balcony detail in Biel/Bienne

Around every corner of the Old Town, ornate balconies cast intricate shadows on the street below.

The city was easy to navigate once we got the hang of it, making it a great family outing. Everything radiates away from the main train station: First the modern shops, located on many pedestrian-only roads and full of buskers. We heard classical violinists, a four-piece horn band, guitarists, and a guy with an accordion. Then we crossed the street into old town, full of open-by-appointment antique and collectable shops, restaurants and bookstores. There was a small outdoor market underway when we were there (hooray!) so we picked up some snacks and walked around. The entire city has signage in both German and French and most residents speak both, plus English, so we were well-covered no matter who we encountered.

Raspberries from Biel/Bienne

The biggest, sweetest raspberries I’ve ever had. A perfect walking-around-town snack!

From old town we followed the main canal through the city until it ended at Lake Biel/Bienne. The waterfront has everything you could ask for: large dinner cruise boats, a swimming beach, playground, marina, snack bars, walking paths, wide lawns for picnics or sunbathing, foot bridges and swans. Lots of swans.

On the shore of Lake Biel

See that Swan in the background? He’s already spotted his mark and is ready to make his move.

While they might look all pristine and romantic, these are really just big ducks who are used to being fed so if you happen to have some croissant crumbs on your shirt or a pretzel in your hand, be warned. These guys mean business.

To market, to market….

Market day in Solothurn Switzerland

The market in Solothurn, Switzerland is held every Wednesday and Saturday morning. Twice a week seems typical in Europe of towns of this size, with larger cities having open-air markets every day and small villages having a few stands pop up once a week.

Each booth, cart, wagon, card table and stall seems to specialize in only one or two items: Berries, olives, breads, fish, flowers, vegetables, cheese…we tried to do as much of our grocery shopping here as we could.

Cherries for sale at the Solothurn market

We were there during cherry season. Hurray!

We even found a few things that we would not be able to enjoy at home. One farmer’s booth featured raw, unpasteurized whole milk. Raw milk is illegal where we live, and though there is a lively black market for it, I had never tried it. It did taste different. Not better of worse, but there is certainly a distinction.

Farm-fresh milk in Solothurn

Shhhh don’t tell anyone. This raw milk is illegal in much of the U.S. Milk is often sold unrefrigerated in Europe, so the farmer sternly us to told us to keep this milk cold and drink it within a few days. No problem there!

The market was a great slice of local life and helped us get into the rhythm of the town. Everyone in the area seems to be shopping–tattooed couples pushing strollers, old men in crisply ironed shirts, groups of friends carrying baskets of produce while balancing a coffee–the streets were bustling and we were happy to blend in for a change.

Mushrooms at the Solothurn market

The fungus among us. Mushrooms of all types and flavors.

Mystery vegetable at the market

So I assume “peperoni” refers to the shape? I think this is a parsnip. Or a radish. Or maybe a turnip….

 

 

Road food in Europe: leave the Corn Nuts and Red Vines behind

It was a 4+ hour drive from our weekend in Germany back to Switzerland. At some point we were going to need food, bathrooms and a coffee. I had planned on just making do with the many highway rest stops along the autobahn and some snacks I had in my bag, but fate intervened.

We pulled in at a gas station that had adjacent restaurants. There was a Burger King, some sort of buffet, and a coffee bar. But this was very different than the truck stops in the U.S.

German gas station dessert buffet

Forget the Twinkies and day-old donuts. These were just some of the choices at the gas station dessert buffet.

We sat in a cozy corner with leather chairs and a gas fireplace (I’m guessing we were in the “coffee shop” area?) Ken had ordered a meal from the buffet for us to share. Good thing. This plate of sausages and spaetzle was enormous. Two adults and a toddler could not finish it.

German gas station dinner

So. Much. Food. But pretty darn tasty!

We also enjoyed some great coffee, served with little almond cookies on the side. It felt very refined considering we were in the shadow of dozens of parked semis and a few tour buses of elderly tourists.

German gas station coffee

A cup of coffee and we were ready to get back on the road.

To really cap off the experience, there were the restrooms. Accessible through a turnstile after paying a small fee, the bathrooms were sparkling clean and it’s no wonder. They have robotics! It took me a few tries to figure out the cleaning vs. flushing thing, but it was so entertaining it hardly mattered. I was so surprised, I forgot to take a picture or a video, but luckily other people have found it equally fascinating.