Thursday, March 3, 2011

Recreating the Bamberg Onion

Once upon a time, while living in a lovely Bavarian hamlet called Bamberg, Matt and I went out for lunch at the famous Schlenkerla brewery and ordered an equally famous dish called the Bamberg Onion (or Bamberger Zwiebel, for the German-speakers out there). The brewery has been around since 1678, and is housed in a 15th Century, half-timbered building, part of which was once a Dominican monastery, arranged around a central courtyard.

The old Dominican chapel offers atmospheric seating (source)
In the biergarten behind the restaurant, guests cozied up to one another on wooden benches placed alongside communal tables. It’s a common Frankonian tradition and one that usually encourages conversation amongst even the strangest of strangers during the meal.  After scanning the crowded tables, we joined a trio of elderly men draining the last dregs from a round of beers and enjoying the late afternoon sun. There was barely time for the usual pleasantries before our conversation was interrupted and our attention stolen by the arrival of our food. In less than the time it took to down a tall glass of smoked beer – or Rauchbier, Schlenkerla’s signature beer-meets-beef-jerky-and-bacon flavored brew – our onions were brought out, steaming from the kitchen and swathed in sauerkraut and herb-studded mashed potatoes. 

Seating in the Schlenkerla Biergarten (source)
Each enormous, translucent, and perfectly globular onion was stuffed with seasoned ground pork, topped with a crispy strip of bacon and slathered in a rich brown gravy that carried the distinctive smoky flavor of Schlenkerla beer. That’s right – a pork-filled onion, roasted in beer that tastes like bacon, smothered in gravy that tastes like bacon and topped with a slab of actual bacon. (How did the bacon-blogging craze miss this dish, I wonder? And how did I manage not to snap a single picture?)

We were speechless as we tackled our entrees, under the amused gaze of our tablemates who seemed to appreciate our enthusiasm and appetite.  The food was good, but it was the combination of flavors that took us by surprise and made this meal worthy of representing an entire Bavarian town.  I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not a great fan of Rauchbier on it’s own – I’d prefer to chew my beef jerky rather than drink it – but as a key ingredient of gravy, and combined with the seasoned pork and slightly sweet onion, its dry, slightly earthy flavor was a real treat. We finished our meals in near-silence, slightly in awe of the culinary masterpiece we had just experienced. On the walk home, we agreed that this wouldn't be the last time we’d taste a Bamberg Onion.

The re-created Bamberg Onion (sorry for the awful picture!)
 Fast forward several months and Matt and I have moved back to the States, still nursing our cravings for this regional dish. I was lucky enough to find a recipe on the Schlenkerla website (it’s definitely worth looking up for the most authentic version, although all amounts are given in metric units so be sure to have a scale handy) but of course, I decided to recreate the dish on a whim and had very few of the actual ingredients at hand. Undeterred, I forged ahead and made substitutions where necessary. I used ground beef instead of the required pork and, after some quick research, substituted a pinch of ground nutmeg for mace. These were regrettable replacements, but I was most saddened by the omission of Schlenkerla Rauchbier; it’s available in the States, but it’s not something we keep on hand and while you could probably substitute another dark beer, I decided to go ahead using only beef stock.

With so many substitutions, I knew that my recreated dish wouldn't come close to the original, but I reasoned that it was worth the effort, and as I hollowed each onion with a small metal spoon, I longed for a simpler time when we could just seat ourselves at the long wooden table and order one. The process was lengthy and tear-jerking, but the stuffed onions looked good as I set the casserole dish in the oven to roast for 45 minutes.

By the time Matt got home, the kitchen was full of the pungent aroma of baking onions and I was beginning to work on the bacon.  He was excited to revisit our old favorite and helped me drain the drippings from the dish to make the gravy. At last the onions were ready and we dug in, expectantly. Of course, the flavor was different and certainly lacking the complexity of the original Rauchbier-infused version, but the experience was still familiar and enjoyable. I'd been missing our life in Germany and in an instant, the meal took me back to a wooden bench in an old courtyard and a table shared with three old Germans who smiled knowingly, warmed by the sun, the taste of good beer and the comfort of hearty delicious food.

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