My husband’s grandfather lives in a small village in southern Bavaria. After the Mr. Armchair Sommelier and I were married, we started making semi-regular trips there to visit him. I’d been to Bavaria a few times as a kid (with my parents, who also have Bavarian roots), so I was already familiar with some of the more ubiquitous Bavarian traditions (sausage, beer, pretzels and lederhosen).
I will never forget the first time we visited Opa as a young, newly-married couple. We landed in Munich at 7am, and by 9am, we were sitting in a restaurant eating boiled sausages (Weißwurst) and drinking Weißbier (something my stomach was woefully unprepared for at the equivalent of 3am EST). We spent the rest of the day fighting jet lag and trying to keep our eyeballs open. Later that night, we ate dinner with Oma & Opa, and their upstairs neighbor, Frau Wagner. We enjoyed a traditional Bavarian meal of meat with a side of meat, washed down with a gigantic mug of Bier.
Sidebar: Eating a meal with Oma was always a lose-lose proposition. If you cleaned your plate, clearly that was a signal you were still hungry and wanted more food. And you got more food. If you didn’t clean your plate, that triggered a mini-lecture on how you were too skinny and needed to eat more (you muss EEEET!). And you got more food. I was so full, I was nearly paralyzed. All I wanted to do was crawl into bed and succumb to the food coma (and the jet-lag).
And that’s when Frau Wagner disappeared to her apartment, and returned carrying a tray of small glasses filled with a clear liquid we would later learn was Kirschwasser. Translated literally, Kirschwasser means,
see you in the emergency room cherry water. It’s made from fermented, distilled black cherries, and is thought to have originated in the Black Forest region of southern Germany. If you’re ever in Bavaria, and you see someone walking toward you carrying a tray of small glasses filled with a clear liquid, know this:
Your night’s about to take a turn.
Frau Wagner set that tray of glasses down on the table and said, “You muss trink. Is gut for digestion.” Wait. What?? She can’t be serious. It’s good for digestion in that it induces vomiting?!? But wait, there’s more. Then she lit the glasses on FIRE! I kid you not. Because apparently fire is also good for digestion. I offered my husband $50 to drink mine, but he said that would be rude, so . . . bottoms up! HOLYMOTHEROFHOT that burns! There’s no way my esophagus isn’t perforated! Aaarrgghh! Why don’t the Germans believe in ice water?!? We put our small (and now empty) glasses down on the table and looked to the Bavarians for approval. Germans aren’t known for their riotous sense of humor, but have no doubt, they think it’s hilarious to watch twenty-something Americans drink Kirschwasser for the first time.
That night in Bavaria, I didn’t know Kirschwasser would become a family tradition. Honestly, I kind of hoped I’d never see it again. But Kirschwasser has been a tradition in Germany since Germany had a king and called itself Prussia (really, almost every country in Europe has some sort of digestif tradition). It’s there to stay. But here in America, digestifs have never really taken off. When was the last time your server at Applebee’s offered you a digestif after your extreme fajita poppers?
So, do digestifs really work? Or are the Germans just crazy?
A glass of fire-water to settle the stomach seems counter-intuitive. That’s just about the last thing I want after a heavy meal and a bunch of beer (or wine). More alcohol. But I swear there’s something to it. Your stomach is stretched beyond capacity, and then you down a glass of Kirschwasser, which obviously sets off some kind of tiny bomb in your stomach, and suddenly . . . you feel better. I can’t explain how it works, only that it does.
Over the years and over the visits, I’ve come to eagerly anticipate (and even require) the tradition of Kirschwasser. I’ve also learned how to drink Kirschwasser without looking like an American rube. Many years ago, I made the mistake of telling Opa I like Kirschwasser. I’ve been receiving regular care packages of Kirschwasser ever since. Opa even makes a hand-crafted little crate so the Kirschwasser won’t break on its trek across the Atlantic. I now own more Kirschwasser than I can drink in 3 lifetimes (a little goes a loooooonnng way).
We joke about Kirschwasser, but there’s something comforting about the appearance of those small glasses of clear liquid, and their tether to memory. Sitting around an old pine table, in a small flat, in a small Bavarian village, with our German family is a memory I always carry with me (kind of like Chapstick — I always carry Chapstick).
This summer, we’re heading to Bavaria to visit Opa. When we arrive, we’ll have boiled sausages and beer at 9am. We’ll spend the rest of the day fighting jet-lag and trying to keep our eyeballs open. And that first night, we’ll have a traditional Bavarian dinner of meat with a side of meat, and a gigantic mug of Bier. And then, someone will bring out a tray of small glasses filled with clear liquid . . . and our trip will be complete before it even gets started.
P.S. Yes, I realize this story isn’t about wine. But it is a story about fermented fruit, so roll with it . . . OK?
* This is my entry in the Monthly Wine Writing Challenge (#MWWC14). The theme this month (chosen by Duff’s Wines) is: Tradition. If you’re interested in reading the other Tradition entries, they can be found on the MWWC Blog.