Home cooked comfort

Homemade ham and cheese loafCooking is one of the things I miss most while travelling. Although we had a stovetop, fridge, and sink in the camper, space was very cramped and the ventilation system wasn’t great. Our most successful camper meals were pretty much bread, cheese, and paté.

I’m very much enjoying cooking in a real kitchen and have been making some old favourites. Relatively easy and very comforting meals like ravioli with mushrooms and sage, chili with baking powder biscuits, gnocchi with lemon and arugula, and this delicious ham & cheese loaf.

Most of these familiar recipes need a bit of adapting as German grocery stores stock different products than Canadian ones. We’re not always able to find exactly what the recipe calls for and sometimes that creativity pays off.

The original Ham & Cheese Loaf recipe (which I think my mum clipped from a newspaper about 20 years ago!) calls for chopped ham and grated Swiss cheese. My husband often made it with ham and cheddar cheese and we’ve also used leftover turkey in place of the ham before. I imagine a wide-range of cooked meats would work really well.

Cheddar cheese is hard to find in Germany and there are so many options for meat and sausage here that being limited to ham made no sense. I used gouda cheese and Schinken-Fleischwurst (a large, lightly spiced pork sausage) for the loaf in the picture.

The loaf (which is a rather unappetizing way to describe such a yummy combination of bread, meat, and cheese) is fantastic warm and even better cold the day after. A leftover slice makes an excellent snack and slices disappear from the fridge with astonishing speed.

Eating familiar food in a still-foreign culture makes me feel a little more at home, a little more comfortable, and a lot less hungry!

Ham & Cheese Loaf

  • 500g (4 cups) all-purpose flour
  • 1 tbsp sugar
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 2 packages rapid rise yeast (14g or 1/2oz in total)
  • 250mL (1 cup) water
  • 35mL (1/4 cup) Dijon mustard (or Senf mittelscharf if you’re shopping at a German grocery store)
  • 2 tbsp butter
  • 225g (1 1/2 cups or 8oz) cooked meat, chopped
  • 225g (1 1/2 cups or 8oz) firm cheese, grated
  • 1 egg, beaten
  • Set aside 125g (1 cup) flour; line a baking sheet with aluminium foil and lightly grease
  • In a large bowl, mix together remaining flour, sugar, salt, and yeast
  • In a small saucepan over medium-low heat bring water, mustard, and butter to about 50°C (125-130°F )
    • it should be warm enough that you can’t comfortably dip your finger in for more than a few seconds
  • Stir warm liquid into flour mixture and add in enough reserved flour to make soft dough
    • in more humid climates you’ll need more of the flour
  • Turn dough out onto a floured surface and knead for about 4 minutes
    • the dough should be smooth and bounce back when pressed with a finger
  • Roll dough into a rectangle – just over 1/2cm thick (1/4”) and roughly 35x30cm (14×12”); transfer to greased baking sheet
  • Sprinkle meat and cheese down centre third of dough length; make cuts from filling to dough edge at 2.5cm (1”) intervals
    • kitchen shears are an easy way to cut the dough
  • Bring strips from opposite sides of filling together, twisting and placing ends at an angle across meat and cheese
  • Rise the dough by covering loaf with a warm, damp towel and placing the baking sheet over a large shallow pan half-full of boiling water;  let sit for 15 minutes
  • While dough is rising, preheat oven to 190°C (375°F)
  • Brush loaf with beaten egg and bake for 25 minutes until golden brown
  • Let cool for 5 minutes before slicing and serve warm or cold
  • Enjoy leftover slices for as long as they last!

Early return

Three photos of camper lifeToday was the original date for camper-return. Instead, the camper went back four days ago and we slipped into our flat in Neuss a few days early. We are not camper people.

We had grand plans for our 22-days touring around Europe: western Germany, Luxembourg, eastern and southern France, Monaco, northern Italy, Andorra, Spain, and maybe even Portugal. The difficulties driving the camper, problems finding campsites that met our needs, and the challenges of getting into cities to see their sights humbled our ambitions – and necessitated changing our tactics.

Instead of hopping from place to place, discovering a new area daily, we stayed at campsites we liked for a couple nights and left the camper parked for a day or two at a time to explore. We stayed in rural Luxembourg and used their nation-wide public transit system to get to the capital (unoriginally also named Luxembourg). We camped outside of Saint-Tropez and wandered Mediterranean beaches. We stayed on two different vineyards and sampled French wines with the winemakers. We saw Mont St. Michel, the Bayeux Tapestry, and Juno Beach. We gawked at Notre Dame in Chartres and a few other churches.

What we didn’t do was go into larger cities or travel nearly as far as we thought we would. Plans to meet up with someone in Dijon were abandoned. A trip into Grenoble to visit a friend was pushed aside. Any hopes of gambling in Monaco were dashed. Andorra’s narrow streets and lack of major highways scared us away. The navigational and language barriers of Italy and Spain felt insurmountable. Portugal was just too damn far.

