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Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Tomato Sauce Recipe - Romance on a Budget

A tomato sauce recipe that you can make for as little as $2 a jar -- or just a bit more if you include all the optional ingredients.

Tomato Sauce Recipe Basic Ingredients
I made my first home-made pasta sauce at the age of 12. It was the first home-made meal that I ever prepared all by myself. I was trying to impress a girl, of course, and despite the fact that the recipe only made enough sauce for one quarter of my guests, this romantic ploy worked beyond my wildest dreams. It worked so well, in fact, that I had to figure out what to do with the girl! For the record, my luck soon deserted me. I didn't sort out the girl part for many, many years.

Tomato pasta sauce isn't cheap -- not by my skinflint standards, anyhow. A simple jar of basil and tomato sauce can run you anywhere from $2.50 (for a lame pasta sauce) to $8 (for a deluxe, gourmet pasta sauce). Regardless, the basic ingredients are the same: tomatoes, onions, garlic, basil and other seasonings. Does it have to be so expensive? With some energy and creativity it really doesn't, and you may find that you like your own sauce better than many of the store-bought varieties.

Tomato Sauce Recipe Chopped IngredientsHere is a very simple pasta sauce recipe that can be modified and tweaked until you feel it is perfect. The key to making the project worth the effort is making at least four jars at a time and carefully canning them yourself. You can refrigerate or freeze the sauce instead of canning but I recommend canning for long-term storage and best flavor.

The ground or crushed tomatoes should be purchased in bulk -- assuming you care about cost. Unless you grow them yourself, you will probably never find fresh tomatoes more cheaply than you can buy them canned in 6 1/2 lb cans. So save yourself the hassle (and a little money, too) and just use the canned variety. It's not a cardinal sin. Really.

You can find great prices on ground or crushed tomatoes at restaurant supply stores, club stores like BJ's., and even your local supermarket. I paid $4.49 for my 6lbs 9oz can of Cento All-In-One Tomatoes at my local Price Rite Supermarket. Cento is a decent quality brand imported from Italy and it makes a really nice sauce. That one can, with the other ingredients listed below, will make four jars of premium tomato pasta sauce.

"Romance on a Budget" Tomato Sauce Recipe

Ingredients:
1 6lbs 9oz can tomatoes (Cento All-In-One Tomatoes yielded excellent results)
3 T dried basil (or 1 cup chopped fresh)
1/2 T dried oregano (or 1 1/2 T chopped fresh)
3 medium sized onions
1 lb peppers -- one red, one green (optional)
1 head garlic -- about 10 cloves (use more if desired)
4 T olive oil (or more as necessary)
1/4 cup red wine (optional)
1 T salt (or to taste)
1 T sugar
(makes 4 jars)

Instructions:

  1. Open the canned tomatoes and pour into large, stove top stockpot. Use red wine (or a little water) to rinse the remaining tomatoes out of the can and into the stockpot.

  2. Turn heat to low or medium low ("2" is a good setting on my gas stove) and cover while chopping remaining ingredients. The pot should be bubbling happily within 15 or 20 minutes. Stir every 15 minutes and make sure to check the bottom with your spoon to prevent burning. If the sauce shows the slightest signs of sticking, turn down the heat!

  3. Chop onions and (optional) peppers into small, diced bits.

  4. Heat 1 T olive oil on medium low heat until it starts to shimmer in the pan, then add the dried basil and oregano to the oil. Saute for 30 seconds and then remove the herbs from the saute pan and add them to tomatoes.

  5. Add more oil to saute pan (this should not take long). Crush the garlic, using a garlic press, into the oil and saute for for 30 seconds.

  6. Saute for Pasta Sauce Recipe
  7. Add onions and (optional) peppers to garlic/olive oil mixture (adding more oil if necessary) and continue to saute until onions are translucent and sweet. (Note: I sauteed the vegetables in two batches because my pan could not comfortably hold them all. Don't crowd your saute pan.) You can cover the pan to partially steam the vegetables for a few minutes but you should mostly be sauteing.

  8. Add vegetables, sugar and salt to the bubbling sauce.

  9. Simmer sauce, covered, on low heat for a minimum of 2 hours, stirring once every 15 minutes or so. Continue to feel the bottom of the pan with your stirring spoon to be sure nothing is sticking.

  10. Carefully can any tomato sauce that you do not intend to use in the next day or two. I do not feel qualified to give canning instructions but you can easily find them elsewhere on the Internet. Don't cut corners when canning tomatoes as there are some risks if you do it badly.


Home Canned Tomato Sauce
You can add other ingredients, like meat, sauteed mushrooms, etc. to this pasta sauce just before serving it or half way through simmering it. I like to keep a more generic sauce on hand for the sake of flexibility but that is really up to you.

One final word of caution: if you plan to make this tomato sauce recipe for your date, be sure to have the girl part (or the boy part) sorted out well in advance.

Bon Appetit!

Friday, October 2, 2009

Via Alpina Day 2: Meilerhütte to Knorrhütte

Meiler h%C3%BCtte, Looking Back From the North

<< Previous Week: Via Alpina, Munich to Meilerhütte

Meiler hütte stands on the border of Germany and Austria. When I say that, I mean it quite literally; there is a border signpost at the corner of the porch. If it truly marks the border, I may have slept with my head in Germany and my feet in Austria.

Mornings here are dry and quiet: dry because there is no water to wash in or drink, quiet because everybody else knows this and sleeps at the next hut. I don't mind, really. It's an endearing little place, just a touch more rustic than usual. Perhaps for that reason I don't mind putting up with the little inconveniences.

I am awake by 6:00 and am the first hiker at breakfast. I am still on American time. Breakfast is unremarkable -- the standard thin slices of meat, cheese, bread and jam. I buy a liter of water to get me through my first hour of hiking and head out into the fog at 7:30.

Schachenhaus_Bayern_GermanyAfter a picture or two, I am off down the hill at a good speedy clip. It's 50 degrees and foggy. Great hiking weather, so long as it doesn't start raining. My legs feel terrific, not a bit sore from yesterday. My thigh muscles hold up well and, very quickly, Schachenhaus comes into view on the next plateau. A tiny, wooden castle built by King Ludwig II of Bavaria stands nearby, looking like a matchstick house from my cliff-top vantage. The castle was built in the late 1860's and was used for festivities of one sort or another. Fifteen minutes of knee-busting descent and I am at the door of the castle but it turns out that I have missed the open season. This is unfortunate, as I would have liked to have seen the elaborate "Turkish Room". I console myself with a vigorous cold-water rub down in the restroom of the humble Schachenhaus and fill my water bottle for the next leg of my hike. Outside, by the picnic tables, I can feel the sun's high-altitude rays stinging my shoulders as the water dries off in the chilly breeze. It is too early for a snack, only 8:30, so I pull on my shirt, strap on my pack and head down the hill toward Bock-Hütte, the next way station along the trail.

Bock-hutte on the Via AlpinaThe fog has cleared by now but I am down in the pines. The air is warmer, still very humid, and the misty dampness has left its droplets on a thriving fauna of moss and clover. I pass a gang of six young mushroom hunters as they climb up the hill. At this early hour they are already goofing around like they've been drinking. Perhaps they're just glad to be out of the city, young men showing off for their girls.

Around the bend, a carved wooden sign points the way to "Bock-Hutte". I am taking my time in these woods, taking pictures of moss and anything else that catches my eye. At quarter past ten I come to the hut, a small log cabin with two picnic tables on a little front porch. This might have been my lunch stop had I gotten a later start. Instead, I stop for a tall glass of buttermilk and eat the remaining plums from yesterday. I am making good time, despite the frequent stops, so I sit for twenty minutes and jot down a few notes before continuing.

It is amazing how quickly one adjusts to life on the trail. It was only two days ago that I was clumsily negotiating my way from Munich. Now it feels like I've been here forever, like I picked up again where my last hike ended. But my last hike was in Sweden on the Kungsleden, and that feels like ages ago. As nice as it was to have a change of scenery, I prefer the drama of the Alps to the tundra of the arctic.

The going is flat for the next forty minutes or so. I continue to make good time but, once back in the woods, am dogged by frequent mountain bikers who consider this path their own. They are polite but require the right of way, so I find myself always stepping aside. I don't enjoy walking on mountain bike trails. Thankfully, it has been my experience that trails like this are few and far between.

Waterfall and Mountains near Bock-Hutte, Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Bavaria, GermanyAn hour or so into the hike I notice a waterfall on the other side of a wide ravine to my left. It stays in sight and within thirty minutes I am level with it, across a wooded gorge. It appears to pour out of a cave and down a sheer cliff, hundreds of feet into the forest below. Above the streaming water, through a notch in the ridge, I see a snow covered mountain. It may be a corner of the massive Zugspitz, a mountain that towers over the local landscape but which I have not yet seen because of the cloudy weather. I don't really know if this is Zugspitz. I will have to ask.

The path works its way around the ravine and joins the waterfall's tributary stream. I follow its gravel bed through the woods to Reintelangerhütte, or simply Angerhütte for short. Angerhütte is a three-storey building with a concrete patio and a blue tarp to shelter me from the sun. It is a beautiful hut with red cedar shingles and first floor stonework but the tarp, and the Tibetan prayer flags, give it a shotgun-shack appearance. Regardless, the staff is friendly and lunch isReintalangerhutte, Germany exceptional: penne with a slice of tender pork au jus. I finish it off with a glass of carbonated apple juice and a apple strudel. It is just the thing to get me back on my feet for the final uphill push. I briefly consider staying for the night but most of the other visitors are bicyclists. I prefer to meet hikers and am hoping to find someone who is hiking my own trail. It would be nice to have some temporary companions.

