As someone coming from an agricultural background and yet living in cities most of my life, it’s been easy to let my roots slip out of my everyday thoughts- that most of the rice on my plate to this day has been our own, home-grown. Thanks to a food activism class taught by my lovely teacher Juliette Bellocq during my Masters, the first sparks of interest in food issues were created in me. The sharp learning curve at the time shook me up and I started to (finally) get interested in food production and the issues that surround it.
On an unrelated note, people who know me would know all too well my enthusiasm with my house plants, and contradictorily, about my lack of a green thumb- rather, the existence of a black thumb that mysteriously kills all my plants swiftly but surely. So when I heard about a friend working on a farm, I was interested and piqued as I would have been anyhow, but now with that glint in the eye, that maybe, just maybe I’d learn to grow a green thumb. K and I jumped at the idea right away, hoping we could use this opportunity to learn about food in the context of rural Germany, which was also fairly new to us. Last Easter, we found a little farm interested in having us over - they wanted someone to feed the animals, do a bit of gardening and cook for the family. So K proposed he’d work with the animals, and I’d cook for the family and get my hands literally dirty with gardening.
And so we were, over the Easter weekend, at a farm in a tiny little village in Central Germany called Prezier, a 20-minute ride from Salzwedel. Even the population stats for this village are unavailable- so, it's quite tiny. No, this was not an agricultural farm, it was more of an animal farm. Here were about 30 odd pigs and piglets, described as endangered breeds, breeds that are hardly found with industrialised and large-scale manufactured meat. That was not all, there were also 3 horses, about a dozen rabbits, 4 hens and 3 border collies to look after all of them. Playing a part in raising these pigs, rabbits, ducks and hens- none of which we generally eat being vegetarians, we felt by default a bit distant from the process. But what we learnt along the way, taking care of and growing foods we’d never consume - was so immensely revealing, gifting us with such a wonderful understanding and appreciation far beyond what we expected- of living on a farm, of food production, about the love for fellow beings, even if they’d become your food one day. Here’s summing up some of the biggest things I learnt.
As enthusiastically as I’d signed up for the cooking, I turned anxious just as quickly about my cooking skills as I learnt I had to satisfy not 3 but 8 people on the farm- Claudia, the owner, her two children, three other workawayers, and the two of us. And as naturally as Indian food comes to me, anything outside of the domain just sends me into a freeze. This was a far cry from curated supper clubs menus. Claudia pretty much left me to myself after showing me around the kitchen. Of course, I’d not find elaborate, exacting ingredients to forever stay in my safe zone. I had to find creative ways of using whatever I found.
I mustered my courage to do my best. The crowd was easier to please than I thought, except for the kids who found my Indian-ish cooking understandably alien. A few of my experiments: Potato-stuffed panfried long peppers, inspired about my good friend Sangeet’s mother’s stuffed tomatoes that she would make us when I’d visit them. Chilli powder, chopped onion, beluga lentils and lemon squeezed on top. There was also a curried coconut cauliflower soup I experimented with, and then some dosas with tomato chutney for breakfast one day (more on that later!).
On one of the days leading up to Easter Monday, Claudia came to me and said, “We have a tradition in the village to come together for a Easter bonfire every night and there's a night when each family brings a homemade pizza. Since you are here, we’ll make an Indian pizza!” I was somewhat dumbfounded- an Indian pizza? I’d never attempted one. I decided to try making a variant of our Paneer Tikka Flammkuchen from one of our past supper clubs. An hour or so later, Claudia turned up with a big bucket of milk- apparently 10 liters of it, right off her neighbours cows. “How much will you need?”, she said. Wow I hadn’t had that experience since I was a kid back in my parents’ villages. It made me smile.
I learnt that Claudia was also a professional cheesemaker. She lent me one of her cheese-making moulds and set out to make some fresh Feta cheese herself. Rising above the modest cheesecloth squeezed under a mortar and pestle, I felt like an expert. The little things, they were exciting! I made my first big, may I say, “professional” block of paneer out of fresh German farm milk. Tee hee.
Rummaging through the cupboards, I found myself a few disparate things that I thought might pass off for the tikka masala. With dried Thai ginger in place of fresh minced ginger-garlic, powdered coriander and some other such paraphernalia, the marinade was patched together.
Meanwhile, Claudia worked on the pizza base, and together we finished created our first Indian pizza to ever come out of an oven in Saxony!
HONOURING OUR MEAT
I don’t eat a lot of meat. Only, chicken really. And everything on this farm was all about meat. With my mind focused on agricultural learnings, it was not until the end of the stay that I realized I’d unconsciously learnt so much about animal rearing and meat production that seemed totally out of context to me at first. Even if only for five days, I saw Claudia, her kids and the boys slaving away for the farm animals, feeding them, petting them, repairing their pen fences, worrying about their babies. Calling them by their names. Working with Claudia, I could see her genuine emotion as she spoke of taking one of her pigs for slaughter. She wasn’t cold, she had reared them for almost 9 months after all. She did not take them lightly. She said to us, “This animal is giving its life for us. We ought to be grateful and honour it fittingly for taking it away for our sake”.
