Sunday, September 30, 2007

Tiny Feathers in the Wine!

Typical sign for a traditional treat

As September ends and October begins, it seems the right time to take a break from the history of the barnhouses of the Trier area and appreciate a current-day pleasure. The wine harvest is just about over and all over the Rhineland, the time for Federweißer and Zwiebelkuchen has come.

The first time I saw a sign like the one above, I stopped in puzzlement. My German being far from perfect, I thought my translation must be wrong. Literally it seemed to say "White feathers and onion cake." Walking along the streets of Trier, I saw another such sign and then another and another. Every snack bar, cafe, and restaurant were offering the same combination. I guessed that the white feathers had to do with young wine but an onion cake?

When questioned, my German relatives smiled, offered little explanation, and said, "Yes, we must have it before you leave." So on a trip to Cochem, my sister Marilyn, our relative Edeltrud, and I sat at a table in a small restaurant overlooking the Mosel and ordered Federweißer and Zwiebelkuchen. Marilyn and I were unanimous in our opinion that both were lecker(yummy). Never again would we cringe at the thought of white feathers and chopped onions in a pound cake .

Edeltrud and her daughter Dani had another surprise in store for us. They took us to the Wassermann Winery in Leiwen where we tasted Federweißer directly from a wine barrel where the newly harvested wine was fermenting and aging into an excellent Riesling wine.

Leiwen vineyards on the Mosel

Tasting Federweißer at Wassermann Winery

There is not much doubt in my mind that our Rhineland ancestors enjoyed the feathery new wine of autumn. With such a delicious brew in their wine barrels or stone jugs, why would they wait for it to mature completely? I can find no data about Zwiebelkuchen to tell me whether it is a recipe from earlier centuries or one that has been developed in recent times.

Miscellaneous information from the Internet as well as from friends and relatives:

Federweisser is described in some German wine journals as the "fresh foretaste of autumn." It gets its names from the tiny "feathers" of yeast that float in each glass of this new wine, a wine in its beginning stage. It is as sweet as grape juice, contains alcohol, and still has the yeast in it.

Golden Autumn celebration in Saarburg - with Federweisser

Federweißer, is known as Suser, Sauser or Junger Wein in Southwest Germany, Switzerland and South Tyrol, Sturm in Austria, Neuer Wein in the Palatinate, Bremser in Franconia, and burčák in the Czech Republic.

It is a fermenting grape must.
Once yeast has been added, grape must begins to ferment rapidly. The fructose contained in the grapes is broken down into alcohol and carbonic acid (glycolysis). As soon as an alcohol content of four percent has been reached, Federweißer may be sold. It continues to ferment until all the sugar has been broken down and an alcohol content of about ten percent has been reached.

Due to the carbonic acid, Federweißer tastes quite refreshing, not unlike a grape lemonade or a sweet sparkling wine. The yeast particles contained in Federweißer are responsible for its name, which literally means "white as a feather." In general, Federweißer is made from white grapes; red grapes are rarely used.

Due to the rapid fermentation, Federweißer cannot be stored for long and should be consumed within a few days of purchase. As carbonic acid is constantly produced, the bottles cannot be sealed (they would rupture otherwise) and must be stored in an upright position. In the past, the fermentation could not be decelerated by cooling. Thus, transportation over longer distances was impossible, and Federweißer was only available in wine-producing regions such as those along the Mosel and Saar.

Depending on the date of the grape harvest, Federweißer is available from early September to late October. The classic combination is Federweißer and Zwiebelkuchen, although Federweißer and chestnuts is also popular. Because a plentiful amount of sugar is present in the Federweißer, the alcohol content is masked and can quickly slip unnoticed into the bloodstream, making for unexpected inebriation and perhaps a hangover the next morning.

Zwiebelkuchen, which literally means onion cake in the German language, is a one-crust pie made of steamed onions, diced bacon, cream, and caraway seed on a yeast dough. It is particularly popular in the German wine-growing-regions. A similar pie called Flammkuchen is also eaten in Alsace. In the fall, it is traditionally accompanied by some Federweißer. At other times Zwiebelkuchen” will be served with a glass of white wine.

From the German Wine Institute's Internet Site

According to the DWI or Deutschen Wein Institute, the actual start of the wine harvest begins at the end of August or beginning of September. Federweißer, season sends an eagerly awaited message to wine lovers who have been looking forward to the tiny little feathers dancing in the young wine.

The ideal way to drink one the new wines is at the time it is half way from grape juice to wine, so that the sugars, alcohol and fruit acid are in good balance. At this time it exhibits an alcohol content of approximately five percent by volume. (The Federweißer will already show the first characteristics and fruit flavours of the new wine class.) In the further process of the fermentation, the initially seductive sweetness yields gradually to the alcohol and lends an increasingly harsh note.

The "new wine" industry is an important one. At the current time, some two million liters of Federweißer from the Rhineland and Palatinate are sold each year.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Living Wall to Wall

Street in Village of Serrig

In my last post, I described the exterior of the Trier Einhaus, also known as the Quereinhaus, the typical farm building in the border regions of Germany, France, and Luxembourg. These all-in-one-style barnhouses sometimes stood alone on a piece of property. But many were built wall to wall, so that the only way to get to the garden behind the house or the fields and meadows was through one's own back door or the door of a neighbor.

