10.29.2014 | Issue #3
Editor's Note: Chef Duncan Holmes most recently headed up the kitchen of a Michelin-starred restaurant in San Francisco, where he had been for a few years. An opportunity to stretch his legs, to see more of the world, and to work in faraway kitchens fell into his lap (as these things tend to do), so he packed up his knives and that was that. His former sous-chef, Anthony Weston, would accompany him on the first leg on his journey. This is the first installment of his time on the road. First stop, Stockholm, to revisit his old stomping grounds from his days as a stage.
I had been in Stockholm for five days when Tony arrived. We spent the majority of the first day doing a March of the Romans-esque walking tour, seeing the different areas of the town, and discussing our plans for the coming week. We made several attempts at coming up with a decent itinerary, something beyond just walking around and exploring, but it soon became apparent that our efforts to do that would be futile. There was too much to see, too much to eat, so for the moment we just let it be.
Stockholm’s indoor market, Östermalms Saluhall, is normally very similar to some of the markets you come across while traveling Europe. Except for today, which happened to be the first day of open season for game in Northern Sweden. The cases were packed full of reindeer, wild boar, horse, and moose, all flown in that morning to be sold at the market! As tempting as it was to buy a nice piece of fresh moose to whip up for dinner that evening, we had to refrain, since our hostel lacked a kitchen.
Instead, we head down the street to have a drink and snack at Mathias Dahlgren’s restaurant Matbaren. Mathias has two restaurants, Matsalen and Matbaren, which share the same entry-way and sit next to one another. Matbaren is more bistro-style, while Matsalen is the two-star upscale version. I had staged here at both restaurants about six years ago. On the way to the two open seats at the bar, we passed by the front of the kitchen where, naturally, I have to stop and look for a moment.
My eyes wander around from station to station, cook to cook, and up from the pass, I see the chef staring at me. After a moment, I realized I knew him. It was Jeppa! During my time at Matsalen, I was assigned to his station. Much to my surprise, he remembered my name.
Later that night, as we’re sitting in the hostel, digesting and planning our next day, a man walks into the room, sits down, and introduces himself. His name is Uwe, he tells us, and he’s come from Berlin, with plans to learn some Swedish history and hit all the major museums. He doesn’t eat meat, smoke, drink, or consume sugars, simply because he believes “life is beautiful enough without these things.” He was an extremely happy person, almost to the point of being a little frightening, and mostly there was no arguing with him. At one point he asked why we needed to consume alcohol, and I explained as best I could that it was not to numb an experience, like he thought, but could heighten experiences you share with other people. He didn’t agree: turns out, he had chosen this week to get out of Germany because it was Oktoberfest.
I was fading fast at this point, but the mention of Oktoberfest sparked intrigue. Here we were, with no plans. Why wouldn't we go?
The next morning
Uwe eats from a plate full of red bell peppers and listens as we discuss our newly-forged plans to go to Oktoberfest. (Not sure he approved, but wasn’t the type of person to look down on you, that Uwe.) Both Tony and I are excited, not only because we would soon be consuming enormous beers out of boot-shaped glasses and dancing with beautiful Bavarian girls in lederhosen, but because it would take up more than one day.
After breakfast that morning I do a little research, and find that not only could we camp there at the event, but we don't even seem to need tickets. We say our farewells to Uwe (who invites us to Berlin when we're done with Oktoberfest), and head to Stockholm Central station. Two train tickets will take us overnight to Munich, with a few stops along the way.
I wake up in Hamburg, Germany, where we have a 45-minute layover to swap trains. As we step off the platform, I start to question our hasty decision. We were just going to show up, one day prior to this massive festival, secure a campsite, and walk into this internationally-known festival without purchasing a ticket? There had to be something we were missing.
A few FAQ pages later, I learn that even though the entrance to the festival is free of charge, the main attraction—the beer halls—require reservations made months in advance. Without one, your option was to be in line by 7 am and hope you’d have a liter of beer in your hands by 8 am. Our choices were now these: we could stick it out and try our luck in Munich, or we could hop off the train somewhere and regroup. We ran with the latter.
Six hours later
Time to make the call. The next stop on the map is a town called Würzburg, which on paper seems as good as any. As the train starts to near this little town we know nothing about, the hills grow larger and start to fill with vineyards. German wine country!
Small castles perch on top of the hills, and the streets are lined with traditional little Bavarian-style houses. A river divides the town, and wine houses are everywhere you look. As we walk, hauling our bags behind us, we notice that all the people sitting in the street side cafes are drinking wine, not beer. Somehow, on our quest to reach the most famous beer festival in the world, we've stopped in the one town where wine comes out on top.
We make our way to the center of town, and ask some locals to point us in the direction of a hostel. After a five-minute walk down the road, we arrive at one of two hostels in town, settle in, and decide to stay for two nights. We head out in search of a beer and some of the signature schnitzel Bavarians are known for; after a few moments of investigating, we wind up at a bar kind of tucked away in the corner of a square, Gaststätte Sternbäck.
