First day in the kitchen. This was an enormous room off the main hall, and if the hatch, which was as wide as an up-and-over garage door, was open, you could see three women bustling about. I had felt a bit guilty when I was having the five days with Carole, as when I would glance through the hatch out of curiosity, they always looked as though they could do with some extra help; well, here I was, aproned-up, nervous, but ready to be welcomed with open arms.
Normally, the kitchen staff had their breakfast at 7 o’clock, but this first morning I was told to report to Frau Cygan (pronounced Seegan), the head cook, at 6.45 am.
Frau Cygan was a little bird-like woman who barely came up to my shoulder. She had cropped grey hair which wisped out from her snowy cap, and bright intelligent eyes that saw the best in everyone. Her skin was soft and pink, just like my grandmother’s, and immediately I relaxed. She was the only one who spoke a few words of English, which she told me she’d learnt at school, but that was 60 years ago.
“Come, Denise. Zis is Emmi, ze assistant cook.”
Emmi shook my hand with her square, rough-red one, which had obviously never collided with any handcream. “Gruss Gott,” was all she said with a little nod of her fair head. No smile. She was much younger than Frau Cygan, with a curvaceous figure, and her apron seemed to bristle with efficiency. Oh, dear.
“And Anita,” continued Frau Cygan. “She does all.” This was better. A girl in her early twenties, with short dark hair and brown eyes. At least she smiled at me as she shook hands.
“And Suna,” Frau Cygan took me into the adjacent scullery and introduced me to another member of the kitchen staff. “She is from Turkey and does all washing.”
Suna was great, both in size and warmth. My hand disappeared in her large fleshy grasp, and she grinned so widely that for a second you could glimpse her cheekbones which would usually sit unnoticed under the layers of fat.
The five of us sat round a wooden table, already laid. Different coloured breads—dark rye, light rye, linseed, whole grain (Mother obviously didn’t have any Pride here!)—lay on a wooden board, overlapping like slates on a roof. A glass bowl, filled with home-made muesli, was placed in the centre, next to a ceramic blue bowl of quark. Quark is a very low-fat sheep’s cheese which can be used in cooking savoury and sweet dishes, or simply as an alternative to yoghurt or fromage frais. The Germans mix it with milk to make a soft, creamy texture. A plain white teapot exuded unrecognisable hedgerow smells, and a slab of butter, the colour and gloss of Magnolia paint (unlike our bright yellow dyed stuff at home) sat on a stainless-steel plate next to a bowl of honey. Slices of cheese, thin as playing cards, and tomato chunks topped with herbs, were laid out with the artistry of a still-life painting. All the plates and cups and saucers were hospital white, but there was something which lifted this from an ordinary work breakfast: lighted candles. Several were dotted around the table. I don’t know why, but I instantly cheered up. Was this for my benefit, being the new girl? I learned later that, like the guests, we had candles on our table at every mealtime. For the moment, I was simply charmed. But the feeling didn’t last.
We sat like cloistered nuns, passing things to one another in response to a grunt or a gesture, and helping ourselves to the muesli. I couldn’t believe they didn’t need to discuss the day’s menu, or just generally have a chat. It was unnerving.
Seven-fifteen. Suna cleared the table and Frau Cygan and Emmi finally had a little conflab. I heard my name mentioned. Then Emmi led me over to one of the worktops, and pulled out a chopping board almost the size of our breakfast table-top, set it ‘just so’ and dumped a small forest of parsley in the middle.
“Petersilie,” Emmi said to me. I had no idea what she was talking about.
“Nicht verstehen.” (I don’t understand). I was to use that expression an awful lot in my first few weeks.
“Chop the Petersilie,” Emmi repeated a little louder, only all the words she used were German. I gave my usual blank stare when I don’t understand something. She grabbed the chopper and hovered it over the green mass, rocking it backwards and forwards in the air, pretending to chop.
“Oh.” I cotton on fast. “What is it called? Pe-pe-t…”
“Pe-te-si-li-e.” Emmi emphasised the last syllable.
“Pe-te-si-li-e,” I returned.
I was rewarded with a faint twitch of Emmi’s mouth. This was quite exciting. ‘Your German word for today is Petersilie.’ Not the most urgent word for most people trying to learn German, I admit, but essential for me.
