It's Jo's birthday, a significant birthday, and we wake up in an old-school, slightly Munsterish pension in the picture-postcard town of Boppard, on the Rhine near Frankfurt. Welcome to Boppard, says the Boppard broadsheet, the perfect place for year-round activities and fun. We see a tennis court, but it has no net, and has clearly not been in use since about 1935. The nearest we're going to get to an activity here is to stagger to main square for a coffee. This is a blue-rinse destination. The average age of both locals and tourists seems to be about 110. It's difficult to predict what the psychological effect of this might be on Jo, wrestling with the implications of her birthday (It's just a number' says one of her birthday cards helpfully): either I am significantly younger and fitter than everyone else here,' or Is this a glimpse of the future?'
We drive down the river. Jo says I can't help thinking of the Second World War,' and I say, rather shocked, You'd better get over it, the Germans have.' Actually, both of us were so badly (though expensively) educated in history that that's all we know about Germany: the enemy in two world wars. Later in the day, as we're driving past Nuremburg, it's difficult to disagree with her remark.
The Rhine here, despite being hundreds of miles from the sea, is wide, active, useful. Huge barges, juggernauts, with engines at bow and stern, sometimes yoked together. Tourist boats, like floating hotels, with paddling pools and putting greens on deck. On the opposite bank, steep slopes lined with dense woods giving way to unlikely vineyards, some of them almost vertical. They look like pitched roofs. Irrigation? Heck. Harvesting? Nightmare. The wine from these vineyards (and the even more vertiginous ones on the Mosel) is mostly Riesling. Marketed under the winsome designation Liebfraumilch, it was popular in Britain in the bad old days of the 1960s when we were just discovering wine (Mateus Ros, Hirondelle). Then it went out of fashion, so now you can buy lovely wines at comparatively low prices (e.g. Dr Loosen Riesling 2011 from Majestic).
By the sides of the river, towns and villages that look like models of themselves - perfect fairy-tale half-timbered houses, spires of churches poking up through the woods, impossible schlosses on crags, with turrets like witches' hats a palpable sense of history, more than that, of tradition, more than that even, of sustenance an ancient landscape that is not only beautiful but fertile and productive. It's a landscape that throws up the seductive idea of a land that belongs to the people - this is our land, which gives us pleasure and sustains us - a kind of innocent patriotism that can so easily turn into a noxious xenophobia (as it did, of course, spectacularly, in the hands of Hitler) this is our land, which we must protect at all costs from bloody foreigners. Of course it's an illusion - the land belongs almost entirely to a very few rich people and agribusinesses; and doubtless a large proportion of what's produced ends up abroad; but it's an illusion you can easily believe in this place.
The modern world isn't entirely absent. Occasionally you find yourself thinking What's that strange-looking crop?' and you realise it's a field of solar panels; and there are wind turbines everywhere - the German government mitigating its car fixation with a renewable energy fixation.
We stop for lunch, determined to eat German food. Not difficult, as, apart from a few rogue pizzerias, that's what's on offer. Guided by the helpful woman at the next door table, we choose Schweinwangen mit Bratkartoffeln, pork cheeks with fried potatoes, delicious. Twenty years ago everyone used to eat this dish,' she says, but nowadays.' Well, fair enough, actually, not everyone has to be a committed carnivore.
8 pig's cheeks
2 tbsp flour
3 carrots, cut into chunks
2 onions, cut into chunks
2 heads fennel, cut into chunks
5 cloves garlic, chopped
a bouquet garni of thyme, bay leaves
1 tsp fennel seeds
a piece of orange peel
a bottle of red wine
1 tbsp sugar
Heat the oven to 160C.
Heat a little olive oil in a casserole dish, add the pig's cheeks, and brown them on all sides. Sprinkle over the flour, and cook for another couple of minutes. Add the rest of the ingredients, bring to the boil, cover, and put in the oven for three hours. Check occasionally to make sure it's not drying out. Ideally you should end up with a small amount of thick luscious sauce.
That evening, we betray our quest for the soul of the German nation. In search of a birthday treat, we book in at the glorious Hotel Orphe in Regensburg, frisky, funky and very French, whoops.
Words by Orlando Gough