When considering Germany's regional cuisines, Bavaria and the Black Forest are top of mind, but while both are important, there is far more to Germany's gastronomic traditions than Schweinhaxen and Weisswurst. Frankfurt and the region it lies in, Hesse, is in fact my favorite part of Germany to eat. When most Americans think of Frankfurt, they tend to think of banks and book fairs. I, on the other hand, think of delicious rustic meals of Handkäse and Apfelwein.
I have been traveling to Frankfurt and for most of my life. My godmother lived there and I would visit her as a young child; decades later I married someone from the area. My husband is from a small town called Falkenstein in the Taunus, a mountain range northwest of the city that is dotted with medieval, picturesque villages; miles of perfectly maintained forestland; and the occasional dramatic hilltop castle ruin.
In the neighboring town of Kronberg one can wander along narrow cobblestone streets through its well-preserved, traffic-free Old Town lined with fairytale "Fachwerk" houses, their exposed timbers forming geometric patterns on the exterior walls, and cozy German pubs.
One of my favorite things to do when we are staying with my husband's father is to walk out his door and head into the forest, following a steep path that twists up a hill of towering pine trees towards Mount Feldburg and eventually passes by a mountain hut restaurant called Der Fuchstanz. The reward to this fairly strenuous hike is a meal inside this rustic wooden cabin.
In these parts, the tipple of choice is apple cider, called Apfelwein. It is typically served in a Bembel, a chunky pitcher made of salt-glazed stoneware, with a side of sparkling water. Its tart fermented bite is a bit of an acquired taste, but it goes perfectly with one of my favorite regional dishes: Handkäse mit musik (hand cheese with music), a pungent, hand-formed sour milk cheese that looks like a translucent, yellow-hued hockey puck.
I can't explain my love for Handkäse. Even my husband is amused by my insistence that I eat it at least once on our trips to his hometown. Served in a marinade of apple-wine vinegar, chopped onions, and caraway seeds, alongside several slices of hearty Graubrot (a whole-wheat bread made with at least a third rye flour), it is my regular order at Der Fuchstanz. I spread butter on the bread and then cut thick slices of the cheese and place it on the bread with as much onions and caraway seeds as I can manage.
The fermented tang of the Apfelwein is a perfect combination, and if I add sparkling water to it, which is perfectly acceptable and even expected, I get just a slight, guilt-free pleasurable buzz that fuels me for the walk down the mountain. If I believed in past lives I would have to say that I was once a peasant woman in Hesse who worked on an apple orchard and looked forward to festival days when I'd get to dance and eat Handkäse.