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Christmas in Germany

It's Christmas here in Germany (there is no need to call it "the Holidays" here, as just about everybody celebrates Christmas, whether religious or not. Faiths other than Catholic or Lutheran are virtually non-existent here). 

Of course you know Germany for it's wonderful Christmas traditions: Christmas markets in the weeks leading up to the big event. Delicately decorated Christmas trees. Fine baked goods such as Lebkuchen or Printen. And the Food… Yes, a feast.

Many families prepare roast duck or goose on Christmas day, though that has changed somewhat since when I was a child and just about everyone does pretty much what they want. Even dining out is a family tradition on Christmas Day or the 26th, the "2. Weihnachtsfeiertag" or second holiday.

We're going the "Christmas Dinner Light" route with roast chicken instead of related fowl (more meat).

Merry Christmas!

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First Harvest

We have been working in our vineyards throughout the year, all the while looking forward to the harvest which is now upon us. We harvested the first grapes last Tuesday. The various grape varieties will continue to be harvested over the next few weeks. The great news so far: 2012 is promising to become an awesome vintage! 

View the slideshow on flickr

Spring Work in Our Vineyards

My two colleagues and I used last week's perfect weather to get some work done in our vineyards. We placed so-called nursery cartons (protective sleeves) around the newly planted vines to protect them from wind and cold. It's almost like rearing children (minus the back talk! Just kidding…).

Removing high-growing grass from underneath the budding vines, which would negatively influence the chance of frost damages (there are usually a few days of early-morning frost here in early to mid March), was tough manual labor. But caring for each vine is certainly also a very rewarding enterprise.

Now we are experiencing two days of solid rain. A chance to recuperate from last week's work before we head back out this coming week.

Budding Vines above the Main River in Franconia - Photo Alexander von Halem

Asparagus: Franconia's "White Gold"

It's asparagus season again here in Franconia! And people get quite crazy about their asparagus (Spargel) in these parts. Other than customary in northern America, where asparagus is usually harvested green, asparagus is traditionally harvested in its white state here. This is achieved by cutting the asparagus root under the earth, which is why the countryside around Zeilitzheim is dotted with strange fields with long rows of mounds of sandy dirt under which this fine (and expensive) vegetable is grown.

Asparagus is such a valuable commodity, that farmers usually sell most of what they harvest directly from their farms or at roadside stands. Be prepared to invest some time and work if you are planning on cooking asparagus yourself, however. You will need at least a pound of asparagus per person.

Preparing and Serving Asparagus

Asparagus will usually already be washed when you buy it, sold by the kilogram (kg). You will usually have to pay between 7 and 9 Euros per kilogram (two metric pounds), depending on the quality (which is determined by thickness). I personally prefer the thinner cat. II asparagus. Other than with green asparagus, you will need to peel the woody, stringy outer part of the asparagus stalks and perhaps cut off a small piece on the end (not the head! That is the most valuable part of the asparagus root). You can tell whether asparagus is fresh by examining the cut end of the root: It should be moist.

You will then need a big pot that will hold the asparagus with ample amounts of water (add a little salt and sugar to the water when boiling). German households often have tall or longish asparagus pots but any pot large enough to hold the stalks without damaging them will do. Cook until the thicker end of the asparagus is done and serve with melted butter, cooked buttered potatoes sprinkled with parsley and your favorite German meat dish (traditionally a regional ham or bratwurst). If you want to get fancy, you can also whip up a hollandaise sauce.

Eating Out

Of course: If you are traveling you might not want to prepare the "white gold" yourself. Many restaurants ("Gasthaus") in the region serve a variety of asparagus dishes during the season. A good restaurant will make a recommendation of Franconian wine to got with the dish. In its simplest - and personally my favorite - form (cooked and served with melted butter, cooked potatoes and cooked or cured ham) you will often be served a glass of chilled Silvaner, Franconia's typical varietal, a dry white wine that grows in the vineyards of the Trias region.

You will also find green asparagus here nowadays. Be sure to try both kinds.

