Travel: Food for thought in the Rhine Valley

The Bavaria town of Lindau. PNL-140610-112529004

The Bavaria town of Lindau. PNL-140610-112529004

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The Rhine Valley boasts some of the finest food in Europe and the tour which specialist writer Sandra Shevey took around several of the market towns certainly confirms it.

One of the largest lakes in Europe, Constance or Bodensee has fresh fruit and vegetables on both sides (German and Austrian) and also orchards on the islands within the great lake itself.

The six regions of Vorarlberg which played host maintain a policy of protectionism which means most of the fruit, vegetables, meat and fish is local. That said you can find out of season produce too at the local markets.

Oddly in Vorarlberg the supermarkets such as Lidl, are not competitors as they are independently-owned and stock local produce. A wander around one of these glorious emporiums cannot but stupefy the average visitor whose mouth hangs ajar at the vast selection of fresh vegetables – five or six varieties of each, cured meats (in packs or at the counter), local cheese (old and young mountain cheese) and noodles( home-made by small local producers)

Then of course there are the markets. Vorarlberg still has a series of fecund market towns which host markets once or twice each week.

The first market visited was in Hohenems, a moribund Jewish quarter in Dornbirn – the largest of the Bodensee towns/cities.

Dornbirn grew in population after the Second World War when industrialists needing labour encouraged Turks and eastern Europeans to settle there.

Innovation and enterprising, the lost Jews of Hohenems invented the first printing press in Austria and opened the first coffee house. Their lot is depicted in a local museum once home to a prominent Jew who sold up before the Holocaust to a doctor and who died at Theresienstadt concentration camp.

The family were great restaurateurs and ran one of the finest Jewish restaurants in Austria. The local Jewish school has recently been transformed into a brasserie serving ‘Jewish-inspired’ food. The menu misses the mark in adaptation, proffering ‘couscous’ instead of kasha. It doesn’t work.

Eating Austrian is not foreign inasmuch as this was our diet for years. Schnitzel and potatoes, noodles and cheese remain amongst my favourite foods to this day.

There is no longer any Jewish food sold at the market but there is an abundance of fresh meat, fruit, vegetables and cheeses from around Lake Constance.

The old market was on Marktstrasse whilst this one, c1996, is in front of the Schloss. On sale are horse sausages (popular with the locals), mountain cheese (young and mild/old and spicy) along with cheese flans are popular as are unusual jams (all home-made). These include strawberry with chilli (good with cheese) and rosemary with huckleberry.

The fresh cherries (nice and firm) and apples (from tree to market) proffered by a farmer with a 40-hectare holding at the lake on the German side put to shame the same produce sold at Brick Lane in London on weekends. Fact is – food does not travel.

In Vorarlberg there are 3,000 small farms producing milk, vegetables and cheese from local cows and sheep. In the summer time you can climb the Alps and watch whilst they make mountain cheese.

The plateaus or pasture lands have UNESCO heritage status. Many of the shacks provide tables and chairs where you can sample the cheeses as well as locally-produced bread, sausages and beer (made with fresh spring water from local wells)

Unfortunately it pitched down with rain during my short stay so a climb up the mountains was pre-empted as was a boat trip around Lake Constance with a fisherman who catches and cooks up at his local cafe. A shame, as I wanted to compare with same experience at Billingsgate where I regularly have breakfast, selecting fish cooked at the market cafe.

Fact is though the fishermen are complaining about paucity of catch as the waters, too clean, interfere with the food chain and discourage spawning.

Feldkirch, capital of Vorarlberg, has a weekly market dating back centuries which can be inferred by 1600-1700 buildings that sustain. The old market started in 1250 whilst the current Farmer’s Market dates from 1960.

There are fish from Lake Constance and cheese from Bregenzerwald. Fruit and vegetables come from local farms. Produce also hails from Italy and France.

Germany, Switzerland, Netherlands and Austria are the top four visitor markets. Also Vorarlberg locals spend their holidays here. Consequently few traders speak English.

Feldkirch hosts its weekly market in the Marktgasse or market ‘lane’. It has remained traditionally ‘a meeting place’ and ‘a social experience’ as locals congregate around the lane in numerous locally-owned cafes which proffer fresh tea and coffee along with fresh brioches, sweet breads with nuts and cream cakes.

The same breads and cakes obtainable at the cafes are sold at the stalls (where they are less dear) in arcades abutting the lane.

The Vorarlberg ‘isst’ is a protective association of local cafes, restaurants and hotels which promotes quality local produce. Thus it was not surprising that the tea I ordered, although served in a tea bag, was loose tea bagged that morning on site.

Whilst the chains have tried to muscle in only McDonalds has succeeded with a few outlets. You do not see a single Costa or a Starbucks anywhere in Bodensee.

The traders, mostly German or Austrian, have a Germanic sense of humour which you can miss or mistake for rudeness.

