Cologne: History and Asparagus
I’m going into hospital ridiculously early tomorrow for an operation which is bad for two reasons: I hate getting up early and I’m really scared this time despite the fact that both my boys brought strengthening hugs & my friend Annie phoned me all the way from Abu Dhabi to wish me well. My logic tells me that I’m being ridiculous & that I should save this fear for the last, really big one but no, cowardice insists on prevailing today & I can think of a thousand places I’d rather be right now.
Top of the list is Cologne which is the 4th largest city in Germany with more than 1 million inhabitants; it finds itself sprawled on both sides of the Rhine and is an amazing city to visit if you’re into museums and galleries – for those of you who, like me, get a kick out of ancient Roman history – you’ll do your nut. Of course there’s the Cologne Trade Fair which I loathe, in part because it’s so huge that I got lost when I was sent there, kicking and screaming, by my company many years ago. In the days of the Holy Roman Empire, Cologne was free city which meant they didn’t have to maintain an army of their own; of course they had soldiers in those warring times, but their guys were part of the Reichtskontigent and were called the ‘red sparks’ because of their uniforms; in German that’s Rote Funken and I pack up in fits of giggles every time I say that – no offence guys, I have a vivid imagination. Oh yes, to prevent confusion: the Free city of Cologne was not the same as the Archbishopric of Cologne – the latter was a separate state within the Holy Roman Empire.
Round about the 2nd half of the 16th century, all archbishops were chosen from Wittelsbach but because Cologne was free, they weren’t allowed to enter the city so they had to go and live in Bonn & Brühl; the power-hungry men of the cloth were constantly bickering about Cologne’s free status and the supreme courts of the Holy Roman Empire had a hell of time sorting out the masses of applications brought against the city. When the French came into power, Cologne became part of France but was incorporated into the Kingdom of Prussia in 1815; the effect that this cultural mish mash had on the food of this region was phenomenal & chefs had a ball while the Roman Catholic Rhineland & the Protestant Prussian big wigs resented one another & played chess with lives of the people who were all, as far as I’m concerned, essentially, German; that said the propagators of religious hatred were quite successful because the Catholics hated the Prussians even after Adenauer became the first West German Chancellor.
The very first people to live in Cologne were the Ubii (a Cisrhenian Germanic tribe ) & at that stage, it was called Oppidum Ubiorum; the Romans changed the name to Colonia in 50 AD, making it the capital & giving it the name of Colonia Claudia Ara Agrippinensium for the following reason: “Agrippina the younger was born in 15AD in Cologne & was the daughter of Germanicus & the wife of the Roman Emperor Claudius. She succeeded in convincing Claudius to elevate her birthplace to Colonia Claudia Ara Agrippinensium (which means: the Colony of Claudius and Altar of the Agrippiner); in effect, this gave Colonia the status of ‘city’ under Roman law and a Roman colony had many more imperial rights than an oppidum.” Thanks so much Thierry for this snippet of information! The city is thick with Roman remains and everywhere you look, you’ll find something Roman – the most recent discovery was a 1,900 year old Roman boat that was found in the wharf area in 2007. The Romans built a massive wall to protect the 20,000 inhabitants around the city; it ran across a square-shaped town & was 3.9 km long & 8 meters high with 9 gates granting entrance & 21 towers occupied by legionaries to guard the city. It didn’t end there & the roads around the city were were kept in excellent condition; the streets, laid in a right-angled form in the middle of the town, were paved with arcades here & there to grant shade. All the roads were connected (north with south & west with east) and at the crossing of the main axes, they built a forum which was the centre of public life. The largest buildings were the temple, the Praetorium (home to the governor) and the thermal baths.
Since it’s asparagus time in the city and because I could really do with a plate piled high with asparagus right about now, I’m including a recipe for a very basic Hollandaise sauce. One lives in hope.
- 2 large organic eggs, yolks only
- 3 tbsp excellent quality white wine vinegar – the vinegar will determine the taste of your sauce
- 6 peppercorns
- 1 dried bay leaf
- 125g butter
- Freshly squeezed & sieved lemon juice, sea salt and freshly black pepper to taste
- Pour the vinegar into a small pot with the bay leaf & the peppercorns & reduce the vinegar (over hot heat) until you only have 1 tbsp of liquid left; strain the peppercorns & bay leaf from the liquid.
- Pop the egg yolks into a food processor with the vinegar reduction & gently melt the butter so that the butter solids fall to the bottom of the pot.
- Now turn on the food processor on and slowly pour the butter onto to the egg yolks with the motor still running, it will start to thicken now but only stop when ONLY the butter solids are left; if the sauce is too thick, add a touch of hot water, then season to taste with lemon juice, salt & pepper.
