The Three Witches of Siefersheim
by Douglas Blyde - Tuesday September 13, 2016 12:09 pm
Germany’s largest wine region, the Rheinhessen, bulges from the west bank of the Rhine, from Worms to Bingen. Despite Roman origins and a succession of noble owners, the ‘land of a thousand hills’ has become infamous in recent years for infamous tipple, ‘Liebfraumilch’. Translating as ‘beloved lady’s milk’ after the flatland vineyard nudging the Liebfrauenkirche church, poor examples have done much to dent Germany’s status as a quality producer.
Searching for wines crafted with tender loving care, I found myself in the charge of a duo of herbalist witches, Christine Moebus and Karin Mannsdörfer at ‘Weingut Michael Moebus’, Wonsheimer, Siefersheim. As I was dispensed a near frosted flute of incisive sparkling sekt the hue of pale green fluorite, I learned that third witch, Martina Schmitt was away on business. Bathed under Greek sunshine rather than German drizzle, she was scouting herbs to incorporate in the trio’s latest cookery book.
Feeling high from the nervy wine, I eagerly accepted the invite for a brisk ‘wandering’. Through a cavernous barn prepped for a wedding we entered the witches’ garden. Our first stop was a glistening elderberry bush. Its leaves, said Christine, may be rubbed on skin to ward away ticks - regular passengers on the witches’ cats. More excitingly, its berries are steeped into schnapps best medicinally sipped against a cold’s onset. After observing my enthusiasm with her sekt, Christine offered the advice: ‘If you already drink a lot of alcohol, you will need quite a few to get the effect.’
Frisky Goats, Goose Feet
Past a bleatingly greeting, frisky goat, the park like garden opened onto a leafy scrabble of gnarled vines, of which Moebus owns just eight hectares. To the witches’ displeasure, a violently modern house interrupts the vista. ‘But I’m sure it’s a nice view for those inside it,’ postured Christine.
We halted sharply at a slender goosefoot, so called because of its distinctive leaves. This would later be worked into a signature gnocchi, which Christine said, ‘look like frogs’. Oddly, whilst stroking its stalk, Christine failed to flinch as the eerie wail of an air raid siren urgently pierced the otherwise serene landscape. When I finally summoned courage to enquire whether this played in anything other than my head, she looked at me blankly, and said: ‘it’s simply the local fire brigade.’
Calmed, I continued my date with plants and witches. Next, Christine and Karen simultaneously boldly brushed nettles upwards with the back of their bare hands, a motion which apparently resists a sting. Unfortunately, Karin then inadvertently gestured the other way, pricking herself with poison in the process. Meanwhile, I listened in as Christine described how to get a free legal, herbal hit. When rolled into balls then placed under the tongue, young nettles provide a jolt of instant energy potent enough, in her experience, to revive a fainter. By contrast, white flowering specimens known as ‘dead’ nettles, contain far fewer positive properties and nil sting.
Drawn by their brightness in the grass, Christine plucked dandelion heads and secreted them into the deep pockets of her soft linen smock. As the patter of rain segued into a deluge, it was time to return to the winery. Through a low stone arch, we descended into the mossy cellars where big oak barrels were illuminated by candles. Not wishing to break the spell, the witches had decided against lighting the neighbouring glass reinforced plastic drums in this way. Being the last to leave, I checked for broomsticks.
Making a Meal of Nature
Settling into the imposing dining room, vaulted like a monastery, Christine told how the sturdy building has only recently been savoured by humans, it being conceived in 1804 as a fire resistant cow barn. But today there’s more profit in plants and weddings than pampered bovines.
Appetite escalating, it was time to make a menu of nature. We began with brisk coriander spread bruschetta, then buttery nettle soup garnished with the bitter dandelions and pretty dead nettles. The latter tasted of boiled breakfast mushrooms. Alongside, last year’s late harvested Grüner Silvaner etched a delicate perfume of hay – or perhaps, given the setting, such a fancy is autosuggestion?
With the texture of a lawnmower bin bursting with damp grass, spinach green goose leaf gnocchi turned to cud in the mouth. In the centre of the plate, the heat of rocket leaves was subdued by dandelion infused honey – an original ploy by Christine to get her daughter to nibble them. The overriding sensation was of invigorating healthiness, equilibrium and good taste. Also ‘09, Weisser Riesling spoke of yellow fruits, with a creeping sweetness – modest yin to the savoury dish’s yang.
Finally, a thick, sticky strawberry coulis encircled a quivery elderberry mousse, invigorated by a shot of elderberry schnapps which scythed through the sugar. Now feeling sleepy (I must confess, this was the day’s second lunch), I considered performing the rolled nettle leaf trick.