The waitress tells me that Knorr hutte is just an hour and a half away. It will be mostly uphill but I have plenty of time. It is not even 2:00 when I enter the forest again.

flowing stones near Knorr h%C3%BCtteLeaving Angerhütte, the trail starts ascending almost immediately. Once again, I am completely alone on the trail. The mountain bikers disappeared after Angerhütte, preferring the flat or rolling terrain to the steady, endless climb. Before I know it, I am above the tree line. I take it very slowly, stopping frequently to photograph the massive cliffs and bizarre flowing stones, like grout between patches of deep, green moss. The climb is hard but short, and I reach Knorrhutte by 3:30.

I take off my boots at the door and slip on my Crocs. The dining room is bustling with activity. Most hikers have come up a different way from myself, and many are heading to Zugspitz. I am already too late to reserve a bed, so I will have to sleep on the floor. "Notlager", they call it, or "emergency camp" as opposed to "matratzenlager" or "mattress camp". I have slept in notlager in many huts. Invariably, I always get more privacy and better rest, so I am never concerned about showing up late. 3:30, however, is not late at all. It will be a crowded night.

I find a table that is mostly empty and write for a while in my notebook. I snack on apple strudel, and before long I find myself sharing the table with an American woman named Carol and her German companions -- all men. She is also a member of the Cliffs Along Via Alpina Red Trail near KnorrhutteAustrian Alpine Club, UK Branch. She thought she was the only American who even knew that this club existed. I tell her about my friend Charles who is also a member. Besides him, I know of no others. It is fun to talk with another American who shares my passion for the alps. Conversation flows easily for a good hour. She is a retired district attorney. She loves these mountains. She has been meeting her German companions in this region for over twenty years. Her husband stays at home in San Francisco. Like my wife, he doesn't enjoy hiking vacations.

A German Lieutenant joins us and, after a drink or two, he waxes philosophical about his upcoming tour of duty in Kosovo. "Military men do not make good police," he says. He is well educated and worldly. He clearly has mixed feelings about his responsibilities and we spend a pleasant hour talking with, and learning from, him.

By 7:00 the table is crowded with a dozen people all drinking, telling stories and joking. A young computer programmer named Volker tries to translate the German jokes for us -- they don't translate well. Wendy and John, a quiet couple from Munich, blush at Volker's humor. They smile pleasantly but do not say much. Much of the conversation is in English, for my benefit and Carol's. She speaks no more German than I do. It is an enjoyable evening, on par with some of my best times in Knorrhütte, Via Alpina, Bayern Germanyalpine huts. I drink radlers (beer and lemonade) rather than full-strength beer so that I won't be too dehydrated tonight and tomorrow. I order a kaiserschmarrn and offer some to my new friends who all decline politely. It is an eggy pancake covered in jam and powdered sugar, one of my favorite local desserts but often too much for one person to eat.

I am assigned a sleeping place around 8:00. This turns out to be a thin mattress in a nook in the hallway outside of one of the rooms. I return to the table and we raise the roof until ten PM. Then we all head off to our respective sleeping places, very likely to never cross paths again.

Next time: Coburger hütte

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Black Trumpet Mushrooms: The Elusive Craterellus Cornucopioides

Recently a friend and I stumbled upon some black trumpet mushrooms. I have started experimenting with preserving and preparing them. Here is the story of our discoveries and my cooking and storage experiments to date...
[see also Hen of the Woods Mushrooms]

Black Trumpet Mushrooms in Sunlight

The black trumpets appeared as if out of nowhere. We were not looking for them but, rather, were in pursuit of the more common hen of the woods mushroom.

I don't mind putting off the hen of the woods (aka: maitake) awhile for this new, delicious detour. It is still a bit early for the hen of the woods. Regardless, we went hunting for them this Saturday morning. I had already found the first specimen of the season -- two days prior -- and was overly optimistic about finding another. All of our regular oaks were still empty, unfortunately. Most hen of the woods are still just mycelia, waiting under the ground for just the right moment to show their leafy grey heads.

When I tell people about the mushroom hunting, I usually get some very worried looks. Charles recently admitted to me that he was convinced I'd gone over the cliff the first time I mentioned the idea. That was last fall, in the middle of hen of the woods season. I sold him on it, of course (did I mention that his mother calls me Dr. Death?), and now he is a man possessed. Mushrooms are like that. Once you pass the initial threshold, there really is no going back.

So the two of us were out in the woods, following paths lined with green mossy hummocks and heavy underbrush. The air was cool and smelled like the oak leaves that had fallen the previous year. Last week was rainy and the ground in some places was still damp with the remaining run-off. There were signs of deer, footprints and other spoor, and many colorful mushrooms were thriving in the dampness: their red, purple, white and grey caps popping through the forest floor.

We were visiting one of last year's best maitake oaks. The ground around it was a bare and spongy mat with no trace of the mushrooms that would soon fill the angles between the surface roots. I had almost lost hope when Charles, who had wandered down the slope toward a damp ravine, cried out "Jackpot!"

"Did you find a maitake?" I asked. He was standing in an empty space with no tree roots at all. It was unlikely that he would have found a maitake there.

"No, something even better," he said.

"What is it?" I asked, disappointed. It takes a lot of convincing to get me to try a new mushroom.

"A whole bunch of black trumpets, I think."

Black Trumpet Mushroom BouquetI had heard of the black trumpet, I knew they were related to chanterelles and, as such, would be a great score. I was not, however, equipped to identify these mushrooms.

Approaching carefully, not wanting to crush anything valuable, I scanned the ground for what might be the cone of a trumpet. It was a minute before they came into focus -- they are nearly invisible if you don't know what you are looking for. Then, all of a sudden, the forest floor grew a third dimension. Flower-like funnels, black bouquets, appeared everywhere around his feet.

Charles had an iPhone in his hand and was already scanning through Google images. He handed me the iPhone.

I am not at all careless about mushroom identification. These mushrooms, however, were said to be hard to mistake. Charles had been looking for them for the past three months and was convinced that these were the real thing. I decided to reserve judgment until I could do a bit more research. We would have been foolish, however, to leave the suspects behind so we set about picking them and gently placing them in a cloth shopping bag.

We scanned the vicinity for more of the same and, finding none, took a walk down the path to a similarly marshy area. It was a half-mile walk and completely fruitless. On the path we found ourselves dodging mountain bikers -- painfully shy about our own geeky hobby in the presence of athletes on wheels. After thirty minutes of pointless wanderings, we decided to return to our original hunting ground.

Black Trumpet Mushrooms with JackknifeThe decision was well made. Following the marshy ground, we uncovered three more patches of black trumpets before finally calling it a day. The take was well over a pound of mushrooms and, once back at my home computer, I was able to identify them, with unquestionable certainty, as the real mccoy.

The next thing to do was to cook some and see how they tasted. I sauteed a handful -- more than I would have eaten of most new mushrooms -- in butter with salt, basil, oregano and rosemary. The flavor was rich and delicious. The Italian herbs gave them a taste not unlike a pepperoni and mushroom pizza. The mushrooms, themselves, had a buttery, almost fruity smell to them. I have read it described as "apricot" but that does not describe these particular specimens very well. There is a delicate, rich sweetness to the smell, but I would not say apricot.

While waiting to see if I would have any negative reaction to my first dose, I set about processing the majority of my remaining mushrooms. I split them and removed a number of slugs and bugs, the latter of which would invariably make a run for it before succumbing to the butt of my knife on the butcher block.

Next I washed the mushrooms... I know, I know! Washing mushrooms is sacrilege but I just can't leave trails of slug slime on something I intend to eat. There was LOTS of slug slime, and I had seen too many bugs dash out of the trumpets not to think of the bug bits they might have left behind. Others should use their best judgment (and perhaps a nice clean paint brush). I don't advocate washing if your stomach is stronger than mine. I just can't do it, so apologies to the purists of the mushroom world.

I had read that the trumpets dried well. Last fall I dried hen of the woods mushrooms successfully in the oven. For the trumpets, I used a closed oven at 170 degrees, the lowest setting I have on my oven. It took about two hours and was not the perfect solution for the trumpets. There are several things I will do differently next time. First, I might not dry such a large percentage of the haul. Seeing nearly a pound of mushrooms shrink to 1/8 their original size is incredibly disheartening. The resulting cup and a half of dried mushroom dust will go very quickly and does not seem to have the same power of flavor as the original, fresh mushrooms. Second, I will try placing parchment paper under the rack on which I am drying my mushrooms. The mushrooms that fell through the bars became completely adhered to the cookie sheet underneath. This, too, was disheartening -- especially given my diminished stock. Third, I think I may try to dry the mushrooms in a cooler environment -- like a solar dehydrator, perhaps. They seem to have cooked while drying, and this may be the reason that they did not concentrate as much flavor as I had expected.