If you want to experience "Spargelzeit" this year you'll have to make your travel plans soon. The season ends on June 24th, on "Johanni" (holy day Saint John the Baptist). If you make in "on time" you will be able to see the region's "Asparagus Queen". Theresa Günther will be inthroned (on an armchair from the castle, that is often used for such purposes) on April 23rd in the next village over (Kolitzheim).

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Big News!

Castle Winery Founded

Visitors to the castle have often asked me: "Do you have your winery, too?". I'd always have to say, regretfully, no. That is about to change.

Together with two partners I founded the castle-own winery "Weingut Barockschloss". We are starting out small and are tending about 7,000 grape vines of different varietals in the first 1-2 years. Our first vintage is growing now in the nearby vineyards overlooking the Main River Valley. Pruning is over and we are currently busy repairing some of the older posts. After the wine harvest this Fall our winemaker Christian will tend to the wine we will present to the world in May 2013.

Stay tuned for news from the castle winery and be sure to visit us next year to taste our wines in situ. Of course you will also be able to taste good regional wines at the castle until then, too.

Bleeding Grape VineVineLast Year's Clingers

Winter in Zeilitzheim

The hotel is closed until the end of February. It's just too cold this time of year and/or too expensive to heat. We are making good use of the time by renovating some of the rooms. And of course Christmas itself is the highlight of the season. My New Year's resolution for 2012? Feeding this blog more (not just the Blog in German). #alttext#

Day-trips to the Fichtelgebirge Region

I recently went on a short vacation to the Fichtelgebirge region with my family. It is mountain range that is close enough to Zeilitzheim for day trips (about 100 miles / 160 km), which is why I want to recommend it here.

For those interested in cultural events, the Luisenburgfestspiele near Wunsiedel are an attraction during the summer months. The Luisenburg Rock Labyrinth is also located here and is a must visit with kids. Our kids, who usually tend to start whining after a couple hundred yards on walks, climbed up the jagged rocks with a frenzy.

We visited the visitor mine near Fichtelberg on a rainy day; perfect, as you spend about an hour under ground. This is a great tour for kids, too. You get to wear a miners overcoat, helmet and lamp. Every visitor (who wants it) is christened with a smear of silver dust on the cheek. Group pictures can be ordered at 3 Euros including postage within Germany (so you could have the pictures mailed to your hotel if you travel Germany for a few weeks).

The mountains aren't exactly the Rockies but still fun to climb (more likely hike up). If traveling with kids you can always take one of the two chair lifts up the Ochsenkopf mountain and hike back down. We hiked down half way and then took the Sommerrodelbahn (dry toboggan run) down the rest of the way. A blast! Not just for the kids...

Of course there are numerous restaurants in the region. Feel free to ask me for recommendations when you visit!

On the way home we stopped off at Bayreuth which is a beautiful city with grand architecture. The Hermitage (with its sprawling gardens and - of course - beer garden) is a must visit in Bayreuth.

There is so much to see and do within a 100-200 km radius of Zeilitzheim. We will continue to go on short vacations within our own region so that I can post more travel tips here on the blog.

Photos: Luisenburg Rock Labyrinth, Hermitage (Bayreuth) - more at flickr.com

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Making Room for the New

Kati and I have been quite busy working in the castle garden for the past week or so. We have been having perfect weather for that, too. It is still a little cold in southern Germany but sunny. Work certainly drives the body temperature up, though!

After cutting the roses and fruit trees (with the help of a good friend) we have been busy raking up the leaves and twigs, making room for new growth in the garden. The daffodils are now in bloom. Also a few other blue flowers are popping up, like this one (is it liverwort?):

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The Bells of Bavaria

Certainly one of the things about Europe and Germany most treasured by travelers from the "New World" is the heritage that is obvious at just about every turn of the road. Not only the sights of Bavaria are special: There are typical sounds, too.

One of my personal favorites is the sound of church bells. Each church has its own unique sound, each village has different times when these bells are rung. I have begun collecting the sound of church bells with an iPhone application called audioboo.fm:

The first church I am featuring in what will hopefully become a series of related articles is Zeilitzheim's own Lutheran church. Here is what its bells sound like on Friday mornings:

Listen!