It occurred to me that my housing is very much like that of my ancestors in the Trier/Saarburg area. I live in a two-family condo. Like the Einhaus dwellers of the 19th century, my neighbors and I have two story "houses" that are connected (without stable and stalls, however), because we share a wall. Condo and townhouse dwellers can enter their dwellings from front and back just like the families who lived in the wall-to-wall Einhaüser. Obviously there are no windows to the outside on any shared walls. What goes around comes around?

Advantages of Living Wall to Wall

*There were advantages in a wall-to-wall Quereinhaus. Sharing a wall or living wall to wall prevented heat loss in winter and helped keep the rooms cooler in the summer. So comfort was improved for both parties.

*Maximum use was made from available village land.

*For the families in the Einhaüser, there was the protection and availability of very close neighbors in times of trouble.

Disadvantages of Living Wall to Wall

*A major disadvantage of living wall to wall or sharing a wall, especially in the days before fire codes and fire-proof building materials, was the ease with which a blaze could spread quickly from one Quereinhaus to another. Although the picture postcard above is from Irsch's neighboring village of Serrig, the houses in both villages were similar. Thus the village of Irsch must have looked much the same, even in the earlier part of the century when fires broke out and raged through three villages.

Fire Catastrophe: In the summer of 1842 separate fires destroyed Einhaüser in three villages: Irsch, Wasserbillig (54 houses), and Coenen (16 properties). Ewald Meyer, in his book "Irsch/Saar: Geschichte eines Dorfes" says that 34 dwellings and 22 stables in Irsch went up in flames as the fire raged, leaving 500 residents either without a roof over their heads or lacking barn or shed. Certainly the wall-to-wall buildings were in the greatest danger of being completely destroyed as fire spread easily from houses built so very close to one another.

*Another disadvantage of wall-to-wall residences must have been the difficulty of striking an agreement when ones neighbor wanted to change part of the structure or build a new structure. Today we have such things as condo agreements. To my surprise I learned that, as early as 1821, there was an example of a contract that was not so different from the condo-change agreements of today.

New Construction: The document found by Herr Meyer, the author of the book mentioned above, was called a "House Allocation Contract." It was discovered in the Irsch community archives. It clearly addressed the matter of building a new barnhouse in Irsch when two families owned Quereinhauser with walls that were side by side, no space between. I found the detail fascinating. With help by e-mail from Herr Meyer, I think I now have a mostly clear understanding of those details.

The contract was handwritten by the schoolmaster, Herr Romey who, in addition to his position as schoolmaster and sexton for the church, also served the head of the village council and the Burgermeister as document writer. The contract was between Johann Klein and Johann Konter of Irsch. Together, they jointly owned the two wall-to-wall Einhaüser referred to in the contract.

The top of the document has the typical offical stamp with the Prussian Adler (eagle) and shows that the fee for this contract was 1 Groschen 7 Pfennig. It is dated March 13, 1821. The two houses, the barn with its stalls, and the outer garden and Hof (small area of storage space) were owned in common by the family of Johann Konter and Johann Klein.

The first item of agreement was that the hereditary rights for the old house would go to Johann Konter, his wife Helena, and their descendants. Johann Klein and his wife Kathrin would own the new house with barn and stalls. In other words, the two barnhouses would no longer belong to both parties. Klein was required to build his new barnhouse to strict specification so that it would match, width and height, with the gabel side of the Konter dwelling. The agreement spells out the size in detail, using the word Schu as the measure. For instance the wall of the new barn had to be 21 "true" Schu (21 Schu equal 8 meters or a little over 26 feet).

The actual building process was clarified in the contract. It seems that the walls of the adjoining structure owned by Herr Konter would be heavily damaged in order for Herr Klein to build the side wall for his new structure. If Herr Konter helped with labor, which consisted of breaking down the stone walls of Herr Klein, he would not have to pay the cost for any work to fix or rebuild the wall of his own dwelling. However, Klein would receive whatever wood was salvageable, no matter which house it came from. Klein was allowed to use straw as the roofing for his new building, if that was allowed by ordinance. (Because of the increased risk of fire spreading more easily, straw roofs were little by little being outlawed. There was the possibility that this could happen before the new structure's roof was begun. By the middle of the century, Prussia had outlawed straw and shingle roofs in newly constructed buildings, requiring tile of some kind, in all the lands it governed).

The back gardens and Hof, the outdoor work and storage spaces next to the gardens, were at an angle to a Herr Tressel's garden. This had to be taken into consideration in the building project. There had to be a way to get into and out of all the gardens of all parties concerned.

Both husbands and wives "signed" the contract, using their housemark rather than a handwritten signature. (see archived post of Aug 6, 2005 for a full explanation of the Rosenkranz and resultant housemarks). The housemark of the construction master, Herr Michel Brausch, is also on the contract, along with the names of three other men who were probably associated with the construction master. In all, six housemarks appear, not including the two witnesses and the signature of Herr Romey, the writer of the document

If you thought that detailed contract paperwork and condominium living were marks only of our times, think again. Your ancestors who lived in wall-to-wall Einhaüser seem to have known all about it.

Meyer, Ewald. Irsch/Saar: Geschichte eines Dorfes, Geminde Irsch, 2002 (Information on housemarks)