Sunday, September 20, 2009

A Perfect Munich Beergarden, Part 1

Beer to the north of us, beer to the south of us...if you visit the fine German city of Munich, you'll be surrounded by the stuff and it's all good. A lot of it is great. And some of it is just about Heaven in a Stein. How appropriate that a liter (or litre) glass (or stein) of Bavarian suds is known as a Mass (or Maß as it's spelled in Germany) since it's bordering on a religious experience when the beer is right. And Munich gets it so right!

I was fortunate to visit three particularly wonderful Munich beergardens in July of 2009. In this chapter, we'll head north via the city's super transit system to check out one of them, the Sankt Emmerams Mühle. On a city map, it appears tucked away on a distant shore of the river Isar, way to the north of the Englischer Garten - but it's not really difficult to access. Just take the U-Bahn line #6 north to Studentenstadt station, then transfer onto the #50 bus in the direction of Johanneskirchen. Just two stops will take you onto a highway, then across the river and back south along the far side. Jump off and walk westbound downhill at St Emmerams Strasse, and there you are: a pleasant outdoor garden that seats well over a thousand thirsty visitors. Many are locals who have cycled in from wherever, and a few brave souls will even try to park in the vicinity.

"Mühle" means "Mill", and this was the site of a paper mill for many years. Beer and food have been part of the complex for well over a century, and although the old mill buildings survive to this day, this is now a beergarden only. And what a spot! It's a Spaten garden, featuring the fine beers of this famous member of the Munich Big Six breweries. If you are a wheat beer fan, you can indulge in a Franziskaner Weissbier. I'm there for the Helles, however, and here's the pot at the end of my rainbow - a nice maß of lager!

What a treat! I've had past experiences with Spaten where the beer has been something less than ideal - well, let's just use the word "stale" and be done with it. No worries at St. Emmerams Mühle, where the Spaten was tasty, fresh, cool and delicious. And the appearance of that book at the far right of the photo means it's time for me to once again plug Larry Hawthorne's wonderful The Beer Drinker's Guide to Munich, the book that led me to this and several other wonderful Munich beer spots I wouldn't have known about otherwise. If you're thinking of a Munich voyage, please do yourself a huge favour and track down the Guide. I've mentioned it in earlier posts - don't forget, your copy will have coupons for FREE BEER in selected beergardens, AND THIS IS ONE OF THEM! Yes, I enjoyed that lager for half-price!

I've gone on and on about a Yuk/Yummy Scale of Beery Goodness, and although I find it hard to give anyplace a Perfect 10, it's easy to award Sankt Emmerams Mühle a 9, maybe a 9.5 for ambience, friendly staff, and delicious beer. It's a lovely, and easy adventure away from Munich's inner city and I look forward to returning some sunny day.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Emergency Creative Writing Chapter, Pt. 1

It's a scene from one of America's most beloved long-running soap opera comic strips, which will not be identified or mocked in any way, as this is a loving tribute, so please don't sue me, and instead let's all rejoice that this wonderful example of art is with us every day!O Edinburgh, My Edinburgh
I entered the morning room at St. Andrew’s Bed & Breakfast, and found my usual table by the door empty and waiting. After a quick good morning nod to the other early birds, I sat down and surveyed the offerings. Toast. Cold, burnt pieces of dry toast, filed upright like index cards inside a wired, um, toast-holding device! I instinctively picked out a paper-thin slice from the middle and began shaving off slivers of rock-hard butter. Well, here we are again, ready to tackle Edinburgh once more. Thank heaven for the orange juice and tea. I could have done without the potato-ade, though.

It’s a complicated city to describe. I could tell you that the city has a medieval feel to it, with its Gothic architecture and cobblestone streets, but I’d be insulting your intelligence (never mind resembling a complete nitwit) as that pretty much describes every town in Europe. Perhaps it’s more accurate to say that Edinburgh enjoys a somewhat uneasy relationship with its past, and with the mobs of people who come to feed off of it, especially during August when the Festival is on. The cash brought in by the visitors is welcome, but the folks spending the cash are merely tolerated. I’ll be glad when the fookin’ tourists fook aff home, I heard one teenager say the previous evening, as he weaved back and forth along the sidewalk outside a pub. That was my cue to slow down, cross the road, and try to remain invisible. I guess it worked – the kid and his two buddies abruptly stopped and sprayed a gush of piss worthy of the Firth of Forth onto ye olde cobblestones below. At least two of them remembered to zip up afterwards.