It was a radically different trip than anticipated.

We saw rural Germany, Luxembourg, and France in a way we could have never expected – partially because the GPS had no way of knowing how terrifying single-lane country roads are in a camper!

We also learnt about places we didn’t know existed and revelled in continually finding historic markers. We drove along the winding Mosel wine route and crossed the towering Île de Ré bridge. We visited war cemeteries and paid our respects to those who fell in the two world wars.

Sofie in the Mediterranean

We communicated in rusty French (me) or broken German (my husband) because we had no other choice in the countryside.  We bought a baguette nearly every day in France and consumed huge volumes of paté and cheese. We suffered through wind and rain storms at three separate campsites – including one overlooking the high waves of the Atlantic.

And parts of the trip made our dog pretty happy. Sofie got to swim in the Mediterranean, chase a ball on a beach in Normandy, drive long distances either sitting on my lap or curled up on her camper bed, sample French paté, and she spent a lot of time with us.

In the end, we accomplished my dream of getting somewhere warm in February, didn’t have any catastrophic fights, saw some amazing sights, ate some fantastic food, drove more than 5000 kilometres, and, perhaps most of all, solidified our status as non-campers.

Camper journey map

Click on the pins for the place names and a little more detail

View Camper Trip in a larger map

Auf Wiedersehen Berlin

Hertha Block Promenade street signRoughly four months after we arrived in Berlin, our bags are packed for our next location. We’re embarking on a three week camper trip and then spending two months in Neuss (across the Rhine from Düsseldorf).

Our time in the camper will be an adventure in free-form travelling as we have a very loose outline of where we’re going. Likely into Luxembourg, France, and Italy… possibly into Andorra, Spain, Switzerland, and Monaco. Wherever we go, we’re taking all of our stuff with us – although, thankfully, there’s not that much to carry!

While we didn’t come to Germany with a lot (three hockey bags, two laptops and other necessary electronics, and some dog paraphernalia), we’ve trimmed down our possessions even more. And considering that we pared down what we already thought were the bare basics before flying to Germany in November, it’s amazing that there’s anything more for us to purge!

Cargo Reduction comic from Itchy Feet
Cargo Reduction © Itchy Feet

Itchy Feet published this comic the other day and it fits perfectly with how we’ve reduced our cargo… and will likely continue to do so.

A year ago, we had a fully furnished, well-equipped two bedroom condo and no idea that we’d be travelling so much. Our downsizing started about this time last year in preparation for renovations and continued through our initial discussions about moving.

We dragged our three packed-to-the-brim, overweight hockey bags to Calgary… and left about a quarter of their contents there.

And while in Berlin we’ve probably let go of another 25%. Not quite at the passport and toothbrush stage, but getting closer!

It’s part terrifying and part liberating to have so little. It does make us a lot more mobile 🙂 , but can also feel a bit empty.

Thankfully, we’re able to fill any emptiness with amazing experiences, fabulous digital photos, and lots of incredible memories.

I suspect we’ll be back to Berlin to visit (or at least explore the city when it’s not so cold!), but it’s farewell for now.

The excess cargo, on the other hand, might be gone for good!

Home is…

Home is organized drawersNot having a permanent address has made me think a lot about ‘home’. Is it a single location? Is it a feeling? Is it a situation? What makes somewhere ‘home’?

I’ve realized that ‘home’ is a moving target. It can be my parents’ house (where I grew up), a rented flat, a hotel room, a friends’ apartment.

Our flat in Berlin has certainly been ‘home’ for the last few months; we unpacked, settled in, and got really comfortable. The clothes are neatly organized. The products in the bathroom cabinet are sorted by type. The mailbox bears our names. Even the kitchen cupboards are arranged so they make the most sense to us.

Unpacking goes a long way towards making me feel comfortable. Whenever we move, all the boxes and bags are unpacked within the first 24 hours. As long as there’s closet/drawer space available, I empty out my luggage – even if I’m only there for a couple nights.

We leave this flat in just a few days and my definition of ‘home’ will shift again. But some components of ‘home’ stay the same. Home is familiar and comfortable. Home is where my husband and dog are.  Home is settled and secure.

Home is where the drawers are organized.

Is Parliament Hill this interesting?

The exterior of the Reichstag building in Berlin at nightI’ve been in Ottawa a couple of times over the last few years and seen Parliament Hill (the seat of Canadian politics), but only from the outside. I haven’t been on a guided tour or attended a debate, but a visit to the German parliament (the Deutscher Bundestag) last week will make a real tour a priority the next time I’m in the Canadian capital!

The Reichstag Building (where the Deutscher Bundestag meets) is a huge tourist attraction in Berlin. Not only is there the fascination of seeing where the republic is governed, there’s also a roof terrace with great views of the city… and the tours are entirely free!

