Jan 112017


Since 2010 this date has been designated as Tag des deutschen Apfels (German Apples Day) in Germany, a campaign started by the National Association of Fruit and Vegetables Producers as a part of a more general campaign: “Germany – My Garden” to raise awareness of farm products that are locally grown. The main objective of German Apples Day is to draw public attention to apples and make them more popular across the country.  January might seem like an odd month to celebrate apples given that in Germany at this time of year apple trees are bare. But the good thing about apples is that they keep well over the winter months if they are stored at cool temperatures.

The German apple growing area was about 32,000 hectares (79,000 acres) in 2012, a little less than in  2007, although the number of apple trees increased by about 6% to about 72 million. Roughly 87% of the apples are sold fresh for eating and cooking. The remaining 13% are processed. The most popular varieties Elstar, Jonagold, Janagored, and Braeburn.  All told, though, there are between 3,000 and 5,000 varieties of apples grown in Germany, but some of the heirloom varieties are becoming quite rare.  The great proliferation of varieties stems from historical needs. Some were used for wine and cider, some for cooking, some for long storage and so forth, and different varieties were especially well suited for specific locations.  The apple is still by far the most popular fruit in Germany but there is concern that popularity is waning and the diversity of choices is decreasing.


German Apples Day is celebrated by giving out hundreds of thousands of apples in major cities in Germany. Every year locally grown apples are distributed to schools and businesses, and even to passers-by in the streets for free.

Today is a good day to celebrate apples by using them in cooking. In past posts I have given recipes for apple pancakes, apple pie, apple strudel, apple crumble etc. Today it seems fitting to give a recipe for German apple cake, a very moist cake loaded with apples.


German Apple Cake


2 eggs
1 cup vegetable oil
2 cups white sugar
2 tsp ground cinnamon
½ tsp salt
1 tsp vanilla extract
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 tsp baking soda
4 cups  peeled, cored and diced apples


Preheat the oven to 350°F/175°C. Grease and flour one 9″x 13″ cake pan.

In a mixing bowl beat the oil and eggs with an electric mixer until creamy. Add the sugar and vanilla and beat well.

Combine the flour, salt, baking soda, and ground cinnamon together in a bowl. Slowly add this mixture to the egg mixture and mix until combined. The batter will be very thick. Fold in the apples by hand using a wooden spoon.

Spread the batter into the prepared pan.

Bake for 45 minutes or until cake a toothpick inserted into the center of the cake comes out clean.

Let the cake cool a little on a wire rack, then turn it out on to a serving plate. Dust with confectioners’ sugar and serve.

Nov 102016


Martinisingen (“Martin singing”) is an old Protestant custom which is found especially in East Friesland, but also on the Lüneburg Heath and in other parts of North and East Germany. It also goes under the names of Martini or Martinssingen and the Low German names of Sünnematten or Mattenherrn (today often erroneously corrupted to Matten Matten Mähren). Martinisingen takes place on 10th November (similar to the Catholic Martinssingen on 11 November) with groups of children carrying lanterns from house to house, singing traditional songs, and receiving treats.


Martinisingen is a custom with a mix of several elements. Some people note that traditionally 10th  November was the day on which farmhands and contract workers were dismissed for the winter. Those without property had to subsequently survive the coldest time of the year without any income, and it is surmised (with the usual lack of good primary evidence) that their children were able to help by going from house to house on this day begging for food and gifts, especially from the well-to-do farmers and citizens. I doubt this was a widespread custom or has much to do with current practice. It seems that the gifts given out (as recorded) have always been symbolic and, today, they usually consist of sweets and fruit. The traditional gifts included gingerbread men (Stutenkerl), honey cakes (Moppen), and Pfeffernüsse (pēpernööten) as well as apples.


At one time the children carried lanterns (kipkapköögels) made from beets similar to the turnip lanterns used at Halloween in Celtic countries — https://www.bookofdaystales.com/hop-tu-naa/ . These were sometimes replaced by small pumpkins, which are much easier to carve than root vegetables, but gradually, all of these were replaced by colored paper lanterns, which are common today. Various home-made instruments were also used such as rattles (Rasseln) and friction drums (Rummelpott).