My second experiment was a black trumpet pizza. I used a red sauce, instead of the white sauce I had seen recommended elsewhere. I also used fewer mushrooms, sprinkling them less liberally than in the pictures I had seen. The result was a fine pizza but there was much less black trumpet flavor than I was expecting. The strength of the red sauce probably masked the trumpets somewhat, and the fact that I did not pile them on was probably a mistake. I will, in the future, use more mushrooms but I have not decided whether or not to use a red sauce. I am not as fond of white pizza.

Black Trumpet Mushrooms Vacuum SealedFor my third experiment, I vacuum sealed a small number of mushrooms and frozen them. This is against the recommendations of many authorities. Most recommend that you sauté your black trumpets and freeze them in a broth. Having successfully frozen hen of the woods mushrooms last year , I wanted to experiment with black trumpets in my new vacuum sealer -- and vacuum sealing broth is impossible of course, not to mention completely unnecessary since you can easily press any air out of the bag before sealing. So I took a handful of fresh trumpets and vacuum sealed them. In the bag they flattened out so much that they looked like a piece of beef jerkey. They then sat in the freezer for a week for the sake of the experiment.

Just tonight, I tossed the same handful of frozen mushrooms into a pan with olive oil, garlic and butter. The sautéed mushrooms had a hint of bitterness that was not there in the original sauté, and were slightly less tender but not offensively so -- really no tougher than sauteed spinach. The taste was still very good to my palate and, for the flexibility I gained by preserving them this way, I will definitely do it again. It will be interesting to see if the bitterness is more or less pronounced in other recipes. Approach this particular method with caution but don't avoid it altogether if you have the luxury of experimentation and an ample supply of mushrooms.

I hope to spend several more days in the woods before the remaining black trumpets succumb to frost. Now that I know where they thrive, I am optimistic that I may find another treasure trove before the season is over.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Via Alpina Day 1: Munich to Meilerhütte

Forest View from Above Leutasch Austria

<< Previous Week: Via Alpina, prologue

8/26/2006
I arrived yesterday afternoon at the four star NH Munich Airport Hotel, my first stop on the way to the Via Alpina's Red Trail. The fluffy white comforter reminded me that I was back in Bavaria as did the spotless, dustless modern furniture. For under $60, it was a real bargain. Still, on the shuttle back to the airport, I can't help but reflect that I am still hours away from the trailhead.

The subway station is at the airport so I have to return. This shuttle was free from the airport so I am surprised to find that the return trip costs €5. To an American, German customer service is often a touch too pragmatic: they have a vested interest in getting me to the hotel but no interest at all in getting me anywhere else. I guess it makes sense in a weird way but it wouldn't fly in the States.

My hiking attire is bizarrely unique in this mini-van of starched and cologned business-folk. Nobody tries to sit next to me, leaving me plenty of elbow room. I get the impression that my style, or lack thereof, is probably misunderstood. To the untrained eye, my dusty backpack and threadbare fedora give me the air of a hobo who maybe just won a pile on the horses.

The public transportation system around Munich is called the U-Bahn. The "U" presumably stands for "Untertage" (underground), so it is, nominally anyway, a subway. Not surprisingly, it runs mostly above ground out here in the countryside. Yellow stucco houses with red tiled roofs sit close to the tracks bordered by sculpted hedges and trellised vines. The yards are all planted with fruit trees and gardens. In my yard I grow more piles than plants. I am amazed to see that everyone here has such a green thumb.

It is difficult to make travel plans three thousand miles from your destination. Even so, the half-day of travel to Scharnitz, Austria was an amateur miscalculation. If I were to plan it again, I would never have slept so far from my destination. It will take 8 hours to hike to Meiler Hütte. That is a serious challenge for my first day, and I won't even start before noon.

While riding the U-Bahn it dawns on me that I haven't yet withdrawn any Euros. I have a few in my pocket from a previous trip but they won't get me far in the middle of nowhere. Hut to hut hiking in Europe requires lots of ready cash, so the first thing I want to do before heading south is to find an ATM. I hop off the subway and use my spare twenty minutes in fruitless wandering. I chase my tail through pedestrian tunnels and sleepy streets but don't find an ATM. Bahnhof München-Pasing is supposed to be a major commuter hub but it looks more like a quiet suburb. I return to the train station with some anxiety. If there are no ATMs here, will there be any in Scharnitz? How far will I have to walk just to find one, and will it take my card or decline it?

I sit nervously and wait for my train among smartly dressed locals. The minutes pass. The train must be late -- but if it were, there would at least be some raised eyebrows. I show my printout of the train schedule to the middle-aged woman next to me and she shakes her head skeptically. This really is a sleepy suburb. I got off the subway one station too early.

A half-hour later, at the real Bahnhof München-Pasing, I rush to the ticketing area. I am generally not a panicky traveler but this is starting to feel like one of those bad dreams where you make one small mistake and things spiral completely out of control. To lose a day at this point could really throw off my itinerary. My pulse is racing as I scan the departure board for an alternate train to the region.

I am saved by the one inefficiency of the German rail system. In the interest of comprehensive public transportation, they don't think twice about repeatedly sending half-empty trains on dead-end routes. Consequently, there is a train leaving in an hour for Mittenwold, just across the border from Scharnitz, not far from Innsbruck. So that's plan B, I guess.

I find an ATM and take out my daily maximum, the equivalent of about $400. Two close calls have been averted but I will have to start paying more attention to details. Mistakes in civilization are one thing but mistakes in the middle of nowhere can be deadly.

I settle myself in the slick, modern coach for the two-hour journey and consider my options. It would be a shame to miss the hike from Scharnitz to Leutasch but there is really no other way at this point. To start from Mittenwold now would be inviting disaster: one can't start an 8-hour hike into the middle of nowhere at 2:00 in the afternoon. I will have to get to Leutasch and start from there -- cutting off the first three hours of the hike. Perhaps I can catch a taxi from the train station.

On the train I see a group of hikers. The area where I am going has many popular hiking trails. If they are heading for my trail, they will be starting tomorrow. Chances are, they will be climbing other mountains. Even so, just seeing them makes me feel a little more at ease.

For those unfamiliar with European trail systems, I should give a bit of background. The Via Alpina is a newly arranged collection of trails that criss-cross Europe. I say "newly arranged" because many of the routes are reconfigurations of paths that have been used for centuries. The Via Alpina is really just another way to categorize, and connect, these same old trails. Some new paths have been (and will be) added for the purpose of continuity but, for the most part, it's just a way to encourage hikers to visit some less frequented trails.

It is in the best interest of the local hiking clubs to publicize new routes like those of the Via Alpina. These routes get people to some of the under-utilized huts that desperately need more visitors. Also, some of the more popular routes are so well traveled that they suffer from erosion and pollution. Spreading out the visitors is in everyone's best interest.

I belong to the Austrian Alpine Club's, UK Branch. As far as I know, there is no US branch of the Austrian Alpine Club. I might have joined the Appalachian Mountain Club, but I feel that the AACUK gives me the most bang for my buck in the Alps. Besides, I love Austria's mountains. They are affordable, remote and just as beautiful as the Swiss or Italian Alps; I like that my money goes to support that. I could probably get reciprocal benefits from the Appalachian Mountain Club but you just never know.

So I will see what this new, remote Via Alpina trail has to offer. I am not "thru hiking" but am, instead, chopping off a section hike that I think will be interesting. I chose it for the height of the mountains and the fact that there are plenty of cheap huts along the way. I have brought only the barest hiking essentials. My pack, some snacks, some warm clothes, some emergency items and water bottles. Not knowing the trail, I hope that I packed well enough.

As I disembark from the train, the sky is overcast but not threatening. Puffy clouds hang over the surrounding mountains like piles of white mushrooms. The weather could go either way. In all likelihood, I will be hiking into the clouds. I hope they look this friendly up close.

In front of the station several taxis stand waiting. I grab the second one. The driver has never heard of the Via Alpina. So I tell him: "I want to go to Leutasch... to a trail that will take me to Meilerhütte."

"I do not hike so much. I have bad knee," he says, as if I might hold it against him. But he thinks he knows a trail that will get me to Meilerhütte. He will take me to the trailhead for the small fortune of 20 Euros. He speeds out of town and into farm country. The countryside has few houses. The road is bordered by rough-hewn cow fences. Leutasch, Austria near the Via Alpina hiking trail to Meiler HutHe lets me out in a small pull-off at break in the fence. A yellow sign post says Meiler Hütte 22. I don't know what "22" means but I am hoping it does not mean kilometers. The driver takes my money, spins his tires in the dirt, and leaves me in the middle of nowhere. As the car disappears, the only sounds are the crickets, the birds and the ringing in my ears.

There is a bench near the fence. I put down my pack and click a few pictures. The trail crosses a field and disappears into the forest on the other side. I heave my pack onto my shoulders and head toward the trees, not knowing what to expect.

Two days of travel have taken their toll on my legs. Deep down they are strong but they complain almost immediately so I slow down my pace. It is a fairly mild hike at the start, more of a walk in the woods than a serious trek. I just need to get my thighs burned in a bit.

I pass a sandy, dry riverbed on my right. No doubt it overflows with the rains of April but right now it is dry enough to play host to two noisy dirt-bike enthusiasts. I don't think I'll see much more of that sort of thing for the next several days. Close by I connect with the Via Alpina which often shares the path with the Europäischer Fernwanderweg E4 ("European long hiking trail" E4). The E4 is an older route, developed and maintained by the European Rambler's Association. As I walk, I see signs for both the E4 and the Via Alpina, sometimes one above the other. I am familiar with some sections of the E4, as well as the Europäischer Fernwanderweg E5, but this stretch is entirely new to me. I am "wandern" the Via Alpina's version because it was well documented and slightly less well beaten. Since the Via Alpina is so new, I may just be the first American to walk this trail with these intentions.

