'Tis the season for Oktoberfest. Contrary to popular belief, Oktoberfest is mostly in September, traditionally lasting 16 days until the first Sunday in October. This secular holiday began in Munich in 1810 as a wedding celebration for Crown Prince Ludwig of Bavaria (later King Ludwig I, best known to me as the grandfather of Mad King Ludwig II, the subject of one of the most excruciatingly boring lectures I ever had in a European history class at UB).
Since then, Oktoberfest has become a Bavarian tradition, something more than just an excuse to drink beer and eat pork products. Not that there is anything wrong with that. This year it began at the stroke of noon on September 18th, with the ceremonial tapping of the first keg by the lord Mayor of Munich with the declaration:"O'zapft is!" or "It is tapped".
In recent times the schedule has been extended to insure the inclusion of October 3rd - German Unification Day. Also, in a modern twist, you can download an app for your iPod/iPhone that advises you of what beer tents are open and even gives you a live webcam shot. Ain't technology great?
Here in the States we tend to celebrate Oktoberfest in October. It's often a fundraiser for civic and social organizations. A community gathering or a small private meal. I have no problem with that - I never argue with a chance to drink beer and eat pork products. Do you?
Now you can fill your Oktoberfest celebration with items from local supermarkets, but we have three really special local resources here that can give your celebration Buffalo-style.
There is only one type of pork product I spend my energy on at this time of year: sausages. Have you considered making your own? It's relatively easy. You can make a quite passable breakfast sausage using store-bought ground pork, salt, pepper and poultry seasoning. Really, and you can even control the salt! For Oktoberfest I generally think fresh bratwurst.
Forget those nationally advertised mystery-meat-in-a-tube "brats". Make your own. I prefer to make my own seasoning blends using base ingredients, but Penzey's on Elmwood sells a lovely pre-made bratwurst seasoning. Just fry them up and plop them on a bun.
But, if you really want to make sausages, you need to stuff casings. Basic casings are available at local markets, usually near the salt pork and lard, and there are readily available stuffing options as simple as a sausage funnel. Despite other choices, I almost always fall back on the attachment for my stand mixer. But, I lust for more, and the answer to that lust is here in Buffalo.
One of the most oft-mentioned sources for sausage making supplies in the most respected books on the art (Bruce Aidells and the tandem of Michael Ruhlman and Brian Polcyn, among others) is The Sausage Maker, Inc. And, lucky for us, it's located here in Buffalo! Think about it this way: A guy goes to Vegas to get a divorce, ends up making sausage successfully, writes a seminal book on the making of sausage, moves back to Buffalo and finds so many inquiries on supplies and equipment that he opens a business selling such supplies. His name was Rytek Kutas. He even got a big spread from Craig Claibourne of the NY Times in 1980.
The infamous Sausage Maker is now located at the Niagara Frontier Food Terminal at Clinton and Bailey, behind the US Foodservice outlet. They have grinders and stuffers and bears (oh my). They have slicers and smokers, butchery tools and jerky gear. They have bulk spices and pre-made seasoning blends for a wide variety of sausages. They have all kinds of casings (what, you don't have a big tub of hog middles in your fridge?) Curing salts, Fermento, and the recent addition of Bactorferm are also available and are especially appreciated by me, because I no longer have to pay shipping fees for my semi-annual Soppressata.
On a recent visit I was pleased to see a major expansion of the showroom, now including diverse additions such a cheese and pickle making supplies. Go online, order their catalog, or better yet stop by. They are friendly and helpful.
There is one type of sausage they can't help me with, and it is included among my favorites for Oktoberfest. It's an emulsified type - think hot dogs on steroids (proverbially). Several regional outlets have really good offerings, including some made in Canandaigua, near my former home. But I am here in Buffalo now, and that means I go to Spar's European Sausage & Meats on Amherst Street.
I still remember walking in not too long after they opened in 1989 and seeing the pairs of Landjäger hanging on the wall (they cannot do that anymore, but they are still as addictive to my palate as they were then).
