One of the delights of travelling abroad is to sample the local cuisine along with the local atmosphere. And maybe some local surprises. Here in the Black Forest, we were not sure what to expect. Obviously Black Forest gateau and bratwurst, but what else?
My previous experience off German dining had been excellent. A year or two ago, I had spent a few winter days in Munich on business. I had loved the schweinshaxe, the sauerkraut, the wheat beer; the ornate and elaborate Bavarian restaurants with happy, friendly staff and the excellent service.
But this was summer in the Black Forest – a region (quite understandably) occupied almost exclusively by Germans. The restaurant we tried last night had remarked that they had English customers only about twice a year. Plus the odd grumpy Russian.
So the menus are exclusively in German, and the staff generally have little or no English. Which is absolutely fine. A German visiting the Lake District would not expect to be able to order tea and cakes in Deutsche. I guess we English get used to most people speaking our language. In can’t remember the last restaurant I went to where there was no English available. We are spoiled and therefore become lazy.
Tonight was our fourth night dining out.
Restaurant day one
On the first night we had walked up to the local inn at just after 830pm. We sat outside on a balcony with wobbly tables and plastic parasols advertising the local beer. It could have been any English pub. We were offered a “light” menu, as the full menu was “not available” after 830pm. Which translated in any language is another way of saying – “it’s too much trouble to provide you with what you really want. No points yet for customer service.
We had ordered what appeared to be two hot meals, which turned out to be salad and cold meat. I ordered pork, which I unexpectedly received in a schnitzel, in a cold salsa sauce. We gave this #2 ranking of the two restaurants in our village. We hadn’t tried #1 yet.
Restaurant day three
We tried #1 on our third night – the restaurant with the twice yearly English customers. So here we were, just on cue. This was indeed a better quality establishment with a fluent young English speaking waitress. She was happy and friendly – no doubt welcoming this rare opportunity to practice her English.
My wife ordered roast beef and roast potatoes – which, surprisingly, turned out to be cold roast beef. The waitress rather apologetically explained that it might not be like we would have it at home. Which is fine of course. If we wanted it how we had it at home, we’d have stayed at home. I ordered monkfish – which, less surprisingly, to be a schnitzel.
By now we were warming, or rather chilling, to our theme. All meat comes processed, compressed and coated in breadcrumbs. They call that schnitzel. It may be any temperature apart from hot. There are no vegetables in the Black Forest, but plenty of salad with lots of mayonnaise. The salad is served on a separate plate just ahead of the main course. It is unclear whether to eat it ahead (in Harvester tradition) with our main course.
Having established all of that, tonight was easily our most bizarre eating experience. We drove out to our nearest town – St Blasien – an attractive town, clasped around a river. It is dominated, appropriately by a Dom – a magnificent domed former monastery, which pretends to be the size of St Paul’s cathedral.
Restaurant day two
We had eaten already in St Blasien on day two. We had consulted TripAdvisor for advice on which restaurant to risk. We have no wifi where we are staying, only an excruciatingly slow GPS connection. So the best we could do was write down TripAdvisor recommendations #1 through #5 and hope to be able to find a couple of them.
We walked up and down the riverside, but could only found one of the restaurants. The Black Forest is very popular with bikers. All restaurants welcome bikers. Great. Sehr Gut. However, the one recommended restaurant we could find that evening looked like a biker-special, and not particular welcoming to rental car drivers. We gave it a miss.
So we dared to try an non-TripAdvisor-listed restaurant. Here I had my regular schnitzel, having finally realised it is impossible for me not to order one. The service had been great with a lovely view onto the green in front of the Dom. In a break with tradition – and an attempt to have hot food – my wife had ordered pasta. It was very nice.
