I arrive in Vienna from Lausanne via Zurich at 18:30, a little apprehensive about meeting the family I’ll be spending a month with as a workawayer, but a little voice inside of me tells me it will be all right, and with confidence that comes from former travel experience, I find the right “S” Bahn that gets me to Stokerau, a commuting town 35 minutes northwest, where Birgit, mother of four and wife of an organic grain farmer, picks me up.
She is young and energetic, blond and happy, and we hop in her beat up old mini van that is strewn with the detritus of four children, ages 12 and under every two to three years. We start speaking in English, but somewhere along the short 8 km ride we switch to German, maybe for no apparent reason other than my sliding into a phrase or two. Although this region is not in the mountains or even generous hills of the western part of Austria, rolling fields welcome me, and I find an ease with her right away.
At home, I meet her husband, Charlie, and two youngest children, Emmanuel (7) and Franziska (5), two toe heads rolling around the big black and white dog, who has the personality of a black lab and the faded speckled white and black of a hunting dog. She shows me downstairs to my private room, which looks like a four star hotel room.
The supper table is laid with bread, cheese, ham and homemade jams, and we talk briefly about my trip so far, but the children provide most of the entertainment as the dog lays at my feet under the table.
Today is Jam making day, and in come four buckets of Aprictos from the fields. Birgit and I get to work quartering and pitting them, removing the rotten spots for the compost and the ones just shy of ripe into a different bowl for ripening by the window. Again the conversation is light and easy, and sometimes we just sit in quiet, sharing the task as quiet conversation. Once 2 kilos have been pitted, she weighs them in a bowl, and then dumps them into a pot to which she adds an organic sugar and pectin mix, which is what I realize is used for fruit pies, as Shea’s and mine came out too loose and spilled out from a cut slice. This mixture is brought to a boil while stirring, and then puréed with a hand mixer. I stir 4 minutes longer, until a small amount dropped onto a testing saucer stays firm, and then pour in some rum – Thcounting to two or three seconds. I lower the heat and then ladle the mixture to the brim of the waiting glass jars, closing immediately. What results from this easy, quick process is a smooth, gentle and soft spread – which of course we’ve all tasted before but something akin to “better” follows each bite with homemade bread.
Following the apricot marmalade workshop comes lunch preparations, and today Birgit’s decided on zucchini soup and sweet cheese knoedels wrapped around whole apricots, rolled in a cinnamon sugar bread crumb coating. The zucchini soup is basic, but delicious: sautéed onions, garlic and zucchini chunks for a few minutes and then added water to fill; some salt and pepper; once soft, puréed with some milk to taste. Again, the type of ingredients will impact its flavor, and this came out like I’ve never tasted soup before. The knoedels’ ingredients were these:
500 gram soft cheese like quark – or cheese curds (I’ve never used them); 3 egg yolks; one whole egg, one tablespoon of semolina and two tablespoons of bread crumbs. Beat together. Create a flat, small saucer size quantity on your palm and place the apricot (or plum, some cherries, chocolate…your choice) in the middle; wrap it up. Place in simmering water “‘til they swim” – float to the surface – and then roll in toasted butter, bread crumb, cinnamon and vanilla sugar mixture in a pan on low heat just until you can no longer wait.
Following lunch, I have free time, but I choose to go upstairs to the children’a playroom with them and play to get better acquainted, and also because they are so willing to get to know me. I am directed to a mini fussball table and billiard table set, and there we play several rounds of both games in a mutually competitive spirit; built towers and castles with blocks and legos. I haven’t been on the floor with a five year old for quite a while!
Meal times seem to just happen – there is no set time for any of them – and although I am welcome to eat whenever I want and whatever I choose, I’m in no hurry, and wait until the rest get out of bed. Besides Charlie, the father, who gets up early to start his field work, the children sleep an amazing 12 hours a night, and around 8 or after, come down the stairs with Birgit in tow. Usually by then I have had two cups of coffee, and because of the early riser that I am, was assigned the task of opening the chicken coup. I’ve learned some interesting habits of hens and roosters. In a large, fenced in enclosure are housed a hen house and a smaller fenced in enclosure. In the smaller enclosure, the baby chicks are allowed to mature with their two mothers. In the larger enclosure, a rooster and eight egg laying hens roam around. Every evening, towards sun down, the hens follow the rooster up a ramp into their hen house, where they will spend the night perched on a branch or pole that extends to both sides lengthwise and off the floor at least three feet. A couple of cubby holes in the coup allow the hens to lay eggs. Their biological clock follows the sun, and once it has risen, they are eager to get out of their coup. Just after sunrise, I open the henhouse door, where one by one, they tip toe down the ramp to start pecking for seeds. These are both a meat producing and egg laying species, and every autumn the mature hens, (any which is two years old) are slaughtered by both Birgit and Charlie.
Today, though, I help Birgit make a new enclosure for her horses so they have new grass to eat – I insert temporary, tall stakes into the ground and then wheel a wheelbarrow equipped with a large spool of rope in front of Birgit as she follows, tieing it onto the stakes. Afterwards, I straighten the red pepper plants between two lengths of synthetic twine and tie both ends to stakes every three meters apart. Sounds simple, but its quite a task.
After breakfast – a choice of rye bread and jams, cereals and yogurt – I weed the backyard blue and blackberry garden from pesty and aggressive climbing vines that climb up the firm stalks of blackberry bushes or any kind of flowers with such a stem, strangling the life out of them. I cart a wheelbarrow full of extracted weeds onto the compost heap, in a barn down the road. My hands and arms are quickly becoming scraped, welted, blistered, and colored with all sorts of earth and fruit colors – the black from the soil, the green from the weeding, the red from the cherry picking.
Birgit’s niece comes to visit, so I am asked to make lunch, and settle on the chicken soup I make often at home, finding most ingredients already in her pantry from her or some neighboring farmer’s field.
Listening to the frogs’ soliloquies from the pond where the children swim, we have a glass of wine on her back patio as the stars come out. The wine may be because of the 4th of July, as she has asked about how the story goes during lunch with the children, and as I recount the Declaration of Independence from years of teaching English 11, the recent trip to Boston which brought more facts to life, Birgit translates my simplification of the grievances, the men who stood out, Washington’s cold winter on the Delaware, until Emmanuel, very patient, insisted we get to the point “Ja, ja, das Mittlepunkt, bitte!” and so Birgit said, “…and then they went to war and voila! A new country was born!” as many of my former students could attest to.
Today is cherry picking and juice making day. Charlie shows what the perfect cherry looks like and feels like. I need to half fill two buckets with the perfect cherry. Or so I think. I begin by picking only one cherry at a time, examine it crucially, decide if it is perfect before I either let it fall to the ground or place it gently in the bucket so it doesn’t bruise. But then I get smarter and quicker. I grab a few this time, acquainted now by the sight and touch, and begin to drop them in with more confidence. Finally, after four hours, I discriminate easily by sight only, and my fingers nimbly reach through the branches and I pull the perfect cherries away form their stems.
After lunch, today a bread crumb knoedel with peas and potatoes and yesterday’s chicken soup, Birgit shows me how to make concentrated juice from the cherries. We take the two buckets, some clean bottles and the dog, Greta, next door to her father-in-law’s work kitchen (where when her husband was young they used to make pork sausage and a whole deli case of meats from the pigs) and get to work.
We dump the two buckets of cherries into a large colander which sits into the large metal pot you see in the picture below, pour two bags of organic sugar on top, and with water waiting in the bottom portion, let the mixture cook for 35 minutes. It is them siphoned out through the hose you see. Similar to the jam making process, the bottles are filled to the brim and capped right away.