CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- October seems an ideal time to explore German cuisine, specifically Oktoberfest fare. I thought I'd look beyond bratwurst and beer, so I called my friend Martina Hart, who grew up in Lünen, in northwestern Germany, for some guidance on alternative Oktoberfest menus.
She kindly explained that Oktoberfest is traditionally celebrated outdoors, sort of like a great cookout, and that bratwursts and knockwursts are standard fare. The first festival was held in 1810 to celebrate the marriage of Bavarian Crown Prince Ludwig to Princess Therese von Sachsen-Hildburghausen. The tradition continues every year.
Munich holds the largest Oktoberfest, a two-week event that features millions of tourists and lots of beer, sausage, Brezelen (soft pretzels) and Schweinshaxen (grilled pig knuckles). In Bavaria, they tend to favor Weisswurst: a mild white sausage made of veal, beef, pork, cream and eggs.
The sausages are most frequently accompanied by potato side dishes, sauerkraut or red cabbage, probably because Oktoberfest occurs at the time of the potato and cabbage harvest.
"I attended year-round school, and we always had a week off in the fall," Hart said. "We called it fall break, but I remember my older relatives referring to it as 'Potato Break.' They used to use the time off to help their parents harvest the potatoes."
Hart's mother prepared Kartoffelsalat (potato salad). Her recipe sounds much like an American creamy potato salad with potatoes, boiled eggs, mayonnaise, vinegar, diced onion and dill pickles. She's not sure of the derivation of the vinegary bacon-dressed "German Potato Salad" often served in American German restaurants, but said she's not familiar with all the regional variations of potato salad.
A word of caution: "Brat" is not an appropriate abbreviation of bratwurst, since "brat" means fry and "wurst" means sausage, Hart explained.
Oktoberfests are community events, not usually held in individual homes in Germany. Aside from the enormous city-sponsored celebrations, smaller communities or churches also hold them, often as fundraisers. They're the German versions of our fish or spaghetti dinners.
German-brand foods are not plentiful in the hills of West Virginia, but Hart said the Kroger stores at Ashton Place and Kanawha City carry some products such as jars of Hengstenberg and Kühne pickles. Both taste similar to the brands of her youth. Big Lots also occasionally carries German brands.
Hart reminded me that the ALDI grocery store chain is a German-influenced business. ALDI is short for Albrecht Discount. On a visit to the Dunbar store last week, I found both bratwurst and knockwurst, Stollen, Spätzle, candies and cookies and several frozen desserts, all with German labels. They also had frozen soft pretzels.
Hart shared the Wöste family's recipe for potato pancakes (Kartoffelpfannkuchen). Hart also makes sauerkraut from scratch, with help from her husband, Bret. It's at least a six-week process, involving alternate layers of shredded cabbage and salt placed in a large crock.
"We place a large board and a brick on top of the crock," Hart said. "The salt draws the juice out of the cabbage. You have to check the liquid level of the juices, make sure it is covered, but take some off to prevent overflowing."
After about six weeks, they taste it to see if it's done. Bret finds the homemade version to be less sour than the canned variety. All four of their young sons eat sauerkraut.
Wash it down with Bier
Gazz beer blogger Richard Ireland recently offered the following Oktoberfest beer recommendations in his "Beers to You" blog:
"A German festbier is the preferred flavor. Usually called Oktoberfest, this seasonal lager is readily available at the grocery store during the fall months. Samuel Adams, though brewed in the USA, is an excellent version and is usually fresher than many authentic imports.
"Penn Oktoberfest is another great one, but is harder to find locally. I tend to favor these American brewed festbiers because of their freshness, but make sure you buy the beer from the fridge and avoid the 'aisle pile.' Beer is best kept cold."
Reach Julie Robinson at jul...@wvgazette.com or 348-1230.
What's in that wurst?
Bauerwurst: a chunky sausage that's often grilled or cooked with sauerkraut.
Bierschinken: a large slicing sausage made with ham and pistachios.
Bierwurst: a slicing sausage with juniper and cardamom.
Blutwurst: blood sausage, made with pork, beef, blood and fat, eaten sliced cold or fried.