The trail continues on a gradual incline until I reach a small spring. The water flows clear from under a little wooden platform in front of a mossy rock. The water appears clean and fresh but I have already filled my bottles. It is my tradition to drink any clean water I find on the trail, so I drink just a bit and then continue.

Shortly after the spring, the trail starts to climb more seriously. My legs have, by now, warmed up and the burn is a pleasant one. I slow down the pace to keep my breathing as regular as possible and enjoy the cool, leafy smell of the late summer woods.

Waterfall Cups Above Leutasch AustriaI hike another hour or so before emerging from the trees. The horizon widens, but only as far as the ridges around me. I pass a series of waterfalls, like cups carved into the mountainside, fed by snow and underground springs. Sheep graze, untended, nearby, and snow melts from banks along the edge. This is not glacial snow. It is too low for that. The spot is probably shaded much of the day, and the snow must have fallen quite recently.

Two hours into the hike, at around 4:00, I pause below the open mouth of a dark cave. I pull out some snacks that I bought for my lunch -- plums, cheese, salami, bread and a yogurt drink. I am tempted to investigate the cave but, not knowing how much further I have to walk, my better judgment keeps me out. Since I passed the off-road bikers in the sandy river bed, I have seen nobody else on this trail. I am surprised at how deserted it is. The trail is well-maintained but not at all well-used. Or perhaps it's the lateness in the day. In any case, I cannot afford the risks of caving along such a lonely route.

Sheep on the way to Meiler HutClimbing again, I cross over a ridge and soon find myself approaching the height of the darkening clouds. The only signs of life are lonely sheep that eat the patchy grass that clings between densely packed rocks. I should be more than half way there but there's no way of knowing for sure. So the clouds have my rapt attention. I have hiked through many rain storms in the wilderness, so I am well prepared for the worst. Still, I will be climbing to almost 8,000 feet today and would rather do the whole thing dry.

Climbing higher, the grass and the sheep disappear. I am left with the most desolate landscape I have ever encountered. The slope to my left drops off precipitously and my trail clings to a very slight lip of gravel cut into the grey mountainside. Tiny bits of rock give way under my feet as I walk, rattling down the mountainside, disappearing from sight. I imagine the danger of losing my footing. I could slide, or roll, a thousand feet before catching a large enough stone to arrest my descent. If the clouds turned to rain, the danger would increase, perhaps, two-fold. There are no second chances on a slope like this.Scree_Slope_Near_Meiler_hutte

The terrain continues like this as the clouds surround me. The water condenses on my jacket and face and the vagueness of the trail has me wondering whether I might have taken a wrong turn. There can be no trail markings on a slope like this. How could there be? They would be covered in a month with new gravel. So I follow the thin line, less than one foot wide, toward the farthest edge of the mountain. There is a false trail off to the left which I almost take. My instinct tells me, however, that I should be going up.

I turn a corner and the trail becomes firm again. But now I am hiking up an exhausting series of switchbacks. The switchbacks seem endless but, just as I wonder whether I will ever find the hut in this fog, a building creeps over the next ridge. A wave of relief washes over me as I approach an incongruous barbed wire fence at the top and see lights in a grotto behind the small building. Meilerhütte comes into view, with its two-storey glass doorway and its red cedar shingles. The grotto appears to be a shrine of some sort but I don't have the energy to investigate.

MeilerhütteI enter the building and take off my shoes. The entry way is a new addition to an old building. The rafters are new wood and one wall of the clothes-drying room is the side of the old building.

In the dining room I order an apfelsaft gespritzt (carbonated apple juice.) Two guitars hang, unused, from the brown wooden walls, and there are several black and white photographs. Otherwise, the room is unremarkable. On the far side of the room, a group of Englishmen pack around a small table. On the left, three Frenchmen are playing a game with little plastic pigs. They throw the pigs and collect points depending on the way that they land. I join the Frenchmen, to practice my French, but they end up practicing their English instead. I do not protest. They warn me not to drink the water here. It is collected from the roof and, as such, contains all sorts of unwanted bacteria as well as bird droppings. We chat for a bit about hiking. They are heading the other way on the E4 so it is unlikely that I will see them again.

For dinner, I order Eggs, potatoes, hash and a "radler" (half beer, half lemonade). It is filling and enjoyable -- just the right amount of salt and protein after my first day of hiking. I excuse myself to eat at a table with more free space. By the time I am through, the Frenchmen have gone off to bed. I write down some notes in my journal and then head upstairs to read myself to sleep by the light of my headlamp. I can't believe that I have come so far in just 24 hours.

Next Week: Knorrhütte

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Via Alpina - 10 Days Solo, Prologue

Via Alpina Trail Signs
Wednesday, August 23, 2006

I am packed and waiting, writing in my notebook some deepish-type thought about air travelers as insignificant dust particles. I pause to glance around the space-age Chicago O'Hare terminal and realize that 90% of my writing is doomed to be best appreciated by black spores in damp basement boxes.

I am killing time at a layover in Chicago, waiting for Lufthansa to take me to Munich. I'll be hiking alone in the Alps for ten days before heading to Venice where I'll meet my wife. My wife doesn't hike. She has more sense than I do. She prefers "normal" vacations. You know, the kind where you relax, stay in a hotel and eat delicious food. I, on the other hand, wear my vacations like hair shirts. There will be time for cappuccinos and artwork after I've done a good, thorough penance.

It would be lying to say that I wanted her to hike. Many people find this revelation shocking. Honestly, though, I love her even more for our mutual frankness on that subject. There are some things we do very well together and some things we just don't. At this point "roughing it" falls into the latter category. Three years ago she announced, quite firmly, that she'd had quite enough of "roughing it". We had just finished renovating the condemned Victorian apartment building. It had been a year of pure torture: January in Providence with no heat; three months of thick, brown hot water; nine months of a shower lined with plastic garbage bags and bats flying out of the fire-scorched bathroom ceiling to do laps around the kitchen, etc, etc... I'm probably stupid enough to do it all again but, for her, the whole thing was just a little bit much.

This morning that all seemed like ancient history as she dropped me at the Providence, T.F. Green Airport. We were sad but resigned when we said our goodbyes over a shared nacho platter and two Bass ales. Then we played peek-a-boo through the bullet-proof barriers as I negotiated the maze of blue belts to the X-ray machines. When I looked back over the crowd of baggage inspectors, she had disappeared. When we meet again again in Venice, I'll be relaxed enough to kick back with some seafood risotto by a dark, moonlit canal. Right now, I'm ready for exercise.

The seats in Chicago O'Hare are just comfortable enough to keep me off the floor. Barely. I can't quite say why I like airports so much. The food is the flavor of cardboard packaging, the staff is dismissive at best, and there's nothing to do here but wait. On the other hand, there are no responsibilities. And flying... there is something so unbelievable about flying. I get into an aluminum tube with wings and, incredibly, it flies me wherever I want to go.

After an hour lay-over, I am sitting in my window seat inside a trans-Atlantic jet. This seat even comes with my own magic television and headset -- free with my ticket! Could I possibly be happier here?

The captain's accent is Midwestern and reassuringly confident. He'll stay awake while the rest of us sleep. It's kind of like having my dad at the wheel of the station wagon when I was a kid. Riding at night, with the back seats folded down under my pillow, I never felt safer.

It's twenty minutes of taxiing, turning and waiting before the pilot gives his orders to the crew. The attendants strap into handy little shelves that pop down from the walls. The engines fire again -- this time with feeling -- and the plane crawls, then sprints, then rockets forward. Gravity pulls us back in our seats as the nose lifts off of the runway. Every seam in the airplane wrenches to adjust to the pull of the two massive jet engines.

By the time the rattling settles down we are soaring over the countryside, breathing strange, metallic air from screw-down vents that chill balding heads like my own. The television sputters to life and the attendants unbuckle from their shelves. I watch a few brainless sitcoms then read for a spell. After a sticky airline meal, I grab two airline pillows and fold up the arm of the vacant seat beside me. I wrap my legs and shoulders in a blanket and, with the benefit of many months of research and five previous trips to the Alps, try to visualize the next two weeks.

I'll be starting my hike in Scharnitz, Austria, a stone's throw from the German border. I'll hike on the Via Alpina "Red Trail" for about seven days, staying in the alpine huts and tiny villages that I find along the way. By day seven or eight I should be in the bustling town of Oberstdorf, Germany, where eight years ago I had a memorable dinner in an outdoor beer garden with my old friend Charles. Then I'll turn south to hike three more days along the Via Alpina's "Yellow Trail". This northern section of the Yellow Trail is identical to my old, familiar E5 route. I will follow these paths to the quaint little town of Zams. Up the road from Zams is a small city called Landek. From there I hope to catch a train to Venice.

At least that's the plan. I have no real idea what this trek will be like. Even in August, the weather in the Alps can be fickle and dangerous. I am hiking alone and must be cautious. The trails I am hiking may not be well-traveled. All things considered, I may need to take some liberties with my itinerary.

