Getting caught in a rainstorm today when we were walking home from the grocery store, I was reminded of a misadventure I had with a friend while traveling in Europe in the summer of 2000. During the early part of my trip, it was really hot everywhere I’d been, but toward the end when I got to Germany it had started storming. My friend and I had spent much longer than we’d planned trying to get to the Black Forest, and started out in Stuttgart and then found out we couldn’t get there that way, so then we took the train to a small town near Freiborg. We’d planned a hike through the Black Forest that day, a sparsely-traveled footpath that went from one very small town to another with a couple of teeny places in between. Before we started, we went into one of the two tiny shops that was open in town (it was a Sunday and virtually everything was closed tight), and the shopkeeper recommended we try the local specialty version of Kirschwasser (a traditional cherry brandy), so we bought a couple of teeny airplane-sized bottles, figuring what the hell, to go with our trail mix or whatever snacks we’d brought with us. Once we started on the trail, the only way to get back to a main train station was to turn back to where we’d come or to continue on, and neither of us was one for giving up.
The down side to this hike in the Black Forest, the most fairy-tale place I’d ever been (seriously, it was not at all difficult to imagine most classic Grimm tales in this setting), was that just once we’d truly gotten into the forested parts of the trail, it started to rain. We each had a light rain shell but were wearing jeans and sneakers, not exactly ideal for a long hike through the dripping wet forest. And did it ever drip. It dripped and poured and the rain ran down our faces and into our inner layers, and it splashed up our shoes to soak the bottoms of our pants. Every so often we’d come out of a copse of trees and the trail would lead us by someone’s cow pasture or someone’s agricultural field, and sometimes the sun would poke through the clouds, but mostly it was just dark, cold, wet trees whipping themselves at us as we walked and then trudged, socks and shoes sodden, ever onward.
We passed two churches that had to really have been individual prayer stations of some sort, because when poking our heads inside it was clear they weren’t big enough to hold more than one medium size or two smallish people at once. We passed areas that looked as though a bear who had once been a person could burst out of the brush at us at any moment. And we got colder and wetter and more physically miserable. But our spirits remained relatively high, and my friend suggested we pull out the kirschwasser, that it might warm us up.
So it might be pertinent to mention here that I was just 21 years old at this point, and my tastes and appreciation for various alcoholic beverages was immature at best. My friend’s preferences weren’t much more refined than mine (he tended to go in for either beer or really sweet wine). We were expecting, I dunno, cherry-flavored liqueur? Kind of like Apple Pucker or butterscotch schnapps, only cherry flavored. What we got was bracing and not even remotely sweet and it tasted like a cough syrup-scented lighter fluid? It was certainly not something either of us enjoyed, and we chalked it up to one more component to our ongoing misadventure that day.
Finally, we made it to the other end of the trail, which was another really small town with a train station. It was still Sunday, so everything in this town was closed except for one not-cheap (read: pretty fancy) restaurant. But after hours of walking through the forest in pouring rain and cold, wet feet we were really hungry and just wanted to sit someplace warm for a little while. (I’m sure the other patrons of the restaurant thought we resembled drowned rats, which we probably did.) Everyone else in the place was dressed nicely and here we were, bedraggled and disheveled soaking wet American tourists. The server brought us a menu, and we did our best to navigate it with our extremely primitive German. Food words in German aren’t THAT much different than many English food words, so usually it wasn’t too much of an issue, but we saw the prices and realized the only thing we could afford to eat in the place was soup. Which was sort of just fine with me; I was soaked through and chilled to the bone and thought it might help warm me up.
Two soups were on the menu, and we had no idea what kind of soup either of them might be. So my friend ordered one and I ordered the other one, and we decided we’d share both bowls. When our soup arrived, mine had a chowdery sort of broth with what in retrospect might have been some little matzoh ball-like dumplings? I think there was some chicken in it as well, but it was definitely a white broth. My friend’s soup had a clear broth and was quite savory, with chunks of vegetables, and some odd gray rubbery things. We put the bowls in the middle of the table and traded bowls after a while, and decided that my soup was better because those rubbery gray things were just weird. My friend fancied himself a gourmand of meats and had to know what he was eating, so he asked the server when she stopped by to fill up our water glasses what the things were in his soup.
“I think they are, how you say, snakes?” she replied.
“SNAKES?” exclaimed my friend, and made a motion with his hand like a snake going through the grass. She laughed. “No, no. I think instead snails.”
Snails. We’d spent hours on a train in the wrong direction, hours finally hiking through the forest in pouring rain with only trail mix and
lighter fluid Kirschwasser to sustain us, we were paying more for that soup than we’d spent on the previous day’s meals, and we were eating snails.
I lost my appetite. I know people talk about how delicious escargot is and I’m sure they’re right, but I’ve never had any interest in trying it since those gray rubbery lumps in that mysterious soup.
When we’d finished our soup, the server asked if we’d like anything else. I decided what the hell, and ordered a slice of Black Forest cake. I was in the Black Forest, after all.
Do you know what traditional Black Forest cake is flavored with? Kirschwasser.