Of the ‘turkey man’ who purveys organic turkey products someone quipped: “And he’s the biggest turkey of them all,”. The local butcher who proffers fresh garlic pork chided: “I make it fresh each morning at 5am and say, Oh damn. I must go to the kitchen”.

It is here you also meet the market gardeners such as Ruth Grabher who sells what one client calls the best bread in the world. It is a rye and spelt loaf derived from a family recipe dating back three generations.

Ruth, who lives on a farm built in 1863 by her great-grandfather, also sells rosemary and olive herbs by the stalk. She grabs a bunch, sticks them in a pot and lets you take a stand or two yourself.

From Gofis, a village near Feldkirch, come carrots, giant white radishes, basil, violet carrots, celery root (not stalk).

Krauterseitling produce a wide variety of mushrooms- some from the forest (chanterelles) and some from elsewhere. The king oyster mushrooms are from Germany. Champignons white and brown, small and large are from the Baltic. The Chinese mushrooms are from Romania.

Passing the old Town Hall where grain was once sold we meet a trader who does a great leberkase (pork and cheese meat loaf) before making for the chocolate shop: ‘SchokoMus’ (chocolate mouse) where the owner, an award-winning chocolatier, purveys some of the most original hand-made chocolates in Austria.

Hermes and Fauchon are her gods and it is great to see some of the young food artisans having the guts to start up (when loans rather than grants are the option) and to innovate regardless of any snub to tradition.

Calling a fabulous chocolate soufflé I had for lunch `old hat` Irmgard Marte handcrafts seasonal products from her own garden producing ying and yang chocolates (opposite tastes and sensations)

A few favourites include whiskey/orange/gin cream, orange chilli, dark chocolate with lime cream, and marzipan cherry for Christmas. My favourite, however, is the sachertorte cream.

Bregenz, capital of Vorarlberg, is another local market town (city) with a weekly market in back of the City Hall/the Corn Market Plaza. Traders joke the meat is so fresh you even know the name of the cow.

The market plays host to any number of dairy producers from the Bregenzerwald and who number amongst the Association of Alpenstock Farmers whose confederation protests their own interests.

The House of Leo is a local Bregenzerwald farmer who does a mean chilli cheese. From Sibratfgau comes a farmer who sells local goat cheese. A farmer in Sulzberg, Gebhard Maurer, sells honey and honey schnaps (to my mind superior to the pear schnaps proferred by a producer from Holst)

Edwin Berchtold, a dairy farmer from Swarzenberg, has been at market for 25 years. His specialties include goat cheese, old Alp cheese (one year), young Alp cheese (10 months) and soft butter cheese.

There are blueberries from Lauterach next to Bregenz – a private garden with blueberry bushes.

An organic turkey farmer from Hard (Flatz) sells all turkey products – sausages, cured meat, chop meat, smoked turkey roll and turkey burgers. He also sells steaks and what they call elephant schnitzel which are huge cutlets.

The Kalb farm in Lauterach sells fruit and vegetables from 42 hectares including huge cucumbers, carrots, huge leeks, green onions, cauliflower, radishes and corn.

There are Italian traders about and a man in a Tirol hat hawks a selection of cured meats, cheeses (Alp cheese), schnaps and wine.

Another local product on sale is Lustenauer mustard which I made a point of having with my dinner the night before as I absolutely love fresh mustard.

Although Lustenauer has been approached several times with takeover bids the firm sits tight and carries on as normal having started in 1911. This is the fourth generation.

Like Dijon mustard, Lustenauer has innovated and currently there are exotic varieties being produced at the small facility in the Rhine Valley.

Whilst Dijon now has shops in all the big cities including London, Lustenauer sells in Vorarlberg, Vienna, Graz plus Switzerland and Germany to gastro pubs and good food shops.

Frankly my favourite remains the original mustard- simple but fine. I did however warm to the exotic tastes of a few new products – mustard with grape oil and carbon, dried plus, figs, cranberry/gin, not to mention the one with grappa and schnaps.

The cheese sold at the market comes from 22 villages in the Bregenzerwald. Following the Cheese Trail is a popular tour on sunny days.

A drive through the Bregenzerwald when the weather cleared evoked a picture postcard- mountains, dairies and gingerbread houses.

The Kasekeller in Lingenau is a cheese show room, shop and maturation facility where local cheese is ripened and stored. 32,000 loaves or tires can be viewed on the shelves in the refrigerated room behind the cafe area on shelves of silver fir (the best ageing bark)

Mountain cheese AOC is produced the traditional way using only hay milk. One thousand family-run farms receive daily hay milk to produce 30,000 cheeses that take 4-18 months to ripen.

The Kasekeller opened in 2002 and gets 6-8,000 visitors every year. The cheeses proferred are all hand-made and thus expensive. There are 60 different cheeses. Alp and mountain cheeses are protected. Emmental and others are not.

