Perfect pairings…

This weekend the Hermann Wine Trail, an association of seven wineries along the Missouri River Valley, is holding its Holiday Fare Wine Trail.  As a start to the holiday season, visitors to Hermann can spend time at each of these wineries over a two-day period sampling holiday dishes paired with local wines.  You might try a slice of ham with an apricot and cranberry sauce, and wash it down with a glass of Vignoles.  Or maybe snack on some pumpkin spice cookies with a mug of mulled Hermannsberger

Next month, during the second weekend of December, the Just Say Cheese! Wine Trail takes place.  This time around each winery will feature a different cheese dish that goes together, tastefully, with one of their wines.  Reading the menu made my mouth water – I was especially happy to see a four-cheese smoked macaroni and cheese paired up with a hearty red wine.  It’s good to know my favorite comfort food has been elevated to gourmet standards!

Hermannhof Winery

Regardless of the theme of the wine trail or the selected offerings, the underlying idea is to get lovers of food and wine (and really, who of us doesn’t fall into that category??) to think about unusual pairings of both.  It’s a concerted effort by the Hermann vintners to move people away from the old rule that red goes with beef and white with fish – end of story.  I like to think of our wine trails as gastronomic therapy – assisting those who may be stuck in a ‘steak-with-Merlot’ rut to really see the world of possibilities available to them! 

 Naturally, when we consider pairing things up, we think of things that coordinate, that appear to be the perfect fit, that were designed to go together.  What comes to mind? Well, shoes that match your purse, complementary colors like red and green at Christmas, pizza and beer, Bogart and Bacall, Thanksgiving and roasted turkey.  Even online dating services, a multi-million dollar industry, have been built on the concept of finding the perfect match.  But, do we spend too much time assuming things should be a certain way?  Sometimes that which seems “perfect” remains elusive, and what is simply “right” for us may be in front of our eyes. 

Coming home to Hermann, my hometown, after years of living in Alaska seemed far from being the perfect location for me.  Granted, my time in the north was up.   After more than twenty years, the weather and the isolation had tarnished the perfect image I had of Alaska, but was returning to small town life in the Midwest the best choice?  I spent the last three years trying to determine the answer.  Returning home can be confusing at times – people don’t always understand where I’ve been, or what I’ve experienced, or how those years away have shaped the person I am now.  I’m not the same as when I left, and at times it seems overwhelmingly apparent to me.  But, you know what?  I’m the only one who seems to notice – I am still just another hometown girl to everyone else.  Hermann might not be the perfect match for me, but for now, it’s the right place for me. 

Hermann vineyards

My husband, Mick, and I just returned from a walk in the bottoms, near our home, savoring what may be one of the last warm days of the year.  The bottoms are the acres of low farm land along the river.  Here the bottom land sits between the river and the railroad tracks, and overlooking both, perched on a bluff, is the Bias Winery, one of the seven stops along the Hermann Wine Trail.  We made a short pit stop at the winery, just to see if they were having a busy weekend, and indeed, they were.  Now, if your image of a winery is more along the lines of a grand Napa Valley estate, right out of Falcon Crest, complete with terraces and arched cellars, then the Bias Winery will shake that image.  This small family-owned operation is more about casual, laid-back charm – picnic tables, cats sunning themselves, hayrides, and annual barbeque cook-offs.  Oh, and their mascot is a gnome called Gruhlke – apparently he holds the secret formula for the microbrews which are also produced there.  This might not be the perfect winery envisioned, but for the visitors at Bias Winery, enjoying this warm November weather and relaxing in the homey atmosphere, it was the right place to be today.  Just like wine, it’s all a matter of taste.

 There are five wine trails held throughout the year, but by far the most popular is the Chocolate Wine Trail which takes place the third weekend of February.  Tickets sell out early for this one – for more information, visit http://hermannwinetrail.com/.

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An unplanned detour…

Our community of Hermann lies 80 miles west of St. Louis and 180 miles east of Kansas City.  Amtrak also makes two daily stops in Hermann, in either direction.  So, for the most part, the majority of visitors coming to Hermann, as well as staying with us at our guest house, the Grapevine Guest Suite, are from these urban areas.  It’s an easy trek to make, especially for a weekend getaway, as the drive time commitment is fairly minimal.  And for those wanting to start their vacation earlier, boarding the train and heading to the lounge car for drinks can make the trip even shorter and sweeter! We’ll even be there to pick you up and drive you to the Grapevine when you disembark.

