I go to the same German bakery every morning, eager to sit and sip and munch. I chat with those I know and I know quite a few. All the ladies behind the counter and the regulars who flow past. We speak. Shake hands. Trade smiles. Comment on the weather. I ask how they’re feeling and if I know their children, I ask about them.
Then I walk home. Some days it’s a pleasure, but not always. The bluster of winter, or the hot days of August take their toll on pleasure. But, no matter the morning, I like my stroll private and quiet. Some like a musical accompaniment, ears with plugs, thoughts blocked out. I’m not one of those.
This was my first visit to The Red Ox (Rote Ochse) in the ancient city of Heidelberg, in the southwest of Germany, straddling the river Necker. Ancient? The word barely covers it.
Prehistory: Between 600,00 and 200,000 years ago, The Heidelberg Man died nearby. His body was discovered in 1907.
Romans? Of course, until 260 AD, when Germanic tribes took over.
Byzantine Empire? Check.
Old news, right? Can’t connect those with anything? Let’s step forward a few years. Invaders and conquers by the numbers. Thirty Years War. France took over. The Swedes took over. Back and forth for centuries. Visit the famous Heidelberg Castle and see how Louis XIV’s army used gunpowder to make one of the massive turrets come crashing down.
Enough about war. The city has a population of around 160,000, with a quarter of them students. The University of Heidelberg was founded in 1386, making it the 20tholdest university in Europe. (First is the University of Bologna, Italy, 1088; second is Oxford, England, 1096.)
That brings us to The Red Oxen, Zum Roten Ochsen, over 300 years old and long known as a student drinking and driving dining hangout. For the last 175 years it’s been owned by the Spengel family.Still is.
A few hundred years of student drinking has left it’s marks and blemishes.But, that only adds to the flavor of this fine old restaurant.Over 400 photos cover the walls and every wooden table is a mosaic of carved initials.The walls hold initials, too.On shelves above sit rows of drinking mugs.
All the table tops are like this. Seating is bench style, so you'll likely be seated with random strangers.
As you can imagine, famous footstep have trod the wooden floors and famous hands have lifted a flagon or two, from poets and painters, to political figures and well known scientists, along with Helmut Kohl, a former Chancellor of Germany and Mark Twain. In Twain’s case, I’m told he drank at the Red Ox and later wrote about his German adventures.
And what is true about Heidelberg is true wherever you go on this side of the Atlantic. Something in Europe always fascinates, and nothing fascinates me more than the deep and endless wells of history that make the present seldom what it seems. You see a church and catch a date, but it’s only a date, without the benefit of knowing how people lived and what they celebrated and what they suffered. There is no ‘simply now’ in Europe. The faces of the old folks share even more modern history. Can you peer through the wrinkled skin, the thinning hair, now gray and disheveled? Do you bother to ask, or perhaps you fear the old don’t speak your language. And what about the history of people and places who came before them? It’s been said many times, when an old person dies, a bit of history dies with them.
We’re left with only books that describe the stone and bricks we see, mere skeletons of the past. Even within the very old faces, if we’re lucky we can barely peel back one layer. The history we think we know is only a thin coat of scratched and peeling paint.
Still, we try to know. The other night, our foray into the sprawling old city along the river, was only a soft step into the historic dust trod by thousands of students and professors and invaders.
But by now, most of you, and also the most clever will plead: Forget all that dusty history stuff and tell us about the damn food!
Executive summary: Delicious, both food and drink.
Read on only if you have time. My companion ordered a plate of smoked salmon, smoked trout and pickled herring, with a stylishly mixed salad and a bowl of country style potatoes, which the Germans call Brotkartoffeln, or bread potatoes.
I had pork steaks in a rich, dark beer gravy and a side of crispy French fries. I’ve found the Germans use beer in their cooking as often as the French use wine. Both give such a full, rich flavor to any dish.
She drank a half liter of alcohol free beer and I had a glass of half-dry white wine. Yes, white wine. I’ve long since thrown off the dictates of those who know what they’re talking about and choose to wallow in the ignorance of my own preferences and taste buds.
A word about German alcohol free beer: Delicious, with robust flavor, but with slightly sweeter notes.
And as I wrote earlier, all was rich and delicious, but there’s more.
If you’ve been to Germany and seen how Germans put away enormous quantities, you know we must have been sated. Well, yes, but….still room for dessert. A lavish platter of house made ice creams, chocolate mousse, and a slice of apple strudel, with a dollop of the richest whipped cream. Coffee? Hell yes. Two cups of double espresso, please.