By 11 o’clock I realised that no-one had stopped for a break, not even a sip of water; we had been working solidly for three-and-a-half hours. This was obviously the German worker in action. My throat was parched, like I imagined it would be in the desert with the last slug of the water accidentally spilt—by me, of course. I needed a coffee…anything. Eleven-fifteen. I could either seethe and continue working, or I could start as I meant to go on. Bravely, I chose the latter.
I finished mixing twenty-five cartons of quark with milk in an enormous stainless-steel bowl, and furtively looked around. Everyone was busy. Frau Cygan was putting some decorative tomato slices on the millet pudding she’d made, Emmi was making cakes for someone’s birthday, Anita was scrubbing carrots and Suna was already in the scullery facing the first pile of dishes.
I sauntered over to the island in the middle of the big square kitchen which housed the various hobs and ovens, holding a mug and tin of dandelion coffee. This was the closest I could find to real coffee. Come to think of it, I’d never smelt any real coffee wafting through the house. It was obviously verboten at Tannerhof. All that dangerous caffeine.
I tipped boiling water into my mug and stirred, which brought the kitchen to a halt. No scuffling shoes, no odd murmur, no sounds of scraping and washing and chopping…just silence. All eyes on me. They were staring with undisguised astonishment. Then Frau Cygan must have said something like: “Don’t take any notice—she’s English—that’s what they all do.”
And Emmi snorted, “Well, if that’s how the English behave, taking breaks all the
time, I still cannot understand how they won the war!”
A few moments later they silently resumed work—without me. I sat with my drink, allowing myself ten minutes, but couldn’t enjoy it with everyone rushing about, and was almost relieved when the time was up. Would I have the nerve to go through that ritual every morning?
Wonderful savoury herby smells were beginning to emanate from the ovens, but I hardly had a chance to appreciate them when Anita ushered me to a corner of the room to slice a barrel-load of her scraped carrots.
“Like so,” and she deftly cut both ends off a carrot, cut it down the middle length-wise, “like so,” and chip-chopped her way along the carrot, forming crescent-shaped pieces as she went. Every slice was exactly the same thickness as its neighbour.
I tried it.
“Nein, nein, Denise—you complete English twit.” Or words to that effect.
“OK,” Anita nodded at my next attempt and there was a flicker of approval in those dark eyes. Before I could hug that tiny morsel, Emmi was back with my bowl of Petersilie. With irritation, she pushed the bowl in front of me, knocking the carrots to one side, and said:
“Nicht fein genug, Denise.” (Not fine enough). She made a see-saw motion with her red-knuckled fists to demonstrate the chopping utensil and bustled back to her work station.
I wasn’t sure if I should finish the carrot chopping or the parsley chopping. Maybe they needed the parsley right away. So I took the chopper and threw the offending greenery onto another board. I chopped and chopped until the parsley spewed parrot-green juice, and took the bowl over to Emmi for inspection. She looked at it with contempt, her face dangerously red. Perhaps this was the result of bending down to check progress in the ovens, but I felt she was cross with me. She shook her head again and took the bowl. Really, there was no pleasing the woman and Frau Cygan was engrossed, so didn’t witness this little scene. Of course, I had never cooked in a professional capacity before, so wasn’t used to the importance of presentation, and the stress of getting everything timed to perfection, and feeding so many people.
My next job was to prepare apples (the excitement builds). Anita was elected to show me what to do. It’s actually easier than you’d think. She washed a bucket load, took one in her left hand, and with a sharp knife in her right, simply quartered it and threw the lot into an enormous saucepan.
“Don’t you take out the core and pips?” I asked her.
Makes a change, I thought. So far this morning I hadn’t understood a word. I de-cored and de-pipped one to explain.
“Nein, nein,” she said. (Why do they always say it twice?). She cut another apple the same way as the first. I shrugged. I didn’t have to eat it.
She decided to help me, but it was disconcerting having her watch how I was cutting them, making sure they were done to her satisfaction. We worked in silence. When the pan was filled, she poured in some water, scattered a few cinnamon sticks on the top, and put it to boil. While we were waiting for them to soften, she took some cauliflowers and showed me how to make cauliflower soup. She used a similar technique to the apples, putting all the stalks and green leaves into a pan, with water and vegetable stock—not the kind you buy in little cubes, but all lovingly home-made.
