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Friday, January 31

Tromso for the Northern Lights

Tromso is one of the northern most cities in Norway.  We took a train to Frankfurt, flew to Oslo and then another shorter flight to Tromso.

Flying into the city, the landscape is of glaciers and mountains covered in snow.

The natural beauty is unreal and unlike anything we have seen.  Even Switzerland does not compare.  Partly because the sun shines only part of the year.  In winter although the sun may be on the surface or possible to see, it never fully shines, causing the sky to dance in various shades of red and pink.

Aurora borealis (northern lights) is the main reason travelers visit the northern areas of the country.  This north at least.  The lights can be seen in clear skies so good weather is necessary.  We arrived on Friday afternoon and ate lunch at the restaurant connected to our hotel.   That night the tour guide drove us and 6 others in his van to a remote spot, away from the city.  Arriving at 7:30pm, we prepared our cameras in the direction of the lights.  At 8pm, we were able to see some activity although only through our cameras.  The lights have an activity level of 1- 10, 10 being the brightest.   

The brightest dot in the picture above is Jupiter.

That night the lights were 3-4 therefore our cameras captured the lights with long exposure.  At first the husband thought he was seeing clouds in the sky.  When the activity level is lower, the lights appear as dull cloud cover.  The tour guide cautioned us of the low activity but faintly seeing them was still unreal.  (And of course seeing them through the photographs.) 

I photographed the sky many times because it was fascinating to look up and see thousands of shining stars.  

Due to the extreme low temperatures, adequate gear is necessary.  Frostbite on fingers and toes are common if you don’t have proper gloves and shoes.  The tour guide gave everyone big, heavy jackets and boots.

Another activity we planned for the weekend was dog sledding.  The husband read about tours with companies in the area and chose from the highest rating.  The next morning the company picked up everyone at 9am in center city and drove us to their home on another island, 30 minutes away.  (Tromso is made up of small island towns.) Upon arriving we were given appropriate warm gear for sledding.  We met 100 dogs they bred and bought for sledding.  And we met the 6 Alaskan husky dogs that would pull our sled.  The sled is primitive in that one person sits on the wooden sled while another stands behind and brakes when needed.  I was nervous to drive but after the first round, it was both enjoyable to drive and sit.  Since I am not a good driver (ask the husband, I’ve had plenty of accidents in cars and even one on bicycle), I managed to flip us over off the sleds.  The dogs were running extremely fast and at a sharp turn instead of pressing the brake to slow the dogs I didn’t and the sled flipped.  Thankfully there weren’t any injuries.  Being pulled by 6 husky dogs through the rarely visited parts of Norway was memorable.  And what made it especially worthwhile were the views of the sky with tinges of pink and red, signs of the sun. 

Both sledding and seeing the northern lights put new perspective on life.  Natural beauty is surreal and our (everyone’s) lives on earth are a small fraction of what contains this planet.  Unfortunately we don’t take the time to cherish and appreciate this as much as we should.  Little things or quarrels shouldn’t matter as much as living in the moment.  There is so much evil in the world and natural beauty makes me realize very few, important people matter and to leave the worrying in the past.   done.ranting.

A note about the food in Tromso; since the city’s location is so far north and the region endures extreme cold in winter and average summers, not much food is grown here and therefore has to be imported.  This means the cost of food in restaurants for tourists (this may include locals also but we didn’t ask) is outrageously expensive.  And unfortunately the quality is just average.  But that shouldn’t stop anyone from planning a trip.  

This trip to Norway came at the heel of our last holiday trip to the Philippines.  It is stunning we were in a country surrounded by beaches and blue water last year and this year we were in a place surrounded by water, frozen water in the form of ice and snow, snow capped mountains and -10 Celsius temperature.  Both trips added unique experiences and memories to our life; both unforgettable in their own right. 

Wednesday, January 22

Regional Food

As you’ve noticed around here, there aren’t many any posts about German food. That’s because there are very few things that we love eating out at German restaurants. There’s the drei im weggla (three Nürnbergers in a bun/roll), schnitzel and finally Schäufele.

Nürnbergers are sausages named after the city because they were invented here; in the land of bier, sausages are appropriate. Schnitzel in Austria is veal filet breaded and fried while here in Bavaria it is pork filet also breaded and fried. Schäufele is pork shoulder braised for hours and then the skin is scored and crisped under the broiler. Normally Schäufele is served with Knödel, a dumpling made from potatoes and a little flour. Generally they are very starchy (gummy) because waxy potatoes are used.