With the coming of the Reformation the Martinisingen custom adopted aspects of praise for Martin Luther, particularly in the songs. In 1817, to celebrate the tricentennial anniversary of the Reformation in 1517, Martinisingen was moved to 10th November, the eve of St. Martin’s Day (which is also Martin Luther’s birthday) https://www.bookofdaystales.com/st-martin-of-tours/ . From then on Martin Luther was celebrated as the “Friend of light and man of God” (Freund des Lichts und Mann Gottes) who “knocked the crown off the pope in Rome” (der dem Papst in Rom die Krone vom Haupt schlug). Many German Catholic celebratory customs for St. Martin’s Day (Martin of Tours) were folded into Martinisingen . Increasingly, the custom of Martinisingen became a celebration of Martin Luther, and the motive of begging for treats got confused (in a roundabout way) with the begging tradition of the monastic orders. The traditional songs were given a Protestant, religious flavor and new ones were written that honored Martin Luther. All in all, a competent scholar should sift through the primary sources and come up with a reasonable explanation of the evolution of the custom which now has mixed in with it all manner of traditions, including Halloween. My suspicion (based on no evidence, of course), is that current custom derives almost entirely from the 19th century and all the historical nonsense about its “origins” are made up. That kind of thinking has been the bane of serious folklore scholarship for 100 years.

Today children go through the suburbs from door to door around dusk carrying lanterns and singing Martinilieder. The light in the lantern is often no longer a candle but electric because, in the November winds, the lanterns often caught fire.  There is a verse in one popular song, “Lanterns, Lanterns” that goes “burn up my light, but not my precious lantern”. I’m not a big fan of replacing real candles with electric ones in all kinds of contexts. I understand why people use strings of electric lights on Christmas trees, for example, instead of candles. They are messy and dangerous. But one Christmas Eve I joined a Danish family singing carols in a darkened room around a Christmas tree lighted with candles and it was magical.


Since the end of the 1990s Martinisingen has had competition from Halloween as a result of shop advertising and hype from the US, as well as the enthusiasm of a few teachers in primary schools and kindergartens (as is true worldwide). I’m pleased to say that globally Halloween US style is not catching on.

Here’s the best known song from Martinisingen for German speakers:

Laterne Laterne

Regular chorus

Laterne, Laterne
Laterne, Laterne,
Ich geh mit meiner Laterne
und meine Laterne mit mir.
Da oben leuchten die Sterne
und unten da leuchten wir.


  1. Ein Lichtermeer zu Martins Ehr
  2. Der Martinsmann, der zieht voran
  3. Wie schön das klingt, wenn jeder singt
  4. Ein Kuchenduft liegt in der Luft
  5. Beschenkt uns heut, ihr lieben Leut
  6. Laternenlicht, verlösch mir nicht!
  7. Mein Licht ist aus, ich geh nach Haus

Last chorus

Laterne, Laterne
Laterne, Laterne,
Sonne, Mond und Sterne,
brenne auf mein Licht,
brenne auf mein Licht,
aber nur meine liebe Laterne nicht.


Pfeffernüsse (pepper nuts) are the perfect treat for Martinisingen because they are common gifts for the singers. The Netherlands, Germany, and Belgium are all noted for pfeffernüsse which are associated there with 6th December, the feast of St. Nicholas, and with Christmas in general – much like gingerbread. The name “pepper nut” does not mean they contains nuts, though some varieties do. It just means that they are hard. Some versions are VERY hard.

Though recipes differ considerably, all contain aromatic spices – most commonly cinnamon, cloves, and anise. Some variations are dusted with powdered sugar, though that is not a traditional ingredient. Molasses and honey can be used to sweeten the cookies. For the dough, some versions still use 19th century ingredients such as potassium carbonate and ammonium carbonate as leavening agents to get the sticky and dense consistency of the original mixture. It is then either kneaded by hand or with an electric mixer. Regular sodium bicarbonate is more usual, though.



For the cookies:

3 cups all-purpose flour
1 tspn ground cinnamon
½ tspn baking soda
½ tspn baking powder
½ tspn ground ginger
½ tspn ground nutmeg
½ tspn fine salt
¼ tspn ground allspice
¼ tspn freshly ground black pepper
½ cup sliced almonds, toasted
8 tbspn unsalted butter at room temperature
finely grated lemon zest from 2 medium lemons
finely grated orange zest from 1 medium orange
1 cup packed dark brown sugar
1 large egg
¾ cup molasses or honey
¼ cup finely chopped candied lemon peel

For the spiced sugar:

1 cup powdered sugar
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1 tspn ground ginger
½ tspn ground nutmeg
¼ tspn ground allspice


Sift together the flour, cinnamon, baking soda, baking powder, ginger, nutmeg, salt, allspice, and pepper into a large bowl.

