Exploring our town one day, we ran into the Mayor. An ebullient, extroverted kind of guy. After half an hour of talking, I found myself drafted into the town choir. Hysterical because I can’t carry a tune. I can’t even carry a note! Since then I’ve gone to several Tuesday night practices. Everyone tolerates me, makes me feel beyond welcome, and I get some much needed time out of the house.
Fast forward to last Tuesday, and after practice a sign-up sheet was passed around. I too was expected to sign-up, so sign-up I did. It was time for the annual zwiebelkuchenverkauf. Onion pie sales. Many bigger towns have zwiebelkuchenfests, or onion pie festivals, where the zwiebelkuchen is served with Federweiße, a very sweet, freshly pressed, alcoholic grape juice, or “must”. Our village is small & we “just” sell the zwiebelkuchen. In our case to raise money for the music club.
I showed up for my first volunteer shift late Thursday afternoon, Tessa in tow. Tess is as curious as I am about all the traditional going-ons in town. We knew we’d be cutting onions, and we had knives and cutting boards in hand. We found everyone tucked away in an old barn/halle at the edge of town, into the dark trees of the Black Forest. I have to say, before pushing open the old wooden doors, we both felt a little freaked out & slightly in the middle of a horror movie.
Inside it was warm, cozy, filled with chatter & laughter. We were heartily welcomed and given a choice of peeling or chopping. Our choice to chop was met with loud cheers. We quickly found out why, as we cried our way through several pounds of onions. Tess managed to slice her finger open, and immediately half the crew had whipped out pflasters (or bandaids). Tess was very happy with her smiley-face pressure tape.
The next morning I showed up shortly before the booth opened, still smelling like onions. I was quickly informed that coffee grounds are an anti-onion-finger remedy. Now I know. Half the crew had been up since 4 am baking zwiebelkuchen. Noting my obvious interest, and big camera strung around my neck, I’m so subtle, I was given a little tour of the old Backhaus (bakery) and how-to bake zwiebelkuchen.
Our zwiebelkuchen are still baked in an old-wood fired oven. The wood itself can only be from certain pine, fruit or nut trees and is cured for two years in the attic above the ovens themselves. The wood is placed into the ovens, and burns very hot down to coals & ash. It is critical that the massive iron doors stay cracked during the heating. Once the ovens are heated, the ash is brushed to the side with an old-fashioned twig broom dipped in water. Then the onion pies are placed inside the ovens, now without a direct heat source.
Only the Chefin mans the ovens and places the pies. The pies are handed in brigade style, from the kitchen to the ovens and baked a beautiful golden color. At this point in my education I was handed a fresh slice to eat to illustrate how delicious they are. Of course I’ve had zwiebelkuchen before, but this, was so fresh, so creamy, so naturally sweet. Oh. My. Drool.
The crust is really a dense bread. Our village has one dough maker, and she makes all the dough for the hundreds of pies baked this weekend. For the last several years she has a big, old, industrial mixer (think Kitchenaid times 100) to help. Before that it was all by hand. Once the dough is made it’s set aside to rise, once, then again, then rolled by hand into perfectly even crusts. The filling is made in big vats by a team of two, a mixture of both sour & sweet cream, onions, eggs and little else. So incredibly delicious.
The zwiebelkuchen are baked in big, heavy cast-iron “tins”. The circumference much bigger than an American pie. There is a special, extra-wide, short spatula thing (it has a proper, long, German name. I went with “Das Ding” or “that thing”) that is used for scooping the pies out and onto big, round, wooden boards for cutting or onto the customers own tray. Most of the villagers came by to buy a whole zwiebelkuchen, that I placed directly onto their cooking sheets, I imagine to take home & heat & serve. I’m again struck by the practicality of Germans, and how prepared everyone is for everything. I love this. The cut pieces went primarily to the kids getting out of school, off the bus, on their way home.
By the end of my 2-hour selling shift my arms were sore from lifting the heavy, cast-iron tins & pies and my German was again much improved. I bought my own zwiebelkuchen to take home, sadly needing to spend the extra €0,50 for a carboard box. I didn’t get the memo to bring a tray from home in time. I just finished my last piece of pie for breakfast, it’s also awesome with coffee, and I’ll be heading out to buy two more shortly. I’ve heard they freeze beautifully and I know I’ll be craving this again as the days grow colder.
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