Thankfully when we had it this past weekend, not only was the Schäufele cooked perfectly, moist and tender but the Knödel was also very good (not gummy). We rented a car this weekend and drove to a small town 45 minutes from here for a lunch of Schäufele and Knödel at Gasthaus Schiller in Wernsdorf.

Normally Schäufele is served with sauerkraut (one of the foods Germans are known for). However at Gasthaus Schiller we did not get Schäufele with sauerkraut; it might be regional.

While we are on the topic let’s talk about regional differences. Even within the state of Bavaria and the Franken (see map here) area, there are specialties that don’t cross certain lines. The said lines are tricky to decipher.

Language follows suit the same way. Servus for instance is a form of greeting (hello and goodbye) in Munich and its surrounding towns while servus (I personally learned from my farm stand lady) is only used to say goodbye in the Nürnberg region. Say what?

Moral of this story? Germans, Bavarians are protective of their culture, language and especially food so you may not have the same dish in two restaurants some kilometers from each other.

Saturday, January 18


The husband and I celebrated our marriage anniversary at a local Michelin star restaurant. It was planned months in advance because for a table at Essigbrätlein you have to book ahead.

We opted for the 6 course pre-fixe meal. The meals change frequently so this is a brief synopsis of our dinner.
To start we had multiple amuse-bouches, one of which was a Brussels sprout leaf wrapped in a creamy filling and another was sunflower seeds with sunflower oil. The sunflower seeds on a spoon were crunchy and salty in one bite. The brussels sprouts were a stand out because the mascarpone like filling was the perfect balance to the fresh leaf.

First course was Trout with Fennel, a largely cubed trout sitting atop sliced fennel and dressed with vinaigrette. Next course was layered mashed potatoes with sauerkraut with soy sauce on the side. The soy sauce reduction seemed odd at first but once we tasted it all together, it worked. One of the most impressive courses of the evening, for me, was the pigeon over black salsify with a hint of horseradish all topped with fried shallots (imagine fried onions on the green bean casserole, but much lighter). The pigeon was pan fried and cooked rare. For never having tasted pigeon, this was the perfect introduction.

Finally dessert course was a chocolate mousse ice cream with crunchy chocolate nibs and chocolate comb. Chocolate comb meaning it looked like a honey comb but solely made out of chocolate. It melted in our mouths as soon as we ate it. I wonder how the comb is made because it was one of the most memorable chocolates I’ve had. Of course, rest of the dessert plate was delicious too.

After reviewing the wine menu, not a lot was tempting and the ones we liked were beyond our price range. Based on our preferences, the server brought an Austrian Blaufränkisch bottle; it paired with the meal flawlessly because it was light, like most of our courses, and fruity.

Dinner here is an indulgence (on the palette and your wallet), but it's worth the price and I highly recommend Essigbrätlein for a meal.

Monday, January 13

Farmhouse in Pessenbach

The husband has mostly German colleagues; of which few are fun. One that he’s become friends with is a German woman. She is witty and sarcastic; I attribute partially due to spending time in England. This is unusual because Germans don’t understand sarcasm, so people say. I confess Indians also don’t understand sarcasm so a room full of Indians and Germans would be boring.

She has varying hobbies including hunting. She has talked about hunting with older German men in the middle of dense woods; men that have been in the “club” for years. She normally hunts for wild boar (pig) but has experience with rabbits and other small animals. She also enjoys hiking and being out in the woods. So you’re wondering, why am I placing a ‘match’ ad for this colleague?

In Fall 2013, she took us to her family’s farmhouse in Pessenbach near Kochel lake, south of Munich. The home is from her great grandmother and has been passed down the generations. We drove on Friday night, spent three days in the area and returned on Sunday.

In my opinion, Germany is slower-paced, excluding big cities like Berlin and Munich, than many cities. Let me define slower paced; state of living is relaxed, people aren’t constantly on their smart phones, they accept the35- 40 hour work week and maintain it to devote time to personal life, there’s a lot of green space for outdoor activities and people take time to enjoy being outside whether it’s hiking, running, skiing or long walks. In another words, Germans live simply and in the moment.

So even with that, they like spending weekends and vacations in a home that takes them back in time. The farm home has modern amenities like bathrooms and heating but it still has old-fashioned architecture and surroundings. There’s a wood stove in the kitchen to cook on and a walnut tree in the yard. The neighbor sells milk from his cows to a local supplier. It is peaceful. This home’s environment defines slow living.