Behind the bar, a girl is holding a wine glass under a tap, filling it half up with some sort of carbonated liquid, and then the rest of the way with white wine. I have to ask what it is, and she explains that it’s “a drink for women,” as some women there find the wine too strong, and prefer to water it down with sparkling water or Sprite. Sensing my interest, she disappears for a moment and comes back with two shot glasses full of another drink “for women.” It was a sort of white wine, served early-on in its fermenting state. It's very sour upfront, but mellows to a funky finish. I didn’t care too much for it, but Tony manages to get it down just fine.
Würzburg is most famous for Sylvaner and Riesling, we're told, and to prove it, she hands me an enormous glass of wine filled to the top to “try.” I explain our failed attempt at making it to Oktoberfest, and everyone assures us that we’ve made the right decision to forego our original plans.
As foreigners tend to do, we start attracting attention from patrons wondering what we could possibly be doing here. Simon and Jerg, for example. Simon is a massive guy with a rugby player build, and Jerg’s a thin hipster kid wearing tight jeans, neon green glasses, and a “Chocolate” hat.
After a few rounds of drunken getting-to-know-you in broken English and German, Simon asks where we’re staying. I explain (for the third or fourth time) that we had found the hostel across the river and were booked there while we figured ourselves out. He and Jerg promptly offer up a stay at one of their two houses for a night or two. Tony and I exchange a look, and by the end of the discussion, our stay has been negotiated to five nights, as long as we agree to cook dinner for the two of them and their friends on the last night. We settle the deal with a shot of Aquavit, Jerg’s favorite.
After approximately eight hours at Sternbäck, Tony and I (just about three sheets to the wind) agree to go with them, as well as all their friends who were working at the bar, to a local club. We arrive at Cafe Regina in a group of about 10 people. It's closer to a real cafe than a typical club; tiny (as most things in Würzburg seem to be), with a disco ball on the ceiling, giant windows, several tables crammed in one corner, and a DJ hidden in the opposite corner. Walking that fine line between being drunk and wasted, I make my way out to the dance floor where I remain for the rest of the night. Tony, due to the fact that he’s not so keen on dancing, or that he refuses to take his backpack off (which would likely mess up his dance moves anyway), spends most of the night cruising around the room buying shots for his new friends.
A short-lived game, buying shots. At 4:30, it’s clear that it’s time to head back. After being denied by numerous cabs, we leave on foot, stopping a few times to check for directions or pick ourselves up off the street.
Two mornings later
Simon shows us to his house, where we’ll be staying for the next five nights. He lives in an area the locals called the Dannkleblock, a neighborhood full of free-spirited hippie types, most of whom looked like they had arrived in a half-broke down VW bus, made their own pants, and were currently about four years in on their dreadlocks. The complex is a giant square with an open center that houses a giant garden. Despite the limited space in the apartment, he has squeezed in two extra mattresses, complete with sheets and blankets, and given us our own key.
The following five days follow in the debaucherous footsteps of the first, but we finally manage to find time to taste some of the local offerings. We even come across a guy from San Diego who opened up a taco shop here last month.
Final night in Würzburg
The night that Tony and I had agreed to cook dinner for the whole group in return for our lodgings was a Sunday. The day before, we had set out to the markets and butcher shops. We went back and forth with the theme for a while, almost set on preparing a Bavarian dinner but decided against it because most everyone we had met while there had not been to the US. So, our signature “California-style” food it was. Sunday morning we woke up and went to work.
Simon’s kitchen was small. There was one small sink, an oven that would fit a quarter tray, a small four-burner stove—that functioned best with only two burners working at a time—and a prep space next to the sink about the size of a piece of paper. We pulled the kitchen table over across from the “hot line” and made a work space. We made up most of it up as we went, the two items of priority being 12 racks of pork ribs and one large piece of beef we were going to roast.
After we figure out the spacial limitations of the kitchen, we find a groove. The ribs go into a pot borrowed from our hippie neighbors, and the beef sits out and tempers for several hours. As the two main protein dishes work away, Tony comes up with a pickled gherkin salad to be served with cauliflower and Brussels sprouts, and I begin a julienned celery root and apple with thyme, honey, and buttermilk. We roast local Bavarian potatoes that a woman at the market had insisted on us purchasing, and pickle some fennel to be served with seasoned butter and bread as an appetizer. Chanterelles are stewed in the leftover braising liquid, and served underneath the ribs. We roast a massive Savoy cabbage, and when the beef is ready we slice it thin and serve it warm over a bed of dressed Little Gem lettuce. When it's time, we place it all around the table and serve it, true to form, family-style. The remainder of the evening is spent eating, drinking, and telling stories.
Not a bad way to end a week that started out as a mistake.