We do welcome the occasional guests who decide to take the “detour” off of I-70 and discover Hermann.  Maybe they saw the signs along the highway promoting all of the wineries in the area, or they read an article in Midwest magazine lauding Hermann’s German heritage.  Regardless, these visitors from Washington State, Georgia, Arizona, to name a few, are always happy they took the twenty minute drive from the highway, winding down into the Missouri River valley, crossing the bridge into this picturesque town.  Taking a self-imposed detour is usually far from a waste of time – whether it’s a few minutes or a day or two, the experiences gained can be so fulfilling. 

While my husband and I were visiting County Donegal in Ireland last month, I fell in love with some paintings I saw in a hotel lobby in the village of Ardara.  The artist was named Stephen Bennett, and the paintings were representations of everyday life in the Irish countryside – farmers putting up hay, old men sitting outside their thatched-roof cottages, musicians gathered around a table in a pub.  These are fairly common themes among Irish artists, but these paintings were so bold – strong strokes and vibrant colors that really set them apart. 

The next morning, as we’re driving out of Ardara, following the coastline, I saw a sign saying “Stephen Bennett Studio Gallery – Turn Here”, and so, we made our first detour of the day.  When we got to his studio there was a small note on the door asking visitors to knock at their home, and so I knocked.  No response, and so I knocked again.  Stephen’s wife, Bernie, came to the door, apologizing for not hearing us.  She was doing laundry, and apparently she needs a new washing machine – when it’s in the spin cycle, it’s so loud that she figures it will just lift off one day and go through the roof.  She unlocked the studio for us, and before long Stephen appeared, letting Bernie get back to her jet-fueled wash.

Stephen was not what I was expecting.  His artwork is so bold and energetic, almost loud in the use of colors and style.  Stephen is just the opposite – soft-spoken and with a gentle demeanor, he is warm and understated.  He told us that his father had been born in Ardara, but left for London where Stephen was born.  After college, Stephen spent 18 years living in London and working for ad agencies as an illustrator, but his dream was always to return to Ireland.  So, fearing for his sanity after working too many years in a highly-competitive and stressful job, he also took a detour.  His detour took him back to his father’s birthplace, and it turned out to be a permanent one.

In his studio, he and I found common ground in our admiration of Toulouse Lautrec, the French painter who so well captured the nightlife and seedy underworld of late-nineteenth century Paris.  He felt inspired by Lautrec when he moved back to Donegal, painting the ‘loyal patrons’ of the local pubs.  He and my husband, Mick discovered they both had a love for public radio – Mick was the consummate volunteer at our public station in Alaska, spinning a variety of different shows whenever he could.  Stephen does a regular Sunday afternoon program featuring country music and gospel. 

I finally settled on one of Stephen’s limited edition prints called “In the Hayfield”, a painting of a man striding through a field, hayfork in hand, with a small boy running from behind, trying to keep up.  The image spoke to me because while it was a scene from Ireland, it could have easily been a field here in Missouri, today, tomorrow, or a hundred years in the past.  It seemed timeless in its content. 

Source:  www.stephenbennett.net

Stephen invited us in to his spacious home while he ran my credit card.  While sitting in their living room with a beautiful view of the inlet, his young son, also Stephen (home from school with a sore throat), came in with his new puppy, Hero, to say hello.  With Hero crawling all over us, we got a tour of their personal gallery – a touching set of family portraits painted by Stephen, including one of his father shortly before he passed away.  Stephen even pulled out a set of blueprints, showing us the plans to expand his studio.   If we hadn’t left when we did, we might still be there – they truly welcomed complete strangers into their home with warmth you rarely find from people you’ve known for years.

That little detour certainly wasn’t on our agenda, and we didn’t get as far up the coast that day as originally planned, but our time with Stephen and his family turned out to be the most memorable part of the trip for me.  It just goes to show that sometimes a detour is anything but a waste of time.       

