We kicked off the Christmas season last weekend with what is threatening to become our annual visit to Hamburg. After checking into our Japanese hotel, the Nippon, we were at loose ends before dinner so decided to look around a nearby grocery store. Visiting a grocery store, I thought, is a great way to learn about a culture. And I was validated as we admired the long wall of glass jars holding vibrantly coloured, endless variations of sauerkraut and pickled things. Husband spent a lot of time looking at the salad bar, which reminded him of California what with its bowls of vegetables unadorned with mayonnaise-based dressing unlike the British equivalent. He was so impressed he decided to get a little bowl which he ate as we walked the aisles, an action which seemed to cause consternation among the ruddy faced matrons who were manning the place.
The mayo may not have been in the salad, but it was on the shelves in toothpaste tube packages, one of my favorite continental quirks. I seriously considered taking home a handful for stocking stuffers before my concern that they would exceed the carry-on liquid limit stopped me (lucky for all of you on my Christmas list). Next we turned our attention to the deli counter, topped with a dizzying assortment of cheese samples. Husband and I indulged in several varieties before we realized the wildly gesticulating ruddy faced matron was talking to us, pointing out a well hidden jar of toothpicks intended for use in tasting the samples. Husband smiled and shrugged, responding with an “English” by way of explanation before he speared a smoked Gouda. It seemed we were not so popular at the grocery store, and that was before we tried to pay for our sparkling water and empty salad container with a debit card and were informed of the ten euro minimum, which meant we had to hold up the entire line while we went and found some other things to buy. I suppose in the end the culture exchange of the grocery store went both ways, with the matrons learning as much about the gluttonous, unsanitary “English” as we learned about the Germans.
Saturday morning we got down to the serious German business of Christmas at the main market outside the Rathaus. The Christkindel Cafe & Bar hut was our starting point. There, a helpful, green velvet cloaked young man steered us away from our opening gambit of eierpunsch (creamy eggnog) to heidel beer (hot blueberry wine). Husband got his with a shot of rum, and we enjoyed our first drink to the sounds of a trio of south Asian Santas on accordion, sax, and clarinet. Next up was some nourishment in the form of potato pancakes, mine with sour cream and apple sauce, husband’s with a heady remoulade and streaky bacon. To cut the richness, I enjoyed a traditional glühwein while husband doubled down with the eierpunsch he had foregone in the last round. Our switchback tour of the bar huts yielded the new, vaguely-redolent-of-cat-piss-yet-surprisingly-tasty white glühwein and somewhere along the way we split a bratwurst. There was a deviation to an Alpine theme for a raclette and a welcome glass of almost chilled Beaujolais tasting spirit (at this juncture, I was pointing not asking). We finished with a hot raspberry wine to help brace ourselves against the wind and drizzle we faced on our hotel-lent bike ride home. There the Nippon greeted us with the welcome contrast of tatami mats and low, hard-bedded austerity.