My father was 8 years old when Russian authorities invaded his town in Poland, murdered his father, and shipped most of the family — my dad, his mother, and 3 of his 4 siblings — off on a train. Stuffed in a car with many other families, they began a days-long journey without food or water to a Soviet labor camp. His older brother, who was away at school during this time, was later murdered by Nazis.
This is, in some ways, one of the least disturbing stories of the hardships my family faced during the war. And its legacy, I like to think, has afforded me a bit of perspective.
I’m not one to needlessly worry, but for the past few years I’ve thought that something doesn’t feel right. Not only had we been in the longest bull market in history, but by almost any measure of human development — life expectancy, infant mortality, poverty, literacy, and violence — most of us had never had it so good. Yes, we’re humans, so of course there were no lack of issues to quarrel over. But, I can’t help but think that on December 31, 2019, G-d finally had enough and said: “Quit whining or I’ll give you something to whine about.”
It’s ironic — perhaps even poetic — that the change the world is currently undergoing is happening in spring. The season that is basically synonymous with regrowth and optimism has turned into a science fiction horror story. The trees are still sprouting, the birds are still chirping, but we all feel, perhaps, a bit lost in the woods.
When I was growing up, one of the first places I would head once the snow had melted was the woods by my local city park. I spent much of my childhood there. If I wasn’t playing tag or spin the bottle as a youngster, I was lighting fireworks or throwing keg parties as a teenager. Years later, I would even propose to my wife there.
Maybe this fondness for woods is in my DNA — the forest plays an integral role in Central European culture. Not only have they inspired countless local legends, such as the forest ghosts of Hungary and Slovakia, but have captured the imagination of the entire world. Think of the arts — a bird calling out to nature in Beethoven’s 6th symphony, or a golden-haired Repunzel locked in a tower. These woods have not only witnessed the unspeakable horrors of war, but have served as a base of resistance against tyranny and, later, a symbol of rejuvenation.
The wines of Central Europe are similar in some ways. Once darlings of the wine world, they have become virtually unknown to most, the effects of years of war and, later, communism. And just like those woods, the wines can be mysterious, magical, enchanted.
It’s a shame that Germany’s rieslings get a bad wrap, Austria’s Gruner Veltliners have gone out of fashion, and few Americans are familiar with the wines of Hungary or the Czech Republic. So, back in February I decided to plan a dinner featuring cuisine from the region. I ordered a few cookbooks from Amazon Germany, used Google to translate them, and got to work. The idea was to have a few people over once spring produce was in full action, but obviously my plans had to change. Since I already purchased the wines, however, I decided to carry on with just me and Sandy. And as much as I loved the idea of drinking 5 bottles of wine in one night, I decided to spread it out over a few weeks.
First up was a sphere of horseradish-infused beet juice on a homemade groubot cracker with caviar. This one bite amuse, served at Klaus Erfort’s three Michilin starred restaurant in Germany, manages to incorporate many of the ingredients most strongly associated with that part of the world. With it we drank a pet-nat from the Czech Republic. The naturally and slightly carbonated white wine by an up-and-coming producer was highly acidic, with flavors that in some ways reminded me of a beer I once had in Munich.
Things took a funky turn a few days later when I ventured into the realm of molecular gastronomy with a recipe from a cookbook called Wilderwald (Wild Forest). The dish features “bubbles” made from birchwater, derived from one of Central Europe’s most commonly found forest trees. I injected these bubbles with an emulsion of watercress, parsley, and grapeseed oil, and plated them alongside arctic char roe. It tasted about as good as it looks like it did. You win some, you lose some.
Picking an ingredient to represent Austria in spring was obvious: white asparagus. The highly seasonal product is revered by Austrians and is often mentioned by them in the same breath as caviar and truffles. I served it simply: boiled, sauced with bernaise, and accompanied by the country’s famous Gruner Veltliner. The wine, by the well respected producer Leo Alzingeer, was very subtle, which allowed the flavors of the asparagus to shine through and didn’t clash with the acidic sauce.