The view from Stephen's living room

Finding Ireland…

Sometimes life gets in the way of doing things you really enjoy, like writing this blog.  I took a hiatus lately as I finished up two more courses for my MBA, but what actually kept me away from this blog the longest was a recent trip with my husband, Mick, to Ireland.  This was our second time to visit Ireland, and we totally committed ourselves to being travelers, and not tourists, this time around.  I think we succeeded…

Basically, it was just me, Mick, our rental car, a map of Ireland, and no reservations.  We spent our time in the farmland and along the north coast of Northern Ireland, where Scotland is only 15 miles away, and on the rugged and isolated west coast of County Donegal.  We specifically chose these areas knowing they would be well-off the beaten track, especially in October, but we were continually surprised at just how close we were to possibly some of the last vestiges of true Ireland.  We would drive for miles through peat bogs with ditches dug, chunks of peat cut out and stored in large wood crates along the road.  The peat still serves as a major source of fuel for many of the country’s residents, and when we would pass through villages, the pungent odor of it from the chimneys would always make me sneeze. 

Sperrin Mtns

We cut across the Sperrin Mountains in central Northern Ireland and felt as though we passed through a time warp, but back in time.  Distant farmhouses, fields of sheep bordered with hedge fences, and stone churches made it hard to determine the exact year.  It could have easily been 1711 as 2011.  Occasionally we would meet a farmer on his four-wheeler with a sheep dog sitting on the back, and we’d be brought back to the present. 

In parts of County Donegal the Irish language is still the dominant spoken language, and all of the road signs are in Irish.  Let’s just say it is not an easily interpreted language, and as the navigator in our little travel party, I often had doubts as to whether we were on the right road.  Stopping at small stores, looking for confirmation, the locals would speak English to us, but with each other, only Irish.  It looks strange in writing, but sounds very strange when spoken – it’s not refined, but rough and ancient sounding.  It’s a language that perfectly fits this wild part of the country, and it seems fitting that it has survived along with those speaking it – resilient people who have chosen to sustain their original spoken word and a way of life not so different from their ancestors in this remote part of Ireland.

Donegal Coast

In the small coastal village of Bunbeg, we managed to find the Bunbeg House Guesthouse open down at the boat pier.  Apparently the place is bustling and overrun with tourists and vacationers from Belfast and Dublin in the summer – there was an enormous number of empty “holiday” homes dotting the beaches – but on this October evening, we were the only guests to take one of their ten rooms.  The next morning, the proprietor, Jean and her husband, Andy, fixed us the usual and huge Irish “fry” for breakfast.  Andy then had to run the kids to school, but Jean chatted with us, obviously happy to have the hectic summer behind her.  We asked if they try to get away to possibly Spain or Portugal during the winter as a respite from their busy season.  Jean said no, that they actually relished the quiet winters in Ireland and having time to be a family together.  She said that the older they get the more they enjoy the simple things in life.

Enjoying the simple things in life…that truly summed up our time in Ireland, not to mention why we’ve chosen to make the area of Hermann our home.  On this trip we weren’t looking for a boisterous pub scene or trying to tour castles with hundreds of other visitors.  We were trying to see Ireland as it’s really lived, now and in the past.  Finding a lack of change, a certain sense of timelessness, just as Hermann portrays, can be very rewarding in your travels.

You know you’re back in Hermann…

Recently I noticed a discussion between some Hermannites on Facebook regarding how you know you’re from Hermann when…you remember Saturday night dances at the Knights of Columbus Hall, or you find someone passed out in your front yard on a Sunday morning during Oktoberfest.

Well, I knew I was back in Hermann when one day, shortly after moving back here from Alaska, I decided I wanted to make chicken curry for dinner.  I headed to one of the grocery stores in town to pick up a couple cans of coconut milk, a jar of red curry paste, and cilantro.  In our small town in Alaska, these items were staples you could always find on the store shelves.  People are travelers in Alaska.  You might run into someone on Main Street that you hadn’t seen for a while, and learn that they just spent a month bicycling through China or had trekked the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu.  Most people there have pretty evolved taste buds, and the local stores cater to that.

But, back to Hermann…with a hankering for curry, I decided my best bet was the grocery aisle labeled “ethnic foods”.  No coconut milk and no curry paste, but I did find some of that yellow curry powder in the spice aisle. I had forgotten that in this part of the Midwest, ethnic food refers to refried beans and canned water chestnuts.  Lasagna is made with cottage cheese, not ricotta, and the local Mexican restaurant’s specialty is a taco bar.  I can still picture my husband, Mick, taking his first bite of dinner that night, looking up at me, and saying, rather diplomatically, “This doesn’t taste like the curry you usually make”!

