First off, I apologise for not posting for a week. I was on holiday with my son, and while we shared a single room, my habit of getting on the computer at night was impractical. At his age, he needs the sleep.
Now I will be coming back with all kinds of fascinating impressions, the deep importance of wine and the love of technology that permeates this very different part of Germany. I will probably rant about water fountains (and the lack thereof) at some point. But above all, visiting four technology museums gave me the opportunity to look at many things one does not often see, from the tea kitchen of a vintage wagon-lit to the food rations issued to cosmonauts on ISS missions to the galley space of a 205-Class U-Boat. But today, I want to talk about something that impressed me pretty much every day, in the best way possible: Youth Hostel breakfast.
Incidentally, if you are travelling with children in Germany (or just travelling around the country in general), you should check out the Jugendherbergen. They have come a long way since the 1980s. I spent five nights at the Kurpfalz-Jugendherberge Speyer (I am not getting any kind of remuneration for this, just in case you are wondering) and every day, the breakfast buffet impressed me hugely. Not in the sense that it was the most delicious or varied breakfast imaginable, or that it offered culinary surprises, but in the very local virtue of doing much with little. The Upper Rhine is an area with a well-earned reputation for culinary excellence, but this was built on the back of a peasantry whose only chances of escaping grinding poverty were either ingenuity – hence the traditional affinity for technology in the region – or emigration, to the cities or to America, like my ancestors did in the mid-19th century. This is a place where frugality is an ingrained habit, and so is putting thought and effort into everything. In the middle of Germany’s worst bout of food price inflation since the Second World War, and at a price no university cafeteria could beat, breakfast was a pleasure, even if it started at 7.30 (as it will).
Yes, there were Brötchen. And also bread, Schwarzbrot and Graubrot both, because this is a German breakfast. This was positioned at the end of the buffet line so that you could have everything else on your plate before adding the bulkiest items. Also, thinking breakfast from the opson side makes sense if you think of it.
This is the Sunday buffet, which always includes scrambled eggs and bratwurst. This time, there was also roast vegetables. On weekdays, you do not get these. They were good, but I did not see them as the high point of the experience like some did.
The buffet always started out with a selection of cold cuts and cheese, accompanied by sliced tomatoes, cucumbers, and bell peppers. Again, the Sunday spread included extras – Pfälzer Leberwurst, Rotwurst and Saumagen – that the regular one does not, but the point is the effort that went into creating a selection that is appealing to as many people as possible from something that needs to fit into a very tight budget. I could get all of this at my local ALDI. That is probably where it’s from. I am not sure I could make it work like this.
That’s eight varieties of cheese, plus cream cheese with and without herbs. They used an ice cream scoop to produce the portions. There are also olives, gherkins, and pickled pearl onions. Just in case you like those (I do). It is those touches that really make me appreciate the place.
The butter was pre-portioned with a pastry syringe (a neat trick if you want to prevent wastage and not use excessive packaging). You can also see vegan breadspread and margarine in the background being eclipsed by the hard-boiled eggs. Yes, these are bought in pre-cooked, and no, they are not the highlight of the morning. But they were there, and that alone was impressive.
There was also, of course, jam, honey, and chocolate spread, because nowhere that caters to children can be without Nuss-Nougat-Creme. It was served from an ingenious portion-controlling dispenser and taken to the table in wafer cups that were not only edible, but actually quite good.
And of course there’s usually muesly. They had several varieties to go, as fancy took you, with milk (cow or plant-based), plain yoghurt, or the strawberry-flavoured kind. The sign in the back points out that they are happy to heat your milk for you on request (but are saving the hassle and expense of having hot milk on tap).
And of course there were drinks: Coffee, hot water for tea, orange and apple juice on tap, and a water dispenser that gave you hot or chilled.
Judging by what I heard someone on the staff say, the machines may suffer from the typical German fault of being designed to be too clever by half and thus prone to odd mafunctions, but one of them always worked for me. Which, incidentally, illustrates again the resourceful way of solving problems: there are two each. One may not work at any given time, after all. I sincerely wish the S-Bahn in the region had internalised that concept.
A lot of ‘serious food people’ are very likely put off by all of this. None of it is high quality, no unforgettable taste or holistic sensory delight to be had here. I grew up poor, though, I was raised on stuff much worse than this. And I challenge anyone who would turn up their nose at this breakfast to produce something better for all-around appeal with a budget of maybe 5 euros per head, including labour and energy. It is the perfect example of ‘doing more with less’ by applying hand and heart and mind. This, not burning down Mediterranean economies, is the true virtue of the legendary ‘Swabian housewife’.
(Yes, I know. Pfälzer and Schwaben are different things. But in this regard, they share a common glory)