The shop also sells local products such as hand-made noodles (from the wives of Flatz, the turkey farmer, and Schobel, the dried fruit man). Also sold are Harold Schobel`s fine dried fruits; plus milk, butter, yogurt, sausages, fresh bread.

We sample some ‘sig’ – a local caramelized sweet in tandem with Emmental and young/old mountain cheeses. Whilst the Emmental is tasty it was painstakingly pointed out the AOC mountain cheese is produced from cows fed only hay and milk (no silage).

It was also noted the move by the EU to integrate Monsanto as a non-negotiable demand was roundly defeated. Thus Austria, at least temporarily, will continue to maintain a genetically-free food policy.

A collective in Bezau which supports local farmers opened this year. The dairy has a house shop and a few shops around. It also sells to the markets.

Farmers receive a fixed price as the collective is non-profit and receive a card which allows discounts on all other produce sold.

The collective of 222 farms and 210 members produces two kinds of cheeses- both hard cheeses: mountain cheese and `schnitt` or `cut` cheese. The schnitt is aged for four months whilst the mountain cheese ages for 6-12 months, often 24 months.

The Bezau collective or Sennerei Alpenkase Bregenzerwald also boasts a shop and a cafe overlooking a stream and the Bregenzerwald hills. We sample some schnitt – a variety covered with eight different mountain flowers including cornflower, lavender, roses, elder, marigold and others.

The shop, a beggar`s banquet, includes other types of schnitt – with wine, red pepper plus fresh produce including cosmetics made from honey and whey. There are pickled vegetables including pumpkin and courgettes and of course Schobel`s pickled green walnuts. There is also basil and wild garlic pesto and sheep yogurt.

Dornbirn, a dormitory town or city (although it has no cathedral), hosts a population of workers hired by plants and industries most of which emerged after the war.

It is however the most fun market as on market day there are no fewer than three markets which sprawl all over the town centre. There are the international markets, the local market, and the Italian market.

On market street you`ll find the international market setting up at around 5am and already doing business when you arrive at 8am.

Flatz, the turkey butcher, is here too. He makes the rounds as do most traders nowadays. When they started doing it in England I was dismayed. It seemed to erode the local spirit and identity.

But seeing it in Vorarlberg too puts it into perspective- supermarkets have had an impact. Farmers need to merchandise themselves to survive if they are to survive.

There are apricots from Vorarlberg as well as from France. The local fruit is more dear because Lake Constance is NOT an apricot region. The local fruit comes from Lindau, an island in Lake Constance.

Winder Berries come from a local farm of ancient origins. The owners have been at the market for 10 years and from 20 hectares produce strawberries, pumpkins, plums, black currents, red currants, gooseberries, blackberries and raspberries. Fruit is picked and sold the same day. They also do spring flower honey and forest honey.

The local market is selling some of the local cheeses from the Bregenzerwald and a trader proudly displays the Alpenkase logo at his stand.

Many of the traders are fourth and fifth generation Vorarlberg market gardeners. The Brunners from Holst proffer herbs, salads, plants and flowers. This morning there is fresh colrabi, leek, fennel, celery and cauliflower as well as herbs- thyme, dill, basil, mint, parsley and lavender.

A farmer from Lustenau whose wife wears a Tirol hat has 40 hectares. Seven hectares produce vegetables and cereals. The others are allocated as pasture lands for grazing.

The Vetter stand, a family affair, benefits from a daughter who speaks perfect English. One of the most original local producers the Vetters obtain ancient, rare seeds online and/or at an island off Lake Contance.

The resulting produce is unique, tasty and exotic- also rare inasmuch as most farmers won`t take the trouble. Cultivation takes patience. The yield is small ... and the seeds won`t grow in overly fertilized soil.

That said, innovation pays off and the locals were practically fighting with each other to get at the small supplies of white aubergines, huge round yellow courgettes; 30 different types of tomatoes, purple carrots (which only look decayed), red and blue potatoes and yellow beet root.

Here`s the jam lady again. Elizabeth Henrich from Horbranz near Lake Constance and the German border proffers a jar of homemade strawberry and rhurb jam to take away with me. Fifty varieties include apricot, campari and orange, quince jelly among others.

Too much to see. Too little time to see it. And hard to do in the rain too. Wouldn’t you know it? On the day I departed the sun shone. Oh well, it give me an excuse to return.

FACT FILE

Hospitality courtesy of www.bodensee-vorarlberg.com and www.vorarlberg.travel

Sandra Shevey is a copywriter who markets and brands sustainable food markets around the world. Her slogan for the 2014 ‘Visit Jamaica’ campaign is amongst the winners and Sandra is also a winner of a 2014 UK Scoot Tourism Award. Contact: sandra_shevey@yahoo.com

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