|Wirsingkohl - Savoy Cabbage|
"You're making some wonderful smells again", Beloved says, coming into the kitchen from outside.
"What is it?"
They say 'The way to a man's heart goes through his stomach', and Beloved is no exception. Always good and appreciative of food, in spite of being on the thin side, his tummy is very important to him and he likes my cooking.
I agree that the aroma of gently frying sliced onions, lardons (bacon cubes) and a squashed clove of garlic or three sets my own gastric juices flowing. I start off nearly every casserole dish this way, adding browned beef or lamb and their requisite herbs and spices as I go along. A generous slug of Beloved's home made fruit wine serves to deglaze and braise the whole thing. I use very heavy black cast iron pots and pans; I now need both hands and a fair bit of hefting to get them out and into position. They have tightly fitting lids, preventing flavours from escaping during the process of slow-cooking.
My mother taught me how to make stews by default. It wasn't that I ever paid any attention at the time or that she made a point of explaining what she was doing, but somehow, in spite of our mutual lack of interest in handing over the few secrets of her culinary expertise, I picked up the odd pointer which stuck. I suppose being in the room in which cooking is done, automatically leaves an impression on the bystander, particularly when the process is repeated time after time during childhood.
Mother had had to learn to cook early, her own mother died young - I never knew her -, which meant her cooking was poor people's cooking. Although grandfather kept geese and chickens and cultivated his own vegetables, mother, as a child, lived through WWI and grew up between the wars; at neither time was food plentiful in rural villages.
Girls and women learned to adapt. The area of the left bank of the Lower Rhine is a fertile plain, to this day it is agricultural in character, in spite of the nearness of the industrial Ruhrgebiet on the other side of the river. Main crops were potatoes and cereals like rye, barley and oats as well as the king of local produce, the humble head of cabbage, white and purple and savoy, the absolute staples without which rural populations wouldn't have survived. Cabbage is nourishing, it is full of vitamins and minerals, and filling to boot. An essential vegetable to help poor people to survive lean times. I made its acquaintance after WWII and, although I never thought of it as a delicacy, I got used to it and ate it without complaint.
White cabbage was shredded and eventually became Sauerkraut, red cabbage was braised with apples, a small handful of raisins, a few cloves, a dash of vinegar and a teaspoonful of sugar. These would be served with potatoes and some kind of pork produce, like Speck, (bacon), Eisbein, (pickled pork knuckle), or Bratwurst (German sausage). Savoy cabbage, on the other hand, became a meal in itself. A braised onion and as much bacon or ham as you could afford were the base for the shredded, crinkly, deep green leaves. Mother stirred the pot until the cabbage had wilted and the slivers of meat and onion were evenly mixed. If she had a ladleful of stock - or a dissolved stock cube -, she added it at this point, as well as a diced potato or two layered on top. It took about an hour at the lowest heat to turn these ingredients into a steaming, fragrant mush; if necessary, she'd help it along with a deft twist or two of the masher. There was never any of that nasty, disagreeable stink of cabbage, that is said to hang about for hours, denoting squalor and poverty.
Long after I had left home, and after my father had died, it was aunt Josephine's favourite meal. Mother and Josephine didn't really like each other very much, but they lived within easy cycling distance of each other. Josephine was an invalid - although mother often complained that she was making the utmost use of her disabilities - and my father's sister, tall and thin, with a black-eyed stare that could pin you down and render you immobile as surely as a lepidopterist does to his moths and butterfly specimens. Several times a week mother cooked lunch for Josephine; she'd rush the meal over to her in a basket hanging from the handlebar of her bicycle, then rush home again to eat her own meal, which she'd kept warm in the oven. I never asked, nor was the information ever offered, why the two old ladies didn't simply eat together at Josephine's. In fact, I've only just realised how ludicrous the whole situation was. Aunt Josephine was well off and could easily have ordered in food every day, but she said nobody could cook the old-fashioned dishes like mother. Mother frequently complained that the whole thing was getting too much for her but still she complied.
I have never preserved Sauerkraut and rarely cook red cabbage. We eat both, but I prefer to buy the finished article in jars imported all the way from Germany. But, like mother, I cook Savoy cabbage myself in winter. Beloved, who is a true Englishman and therefore dislikes the thought of boiled cabbage, eats this Eintopfgericht (One-pot-dish) with pleasure, provided I don't present him with it too often during the cold months.