Around us, conversation buzzed and the service of the matronly staff was impeccable. Our server didn’t just speak tolerable English (as opposed to my intolerable German), she spoke perfect English.
Speaking of English, and by that I mean the Queen’s English, I’d say we had a jolly evening, and a wonderful repast in a fine old restaurant, which sits on a narrow cobblestone street. Yes, we fully enjoyed the taste and aroma and surroundings of historic Heidelberg. Prost!
Yesterday, my companion and I traveled to the city of Saarbrücken, of which I have written a time or two. For those who don’t know, this glorious city is near the French border (or what used to be the border). Drive twenty minutes further west and suddenly people say Bonjour, instead of Guten Tag.
It was shopping that took us to Saarbrücken’s long, wide pedestrian street, from the immense Karstadt department store (located in so many large German cities) to long clusters of smaller shops selling everything imaginable, from the inexpensive and mundane to premier fashions that cause you to pause and reflect on whether to buy a suit and shoes or a new car.
Wonderful shopping is what we found, but also a gem of a French restaurant, La Bastille. But before we get to the glory of French cuisine, allow me to give you a thumbnail sketch of Saarbrücken’s heritage.
This city dates back to Roman times and has seen any number of wars and conquerors. It’s a list too lengthy to go into here. But, even in modern times, this city lived through a bouncing ball of hand offs from German to French to German, changing hands more often than a nervous square dancer, most recently in 1920 -1925 as the capital of the Saar Basin (Treaty of Versailles, giving control to France) and 1947-1956 as the Saar Protectorate (French Zone of Occupation, only nominally independent of France). In 1957, it once again became German.
But, enough about Saarbrücken….the word meaning bridges over the River Saar. Suffice to say, there are a lot of nice restaurants in this vibrant city and on our trip, we found one to remember.
Down a side street of the main shopping square, sits La Bastille, a French restaurant that lives up to the French fame for wonderful, glorious, fantastical food. We’ll come to that, but first, your education is important to me, so let’s get a thumbnail of the name, La Bastille. I’m sure you remember from your Modern European History in high school, there was an unpleasantness in France, better known as The French Revolution, a decade long struggle from May 5, 1789 to November 9, 1799, which dethroned and decapitated a king, while revolutionaries ran wild with a guillotine, known as ‘the people’s avenger.’ You may not know it was France’s official method of execution until capital punishment was abolished in 1981, and was last used to decapitate a murderer in 1977.
La Bastille was a castle, used as a prison in downtown Paris. It became the symbol of all that was wrong with France’s royal, autocratic government. The revolutionists attacked it on 14 July 1789 (now a national holiday) releasing seven prisoners, four forgers, two lunatics, and one sexual deviate. But hey, it’s the thought that counts. Later torn down, the site is now a traffic circle known as La Place de la Bastille. In fact, since La Bastille was expensive to run, the government had already decided to tear it down, but if they had, the French would be lacking a holiday.
Place de la Bastille today
But, back (at last) to La Bastille, the restaurant, which on the other hand, was never a prison and I didn’t see any forgers, lunatics, or close friends of mine. It also was not a focus of revolutionaries, and by the way, it serves exceptional food, with exceptional service. It’s not roomy, but small size cleverly gives it the air of an authentic French bistro.
We opt for an aperitif of Crémont, with a peach flavor and crowned with a speared Mirabella plum. Soon mixed olives and thick slices of baguette arrived. You know Crémont, right? I’ve written about this sparkling wine of Alsace, too. Mirabella plums? Yellow, sweet, and only the size of large grapes.
the spots are reflections from the polished metal bowl.
I ordered spaghetti with shrimp, knowing the French would put their own spell on this Italian staple, and my companion ordered potato pancakes with applesauce.
My dish came with a splendid salad, enhanced with light vinaigrette. The spaghetti had the creamy taste of the French cooks preference for butter. Delicious! The shrimp were politely cooked and wonderfully juicy.
As for the potato pancakes and homemade apple sauce….sublime. They’re not what we Americans think of as pancakes. More like hash-browns, festooned with fragrant bits of vegetables.
Halfway through the meal we exchanged plates briefly, a good way to get to know your neighbor. The woman across from me, whom I had never met……only kidding. And, I’m only a bit ashamed to say my companion and I traded a few more bites after the ceremony of the exchanging of plates.
The meal ended with double espressos and the young woman waiting the table came by with an offer of delicious chocolates. A perfect accompaniment to the delightfully bitter coffee.
And now, I offer a few photos to give you the mood, the décor, and to let you know exactly why I will soon return to try more of the menu in this exceptional and historically named restaurant in the heart of Saarbrücken’s shopping district.