Of course, Edinburgh is a beautiful city. The Castle on the Hill is a magnificent sight, especially at night when illuminated by spotlights for the evening Tattoo. The Royal Mile that winds downhill from the Castle to Hollyrood is pretty touristy, but it makes for a great stroll anyway. The Gardens below the Castle, separating the Old and New cities, is a good spot to relax in between bouts of sightseeing. And the area just off the Princes Street shopping district is very pleasant for just wandering around and breathing in the atmosphere. On my street, that meant an atmosphere combining urine-soaked cobblestones and fish & chips grease from the local shop that always seemed to be closed whenever I approached. I was told that this was a famous chippy – it was Robbie Coltrane’s local whenever he was in town. In that case, all kudos to Mister Coltrane for always nailing the 45 minutes a day when the damm place was open.

The bed and breakfast butter lumps seemed in no hurry to melt on my cold, burnt toast. I decided to just start chomping and make the best of it, when I heard the floor creaking from outside. New guests! They must have checked in late the night before. A huge walking manatee with a carefully trimmed white beard and sideburns wheezed in, accompanied by a blonde woman at least thirty years his junior. Notme notme notme, I mentally willed the couple toward the back corner of the room. Of course, Professor Chinbeard grabbed one of the chairs at my table and settled his massive lower quarters on down, leaving his daughter to take the other remaining chair at my table for herself. I made quick eye contact with folks at the other tables – returned expressions reflected a mixture of smirking and sympathy. Damm. Why do I always travel alone?

“Good morning”, boomed the Professor at all of us in the room. Turned out he really was a Professor, although I would have placed him at the head of the Faculty of Bad Scotty Impersonators. He wanted to know where we all hailed from. “We’re from the West Coast!”, he announced. I was slow to realize that he was referring to America, and wondered what the others in the room, mainly Europeans, made of this pair. “Are you happy, my dear Toe!”, he announced, rather than asked. Was he addressing his feet, I wondered, before clueing in with a jolt that Toe was his companion’s name. And a further jolt. She was his wife, not his daughter!

“I’m so happy, Ian darling!” Her voice was a bit too much of a girly squeal for this early hour. “This city has a medieval feel to it, with its Gothic architecture and cobblestone streets.” She grabbed his shoulder and gazed at him adoringly, looking for all the world like an Up With People director at the start of a world tour. “I’m falling in love all over again!”

Achim and Jose at the opposite table glanced at me. Achim bit his lower lip slightly, and I had to pretend to cough to keep from sputtering with laughter. They had us all in stitches the previous morning with their description of the Hollyrood Castle tour. Achim’s Berlin-accented take on the tour guide’s delight in pointing out the deficiencies of the building, general awfulness of the artwork within, and the violent ends most of the early monarchs met was worthy of any travel show. Jose was the quiet one, but he was a hell of a listener. When the Professor waved his arms in the air and declared that this was the land of his birth, I’m positive that both Jose and I heard the word girth. Jose’s first half-note of a high-pitched “HOOOOO” was cut short by a painful kick to the ankle from his partner. How I swallowed that bloody toast, I’ll never know.

Perry and Cindy from Chicago were at the table behind the German guys, and they were great fun in their own right. Two days earlier they had visited the Whisky Museum on the Royal Mile, which involved sitting inside a whisky barrel that was in fact a vehicle on a dark ride, touring the History of Whisky through a series of what may politely be termed economically-designed themed rooms featuring depictions of streams, clumps of peat, nasty-looking Redcoat mannequins and bagpipe-accompanied tartan types. The ride ends at the souvenir shop, naturally. Now, I could see Perry sink slightly into his chair in the hopes that he wouldn’t be brought into Chinbeard’s monologue. “We go to Europe to get away from guys like that”, he told me later. “First, they want to know where you’re from, then they ask you how much your house is worth and where you work, and next thing you know, they’ve got a hold of your Herald Tribune and they’re going on about their stock portfolios. Christ, what an asshole.”

