Roses on the Rhine

As always when I travel, I am on the lookout for herbs – unusual ones, common ones perhaps used in a novel way, and interesting historical or period gardens. My recent trip to the Christmas Markets of Germany was no different, and I was more than satisfied with my herbal discoveries.

As 2012 is the Year of the Rose, ™ I was particularly anxious to uncover Rosa and its usefulness to Europeans. Even though I traveled in late November, there was evidence of this favored flower in many places. As we motored in a cruise ship up the Rhine, we learned in a bridge commentary a traditional practice of using roses as a barrier plant. The hills of the Alsace region have been planted for centuries with grapevine, and home to the well-known Riesling wine. Instead of terracing the grapes in gentle horizontal slopes, the vines are planted vertically up each hill.. It seems like hard work to traverse the steep terrain, and cultivating and harvesting must be difficult. Roses are commonly used near the vines, planted thickly around the perimeter. According to our guide, these serve as a warning and a deterrent to both two and four legged creatures who might wish to help themselves to the ripening fruit. No doubt they use a formidable, thorny variety. However, when I researched the use of roses in vineyards, I found that it is common practice in France to use roses as an early warning system, as roses are so susceptible to powdery mildew. If the roses show signs of the fungus, the vintner knows it is time to spray the vines.

One of the Christmas Markets we visited was Baden-Baden. Strolling through the Market, I passed a cheese shop, and as I looked over their wares, I could not believe what I say – rose cheese! The wheel of the cheese was gorgeous, completely covered with red rose petals, adorning the outside and perfuming the cheese with the delicate scent of rose.

Rose Cheese

Many of the stalls in the market had interesting food products for sale, including herbs and spices displayed in a colorful manner. It was interesting to try and figure out the various herbs, as most were written only in German. Grills sizzled everywhere, and tantalizing smells of various wursts, steaks, and other meats filled the air. Some were cooking over a large, round suspended grill, which rotated slowly, keeping all the meats from burning and requiring less turning. There were several vendors with large, glass bottles of some liquors, I believe, which would be siphoned into whatever size container you wished. Again, I could not understand the labels, but whisky was discernible, as well as kirsch. Upon arriving home, I looked up some of the other labels, and found that Quittenlikor is quince liquor, Himbeergeist is raspberry brandy. However, I am stumped by Willi, whose translation is definitely not a liquor as far as I can tell. (Look it up yourself, as this is a G-rated article).

Wine

Though food and beverages were everywhere, the one consistent specialty of each Christmas Market was Gluhwein – or hot mulled wine. I was amazed at the number of stalls at each market which carried their own adaptation of this warming drink. Apparently, each one claims its own aficionados, and the prices were all basically the same. The favored recipe of our guides called for, of course, red wine from Alsace, sugar, cinnamon, star anise, cloves, nutmeg, and some zest of both lemon and orange. Each Market, and sometimes each vendor, had their own commemorative mug or cup, which if you didn't want to keep it, could be returned. As a souvenir, it was fairly inexpensive, usually costing 1 or 2 euros. A great exercise in recycling and reuse – foam or paper cups.

Many food products, particular to the holidays, were in abundance. Very large, decorated gingerbread cookies, designed for all members of  family, friends, and lovers seemed to be popular, as was stollen, the powdered sugar coated cakes that are symbolic of the swaddling clothes of the baby Jesus. Herb-flavored honey, preserves – including rose confit – were there to tempt buyers. Clothing, children's toys, and wooden decorations, ornaments, nutcrackers and smokers were all available, bringing a wondrous array of sights, scents and sounds to put one in a festive mood. I even got to try some roasted chestnuts – warm and chewy, served in a paper cone – from a man in a little cart resembling a train.

My favorite find was a lavender wand larger than any I had ever seen. It was elaborately done with decorated ribbon, and the size of a small ball – about 3” tall and almost completely round. Called a Coeur de Lavande, it was made with over 50 lavender stalks and wrapped with rose ribbon. I know have a keepsake that will remind me of my travels on the Rhine.

Karen O'Brien