On that Saturday we hiked on one of many trails nearby while enjoying the changing colors and a serene day. That night we drank local beer, ate boar she had hunted and gazed at the stars.

Before leaving Sunday, we cooked ourselves breakfast to eat outside. Eating breakfast was just an excuse to enjoy the scenery.

Weeks after our weekend trip, the colleague hunted boar again and shared a leg with us. I roasted the leg in the oven and then with the leftovers made a wild boar and black olives stew, Italian style. I don’t have a recipe to share because I don’t remember precisely but there was onion, garlic, carrots, red wine, black olives, half can of tomatoes and thyme. We braised the boar in a dutch oven with the other ingredients and ate it over mashed potatoes. This recipe is precise and like our dish.

Boar is lean meat and tastes gamier than pork. It is typical for winter months served with root vegetables. The husband and I enjoyed both versions of the boar but preferred the stew (perhaps because it was harder to get an even temperature on the whole leg in the oven without overcooking).

When we arrived at the farmhouse on Friday evening, the colleague said she anticipates visits to the farm home because it recharges her batteries. After a weekend there, we agree.

Tuesday, January 7

Holidays 2013

Our holiday break was busy and fun. A week before Christmas day we welcomed guests from California, a family of 4. It was the husband’s cousin, her husband and their adorable two girls. They spent 10 days with us. We traveled with them and they visited Munich, Rothenburg Ob der Tauber and Wurzburg on their own. The girls were lots of fun to play with and the adults were lots of fun to drink with. Good company. I even learned how to make Sushi (one of our favorite foods) from her husband; that was a delicious Christmas Eve dinner. For Christmas I made stuffed turkey breasts with pepper and apple stuffing, mashed potatoes, gravy, and roasted Brussels sprouts. The weather for the Californians? Cold and grey.

Happy New Year

Hope you all brought in the new year with celebrations or non-celebrations of choice. We had a small party of our own. Initially we’d planned to go out to eat and then celebrate at home but almost every open restaurant had a pre fixe menu with multi-course meal and bubbly at midnight. Although that sounded nice, we invited one couple and planned a Spanish themed dinner (with tapas), played games, danced and drank Champagne at midnight.
photo courtesy of friend C.G.
On the menu was Albondigas (from Enrique Becerra in Spain) where we were introduced to the mint in meatballs. In Indian and Pakistani foods, as well as in Middle Eastern cuisines, mint is widely used in ground meats however it was unique to have it in Spain. (We learned that mint (and other Arabic influences) came to Spain with the Moors.)

Long story short, when we had Albondigas with mint in Spain they were delicious so I recreated them for NYE. Additionally, marinated carrots with cumin and oregano, Puff Pastry Tarts filled with Fig and Red Onion Confit with Manchego, seasoned Marcona Almonds, and Spanish Olives and Cheeses. For in between courses, I created my version of Escalivada. It is Spanish salad of grilled vegetables in olive oil. I made mine with a base of mashed potatoes, roasted peppers, tomato sauce and topped with sobrassada, Spanish sausage. It was something unusual but well received. I’d say frying the potatoes in the sobrassada fat was worth it.
photo courtesy of friend C.G.
For main course I pre-made the almond/saffron sauce for Chicken in Almond Sauce over rice. No photos since we had all consumed too much alcohol by that point.

It sounds like a lot food but it wasn’t. And we weren’t stuffed. We were drunk though and danced a lot. All in good fun and in the name of NYE.

Moving into 2014, one of our first meals was Sauerkraut & Potato Latkes. (also known as Kartoffelpuffers = potato pancakes) We bought sauerkraut few days before the guests left. Quick thinking, I decided this would be the appropriate first breakfast in Germany.

Sauerkraut & Potato Latkes or Kartoffelpuffers
Makes 5

1 medium potato, boiled, peeled and shredded
1/2 cup sauerkraut
1 egg, lightly beaten
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon black pepper, freshly ground
2 tablespoons schmaltz (vegetable oil also works)

In a large bowl, combine the potatoes, sauerkraut and eggs and mix well. Add the flour, salt and pepper to the mixture.

Heat schmaltz (or oil) in a large nonstick skillet over medium heat. Add the batter to the pan, pressing lightly to flatten. They should be approximately 2- 3 inches, flattened. Fry until the latkes are golden brown on both sides, 3 minutes per side, using remaining fat as needed.

Serve warm or at room temperature. (If the latkes are too greasy after frying, drain briefly on paper towels.)