Sorry, Perry. That smirk from thirty seconds’ ago cost you dearly, and I was delighted to introduce the Professor and his artist wife Toeby to my Windy City friends. Cindy loves meeting folks, but I could see Perry mouthing silently I’ll get you for this, Moon. And once Chinbeard heard the word “Chicago”, he was all over them with a long-winded lecture about some recent convention there and the worthiness of the grand city and his wife’s problems with identity theft and all kinds of other claptrap that I was able to shut out as a background burr while I concentrated on my cold, burnt toast with the lumps of still-icy butter. Ian Darling was still at it when I got up, excused myself, and departed merrily to get on with my day.

There really is a lot of talent in Edinburgh, and so much of it comes together each year during the month of August. There’s the International Tattoo up at the Castle, where marching bands from all over the world gather and perform. The Festival hosts stars from opera, the classics, and theatre. And running between the lines, as it were, is my favourite event, The Fringe. Comedy and musical acts – well, every kind of performer imaginable – show up in Scotland, do their thing, and hope for their big break.

I’d been looking forward to today’s show for a long time, and as I settled into my seat at The Courtyard, I was already halfway to laughing out loud. The stars of this show were local kids, still in college, and they called themselves Snorkelco. Five of them would position themselves on-stage, their heads encased within gigantic Aquarium Head Pieces, complete with live goldfish. They all wore snorkels to breathe, and the crowning touch was an underwater microphone for each one. Today’s Performance: Selected Readings from the Works of Sir Walter Scott.

As the lights dimmed, I could already hear giggling around me. It was hard not to join in. It got very much easier, however, very quickly, as I sensed a familiar whiff of body odour and Old Spice. My heart sank; yes, it was Professor Chinbeard and his Toe settling down directly behind me. That squeal again. “Ian! I’m so happy! Sir Sean Finnery, in person!”

What the…?

Then that pompous blowhard: “I must thank that fine man from Chicago for steering us here. Imagine visiting the land of my (oh God, I’m sure he said girth again) and missing out on Sir Sean Finnery as Sir Walter Scott. Oh, Toeby!”

“Oh, Ian!”

Oh, shit.

Perry, you bastard. Of course we all kept up with each other’s Fringe schedules for the week, and a highlight of each evening in the B&B lounge (or morning at breakfast if we were staying out late on those cobblestones) was comparing notes on each show. Perry was well aware of my enthusiasm for Snorkelco, and now sweet revenge was his.
The five spotlights blinked on, with five Aquarium Heads reading from Rob Roy: Far and near, through blubberbubble hill, blubbelly blubble sound of Blobb Bloy’s name ubble blubble blub…

The audience was in tears. Then, as we all paused to inhale (Snorkelco, too), a rumbling voice from among us: “This isn’t Sir Sean Finnery!!”

Oh no, no, no. Now the audience was howling. Obviously this fat boob sitting behind me was some sort of plant.

“There’s been a tragical error!”, he persisted, and now two of the suddenly-confused Snorkelco team had inadvertently ingested water and had hit the floor. Aides from stage right raced in to assist, gesturing for the curtain. Surely this was part of the show. Then a scream pierced my left eardrum. Toeby!