Place the almonds in the bowl of a food processor fitted with a blade attachment and process until finely ground. Add the almonds to the flour mixture and stir to combine.

Place the butter, lemon zest, and orange zest in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment and beat on medium speed until fluffy and combined. Add the brown sugar and beat until incorporated and lightened in color. Add the egg and beat until incorporated. Add the molasses (or honey) and candied lemon peel and beat until just incorporated. Stop the mixer and scrape down the sides of the bowl and the paddle with a rubber spatula.

With the mixer on low, add the flour mixture in three additions, mixing until just combined. Do not overmix. Scrape the mix out on to waxed paper, fold over the paper to cover and refrigerate for at least one hour.

Heat the oven to 350°F.

Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper.

Cut the chilled dough into three, and, one at a time, roll the dough into logs about 3/4-inch in diameter. Then cut the logs into small segments and roll each into a ball. Space them 1 ½ inches apart on the prepared baking sheets. Bake the pfeffernüsse in batches. After about 8 minutes rotate the sheets from front to back. Continue baking until the pfeffernüsse are very lightly browned around the edges, about 5 to 6 minutes more. (The tops will be soft, but they will firm up as the cookies stand.) Transfer the baking sheets to 2 wire racks and let them sit until the pfeffernüsse are cool enough to handle but still warm, about 3 minutes.

You can omit this step if you want the pfeffernüsse plain, as is traditional.  Sift the spiced sugar ingredients into a large bowl. Toss the warm pfeffernüsse in the sugar, tap to remove excess, and cool completely. Then store in an airtight container.


Jun 222015


Today is the birthday (1898) of Erich Maria Remarque (born Erich Paul Remark), a German author whose best known work is the novel All Quiet on the Western Front, a profoundly moving anti-war story based on his own experiences in the trenches in the First World War. I read it first in my mid-thirties when I had an interest in autobiographical and semi-autobiographical works concerning the first-hand experience of war. What surprised me at the outset was how the same themes recurred: dissociation, alienation, dehumanization etc, no matter what the particular circumstances. I have never read any of his other works even though they were well received in Germany.

Remarque was born on 22 June 1898 into a working class family in the German city of Osnabrück to Peter Franz Remark (b. 14 June 1867, Kaiserswerth) and Anna Maria (née Stallknecht; born 21 November 1871, Katernberg).

During the First World War, Remarque was conscripted into the army at the age of 18. On 12 June 1917, he was transferred to the Western Front, 2nd Company, Reserves, Field Depot of the 2nd Guards Reserve Division at Hem-Lenglet. On 26 June, he was posted to the 15th Reserve Infantry Regiment, 2nd Company, Engineer Platoon Bethe, and was stationed between Torhout and Houthulst. On 31 July, he was wounded by shrapnel in the left leg, right arm and neck, and was repatriated to an army hospital in Germany where he spent the rest of the war.

In 1927, Remarque wrote the novel Station at the Horizon (Station am Horizont), which was serialized in the sports journal Sport im Bild for which Remarque was working. It was published in book form only in 1998. He wrote his best-known work, All Quiet on the Western Front (Im Westen nichts Neues), in a few months in 1927, but was not immediately able to find a publisher. A number of similar works followed; in simple, emotive language they described wartime and the postwar years. By the time of the publication of his novel, Arc de Triomphe, he was internationally acclaimed and the book achieved worldwide sales of nearly five million.


All Quiet on the Western Front tells the story of Paul Bäumer, a German soldier who—urged on by his school teacher—joins the German army shortly after the start of World War I. His class was “scattered over the platoons amongst Frisian fishermen, peasants, and labourers.” Bäumer arrives at the Western Front with his friends and schoolmates (Tjaden, Müller, Kropp and a number of other characters). There they meet Stanislaus Katczinsky, an older soldier, nicknamed Kat, who becomes Paul’s mentor. While fighting at the front, Bäumer and his comrades have to engage in frequent battles and endure the treacherous and filthy conditions of trench warfare.