And so, if you can’t beat them, join them…which means fried catfish at the VFW on Friday nights, Jello salads, and chicken-fried steak – Mick’s new favorite.  But one traditional German dish has become very sophisticated during the time I was away, and that is bratwurst.  Brats were something we usually saw during festival weekends, smothered in sauerkraut.  They were really just basic links of pork sausage, seasoned with salt and pepper.  Today’s brats have taken on a gourmet twist – you can find sun-dried tomato brats, mushroom & Swiss cheese brats, brats with dried cherries, even brats made with buffalo meat.  My friend, Ralph, makes his own with apple pie filling and a little bit of cinnamon – absolutely delicious!  And, although I didn’t realize that athletic teams had “official meats”, a locally-made bratwurst from the Swiss Meat & Sausage Co. has become the “official bratwurst” of the Mizzou athletics. 

If you’re lucky enough to be in Hermann this weekend, September 23 & 24, you can get a taste of some of the best bratwurst and BBQ at the annual BarBQ and Brats Festival held in the city park.  You will see some serious cooking going on here – it’s a Kansas City BarBQ Society-sanctioned event.  There are also backyard chef competitions, a beer and wine garden, and live entertainment throughout the weekend. 

 

For more information about this weekend’s BBQ & Brats festival, click here.  And, now you can find everything for your brat fix right in downtown Hermann.  The Hermann Wurst Haus is open on 1st Street, producing sausages in a smokehouse in the back of the business.  You can find German potato salad, soups and micro-brews at the deli counter.  And if you want to try your hand at making your own brats, the business plans to offer sausage making classes this winter. 

Heaven under our feet…

Henry David Thoreau said that heaven is under our feet as well as over our heads.  I am not a religious person, although I was raised in the Catholic church to be one.  I had my first communion at St. George Parish here in Hermann.  The group photo shows a collection of shiny little faces, the girls in white dresses and veils, the boys in white shirts and ties – our hands clasped seriously in prayer.  About 10 years later, we were all confirmed together, but we don’t appear quite so serious this time – too many other things occupying the minds of teenagers. 

Even through college I managed to get to mass almost every Sunday.  Then I went to Alaska, took one look at all the incredible raw beauty that hits you from every angle, taking your breath away, and I realized that maybe heaven is already here on earth.  At that point, organized religion seemed, well, just too organized for me.  It became clear to me that what I experienced around me, whether in nature or from the good I saw in other people, provided a much more spiritual connection than anything I could find in a physical church. 

Be that as it may, one of the most spiritual places I have ever encountered is right here near Hermann, and yes, it does include a church.  Northeast of Hermann, across the Missouri River, is the Shrine of Our Lady of Sorrows at Starkenburg.  Germans settled in Starkenburg in 1847, including some of my own ancestors.  The area includes St. Martin’s Church, the chapel, a grotto, the Stations of the Cross winding through the trees, and other historical features.  My father’s father had a store just up the road in the early 1930’s, one of his many attempts at entrepreneurship.  There is a B&B on the site now,  Les Lavandes, an oddly French name for such a staunchly German area.  I would say my dad’s fondest childhood memories were his years living in Starkenburg, and roaming the church grounds, illicitly shooting squirrels.  Both he and my mother are buried there.

 

It’s not quite accurate to call Starkenburg a religious site, because it is so much more than that.  Calling it a religious experience may steer some folks away from visiting it.  Simply put, Starkenburg’s spirituality is tangible.  You feel it around you – it has a calming effect on your being.  You can believe in anything, or nothing at all, and the place just takes you in without any needed explanation. 

The grounds at the Lady of Our Sorrows Shrine at Starkenburg are always open for meditation, a walk, or a picnic lunch under the trees.  St. Martin’s Church, the museum, and the Chapel are open until dusk each day.  Pilgrimages are held twice a year with a large German meal and mass at the outdoor alter (3rd Sunday in May and the 2nd Sunday in September).  From Hermann, go north on Hwy 19; turn left on Hwy 94 for 4 miles through the village of Rhineland; turn right on P for 2 miles – you’ll see the steeples through the trees. 