During the German Spargelsaison or Spargelzeit which traditionally finishes on 24 June, roadside stands and open air markets sell about half of the country’s white asparagus consumption! Germans love the white asparagus and the green ones are rarely seen – considering how unbelievably delicious these white ones are, I’m not surprised in the least. In Cologne and surrounds the French style of serving them (boiled or steamed with Hollandaise sauce) is particularly popular but this soup is one of my favourites!
- 500g white asparagus
- 70 g butter
- 1 shallot, finely chopped
- 700ml fresh, homemade chicken stock
- 100 ml crème fraiche
- 2 egg yolks
- 1 tbsp dry fino sherry
- 2 tbsp chopped parsley, to garnish
- Sea salt & freshly ground white pepper to taste
- Peel the asparagus stalk from the tip right to cut end, then slice off the tips & set them aside & cut the stalks into 1 cm pieces or smaller if you like.
- Melt the butter in a saucepan & fry the shallots until they’re translucent but not brown because it will taste disgusting; at this point add, the chopped asparagus – reserving the tips separately for later & fry them with the shallots for about 6 minutes.
- Now pour the stock into the saucepan & simmer over medium heat until the stalks are really soft (it shouldn’t take more than half an hour); as soon as they’re ready, pop the whole lot into a food processor & blitz until the mixture is velvety smooth & then pour it back into the saucepan.
- Return the soup to a simmer & now add the reserved asparagus tips – simmer for about 5 minutes until the tips are just soft.
- In a separate little bowl, combine the crème fraiche, the sherry & the egg yolks and pour slowly into the saucepan (that you’ve taken off the heat) and stir until the yolks have thickened the soup.
- Re-warm the soup over very mild heat & try not to break the precious asparagus tips too much, check and correct your seasoning, add parsley & serve with bread.
WORLD WAR I
Cologne wasn’t badly damaged at all during this war & was, fortunately, occupied by the British Army of the Rhine under the terms of the Versailles Peace Treaty but unlike the French, the Brits were well behaved and treated the locals with respect. When the Rhineland was demilitarized, all the fortifications had to be dismantled and then they hit on the best idea they probably had during that period: they started creating two green belts around the city by turning all the fortifications & their clear fields of fire into huge public parks – this was finished in 1933.
WORLD WAR II
I really don’t like discussing this war because it’s been done to death so I’m going to ignore it mostly except to say that the city centre was almost wiped out completely; destruction began on the 31st May 1942 when the British RAF for some odd reason chose this anti Hitler city for its first 1,000 bombers – by the end of the war Cologne’s population had been reduced by 95%. Of course there were no Jews left, all 11,000 had been killed or sent somewhere & there wasn’t a synagogue in sight. When I walk through Cologne today, I am in awe of what these people have achieved in such a short period of time and I can only feel enormous respect for them.
THE HERE AND THE NOW
Despite the fact that Cologne’s 12 Romanesque churches (including St. Gereon, Great St. Martin, St. Maria im Kapitol etc) were trashed during the war, the citizens of Cologne started rebuilding them and finally, in the 1990’s the last Romanesque church, St. Kunibert, was finished.
QUICK WHITE ASPARAGUS TART
What better way to end a visit to a beautiful city than with a glass of the region’s best white and a slice of quiche.
- 500g shortcrust pastry that you’ve just made – anything you don’t use you can turn into small quiches
- 450g asparagus, peeled, sliced into 1 cm pieces & blanched
- 450ml mascarpone
- 10 g butter
- Plain flour
- 4 extra large organic eggs
- 1 extra large egg yolk
- 1 shallot, peeled and finely chopped
- 2 tbsp chopped fresh parsley
- 100g gruyère cheese, grated
- Preheat the oven to 190C & grease your flan ring with butter.
- Roll the pastry on a lightly floured surface to a square shape with sides of about 30cm; then put the pastry into a standard 25cm flan ring & let the excess hang over the edge & pop into the fridge for half an hour.
- Take it out of the fridge & line the base of the pastry with baking parchment, then fill with a good covering of flour before putting it in a baking tray & baking it blind for 20 minutes; then remove the flour & baking parchment and return to the oven for another 5 minutes to cook the base.
- Trim the pastry around the edges and reduce the temperature of the oven to 160C.
- For the filling, beat the eggs and shallot together with the mascarpone and season well to taste; fold in the parsley & half of the cheese before spooning into the base of the tart, top with the asparagus and cover with the rest of the cheese.
- Bake until set (about half an hour) and serve with a salad and some good local white wine.