On Sunday morning it sounds like this:

Listen!

There is one lone bell in Zeilitzheim that is only heard once a year on the 31st of December at 2 p.m.:

Listen!

A must-visit church on any trip to Bavaria has to be the "Bamberger Dom", Bamberg's cathedral. This is what its bells sounded like on a Saturday morning recently:

Listen!

Another Bamberg church with great sound is the Stephanskirche:

Listen!

Photo: The Lutheran church in Zeilitzheim

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German Whisky Made in Zeilitzheim

Germany is famous for its beer and wine. But also Spirits (Schnaps) have a great tradition here, especially here in Franken (Franconia in northern Bavaria). Especially Schnaps distilled from the abundant types of fruit that grow here is an obligatory digestif after a good German meal. But if you can make Schnaps from fruit, surely you can also makes Whisky, right? That's what our local vintner and distiller Reiner Mößlein thought, too, when he started making Whisky in the 1990s. The first batch of 5-year-old Whisky was bottled in 2003 after having enjoyed a peaceful existence within toasted oak vats that give the Whisky its unique flavor. But also the grain that goes into this local product is important: Reiner grows the wheat he uses himself. These are old types of wheat that are therefore also preserved for posterity. Next time you visit Germany, be sure to try our Franconian Whisky here in Zeilitzheim! Grain A Wee Dram Yummy

No Credit Card Required

When I get calls or emails from people in the United States regarding rooms at our hotel, they almost always offer me their credit card number for the reservation. And they are sometimes confused, perhaps even irritated when I tell them I don't need a credit card to secure the booking. Perhaps they doubt the seriousness of the booking without the security or finality of providing payment information in advance. The fact is: we hardly *ever* have no-shows here at the hotel. And if someone can't follow through on a reservation, there is almost always a very good reason for it. We simply ask for as much "heads-up" as you can possibly give us if and when you have to cancel a booking. It's really that simple. Of course we would rather have you visit than not but we won't charge your credit card if your plans have to change. This policy has worked very well for us and our guests - provided this information - feel safe enough that we will honor their reservation even without noting a credit card number. That said: what other information could we provide you that would you decide on visiting with us and/or in planning your trip? Fresco

New Fire Truck

Getting a new fire engine is a big thing in a village as small as ours. Appropriately it was quite a party when the volunteer fire department presented its new truck to the public recently. Here are a few impressions of the event: Krautheimer Pilsner Oompah! FiretruckNew

(More at flickr)

Summer in Zeilitzheim

After an unusually-long cold (and wet) period, summer has finally reached Southern Germany. It is wine festival time in the region. Not a weekend that doesn't offer at least three "weinfests" in Zeilitzheim's surroundings. The garden still demands a bit of work, less with the shrubs and flowers but more with the lawn that needs to be mown weekly now. The children are enjoying the sunny weather and spend their afternoons after kindergarten. The castle cats Charly and Emilio usually join them in the garden. Here is a picture taken yesterday of Charly observing Mr. and Mrs. Duck who visit us daily for some royal bathing in the pond. Hunger

http://www.flickr.com/photos/barockschloss/

Zeilitzheim in May

May has arrived and nature has painted the countryside around Zeilitzheim in increasingly vivid colors. The following pictures were taken on a walk along the "Eulenberg" hill that runs south of the village. Zeilitzheim

Eulenberg

Gaibach

Cherry Blossom

The last of the old cherry trees is now blossoming in the castle garden. I fear it won't carry much fruit, though. It sure is a pretty sight, though! Cherry Blossom

Springtime in the Castle Garden

Spring has finally reached southern Germany! (Not just) the cats are enjoying the great weather and the blooming of spring flowers. I've been busy taking pictures in the garden and will be uploading those in batches to flickr. Tulip. And  Charly

Now it's time for some intensive lawn care. The lawn got its first mowing on Tuesday and will get aerated this coming week.