On the right bank of the Rhine, near the entrance to a small valley known as the Whisperthal, sits the ancient town of Lorch.
Legends of Lorch’s haunted ruins and riotous inns attracted travelers in search of adventure. Once, after drinking their fill of the ruby-colored Rhenish wine at one such inn, three young men, the sons of wealthy merchants from Nürnberg, ventured into the ancient forests of the Whisperthal. There, amid fetid swamps and craggy ravines, they met with three beautiful maidens with eyes like diamonds and hair glossy and black. The maidens promised marriage and riches if the travelers would recover their pet birds–a magpie, a starling and a raven–who had recently flown away.
The men searched the forest well into twilight before they found the missing birds. But when they returned to the spot where they had first met the maidens, only three toothless hags stood, cackling like devils. The hags offered rusty goblets of bitter wine to their future bridegrooms; filled with disgust and hopelessness, the young men accepted. Upon drinking the wine, however, they fell senseless to the ground. It was black night before the young men awoke and found themselves surrounded by nothing but the swaying elms and lindens of the Whisperthal, the hags nowhere to be seen.
The three travelers from Nürnberg swore never to venture into the Whisperthal again. But their tale of magic and love has been told many a time over a jug of Rhenish wine and simple peasant fare in the Rhine Valley’s rowdy inns, where, Charles Dickens complained, “stoutish men, entirely dressed in jewels and dirt, and having nothing else upon them, will remain all night, clinking glasses, and singing about the river that flows and the grape that grows.”
Like many situated north of the Alps, Lorch was a poor town, but its wholesome fare made up for the more unpleasant traits of its inhabitants. Potatoes appeared frequently on the tables of the town’s modest homes. An affordable staple, they were prepared in numberless ways–as stews, gratins, dumplings and cakes. Here is a recipe for Kartoffelgemüs, potatoes cooked in stock, a traditional peasant dish from Hesse, the German state in which Lorch is located.
2 tbsp pork lard
2 cups/500 ml meat stock
1 bay leaf
Pinch of sugar
1 tbsp mild wine vinegar
1 bunch dill, finely chopped
1/2 bunch parsley, fine chopped
Wash the potatoes and boil them in their skins in salted water until tender but not too soft. Drain the potatoes, rinse with cold water and leave to cool a little, then peel and cut into thin slices. Peel and chop onions. Heat lard in a heavy iron frying pan and cook the onions until transparent. Pour in the meat stock, and add the bay leaf and clove. Stir in the potato slices and season with salt, sugar, pepper and vinegar. Simmer until potatoes have absorbed nearly all the stock. Garnish with chopped herbs just before serving.