Her husband, enraged at the nonsensical troupe that had pre-empted his beloved Sir Sean, and further stoked with fury at the audience laughter, had hauled off and socked the first face he saw within reach. And whose face might that be, Dear Reader? Why none other than the face of Snorkelco’s Number One Fan, Prince Harry himself, just back from his latest tour in Afghanistan and never more popular than now. Well, old fart or not, you don’t just punch a member of the Royal Family without suffering the consequences. Before the Prince’s bodyguards could grab Chinbeard and drag him to relative safety, Harry stepped in and introduced his attacker to the concept of a Glasgow Kiss. From my seat, by now almost directly underneath the action, I can report that HRH Harry possessed a head-butting technique that would make his Mum (and Grandad Phil, how’s that for a pair?), as well as goats everywhere, proud of him. The Professor’s nose cracked like a walnut, and I was immediately drenched in warm, sticky blood, as well as the brief notion that this might have gone rather well with this morning’s toast. More squealy screams, deep bellows of rage, and my goodness, a third member of the Snorkelco team has hit the floor, this time with the shattering of his Aquarium Helmut.

Goldfish everywhere.

Next year I’m going to Toronto. Nothing ever happens there, so they say.

NEXT: More ravings about beer, this time in Munich!

Monday, September 7, 2009

Sweet, Sweet Chocolate

This week, you are going to win half a million dollars in the lottery. It's not enough for anyone to care about, so nobody will bother you. Enjoy your winnings!

This week, the Hofbrau Brewery people will open their first Canadian beergarden franchise a ten minute walk from where you live.

This week in Mary Worth, Dr. Jeff Cory will throw Ol' Mare over his knee and give her a damm good spanking.

Ahhh....fantasies. They help make our lives so much more interesting. And some of them even have a hope of coming true.

This week, I'm going to enjoy some incredible, wonderful, TASTY chocolate from Europe. Actually, I enjoyed some of it earlier today, and there's more in store for tomorrow and beyond, thanks to a shopping spree I made earlier this summer in Berlin, Germany to my all-time favourite chocolate store, Fassbender & Rausch. Wow Oh Wow, is the chocolate there ever good.

There it is, at Charlottenstrasse 60, at the corner of Mohrenstrasse (Berlin's Stadtmitte U-Bahn station entrance is directly behind me, so it's easy to get to). This was once "East" Berlin - Checkpoint Charlie is actually a block ahead and just around the corner a bit - and the Fassbender & Rausch Chocolatiers have been doing their thing for over a century now.
Once inside the shop, you are met by a series of truly remarkable displays of chocolate products, featuring various degrees of cocoa content, from around the world, in a variety of shapes, sizes, and wrappers. It's a delight to spend the first several minutes of a visit just wandering up and down the aisles!
Yes, that's a chocolate Brandenberg Gate by the front door! They also have a chocolate Reichstag, a chocolate Titanic, and an erupting chocolate volcano, among other displays.
This is MY favourite display of the lot. Rows and rows of solid chocolate bars, ranging from silky milk chocolate to very intense and bitter high-cocoa content bars. You can get small, medium, or giant bars, or in stick format if you prefer. Each bar is named for the part of the world where its cocoa is harvested. They also sell variety packs, featuring a little square sample of each brand, allowing you to try each kind at your leisure. Yummy!

Fassbender & Rausch offer all kinds of gift packages, as well as individually wrapped chocolates with all kinds of flavours and fillings. They even have a cafe upstairs where you can enjoy a Hot Chocolate and a suitably sweet dessert!

Here we see Pauline ringing up my order and wondering if she's got enough bags to handle the amount of stuff I'm buying! Pauline lived in America for a time, and is great fun to talk with. Thanks for looking after me! Of course, it's a lot more relaxing shopping here in the summer than at Christmastime, when I imagine the place is very, very hectic.

I've enjoyed chocolate from Belgium, Switzerland, other parts of Germany, Britain (yea, Cadbury World!), France, the Netherlands, Austria and of course the United States (BIG shout-out to See's, another huge fave!), but this is the Mother Ship of Chocolate Wonderfulness for me and a Must-Stop every time I visit Berlin (well, 11 times and counting). If you get to visit Berlin one day, take a half-hour and have a wander into Fassbender & Rausch for a wonderful European, German, Berlin shopping experience. Even if you just buy one bar for the road, take time to breathe in deeply. Ahhh, REAL chocolate.

NEXT: Munich Beer Adventures!