Restaurant day four
So back to tonight. We finally located Tripadvisor St Blasien restaurant #1 on the other side of the river. Six reviews, five excellent and one very good. Looked fantastic. Looked closer. Looked closed. Looked carefully at the notice on the door. I translated. It was warmly thanking their loyal customers for 15 Jahre of custom etc. We will let TripAdvisor know the bad news – just as soon as I get a internet speed greater than 50khz.
So we located Tripadvisor St Blasien restaurant #4. A nice looking place, facing the river into the sun, with the hillside behind. A few pavement tables would have made this an idyllic location. For whatever reason, there were none. Never mind, we would be happy to sit inside. It was cooling down now and anyway, I had left my sunglasses in the car.
We walked through a large door into a small enclosed courtyard. This was dIfferent. Why sit out in the sun, when you can squeeze into a dank, dull courtyard? There were four tables, two of which were occupied. We sat at the empty middle table. There was clear blue sky above, the side of the hill behind and an uneven, broken concrete floor below. Around the other three sides was an old, rather dilapidated three storey building, and to our left, an opening into the restrooms.
The courtyard was cluttered with an old broom, two pitchforks, some ancient bottles of wine, plastic menus and various other random bits and pieces. I noticed the cobwebs strung across the corners of the walls.
We sat on the plastic chairs and were warmly greeted by a friendly human waitress, who immediately recognised we were English. Did we speak French? “Un peu” said my wife fluently. Upon which the waitress explained the German menu in French to my English wife. It all made sense. My wife ordered the pork special dish. I ordered the regular pork dish. It was impossible to tell – in any language – how they might be different. Or what temperature they may be.
As we waited for our food, a German cyclist rolled in, regaled in bright blue lycra. He looked like he had ridden quite a distance. He made quite an entrance, huffing and puffing and lurching to the table at the back. On the other tables sat an older couple, minding their own business, and two men engaged in a rather intense discussion, fuelled by beer and wine.
We waited maybe 20 minutes just for our drinks – water and diet coke. These things aren’t easily prepared. The cyclist got his towel out of his bag and noisily wiped himself down. Then he stomped to the rest rooms, and upon his return, made a point of fetching his own menu.
The waitress was still occupied pouring our drinks. 20 minutes after these, along came the obligatory salad. Nothing to ornate. Two small plates of lettuce, a couple of santini tomatoes and a coating of non-descript thin creamy dressing. We forwent any convention about what to eat when – and consumed. We were quite hungry by now.
At this point, our waitress rather ominously closed and bolted the courtyard doors. Was she keeping other punters out, or locking us in? Why did this courtyard suddenly have the feel of an exercise yard?
Meanwhile our restless cyclist had finally settled himself and was tucking into his meal – some cheese and meat on a platter. Arrived after us, served before us – what sort of tradition is that? Locals first?
Finally, our waitress emerged – worryingly from the restrooms area – with our two different plates of pork. One looked quite nice – a decent piece of meat with a nice looking sauce. And the other was inevitably a schnitzel. I knew which was mine – the deliciously compressed animal coated in breadcrumbs. Both meals were accompanied by McDonald’s type fries, which I can only assume were warmed up from frozen – or maybe bought in. Inevitably no vegetables.
We ate up quickly and got ready to pay. It was food, and we were satiated. My wife noticed a slug crawling slowly across the floor near to my chair. When the waitress arrived back, I felt obliged to warn her – she was standing very close to it. She explained that they came out of the hillside. She asked us whether we enjoyed our meals, and of course we said we had. I think she made some joke about l’escargot.
She was a lovely women, very friendly. I said “guten abends”, my wife said “au revoir” and our waitress unexpectedly broke into English with a confident “Bye”.
It was quite difficult to escape. The door was bolted into the floor as well as into the wall. I had this vision of being force-fed cold compressed slugs in breadcrumbs, without so much as a salad. The rush of panic gave me extra-strength. The door opened. We emerged into the sunshine and breathed in the warm air.
There is a Lidl here in St Blasien. They sell pizza. I think we will eat in tomorrow.