A goodbye to Callie…

We lost our girl, Callie, this weekend.  After having several bouts with severe arthritis in her back legs, on Saturday her hind quarters became paralyzed.  So, after 13 delightful years with our best friend, Mick and I said goodbye to her.

As far as dogs go, Callie had quite an interesting life.  She came from a litter of 13, and was born in an old VW bus in a campground in Skagway, Alaska.  Her mother’s owner, Abby, was working in town for the summer and living in the bus, and her dog, Two Socks, had gotten pregnant.  I’m sure Abby was shocked to realize she would have to find homes for 13 puppies, but she carefully chose the homes, and we were one of the lucky recipients. 

Abby and all of us would have birthday parties for Callie and her siblings each summer, usually at the beach at Long Bay, with plenty of space to run around.  Beers for us, and hot dogs and meatloaf birthday cake for Callie, Jasmine, Blue Bear, Lucius, Hoss, Worm, et al.  Then we would take a group picture to commemorate the day.

When we moved to Haines, Alaska, we bought a house with large cathedral windows in the front overlooking the river and ocean inlet.  One of the first things we did was build a window seat there, and that became Callie’s domain.  People stopping by often commented that she must be the luckiest dog in the world with that view.  She kept an eye out for bears, emitting a low growl when she saw one.  She somehow knew not to bark and bring attention to herself, but still wanted to give us a warning.  Strangely enough, the only wild animal that actually scared her were the turkeys here in Missouri.  They always sent her running for cover!

Callie and I in the Redwoods

She was Mick’s constant companion when he was home from his job on the ferry, and especially after he retired.  They were inseparable.  Mick was very active at the community radio station when we lived in Haines, and Callie would lie on the floor of the on-air room while Mick did shows.  You could always recognize Mick’s truck before you saw him because Callie would be across his chest, hanging out the window with one paw slung casually over the rear-view mirror. 

When we left Alaska, we had our car packed with very little room to spare.  Callie was wedged in between coolers and boxes, but she took it all in stride, excitedly sniffing out the corners of a new motel room when we stopped for the night.  She saw a lot of the country – Seattle, the Oregon Coast, the California redwoods, even the Grand Canyon.  She was a hit there, posing for pictures with the other tourists.  After being on the road for a month and a half, the car had become home to her. Even after we got settled in Missouri, she would often want to get in the back seat of the Jeep for a nap.

On the road again: Callie on our journey from Alaska to Missouri

I have heard people say over the years that getting attached to your pet is just a heartbreak waiting to happen.  Losing Callie will be a heart ache for quite some time, but we don’t mind.  The companionship and love she gave us for all those years is worth it.

A little history about Hermann…

Family grave marker - St Martin's cemetary 1849

This coming Saturday, August 26th, marks the 175th anniversary of Hermann’s founding.  A group of German immigrants who had initially settled in Philadelphia after leaving their homeland felt that staying in the east would compromise their German culture and heritage.  So, in 1836 the German Settlement Society of Philadelphia purchased 11,000 acres here along the Missouri River bluffs to build a little Germany of their very own.  Historians believe the group chose this location because it reminded them of the Rhine Valley.  Some of my own Fehlings’ ancestors showed up not long after, as evidenced by a few weathered tombstones.

            Keep in mind that there wasn’t much in this part of the world at that time.  The Louisiana Purchase had just occurred in 1803, which included Missouri.  This was wild country, and, although today the setting is beautiful with its perch overlooking the river and its hilly streets, 175 years ago it would have been treacherous and rocky land – not the most ideal spot to build a town.  But they left what had to have been relatively better conditions in Philadelphia, and made a life here, growing grapes on the hillsides, making wine to sell, and expanding their farming endeavors into the rich river bottom land.  Undoubtedly, life was challenging.

But, apparently, very few abandoned the dream and returned to Pennsylvania or Germany.  Generation after generation made this area of Missouri home.  I’m proof of that.  I can’t help but be impressed by their toughness and determination.  Is that where I got the moxie to leave everything and everyone I had known and move to Alaska when I was only twenty-two?  If I owe that inner strength to my ancestors, then I am forever grateful.  It is the characteristic I like most about myself, as I know it will always get me through whatever I face.