This will be my first completely solo hike. I have always hiked with friends in the past but, as I get older, everyone else becomes busier. Money and time becomes a major obstacle. So, if I want to keep hiking, I will need to hike solo more often. Happily, I've never had a hard time making friends on the trail.

On this thought, sleep finally overcomes my upright position and carries me off, mouth hanging open, snoring like a bear in a cave, no doubt.

Leki Hiking Stick in the Alps

Next Week: Meilerhütte

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Hen of the Woods Mushrooms: Preserving and Storing the American Maitake

Last fall, a friend and I experimented with freezing, drying and canning hen of the woods (maitake) mushrooms. These were our discoveries:
[see also Black Trumpet Mushrooms]

Maitake / Hen of the Woods Mushroom

Disclaimer

This blog post is not to be used for mushroom identification purposes. If you are interested in wild mushrooms you should seek professional (and possibly psychiatric) help. I take no responsibility for the consequences of your bad judgment. I have enough trouble dealing with the consequences of my own.

Introduction

Last fall, my friend Charles and I collected a number of Grifola frondosa mushrooms. Commonly known as "hen of the woods" or "maitake" mushrooms, they are easy to spot and identify . Being novice mushroom collectors, we decided that it would be best to start with a type that was simple to identify and fairly easy to locate. We ended up collecting about twenty or thirty pounds of maitake between the two of us. It was so much that it would have been impossible for us to eat it all before it went limp in the refrigerator.

My wife has less interest in this sort of thing than I do. She is a bit more down to earth and prefers her food to come from somewhere other than the base of a tree at the side of a country road. Even if she had been more enthusiastic about the earthy flavor of these hen of the woods mushrooms, we never would have eaten our entire share in the short time that they were available.

Charles had the same dilemma. His wife, though more interested, was pregnant at the time. Their other child was only three and it seemed a bit dangerous to start feeding him wild mushrooms at such a young age. The obvious solution was to experiment with various means of storing our bounty. Between the two of us, we tried three methods of preservation: canning, drying and loose freezing. I thought it might be interesting to report on the results of these experiments and to pass along what we learned in the process.

Hen of the woods mushrooms are found in the northeast between late August (in Maine) and November (southern New York). In Rhode Island and southern Massachusetts, we had good luck from late September through the end of October, 2008. We got started a little late, however. Charles reports that his wife spotted the first Grifola already, during the last week of August. So the hunt is on.

Maitake Mushroom Ready for CleaningThe Grifola frondosa mushrooms that we collected last year were up to a foot in diameter and ranged from one to five pounds in weight. They look a bit like the grey-brown children of a cauliflower and a coral. They do not taste very good raw but, freshly picked and sauteed, they are richly flavorful mushrooms that cook up nicely in butter and garlic. Frondosa make a brilliant side dish and a delicious mushroom soup. They go well with poultry and would be a great addition to chicken or turkey stuffing. I like them with my eggs instead of home fries. One might substitute these mushrooms anywhere that a cooked portabello would be appropriate but where twice as much flavor is acceptable. It is always bad form, of course, to serve wild mushrooms to anyone who is not very excited and completely aware of the potential consequences of mis-identification, so I did not experiment too widely with larger-scale preparations and was hesitant to involve my extended family in the process. In the end, my sister was the only one brave enough to try one. She was thrilled with the result and will be excited to hear that the season is once more upon us.

Storage Methods

The methods that I, personally, used for storage were loose freezing (as opposed to vacuum freezing) and drying. I bought a vacuum bag sealer too late in the process but intend to try this method soon as an alternative to loose freezing.

To freeze the mushrooms, I used the following process:

  1. I washed each head in a large pot. To do so, I filled the pot with water, turned the head upside down and dunked it forcefully into and out of the water until the water was dirtier than the mushroom itself. This process was repeated with fresh water until there was no more dirt to come free.

  2. Next, I separate the heads into smaller, cauliflower-like, stalks, picked out the twigs, cut off the embedded dirty bits and rewashed the remaining stalks thoroughly again.

  3. I then dried the stalks and froze them overnight on a cookie sheet. This helped keep the stalks from freezing together so that I would be able to thaw only what I needed for any given recipe.

  4. Once frozen, I placed the stalks into Ziplock® freezer bags and pressed out all the air I could. This was a real challenge, as the frozen stalks had a lot of air between them and were sharp enough to penetrate a freezer bag.




To dry the mushrooms I used a similar process, the only difference being that I placed the cookie sheet in a warm oven on the lowest setting (170 degrees) with the oven door open. I let them sit like this for perhaps 24 hours, warming up the oven every few hours and then shutting it off. In the end, I closed the oven door for an hour with the heat on. I think I would probably experiment with closed door drying next time, as this seemed to dry them much more quickly. I don't want to cook them, though, so this will require some experimentation. My result, however, was quite satisfactory. The pieces were extremely lightweight, shriveled and could be easily snapped without bending, even at their thickest points. An entire three pound maitake, dessicated, can fit into a 16 ounce hummus container, and I have successfully stored such a mushroom for an entire year.

Maitake Mushroom Cleaned and CutTo can mushroom soup base, you are pretty much on your own. I did not prepare the mushrooms this way, so I cannot give any advice except the basics and to suggest that canning is a potentially dangerous process so you should proceed with caution. Charles found the recipe here and, against the advice of the author, substituted chicken stock for water. He also held out the cream, to be added after the can was opened. It was a delicious, peppery soup that went well with poultry and winter vegetables.

Preparation of Stored Mushrooms

The frozen mushrooms were easily thawed and prepared just as if they were fresh. As time went on, however, they began to exchange odors in the freezer with my other frozen goods. They also became tougher as the water from the mushrooms turned to frosty crystals on the stalks and florets. After three months, I lost interest in the frozen version and, after six months, I tossed the remaining pieces.

I had kept the dried mushrooms in a small container in the back of our kitchen storage cabinet. I had not bothered to reconstitute any of them until this weekend for no reason except laziness and the fact that nobody else in my household was likely to eat them with me. The coming mushroom season made me curious, however, so last night I decided to soak enough for breakfast.

This morning I tried the reconstituted Grifola frondosa, and they are definitely worth the trouble. They were a bit less tender than fresh but, considering their year in storage, plumped up more than I expected. I compensated by cutting them smaller than I would have with fresh, and they were a tasty side to my morning eggs. I would consider them as a fun, healthy alternative to bacon or home fries.

To prepare dried hen of the woods mushrooms:

  1. Place the dessicated bits in a bowl and cover them with plenty of warm water. Place a plate on top to keep out any insects or stray debris.

  2. Let them sit for 30 minutes or more, until they are elastic and easily cut with a sharp kitchen knife. They will not grow back to their original size, and the stalks will remain somewhat shriveled. I estimate that they are perhaps half their former size.

  3. I chose to slice the pieces more thinly than I would have with fresh or frozen mushrooms. I diced them into 3mm to 5mm bits and pan fried them with salt and butter. The results were exceptional. If I'd had garlic on hand, I imagine that the flavor would have been indistinguishable from fresh. They could easily be substituted for fresh mushrooms anywhere that diced bits would be acceptable.



Reconstituted mushroom observations:

  • The reconstituted pieces were a little bit tougher than fresh or freshly frozen mushrooms. The stalks were the toughness of, perhaps, al dente green beans (without any unpleasant stringiness), the fronds were almost as tender as fresh -- the texture reminded me of a seaweed salad.

  • The reconstituted mushrooms were not quite as fragrant while cooking. This is not a bad thing, really, as the fresh mushrooms have the tendency to fill a room and linger -- a bit like lobster -- well after the meal is over. Twenty minutes after cooking the dried version, the smell was almost gone. If they were fresh, I would have been smelling them for 24 hours. This may have something to do with the lack of garlic, however, so I will need to test this with garlic later.



Conclusions

Compared to freezing in loose bags, except for the very short-term, drying is definitely preferable. The resulting product they will keep indefinitely and can be stored without electricity in a very small space. I think I would prefer this method for long-term storage even to freezing in vacuum-sealed bags. However, vacuum freezing gives easier access without reconstituting and, if done correctly, will probably give a better result for at least the first three to six months.

Canning is a great way to provide quick access to a liquid version but is obviously less flexible than drying or freezing. Soup could easily be made from the dried stalks, and I imagine there would be no discernible difference in flavor. The difference would be in the prep time. It is always nice to have a nice can of soup on hand on a cold winter day.

Bon Appetit!

Thursday, August 27, 2009

E5 Epilogue

Hiking In The Alps

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Bolzano, Italy, known as Bozen to the German speakers in the region, once belonged to the Austro-Hungarian empire. Just like the rest of South Tyrol, it came under intense pressure to become more Italian during the earlier part of the last century. The city has, more or less, capitulated, though the region as a whole is still quite ethnically divided. Consequently, as we were soon to discover, the German language is of little or no use in Bolzano.

By the time we stepped on the bus in Moos in Paseier, we had both decided we were done with our hiking trip. We had some regrets about not completing the entire section of the E5 from Konstance to Bolzano. Nonetheless, we had done the lion's share of it. The remainder was child's play compared to the hundred miles we had already covered.

Looking at myself in my hotel room's full-length mirror the previous evening I had seen a skeleton. My ribs were visible above a sunken stomach, my cheek bones protruded. Maybe it was just the fluorescent overhead bathroom lighting but, at least in that light, I was beginning to resemble a starved prisoner of war.