At the very beginning of the book Remarque says “This book is to be neither an accusation nor a confession, and least of all an adventure, for death is not an adventure to those who stand face to face with it. It will try simply to tell of a generation of men who, even though they may have escaped its shells, were destroyed by the war.” The book does not focus on heroic stories of bravery, but rather gives a view of the conditions in which the soldiers find themselves. The monotony between battles, the constant threat of artillery fire and bombardments, the struggle to find food, the lack of training of young recruits (meaning lower chances of survival), and the overarching role of random chance in the lives and deaths of the soldiers are described in stark detail.


The battles have no names and seem to have little overall significance, except for the impending possibility of injury or death for Bäumer and his comrades. Only pitifully small pieces of land are gained, about the size of a football pitch, which are often lost again later. Remarque often refers to the living soldiers as old and dead, emotionally drained and shaken. “We are not youth any longer. We don’t want to take the world by storm. We are fleeing from ourselves, from our life. We were eighteen and had begun to love life and the world; and we had to shoot it to pieces.”

Paul’s visit on leave to his home highlights the cost of the war on his psyche. The town has not changed since he went off to war; however, he finds that he does “not belong here anymore, it is a foreign world.” He feels disconnected from most of the townspeople. His father asks him “stupid and distressing” questions about his war experiences, not understanding “that a man cannot talk of such things.” An old schoolmaster lectures him about strategy and advancing to Paris, while insisting that Paul and his friends know only their “own little sector” of the war, but nothing of the big picture.

Indeed, the only person he remains connected to is his dying mother, with whom he shares a tender, yet restrained relationship. The night before he is to return from leave, he stays up with her, exchanging small expressions of love and concern for each other. He thinks to himself, “Ah! Mother, Mother! How can it be that I must part from you? Here I sit and there you are lying; we have so much to say, and we shall never say it.” In the end, he concludes that he “ought never to have come [home] on leave.”


Paul feels glad to be reunited with his comrades. Soon after, he volunteers to go on a patrol and kills a man for the first time in hand-to-hand combat. He watches the man die, in pain for hours. He feels remorse and asks forgiveness from the man’s corpse. He is devastated and later confesses to Kat and Albert, who try to comfort him and reassure him that it is only part of the war. They are then sent on what Paul calls a “good job.” They must guard a supply depot in a village that was evacuated due to being shelled too heavily. During this time, the men are able to adequately feed themselves; unlike the near-starvation conditions in the German trenches. In addition, the men enjoy themselves while living off the spoils from the village and officers’ luxuries from the supply depot (such as fine cigars). While evacuating the villagers (enemy civilians), Paul and Albert are taken by surprise by artillery fired at the civilian convoy and wounded by a shell. On the train back home, Albert takes a turn for the worse and cannot complete the journey, instead being sent off the train to recuperate in a Catholic hospital. Paul uses a combination of bartering and manipulation to stay by Albert’s side. Albert eventually has his leg amputated, while Paul is deemed fit for service and returned to the front.

By now, the war is nearing its end and the German Army is retreating. In despair, Paul watches as his friends fall one by one. It is the death of Kat that eventually makes Paul careless about living. In the final chapter, he comments that peace is coming soon, but he does not see the future as bright and shining with hope. Paul feels that he has no aims left in life and that their generation will be different and misunderstood. When he dies at the end of the novel, the situation report from the frontline states, “All is Quiet on the Western Front,” symbolizing the insignificance of one individual’s death during the war.


It is the utter banality of Paul’s death that is so shocking. By that time he has lost his own sense of humanity and so it is fitting that his life is reduced to a mindless statistic in a mindless war. For decades after publication of the book the expression “all quiet on the Western Front” meant nothing of importance is happening, but now fallen into disuse. My mother used it to mean “all’s right.”

To celebrate Remarque I have chosen a recipe for Birnen, Bohnen und Speck (“pears, beans and bacon”) a North German dish which is especially popular in Lower Saxony where Remarque was born. You need to use very hard cooking pears left unpeeled and with the stems on.


Birnen, Bohnen und Speck


750 g green beans, topped and tailed
500 g cooking pears
400 g bacon, in a slab or sliced
500 g potatoes, peeled and diced
sprig of savory


Place the bacon in a heavy kettle, cover with water, and simmer covered for about 25 minutes.

Add the pears and beans, plus the savory, and continue to simmer covered for another 25 minutes, or until the pears are soft. Keep an eye on the broth to be sure that it reduces, but does not dry out. Add the potatoes and cook so that they are tender but still firm.

Serve one (or two) whole pears per person over the beans, potatoes, and sliced bacon.