I’m not a huge mushroom person, but there’s something about morels that just gets to me. They’re beautiful, fragrant, and are bountiful in the spring. In fact, this time of the year I’m using them so frequently that inevitably Sandy gets fed up: “Ugh, morels?!” So you can imagine how psyched I was when I saw a recipe for “gefilte morels” in the Wilderwald book. How perfect, I thought. Gefilte fish is, like, Ashkenazi 101, so I figured it would be a cool way to honor my heritage. When translating, however, I realized gefilte literally just means “stuffed,” so the connection seemed to be a coincidence. Or was it? Upon closer examination, the stuffing in this recipe is, actually, very similar to gefilte fish. This was a lot of fun to make and to eat — you could almost taste the wet forest floor. It went well with a dry Reisling by Wagner Stempel, a Grosses Gewächs (grand cru) bottling that Sandy and I first had when celebrating our anniversary a few years ago at the West Village restaurant Gunter Seeger.
The “main course” of this weeks-long process was venison with honeycake and asparagus. Honey has been used in desserts since antiquity, but there is a special place reserved for it in Judaism — whether it’s the designation of Israel as “the land of milk and honey,” or the honeycakes that have been a part of European Jewish cooking since time immemorial. So, again, this felt like a meaningful dish. The particular honeycake that accompanied this venison loin uses an unconventional ingredient: absinthe, which originated in the forests of Switzerland before becoming a European sensation in the 1800’s. The wine here was a real treat: a Blaufrankisch, made from a grape unique to Austria, produced by the highly-acclaimed Moric domaine. This is a hard wine to track down, but it was worth it.
Our second to last dish was one near and dear to my heart. I’d never heard of sour cherries until about 9 years ago, when my dad and 12 members of our family visited my father’s hometown. There I learned that this fruit is a cherished staple in Central Europe and that my grandmother used to make perogies with them. Being a first generation American, this filled a void I didn’t even know I had, a yearning for some sort of culinary heritage. I mean, I have hot wings, but that Upstate NY tradition only dates back to the 1970’s.
When sour cherries are in season, I’m always the first to pick up a bunch at the farmer’s market, but when I recently discovered that a Hungarian variety was being grown in Michigan, I promptly ordered 10 pounds, their minimum. Hungary is the world’s largest producer of foie gras after France, so I thought why not pair the cherries with some duck liver? This sable with foie gras and sour cherry gelee was served with a bottle of Tokaji Aszu, a Hungarian wine that once upon a time was considered the finest in the world. I first fell for Tokaji after learning that it was the drink of choice of Beethoven. By drinking it, I thought, maybe I could gain some insight into his state of mind when writing some of my favorite pieces. Had he been drunk on this when he ripped up the score to his third symphony upon hearing that Napoleon had declared himself Emperor of France? To make the wine even more intriguing, I later learned that it has deep Jewish roots
The day I made this, a friend of mine asked if I wanted to go for a social-distancing walk, so we actually ended up walking around Brooklyn eating foie gras and drinking this amazing wine. So, I guess I can now cross that off my bucket list.
To finish, we had flavors of strawberry and elderflower with angel food cake and Bavarian cream. The 11 Madison recipe is by far my favorite dessert to eat.
I knew that this project would require a bit of research and searching for foreign ingredients, but I didn’t expect so much introspection. How could I not recall my own family’s once flourishing yet tormented history in these lands? What would have happened had the horrors of war not torn apart a culture that had thrived since before the middle ages? I was vaguely aware that my grandfather was something of a baker — but what are the details there? What delicious traditions had been lost to time and the allure of assimilation? Why did Austrians become obsessed with white asparagus, while Hungarians go crazy for sour cherries? It was all a bit much to take in, especially with everything going on in the world today. So, I turned to the wisdom of that towering figure of Czech literature, Franz Kafka, who once wrote: “So long as you have food in your mouth, you have solved all questions for the time being.”