Charles had other concerns. He couldn't stop thinking about his office and the problems to which he should be attending. Being so far out of touch at a time of crisis was hard to endure. We still needed to make it back to Paris somehow and then, if luck was with us, catch an Air-Hitch flight out of Charles de Gaulle Airport. Thinking about the time this would take was practically giving him hives.

The bus dropped us off at the train station in Bolzano. The station was striking to look at but, much like the region itself, it had a peculiar split personality. The right half was all grey Doric columns and Greek styling. The left half was more Mediterranean in design with a tall, square clock tower and reddish brown shingles. Clearly one half had preceded the other but it was hard to tell which might have come first.

We said goodbye to the Übers and they went off in search of a cable car to take them to the beginning of the next trail. We were sorry to see them go, not knowing if we would ever see them again, but after 11 days in the mountains we were tired of bunk rooms and ready for some city food.

We entered the ticketing hall and Charles went to the window to buy tickets on the night train while I waited with the bags by the entry way. When he returned he was beside himself with anxiety.

"We're stuck in Bozen," he said. "We may as well find a hotel and settle in."

"What to you mean?" I asked, incredulous. On the board were at least two trains leaving for Paris that very day. "Look at the departures."

"Oh there's trains, " he replied. "We just can't get reservations on any of them... not for the next four days."

I was stunned. Bolzano was a nice little city but we couldn't possibly stay for four days. I shook my head. "That doesn't sound right," I said. "That just can't be possible."

Charles tilted his head and looked at me with a hard, fed-up stare. He was as tired of me as I was of him. It wasn't the first time I had let him do the dirty work and then questioned his results. "Well, if you want to go and argue with the lady, be my guest."

Now nobody likes a know-it-all -- or so I've been told more times than I can possibly remember. My main problem is that I believe myself to have remarkable insight into things that I don't really understand at all. This belief, coupled with a fairly good track record for guessing, has driven many former friends and acquaintances to absolute distraction.

The fact that I came back with tickets won me few points with Charles. He could tell, from the thinly veiled smirk on my face, that I was gloating.

"What the hell?" he said when I gave him his ticket.

"I think you were asking for a reserved ticket," I said -- making a weak attempt at tact. "These seats aren't 'reserved'. We just sit wherever there's an empty seat."

It was probably better that we split up for the rest of the afternoon. Charles went in search of a Döner kebab and I went off to read in the shade. We agreed to meet back at the station thirty minutes before departure.

Bolzano felt tropical after our time in the nearby mountains. Vines tumbled over high, stuccoed garden walls, and everything was lush, fed by no fewer than three glacial rivers. Kiwi fruit dangled from backyard trellises, shaded by their elephant-eared vines. Vineyards anchored the nearby slopes, and the mountains, still capped with snow, were the backdrop of every vista. The homes on the nicer streets were vast and square. They were invariably stuccoed and either yellow, peach or beige in color. Where this wealth came from and how these grand properties continued to be maintained was a mystery to me.

We met back at the station in the early evening and claimed an unreserved cabin on the train. The train was an over-nighter, arriving in Paris the following morning, and we were determined to keep the cabin to ourselves. To do so, we came up with a devious, and blatantly inconsiderate, plan.

Initially, we spread out our bags to make it appear that every seat was taken. This ruse worked well, and soon the train was rolling out of the valley and into the darkness of the countryside. But now we needed to lie down and, somehow, keep others from trying to claim the seats we were using as our beds. I don't know which of us came up with part two of the plan in which we put on our headlamps, shut off the cabin lights and laid down -- heads at the outside wall of the train. Every time the train came to a stop, we would turn on our headlamps and aim them at the door. Anyone who paused to look was greeted by two bright beams staring silently out of the darkness. Needless to say, nobody had the courage to turn on the lights and ask if they could take an empty seat.

We arrived in Paris fairly well rested and took rooms in a youth hostel. We didn't see much of each other from then on. I wandered the city for a couple of days. Charles went right to work with Airhitch and got himself a flight out early the next morning.

Three days later I was back in Boston, at home with my girlfriend and working at my dead-end job. But that trip had changed me. It planted in me a travel-bug and, dare I say it, a sense of confidence that has, so far, been responsible for nearly a dozen European adventures as well as a dramatic career change.

Two weeks later we met to debrief in a bar in Somerville. Instead of reminiscing, we nearly came to blows. We had bottled up so much mutual resentment that we could hardly stand to be in the same room, let alone sit at the same table. I don't think either of us realized just how tired we were of each other. After that evening we wrote off our friendship entirely.

Soon after, I began making landmark changes to my life. I ended my 4-year relationship and moved in with an Italian con-artist, a French exchange student and a nymphomaniac dental hygienist -- but that's a story for another time. I helped launch a Web design company and buried myself in my work. My main goal was to make enough money to travel whenever I wanted. Nothing mattered except my next hiking vacation to the beautiful mountains of Europe.

I was, however, troubled by the thought that I had lost such a good friend. I couldn't even remember the reason. All I could recall were the good times. The embarrassing "Heiße Liebe" sundae; the Übers; the magnificent glacier over Braunschweiger Hütte; the giant breakfast in Zwieselstein.

So I stoked up my nerve and called him. A machine on the end of the line told me that the number had been changed. There was a forwarding number, however, so I wrote it down and tried it. A woman answered.

"Is Charles there?" I asked hesitantly -- not sure if I might have misdialed.

"No he's not. Can I ask who is calling?" she replied.

I told her.

"Oh, it's you," she said, smiling on the other end of the line. "I've been trying to get him to call you."

"You have?" I asked, puzzled. Who was this woman and how did she know me?

"Yes, he is always talking about you and the great times you had together. I told him it was stupid that he was so stubborn and that he should just call."

I left a message and Charles called me back that very evening. It was as if we had never once argued in our lives.

It may sound strange but I feel that our friendship did not really start until after that reconnection. Since then we have hiked many times together (see my Kungsleden travelogue) and many times apart but we have always taken this lesson with us: it is great to travel with a friend but one must have the courage to hike alone and to be one's own guide.

I am pleased to say that we have maintained a rewarding long-distance friendship with the Übers. Robert has come to visit us here, and Charles and I hiked with the whole family again several years later. Robert is now in his mid twenties, with a graduate degree and a fianceé. His English is better than ever, and his parents, ten years on, continue to hike over alpine glaciers.

Hiking a Knife Edge In The Alps

Happy trekking!
K-

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Over Timmelsjoch and Into the Italian Alps - Day 11

Fernwanderweg E5

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The trip to Zwieselstein brought two minor miracles. The first was, of course, Charles' survival on the treacherous snow field. The second was an 8 oz bottle of Canadian maple syrup that we found in Zwieselstein's tiny supermarket. I must caution my more adventurous readers that this supermarket has since been replaced by an ill-stocked convenience store with little more than carbonated drinks and junk-food snacks. At the time, however, we were able to piece together all the ingredients of an elaborate Lumberjack Breakfast for the entire hiking party.

We treated the Übers to what we imagined would be a breakfast epiphany. Once they had tried our breakfast, we speculated, word would spread through Germany and the entire continent about the pleasures and benefits of the Lumberjack Breakfast. I called home for my favorite pancake recipe, Charles fried up eggs, fatty ham (a decent bacon substitute) and diced potatoes. We offered orange juice and coffee, the whole works.

To our great surprise, the Übers didn't quite get it. Perhaps they were taken off guard by the heaps of carbohydrates, sugar and cholesterol. They didn't seem to know what to make of the maple syrup that I was pretty nearly drinking off the plate. For people who were used to eating their oats raw and their meats in paper-thin slices, it was probably a bit of a shocker. Regardless, we were very pleased with ourselves. My meager morning rations had been making me very homesick.

By the time we had cleaned up, the Übers had a good head start on us. We had arranged to meet for lunch at Timmelsjoch, the mountain pass into Italy.

Our morning hike started uphill from Zwieselstein. There was some confusion here due, I believe, to an overzealous (or sick humored) trail blazing team. The guidebook suggested that we hike up a dirt road but the first blazes we spotted were in the middle of a field. So we climbed the fence and proceeded to wade through damp, thigh-high stinging nettles and field grass up a thirty degree slope.

We soon found ourselves running back and forth, like desperate squirrels, searching for rocks with painted red and white stripes. Eventually the blazes disappeared entirely and we were left standing like idiots in the middle of the field. So we trudged blindly upward. The real trail, discovered on later hikes, is the dirt road that runs up the left of the field. Our farce concluded when this road crossed the field about a quarter of a mile up. Wet with dew, and exhausted from bushwhacking, we clamored over the stone wall and onto the real trail.

We soon passed through a pine forest and then out into fields again, this time with a proper trail and miles of open grassland. The sky seemed vast and beautifully blue after yesterday's fog. We were now crossing the high plains of the Ötz valley. A road ran through the center, taking traffic up to Timmelsjoch, our lunch meeting place and half-way point and the psychological (if not the actual) half-way point between Zieweselsteain, Austria and Moos in Passeier, Italy -- our destination that evening. As the trail opened up, Charles walked on ahead. My energy was lower than usual, and my pack felt heavy.

Sheep grazed lazily on the alpine grass, bored and unattended. I found water in a stream under a footbridge and refilled my bottles. The trail crossed the road several times as I climbed the grassy slopes of the canyon. It was a pleasant walk, despite my lethargy.