German School House

As the community celebrates its 175thanniversary this weekend, I can only imagine how proud those first Hermann settlers would be of their town today!  It is still German in so many ways.  Many of the early buildings have been carefully preserved.  The German School House, built in 1871, recently underwent a major renovation through local donations and fundraising events. 

Wineries are thriving, and German-style wines and beers are produced right here and distributed throughout the country.  The German language continues to be taught in the schools as well as German heritage and history courses.  Those early founders can rest easy – their legacy is lived out every day here in Hermann.

If you are visiting Hermann this weekend (August 26-27) there is a full schedule of activities celebrating the town’s 175th anniversary.  Go to www.visithermann.com for more details or click here to view the list of events.  If you think some of your ancestors may have settled in this area, you can do research at the Gasconade County Historical Society and Archives Building located at the corner of 4th and Schiller, right across the street from the Grapevine Guest Suite.

Hermannhof Winery

Take the road less traveled…

After more than four weeks of suffocating heat here in Missouri, we’ve had a break, and we are experiencing perfect summer days that normally you only dream of during August.  Gone is that combination of hot oven air with sauna-like humidity.  The temperature drops to the 60s at night, and we can sleep with the windows open again.  We find ourselves with the blanket pulled up to our chins in the morning – what relief! 

Everyone is trying to be outside as often as possible to enjoy this reprieve.  Whether it’s having dinner on the front porch or just taking a drive, it feels great to escape the air-conditioned confines of our homes and offices and breathe some fresh air. My husband, Mick and I, along with Callie, recently took advantage of a lazy day, packed a lunch, and drove across the Missouri River to explore some of our favorite spots.

So often when visitors to Hermann call to book a weekend at our guest house they will ask, “Other than going to the wineries, what is there to do around Hermann?”  It’s surprising to me that people need to have prescribed ‘things to do’ when they reach their destination.  If you go to St. Louis, you go to the Gateway Arch; if you go to Chicago, you have to go up in the Sears Tower; when in Hermann, you must taste wines.  Is that what separates the traveler from the tourist?  The traveler sees what he sees.  The tourist sees what he has come to see. ~ G.K Chesterton.

Don’t get me wrong – the Hermann wineries are great, and should not be missed.  But why not take a little time, wander around, and see what you will see?  The area around Hermann is perfect for exploring the road less taken. 

If you drive north across the Missouri River bridge, you will come to the intersection of Route 19 and Route 94 (this being the scenic Lewis and Clark Trail).  Turn right onto 94, and after a few miles you’ll see Tower Road on your left.  This gravel road crosses the Katy Trail biking route, and then it takes you right into the Daniel Boone Conservation Area.  This is really an undiscovered place, and yet it’s just a few miles from Hermann.  You’ll find picnic areas, hiking trails, fishing ponds, even horse paths.  What you won’t find are many people – in fact, on the recent day that Mick and I picnicked there, we didn’t come across one other person, and the area comprises over 3500 acres. It also has camping facilities for those looking for an alternative to the city park.

If you continue on Route 94, and go a couple more miles past Tower Road, you’ll come to Massas Creek Road on the left.  This is a favorite drive for Mick because it reminds him of some of the back roads he often drove around our home in Alaska.  A perfect day for my husband is loading Callie in the pickup and driving down gravel roads as slow as he can.  For him, the joy is in the journey.  Massas Creek Road is idea for this sort of day.  Keep in mind that this is a rugged road.  It is best suited for dry weather, as during rainy springs the creek overflows, often changing course, and can wash the road out in different places.  You don’t want to take your prized sports car on this one.

Me in Massas Creek (circa 1970)

What I like about Massas Creek is that it makes you feel time has stood still.  You do come across some houses from time to time (the Massas Creek Animal Shelter is along the way), but for the most part you can’t tell which century you’re in.  My parents lived not far from Massas Creek when my brother was growing up, so the area holds fond memories for our family.  When my brother came back to Hermann, he and his wife built a home just up the hill from the creek.

Massas Creek today

If you drive the whole length of Massas Creek, you’ll come out in the small town of Jonesburg.  You’ll find a restaurant there that serves (so I’ve been told) the best fried chicken livers around.  So, the next time you visit a new place, take some time to not only see what you’ve come to see, but also what you didn’t plan to see.