There weren’t many options when we booked the tour, so we wound up with one at 8pm. Turns out evening is a great time to see the Reichstag. Our guide was able to take us into many areas that aren’t accessible during the work day and the nighttime views of Berlin were astonishing.

The German parliament chamber with its Reichstag blue seatsOur guide was exceptionally well-educated (with a PhD in Political Science!) and spoke perfect English. He gave us all kinds of tit-bits about the building and its history, outlined how the Bundestag functions, and fielded questions on everything from statuary to parliamentary procedure. I was particularly interested to learn that the seats in the parliamentary chamber are deliberately non-partisan; they’re covered in ‘Bundestag blue’, specifically selected because it isn’t affiliated with any German political party.

Touring the Reichstag awakened my interest in visiting government seats in other countries. We may not make it to the Hague on our upcoming trip to the Netherlands and Belgium, but we will be in Brussels, home to both the Palais de la Nation and the European Parliament.

And the next time I’m in Ottawa, I’ll see how Canada measures up!

Silvester madness

The remnants of the Monumentenbrucke Silvester celebrationsNew Year’s Eve is called Silvester in Germany (as well as a few other parts of Europe) and comes with a whole host of traditions that were new to us. The most obvious (and loudest!) was the prevalence of firecrackers and fireworks.

If the number of fireworks shops that popped up in the days leading up to 31 December wasn’t enough of a hint that massive explosions were on their way, the fluorescent packages blazoned with names like ‘Skypainter’ and ‘Power Bang’ certainly tipped us off. I was surprised that Berliners of all ages are into fireworks; in Vancouver playing with publicly-available explosives is mostly left to teenagers. Not so in Berlin – everyone appears to love them here. The day before New Year’s Eve, our grocery cart seemed to be the only one without munitions. 

My husband went for a run late in the afternoon on Silvester and returned with reports of people launching fireworks off balconies and casually tossing lit firecrackers out of windows. It was barely twilight and already the streets were alight and all safety precautions had been discarded.

We were hoping to duck most of the celebratory craziness (we’re not big NYE partiers and firecrackers make our dog, Sofie, exceptionally anxious) and had planned a quiet evening. Curiosity and the noise from the street, however, drew us outside about half an hour before midnight.

The smell of gunpowder hit immediately outside the building door. Sparkly streaks broke through the smoky haze accompanied by an auditory assault of cracks, pops, and bangs. The street was crowded with revelers (most of whom carried bottles of booze and sticks of fireworks), with more arriving by the minute.

We’re quite close to a train bridge with clear sightlines to the large fireworks display at Brandenburger Tor, which attracted a large enough crowd to temporarily turn the bridge into a pedestrian-only crossing. (Berlin has a huge public Silvester celebration with more than a million people and massive fireworks.) People were lighting fireworks set in empty bottles or pushed into the ground and there were explosions everywhere. All before the end of the year had actually happened!

It was overwhelming and, truthfully, more than a little scary.

Returning to the safety and sanity of our flat, we heard the world explode at midnight. The near-constant bangs continued for at least an hour, with sporadic firecrackers going off fairly frequently for the next full day.

It was such a change from New Year’s Eve in Vancouver (relatively quiet and with far fewer fireworks) and explained why I’ve heard Europeans complain that Canadian celebrations are boring.

As if the insanity of the local Silvester celebrations wasn’t astonishing enough, the aftermath raised the shock level even more.

Generally, our neighbourhood is quite clean. There’s graffiti, of course, and more dog crap goes unscooped than desirable, but the plethora of civic garbage cans keep litter at a minimum.

The morning of New Year’s Day, however, the sidewalks were covered with bottles, streamers, cups, and the remains of all the firecrackers and fireworks. So much for the German reputation for neatness and order!

Amazingly, there didn’t appear to be any property damage. Vehicles parked along the bridge were stacked with bottles and people had used their fingers to write messages in the frost covering a few of them, but there were no broken windows or punctured tires. Parts of the pavement were charred by fireworks, but no trees or buildings had been set on fire.

As we walked Sofie on the morning of 1 January, there were a few people gathering up some of the garbage (including a family who looked like they’d made it into a game for their young sons), but mostly people just ignored the mess. The clean-up started more earnestly on the second day of 2014 and continues today with street sweepers out in force.

There are large piles of Silvester debris (shown in the lower image above) awaiting pick up and most of the broken glass has been swept away. Our neighbourhood is getting close to being clean again and I heard no firecrackers at all while walking Sofie this morning. My astonishment at the scale of the celebrations and the immense mess left behind, however, is going to take a little longer to fade.

I suspect we’ll seeking out a quiet locale (maybe somewhere fireworks/firecrackers are banned!) to celebrate New Year’s Eve 2014. I hear rural Norway’s nice 🙂