Pretty soon, an enticing smell of apple and cinnamon assailed my nostrils, and I recognised the delicious combination I had smelt when I first came through the front door of Tannerhof. No time to stand and inhale. Anita was brandishing a sieve which she set over a stainless steel bowl you could bath a baby in, and ladled out the cooked apples with all their cores and pips. With a pestle the size of a baseball bat, she pounded the apples through the sieve until a golden pulp plashed into the waiting bowl. She handed me the pestle which almost broke my wrist. These German women were jolly strong. She muttered something which I gathered meant I was to carry on.
I laboured for what felt like hours. Finally, and proudly, I surveyed my beautiful bowl of Apfelmus, as I was to call it. My arm was aching and I came to the conclusion that watching paint dry would be quite an interesting past-time, but thank heavens I’d finished. Would it pass the test? Anita came over.
“Gut, Denise,” she said. I beamed. The beam left as quickly as it had come when Emmi appeared with the saucepan of cooked cauliflowers and a fresh sieve. Oh, no. Oh, yes. My last half hour in the run-up to lunch was spent pushing more food through those miserable little holes.
Miraculously, and no thanks to me, we were ready at dead on twelve-thirty. The guests, who had been hiking, skiing, ice-skating, swimming, and saunaing, were already in the dining rooms, gripped with the pangs of hunger.
It was an hour later when we had ours. I, who had been so hungry, had now lost all interest in food, but as soon as dear little Frau Cygan set a plate of her millet rissoles and veg before me, all casually sprinkled with parsley as though it had chopped itself, I devoured the lot. I did wonder what had happened to the soup—not that I could have tackled any—and was pleased when Frau Cygan informed me that it had been the main event of the Light Diet Room.
“Kostlich,” I declared. (Delicious). I had asked Frau Cygan how to say that word during the morning session, as I was determined to get on the right side of Emmi. Emmi simply nodded.
I staggered to my room, worn out. Gone was my plan to study German grammar, gone was the idea of a brisk healthy walk, gone was the temptation to wander down to the village to look at the shops. I collapsed into bed. My last flicker of brain activity was wondering if the Germans, like the Italians and Spaniards, had a siesta—or was this only in hot countries? I was asleep.
“We meet again halb funf,” Frau Cygan had told me.
Fine—I had several hours until the evening shift. I slept through most of them. Groggy with tiredness and sleep, but dead on half-past five, I opened the kitchen door surprised to see everyone already in full action. Saucepans were bubbling, plates were clattering. Emmi, who was stirring something on the hob, just looked up and sniffed. She reminded me of my Aunt Edna when she didn’t approve of someone. Frau Cygan hurried over.
“It is late, Denise.” She didn’t say it unkindly.
I glanced at my watch. “It’s exactly half-past five.”
Frau Cygan looked puzzled. Then her anxious face cleared. “Halb funf (half five) in German is half-past four.” It made no sense to me, but when I studied my German lesson the following day, I discovered it meant half an hour before five, i.e. half-past four in my language. I had better remember this in future.
We prepared a simple supper of potatoes in their skins (unusual in the seventies when the English used to peel everything), which had been oiled and rolled in seeds, and looked like baby hedgehogs, then baked in the oven, and served with a little individual pot of yoghurt, quark and parsley dressing. A salad completed the meal.
At half-past six we in the kitchen sat down for our supper. Frau Cygan and Emmi, who I guessed didn’t always see eye to eye, were conversing and I was desperately trying to get the gist of it, when Anita, without any warning, stretched right over me and threw her arm across my face to grab the bowl of quark. I was just about to put a forkful of food in my mouth, and her arm pushed the fork down the back of my throat. Choking, I glared at her. “Haven’t you got any manners? All you need say is ‘Please pass the quark,’” but a) she wouldn’t have understood me if I had said this, and b) she wouldn’t have taken any notice of me anyway. It had been a long day.
“Gute Nacht,” I said coldly to everyone, as I gathered up my plates.
“Gute Nacht,” said Frau Cygan and Emmi together.
“Bis Morgan,” from Anita. (Until tomorrow).
I ignored her and shut the kitchen door behind me with a faint slam. Suna, already bent over her sink like a giant comma, her long black hair lank with steam and about to trail in the water, took my dishes with a happy smile and plunged them into the boiling suds, her eyes saying, ‘We foreigners have to stick together.’
It might not be enough, Suna. Maybe Carole was right. Maybe I wouldn’t be able to survive this for a week, let alone a year.