Timmelsjoch stands at the border between Italy and Austria. My first sight of it was an old, dilapidated building on a distant ridge as I climbed up the left side of the Ötz. On the road below, motorcyclists and trailer trucks sped by. The terrain was becoming dryer and more desolate, a marmot screeched in the distance and a hawk circled overhead. The sun and the dry wind evaporated my sweat as soon as it started. I could see Charles, perhaps a half mile ahead, climbing steadily. I was in no hurry. My pant legs were hard and caked with dry dust, and my appetite had not yet returned.

When we got to the top, we met the Übers at the small Rasthaus Timmelsjoch, 8231 feet above sea level. The Übers had taken a long table with a large picture window at one end. The view was impressive, and we happily joined them for lunch. I ordered a weisswurst and, on a whim, decided to try an Almdudler, a soft drink that I had seen all over Austria. It tasted a little like a ginger ale but indescribably better, and I immediately regretted not having drunk more of it over the past week.

The sausage came quickly and was perfectly acceptable but I was starting to feel just a little bit off. The Almdudler helped, and I ordered another. Charles practiced his German and I faded back from the conversation. I was glad that the climbing part of the day was behind us but we still had several hours of weary descent before Moos.

Leaving the restaurant we stepped into the dramatic Passeier Valley at the frontier of Italy and Austria. Down the slope were the remnants of battered buildings and redoubts that appeared to be World War I defenses. Before the war, both sides of this pass belonged to the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The slope seemed to have been fortified and defended against the Italians -- perhaps falling to the invaders as the Austrians retreated.

Since the treaty of Versailles, the region of South Tyrol has belonged to the Italians. The German speakers of the South Tyrol are still said to resent their Italian government. These days their solidarity takes the form of a blue apron worn by most German-speaking men in rural towns. This traditional apron is part of their working class heritage but also shows a passive resistance to Italian influence.

As we descended the slope we could study the shattered fortifications (or what we Unterhalb der Grenze near Timmelsjoch, Italytook to be fortifications) first hand. Goats and cows grazed in the empty foundations. Stone walls crumbled, pock-marked with age or, perhaps, bullet holes. I stepped into the most intact building, its wooden shutters rotting, doors falling off hinges, windows barred. The floor was littered with broken furniture and rusty wire. I tried to imagine what it might have felt like to man such a place in a time of war. The winters would have been merciless, the summers bloody. Now it looked, and smelled, like the birds had taken over.

Dietrich told us that there had been a massacre somewhere on these slopes in the early 20th century. My research has revealed no mention of the incident, however, so I can neither confirm nor deny this story. Regardless, we were impressed both by his knowledge of history and by the fact that we were standing on the brink of such a terrible, beautiful, place.

As we worked our way down during the following hour, the valley became greener. The sound of cow bells echoed off the canyon walls and rocky slope gave way to fenced pasture land. Soon the trail rejoined the road that had come down from Timmelsjoch.

The next stretch was treacherous, along the side of a busy highway where motorcyclists and sports car drivers, high on exhilarating switchbacks, took little notice of the weary hiker. The road was hot and the heat penetrated my boots. The sun burned the back of my neck and I sought shade at every opportunity.

I was still feeling queasy and, when the trail finally diverged from the road, I started to fall behind. The farms in this valley were both quaint and intriguing, clinging to the walls of the canyon like oysters. Near one farm, a generator buzzed away in an outbuilding, powered by a small stream. Goats grazed and farmers toiled, seemingly unaware of the nearby highway linking them to the outside world.

Rabenstein/Corvara In PasseierCharles and the Übers were waiting for me at the edge of the road in the beautiful mountain village of Rabenstein. We hiked through town and a bit further before the trail diverged to follow a concrete-lined river bed. The river was divided into a series of ugly, artificial waterfalls. Even so, angular marble boulders were everywhere, standing by the path and obstructing the concrete bed. Fallen from the cliffs above, they seemed determined to take back the river.

The path, itself, was littered with bits of marble, and there was evidence of quarrying everywhere we looked. I picked up a bright white lump while Robert was walking beside me. "For your girlfriend?" he asked, and I had to admit he had read my mind. I wondered what other talents this insightful young man was suppressing.

Near Moos in Passeier, Italien -- Moso in Passiria, L'ItaliaBefore we reached Moos, Dietrich told us that his family would skip the next several legs of the hike. "The next few sections are not so dramatic," he said. "We will take the bus to Bolzano and continue from there."

This was a surprise to both Charles and me. We had come to consider the Übers part of our hiking party and would regret being left behind. Still, we had not planned to continue further than Bolzano and had no maps of that region. Charles had fond memories of the next several legs of the trail from the previous year but he had to admit that there was far less altitude and much more pasture.

Our path passed a rock wall covered in chalk smears and bolted for climbing. Shortly thereafter we entered the tiny town of Moos in Passeier/Moso in Passiria, a town that appears to be built around three or four small, central hotels. We arranged with the Übers to meet at one of several outdoor cafes in the middle of town, and Charles and I retreated to separate rooms to wash the dust from our bodies and clothes.

My queasiness had been replaced by mental exhaustion and a mild depression. Heavy drinking lowers the serotonin levels in the brain. I have, since, realized that this tends to make me depressed several days after a bender. I attribute my poor performance on this day to my drunken night at Braunschweiger coupled with the physical exertion of the hike. Had it not been for that binge, things might have turned out somewhat differently.

An hour later, when I met Charles in the foyer, he was visibly concerned. He had called his secretary, just to check in, but it turned out that something serious had cropped up while he was out. "I should be doing damage control," he said. He did not go into details but I knew from past conversations that his work-place was a hub of intrigue. From what little he told me, I assumed that someone was taking advantage of his absence for their own political gain.

I probably dismissed his worries without showing much empathy. In this travelogue I have shied away from dwelling on our tension but it had continued to grow by the day. I was still treating Charles as a tour guide more than a friend and failing to appreciate the efforts he was making. I took for granted his help with translations and resented him for not being able and willing to communicate all of my wishes to every hotelier and shopkeeper. The details are not central to this travelogue but the repercussions would alter our friendship in significant ways.

Despite these tensions, we still felt like celebrating with the Übers. We had hiked with this amazing family for what seemed like a very long time. If we were never to see them again, we wanted to make the best of this final dinner. The cafe we chose turned out to be a good one. Robert helped me to order a meal that we both thought might be gnocchi but which turned out to be cheese balls again. Now you might think that, after all of the cheese balls I had endured, I would have dumped the plate into the nearest plant and ordered another dinner. Instead, I gave them another try and, amazingly, they were actually quite tasty. A good Italian cook can make just about any meal great. I drank a large beer and enjoyed a cheese strudel for dessert. The entire thing came to less than $12. Of course, the exchange rate was much better in those days.

With the future of our hike uncertain, we agreed to take the morning bus to Bolzano with the Übers. Then we each retreated to our separate rooms and I, for one, fell directly into blissful sleep.

Next week,
E5 Epilogue

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Off Topic - The Guns of New Hampshire

When I was 22, I worked in a pottery factory in Dover, New Hampshire for about nine months. It was a dirty job but it did not require me to think too much. As I was in the midst of finishing the final four credits of my Bachelor's degree, this suited me just fine.

One day Joe, one of the other employees, showed up and made a point of exercising his legal right to bear arms. More specifically, he brought a handgun to work. He showed it to us at the picnic table outside the building and proceeded to clean and oil it while the rest of us ate our lunches.

Nobody was really afraid. He was harmless, just a little peculiar. We had all seen guns before, most of us had owned one at one time or another, but we all recognized that bringing one to work was a very bad idea. It was, indeed, this man's right to bear arms -- an undisputed right where I grew up in New Hampshire. But it was also his employer's right to have him escorted away by the police and to terminate his employment immediately. Which is exactly what happened.

A majority of Americans support the right to bear arms, as do I. A majority of Americans are also moderates and, generally, they don't want people showing up at political rallies, or other public functions, with guns strapped to their thighs. If you are going hunting, you carry a gun. If you are going to the firing range, you might carry a handgun -- hopefully in a locked case. But, much in the same way that you don't show up at a wedding in your Speedo, you don't show up at a political rally with a handgun on your hip. It is bad form, bad sportsmanship, and very likely to lead to more restrictions on our Second Amendment right to bear arms.

As most people still remember, in the 1970's the Democratic party, rightly or wrongly, became associated with leftist extremism. This reputation weakened the party considerably in the decades to follow.

If the Republican party wants to remain viable, it must distance itself as quickly as possible from the bizarre fringe that is alienating the majority of moderate Americans with lies, angry rhetoric and, in the case of these recent gun incidents, pure nuttiness. To avoid obsolescence, it must encourage and engage in constructive dialogue and discourage party-spoiling and rumor-mongering. It is important to both Democrats and Republicans that this happen sooner rather than later.

The responsible Left needs the discipline of the responsible Right as much as the Right needs the creativity of the Left. Neither the Right nor the Left functions well in isolation. Politicians and pundits need to lead the way. If they cannot do so, we will soon be a one-party system. As desirable as this might seem to some Democrats, history teaches us that an unbalanced system is always more prone to collapse. Collapse is followed by chaos, and after chaos the other extreme quite often takes charge.

So can we all please start acting normal again?