Since 2005, Spar's has been in the capable hands of Joe Kennedy and his lovely wife Beth (yes, I'd call her lovely even if she didn't gift me a couple pairs of Landjäger for the trip home). They have continued the tradition of Spar's while expanding the vision. They not only serve the same high quality meats from the areas of Europe that the shop did under its previous ownership, but others, too. Today they make over 40 types of sausage, including a North African Merguez sausage.
Joe was kind enough to allow me into the prep area, and while I respect Prince von Bismarck, we are not talking Upton Sinclair's "The Jungle" here. They grind their pork in-house and measure it by weight. The amount of seasoning added is based on that weight. Their smokehouse had me chuckling, absent modern utilities it could have been the smokehouse my family visited at Mt. Vernon this summer.
But what really got me to me were Joe's skills. I am a competent sausage maker, but this was magic. He knows exactly when to stop the stuffer and adjust the casings to insure an even disbursement. He doesn't measure, he just spins the casings by hand into equal sized links. Wow.
I left before the sausages came out of the smoker, but not without a supply of sausages for our meal. Two each of: weisswurst (fat and white), bockwurst (skinny and white), knockwurst (fat and red) and Bavarian bratwurst (medium and red). Oh, and one link of Landjäger survived until Friday.
Next we need beer. Local purveyors have expanded their selection beyond Beck's and St. Pauli Girl. Wegmans even rearranged some stores to accommodate a larger beer selection. Stop there. We have Flying Bison Brewing Company.
Full disclosure - Tim Herzog has been a friend since Fredi (a restaurant where I worked as a chef) was one of the first in the area to feature Flying Bison as the house beer on tap. I've been addicted to Aviator Red since he first poured for it for me. You have probably heard or read about their recent problems in the press. There are more than reported, but the bottom line is that there was a spike in the cost of just about everything, especially hops (kind of odd considering that once New York produced 90% of U.S. hops production, but they are nearly nonexistent here now).
The good news is that Flying Bison is back up and running. You can stop by and get your growlers filled, and bottles are once again available at most local markets.
My visit was to sample a seasonal beer, the Baron von Bisonfest. One of my favorite things about Flying Bison is their seasonal brews, available only at the brewery. I had never had Bisonfest and now seemed a good time. Once you pull into the lot of the unprepossessing warehouse and cross the parking lot pocked with contours similar to that of the lunar surface, you will find a real brewery. Large steel tanks, hops and malt and yeast. Oh, and the dispensing taps to fill your growler.
Bisonfest is deep amber-red in color and a hearty full flavor and finishes with a distinct nuttiness. We are not talking about anything that approaches a porter, let alone a stout. This is a smooth, clear blend, and I was surprised when Tim told me it actually had more hops than the Buffalo Lager. The secret is Munich malt - a staple of Oktoberfest beers. Perfect for our Oktoberfest meal! I brought home a growler.
The Alsace-Lorraine region has been passed back and forth between France and Germany for a very long time. There is a reason that you get mixed names like Andre Soltner and Jean-Georges Vongerichten. So, perhaps you will have to forgive me if my favorite Oktoberfest feast is from that region - Choucroute Garnie.
It is literally garnished sauerkraut, the emphasis being on the kraut. Sauerkraut is easy to make at home - sliced cabbage plunged in a 20:1 water to salt brine will lead to lactic acid fermentation the old fashioned way. But stuff from the store works too, except for the canned stuff, that's just foul. The kraut in bags in the refrigerator case will work, but I prefer the kraut that comes in jars and is usually located with the refrigerated pickles.
Lightly rinse and drain the kraut and layer it on the bottom of a dutch oven. Pour a half a bottle of Reisling (in this case from Leonard Oakes in Medina, NY), add a palm-full of juniper berries, half as much of peppercorns and caraway, all lightly crushed (it works out to about 2 tablespoons of the first and 1 each of the latter). Bring it to a simmer and reduce the liquid, and add the meats - in this case the sausages from Spar's plus some of my fresh bratwurst, a pork hock and some slab bacon I had smoked (stuff from local markets work just fine). Simmer it for about 30 minutes. The idea here is that you are warming it and letting the flavors meld, not cooking. Serve with a good rye or pumpernickel bread and grainy mustard (or, if you have a wife who loves you like mine, you can use the German-style mustard from Shilo's in San Antonio she gave you for Father's Day).
Wash it down with Bisonfest.