Over our stay there, we were lucky enough to be witnesses to the whole lifecycle: a sold pig being lovingly coaxed into a van to the new farm, a pregnant mother preparing her nest, another giving birth, a mother nursing its babies by day and tucking them in to sleep, covered up in hay by night, and one being solemnly taken at the break of dawn to be slaughtered. At all times, Claudia and her children had the same love- they worked day and night to feed them with a nutritious feed of strawberries and protein, clean them and sort out their conflicts when their temperaments got a bit egregious. It was a sharp disconnect to the sterile cling-wrapped piece of meat I’d pick off a shelf at Rewe.
CHEAP GOOD FOOD IS AN OXYMORON
I think we all know this in theory. I did too, but bearing witness to it with a closer lens was eye-opening and baffling to say the least. We strung together bits of each pig's stage to understand their average upkeep over the 9 months or more- it is an astounding amount of work. When K accompanied Claudia to the slaughter house and saw the man at the counter take hundreds of euros for the job, he was shocked. What does it sell for in the supermarket? Definitely not in the hundreds. How were we getting away with paying peanuts for this amazing animal? I fully believed this when I'd earlier read this in newspapers, but what I saw of it with my own eyes was really disturbing. Food, a fundamental need of human life is placed shockingly low in our personal and global economies.
One late morning, as I was preparing to cook for lunch, Claudia came up to me and told me of a friend she had in the village who may have Indian spices to lend us. I was not expecting such a big effort to make particularly authentic Indian food, but I was excited about meeting someone holding on to Indian spices in this little far-flung village. “We’ll take the van- he lives at the other end of the village”, she said. I jumped in, eagerly looking forward to the excursion we were going on. And not even 2 minutes in, counting 5 houses along the way, we were already there. We were warmly greeted by a silvery-haired man possibly in his 60's. Energetic and conversing in perfect English, he told me about how he’d travelled the world and India- several times over. He went on to pull out a box from his kitchen cupboard, and as he unpacked it one packet after another, out came MTR dosa mixes, uttappam mixes, masalas, dhania powder and so much more that belonged in an Indian store! For a second I was just amused, amazed and befuddled by how surreal it was to meet this person in the middle of Germany, in a little village we would’ve otherwise never heard of, and be given MTR mixes to make some Indian food. Life is amazing- the paths we cross and the stories we hear!
SMELLING THE OSTERFEUER
K and I chose the Easter weekend for this little adventure more for logistical reasons of having a full week off rather than seeking an Easter experience. As we’d never seen a significant celebration for Easter, possibly because we didn’t fall under the age group of easter egg searches, we had no such expectations of this trip. But wow, did we come back with the best Easter experience ever! When we arrived, Claudia told us we’d be going for village bonfires every evening as was their tradition during Easter. On the first night, we got into her van and drove up a short distance to a bonfire next to a lean-to that seemed to stand in the middle of a meadow. Nothing else was visible in the distance, except for a gigantic pile of sticks and branches in the distance- almost 12 feet high and 40 feet long. The village gathered around the live bonfire, drinking, singing and warming up in the cold March breeze. Adults and children alike flung sticks into the bonfire to keep it kindled. We gathered the next evening again, this time with the Indian pizza to share with the entire village. And the night after that, the big night of the Osterfeuer.
All we knew was that the village would be gathering around to celebrate Oster, eat currywurst and make merry. Each family had taken up a task at the fest- one to fire up the wursts, one to man the drinks van, one to round up the torches and so on. As K and I got our drinks and hung around the fringe of the bonfire, we saw young men dusting off and giving the gigantic pile in the distance a good shake. This would be the Osterfeuer- this would be the tremendous bonfire lit to celebrate of Easter. The shuffling was to make sure any furry animals that had decided to make it their home over the last week would go away before it was lit. Soon after, 5-6 kids and adults came around to the little bonfire to begin the ceremony by lighting the branches they were each carrying. Holding up the torches, they marched gleefully- one followed by another, along the pile and in one grand gesture, lit the pile with the torch. Little sparks, patches of fire here and there and then, in less than a minute, the whole mass was ablaze, launching the landscape into a pseudo daylight. With the blood moon out that night, hanging dramatically over the scene, it was intensely beautiful, appalling and enchanting at the same time - literally a monumental gesture of celebration. K and I were awestruck, experiencing the Osterfeuer for the first time. It was magical, and somewhat crazy at the same time.
The things that you cannot tell from a picture though, we were incredibly hot on our front side, and in sharp contrast, the cold was freezing our backs. Every few minutes, we’d turn around to even out the effect like meat on a kebab stick. The Easter fire burnt into the night, as the villagers cheering with camaraderie. As we walked home, we turned around one last time- yes, no doubt this time, it was crazy. A light of such epic proportions, it looked like the village was on fire. We were grateful to be experiencing this slice of culture we’d have never known otherwise.
And on that note, I would like to wish you a Happy Easter and a fun weekend- now that I know what the Easter celebration entails!