Thursday, August 13, 2009

To Zwieselstein, Day 10



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I was wide awake by four, weighing whether it would be rude to go to the restroom for the third time. Would the Übers start thinking there was something wrong with me? Were they already awake and wondering? Was my water bottle really empty again? Why was my mouth so dry? Would I be hung over on the most dangerous stretch of the hike? Would they mind if I used my headlamp to read?

Worries grow like weeds in the middle of the night. After they've taken root it is pointless to even try sleeping. So I slid out of the top bunk, grabbed my boots and my bag and slipped out the door. The dining room door was closed so I sat on the floor in the hall, between other people's boots, and read about Kerouac hiking down from Mount Desolation in tattered sneakers. Thank goodness for boots!

I was not feeling sick, which was lucky considering the circumstances. I felt very alert, even excited. The thought occurred to me that I might still be drunk but I didn't feel that way. That day I escaped the worst of it. A few days later I would not be so lucky.

The Übers opened the door around 6:30, wondering where I had gone. They had soon packed their bags and we proceeded to the dining room together. At breakfast I began to realize how thrifty they really were. They had brought their own bread and butter, as well as cheese, jam (in a heavy glass jar no less), a large slab of ham, freeze-dried coffee, a dried up sausage and milk in an aseptic drink box. And while I was paying $6 for my morning rye bread, they ate a better breakfast for next to nothing. Of course, this meant that they carried it up and down every mountain but they didn't seem to mind. As a rule, Germans don't complain much.

It was after breakfast that I discovered what a bad idea it had been to fill my water bottle from the plastic hoses in the washroom. The washrooms in huts are frequently equipped with faucets with plastic hoses that hang, like elephant trunks, from the faucet spouts. These hoses are just the right size for the mouth of a water bottle and had made filling mine much easier than cramming it into a tiny European sink. I had filled my water bottle this way in every hut we visited.

Regrettably, it was not until that morning at Braunschweiger Hütte that I first observed the bathing habits of the other men. It may seem strange that it took this long but I am a modest man and usually prefer to use the facilities during the quieter hours of the late evening. This morning, however, I was going through water more quickly. So I slipped into the bathroom at a very busy time. There, to my horror, I realized that the aforementioned plastic tubes were intended for an entirely different purpose than filling water bottles. In short, German men are very thorough with their washing. And, since there were generally few if any showers in the huts, the hoses were actually intended for up-close cleaning of regions that would, otherwise, be awkward to rinse. Cruelly disillusioned, I retreated to search for a tiny European sink.

We met on the terrace, the Übers and I, to finish our packing and to pull on our boots. There was little to see through the fog. Dietrich looked serious as he brushed up on the guidebook. Regarding the day's hike, the Cicerone Guide states firmly: "Under no circumstances should it be attempted in anything but perfect weather conditions." At the time, however, there was no English translation, so I was getting all my information second hand -- not that reading it myself would have made any difference at all.

"This will be a very tricky climb," he said. "I am not sure what it will look like on the other side of Pitztaler Jöchl but if it is too dangerous, we may have to come back to the hut and descend the way we came."

I did not argue but was determined to go over the top. Dietrich had his family to think about but I was feeling stronger than ever. I think Dietrich sensed that my over-confidence might be as much of a liability as an asset. He took firm control of the party and, by the tone of his voice, made me understand that it would be best to follow his lead.

Walking in the fog was like being in a bubble. We could see for perhaps twenty feet in all directions but finding the trail markings was a treacherous business. At first the trail was easy to follow, leading us through a series of switchbacks up the side of the mountain, but somewhere near the top, we ran into a dead-end at a jagged rock wall. The Übers paused while I scouted around to find another red and white trail marker. I started to climb the wall, to get a better view, but Dietrich stopped me: "I think that is not a good idea," he said, and I realized that this was an order, albeit a polite one, rather than an observation. I imagine he was particularly concerned that his 14-year-old son might try the same stunt.

We finally located the markings and struggled up to the pass. On the far side was a steep descent down a slope of sheer ice. Above the slope was a jagged, looming cliff of boulders, some larger than houses. Until recently packed tight with snow, the entire loose wall was creaking and groaning as the rocks shifted and settled. Scattered down the mountain, across our path, were the rocks that had recently fallen. It was only a matter of time before another large rock shook itself loose and came tumbling down.

After a brief scramble over giant, tilting slabs, we reached the top of the icy slope. After a bit of a search, we found a metal cable that trailed off over the ice as far as we could see. We could only assume that there was a path below but the quality of the path was impossible to know. Dietrich decided to risk it. He announced that he would lead the descent and man the bottom of the cable. I would remain at the top, assisting Haike and Robert to take hold of the cable and start downward.

When Dietrich reached the bottom he yelled back up. "There is a path! Not very good but good enough."

Haike went next. She was nervous, as were we all, and moved slowly, hand over hand, down the cable. The ice gave no foothold except for small, frozen stones so she strained every muscle in her body to stay rigid. I realized that we were fortunate to have no weak links in our party. Everyone, including Haike and Robert, was capable and strong. Haike reached the bottom and Dietrich yelled up for Robert to begin.

Robert lowered himself slowly without incident, and I followed. The ice was so slippery that it was a challenge to stay upright. I worked my feet from one tiny stone to the next, using these minuscule footholds to keep myself upright. I gritted my teeth and my knuckles went white but I soon made it, like the others, to the relative safety below.

At the bottom of the cable was a thin path carved into the icy slope. We had to walk carefully to keep from slipping, and the rocky cliff still loomed up above. As we slid our way forward, like children learning to ski, we could hear the grumbling of the rocks. We wanted to run but all we could manage was a careful, plodding pace.

Dietrich turned to me and said "I hope Charles does not attempt this alone. That cable was hard to find, and it could be very dangerous for him."

I had not given much thought to Charles until this moment but was not particularly concerned. Being Dr. Death is really more about blithe negligence than intent. "I am sure he will be alright," I said. "He did this hike last year so he knows what to expect." It turned out, however, that Dietrich was, indeed, justified in his concern.

The trail wrapped around the north wall of the valley and down to a parking lot. There we found a restaurant and bathrooms. We took advantage of the latter, and put on our rain gear, as the fog outside had turned to drizzle. We briefly considered the optional bus to Zwieselstein but, realizing that the way was less difficult from here, we decided to walk.

The next stretch was a decidedly dull, gravel service road running parallel to a highway. For an hour or so we tramped through sparse scenery until the trail branched southeast through pine trees and fields.

Just as we were beginning to feel hungry, and just as the drizzle turned into a shower, we found a small restaurant near a village called Gaislach. I asked the waitress to bring me the best meal that $10 could buy. I was feeling adventurous and figured I'd end up with some strange sausage. Meanwhile, the Übers had noticed a special wild mushroom on the menu called Pfifferlingen. It was expensive, they said, but well worth the splurge. I knew nothing about mushrooms at the time. Knowing what I do now, I would definitely have opted for the rare Pfifferlingen (chanterelles). What I got, instead, was more Käse-Knödel. While the Übers rejoiced in their gourmet meal, I resigned myself to eating yet another serving of cheese balls. I explained my bad luck with this local specialty and they offered me tastes of their wild mushroom dinners. The Pfifferlingen were, indeed, delicious.

Outside the rain had let up, and we descended through warm pine forests to the small town of Zwieselstein -- an hour and a half walk down the trail. There we claimed rooms in the Talherberge Zwieselstein, an unstaffed Austrian Alpine Club hut with a full kitchen and, if I remember correctly, showers. I took an empty bunk room with four beds and a view of the river burbling noisily by. The sun had finally burned a hole through the clouds so I hung out my clothes on the line in the yard. Then I moved a chair to a shady spot and waited for Charles to appear.

It was two and a half hours before Charles finally wandered into the yard. He looked a bit shell shocked and I noticed large slashes in the seat of his rain pants. When he had taken off his pack and unlaced his boots he sat down on a bench and told us his story:

"I made it to Braunschweiger Hütte in record time. It was brilliant to stay in Mittelberg. The way up was amazing with the river and the glacier, and it was not until after the hut that I started to have problems. The fog moved in just beyond Braunschweiger and I got a little bit lost near Pitztaler Jochl. On the other side it was sheer ice for as far as I could see in the fog -- there was no path at all. I tried to walk from stone to stone but I fell right away and started sliding out of control. I was sliding faster and faster, barely steering myself with the carbide tips of my poles. Thank God for those tips."

"It was then that I noticed the edge of the cliff. I noticed it just in time and, by jamming the carbide tips deep into the ice, managed to drive myself into a large boulder. I must have been going at least twenty miles per hour because it hurt like hell when my boots slammed into it. After I caught my breath, I crawled, hand over hand, using the tips of my poles like ice axes. I have no idea how I finally made it down. It was pure adrenaline."

Dietrich had been right. Charles could have easily been a splotch on the pavement below Pitztaler Jochl. And Dr. Death would have had some serious explaining to do. But the carbide tips from Charles' new poles had saved his life. After he finished his story, I crossed the street to the store and bought several bottles of beer which we shared with the Herr Über. We raised our glasses to Charles' health and to our tremendous good fortune to be safely together again. Then Charles and I went across the street to find dinner at Hotel Gasthof Zwieselstein while the Übers cooked their dinner in the hut.

Next Week
Over Timmelsjoch and Into the Italian Alps
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