Saturday, September 5, 2009

U Cerneho Vola, Prague

U Cerneho Vola
Loretanske Namesti 1
220 513 481

Yikes! I thought I had tastefully concluded my grand tour of Prague pubs, only to realize I had neglected to include one of the very best - the magnificent U Cerneho Vola or "At the Black Ox". Or "Bull" Your choice. I wandered into this beautiful building just after my visit to the Kloster Strahov above Prague Castle, and before my afternoon visit to U Zlateho Tygra.
Yes, they have Pilsner Urquell available here, but I was interested in the Kozel beer. The Black Ox is one of the few Prague pubs that offers Kozel, and a pint was going for about a measly $1.60 a pint. What a deal!

The amber was delicious, and dark-beer friend Ute reported that hers was also very tasty. And I wanted one of those Goat Beer Mats! Happily, that very mat is sitting at this very moment next to my keyboard.

It was another wonderful Czech beer success. I preferred this to the St. Norbert that I had recently consumed just a half block up the hill at the Kloster. I rate it at a very tasty 8.5 on my Yuk/Yummy Scale of Goodness, maybe not quite as fantastic as the Pilsner Urquell I was to find later that afternoon across the river at The Golden Tiger, but the atmosphere, service, and general beer deliciousness made U Cerneho Vola an absolute Must-Return for my next visit to Prague. I could have stayed there for a very happy afternoon. I gather its fame has spread world-wide - we ended up sharing a table with a visitor who lives about 10 kms from me, north of Toronto!

Charming, small, well-kept, and well-supplied with tasty Kozel beer. U Cerneho Vola is everything a thirsty visitor could want in a pub far from home. And that's No Bull!
NEXT: There's more to life than beer. Chocolate, for instance!

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

U Zlateho Tygra, Prague

U Zlateho Tygra, Prague
Husova 17
222 221 111

I had been in Prague for about 48 hours, and managed to fit in a nice assortment of pub visits along with some quality time exploring a few of the city's major attractions. Of all the major pubs I had on my list to try, U Zlateho Tygra ("At the Golden Tiger") was actually the closest to where I was staying. I put it off towards the end of my visit, however, for several reasons. I was somewhat intimidated by the press clippings - not friendly to outsiders, pretty much reserved for long-term "locals", weird opening hours. Saturday afternoon had arrived, and I still hadn't made the pilgrimage - however, a violent thundershower and being on my own for a couple of hours made the short journey of just a block and a half from my pension seem like a good idea. So off I went!

Once inside, I put my Czech Pub Etiquette to good use. Dobry Den! Je tu volno, procim? Yes! I was in! At the Golden Tiger is larger than U Hrocha and U Cerneho Vola, but smaller than U Medvidku. It's a Pilsner Urquell tankova, where the unfiltered, unpasturised PU arrives not in kegs, but by truck and is hosed right into the premises...right under that massive tap!

This is a pub with a history. It is famous as the "local" for many decades of Czech writer Brohumil Hrabal. Mr. Hrabal has been gone over ten years now, but a shrine is in place above his table, as filmed above. Also hanging for posterity is a photo of President Clinton meeting him during his visit to U Zlateho Tygra as a guest of Czech President Haval.
So what did I think? Well, for starters, Bill had by far the reddest nose of the three of them. Oh, the beer? Well! This is the hands-down BEST Pilsner Urquell I have ever tasted. Better than at U Hrocha or any other pub in Prague. Better than any bottled version I've tasted elsewhere. It was super-fresh, delicious, and with more time and a companion or two I could have spent many happy hours at U Zlateho Tygra enjoying more and more of this fantastic tasting lager. Yes, it's an easy 9 out of 10 on my Yuk/Yummy Scale of Hoppy Happiness. I want to come back to Prague, and this is one of the special spots I want to spend more time at when I do return.
It's a big "Na Zdravi!" from me, from U Zlateho Tygra, at the end of a wonderful first visit to Prague - the first of many, I hope. I hope that you enjoy reading these little unscientific reviews of my favourite beer places in this wonderful city, and that if you haven't already had the chance to come here, YOU will one day make the trip and compile your own list of favourites.
NEXT: Goat at the Ox!