I know who you are, I’ve seen you in my dreams, read about you in a book, glimpsed you in a film, I know who you are. It’s that moment of recognition when you arrive somewhere, which could be a city, a town, a locality, a shore, a pub, the home of a person who will become your closest friend or long-term lover or it could even be a piece of music or a lyrical line in a poem that you have found entirely by accident. Until then any one of these have been an unknown aspect of your life but somehow, incredibly, you know you have been there before, heard it or seen it, even if you haven’t.
For me, Bamberg and the surrounding Franconian countryside have always stood there, shining and shimmering, a crystal castle of magic on the idle hill of summer romance. ‘You’ve got to go,’ I had been told down through the years; reading the words of Michael Jackson about this special place transfixed me; drinking imported bottles from Schlenkerla, Mahr’s and Keesmann caught me on a thread and reeled me in.
So from that moment during a May lunchtime in 2018 when I walked into the twilight zone of Schlenkerla’s ancient inn I was home. I had never been there before but this was home, this was a place I felt familiar with, I felt I fitted into, that switched a light on in my head and illuminated a dark corner of retrieved memory, a magical transformation. Even though I’d never been there before, as I sat there with a large glass of Aecht Schlenkerla Rauchbier in front of me, inhaling its plumes of light smokiness and caramelised toffee and general sense of Gemütlichkeit it all felt familiar.
The mood of the place was social, gregarious, chatty, open-minded, beery, friendly, jokey. Stories were being told, pictures on phones shared (no Sam’s Smith finger wagging here) and confidences tapped out. Mastication: stuffed onions lolled on white plates, carved up and fed upon between slurps of that marvellous smoked beer, while the thin metallic clank of knife and fork and accompanying scrape against the plate provided a background.
The food server tirelessly promenaded as she balanced plates and glasses, while above her the vaulted ceiling rose to the low heavens, patterned with whorls and owls, ferrets, squirrels and quarrelling cockerels. Solemn wooden chairs were like outposts from a church, dragged with a deep dungeon of sound on the flag-stoned floor. The keystone above the entrance to the kitchen had 1310 carved into it, while the metal light holders hanging down from the ceiling were like ornate crowns for some untold king of the winter months.
Out in the daylight we went, up the hill to the beer garden of the Wilde Rose Brau-Keller, where different serving stations were marked for lagered beers and Weiss, as the murmur of voices flittered through the dappled sunlight with shadows cast by the bright green leaves and kids played, sometimes energetic, then slowed down, dots and dashes of movement. The smell of sweet sauerkraut hung in the air like a beneficent drone, joined by the aromatics of onions and grilled beef with the odd intrusion of suncream.
The Maibock (brewed for the Beau-Keller by Franken Bräu Lorenz Bauer) was a counterpoint of noble hop and rich malt, sweet and floral. All of this, beer and surroundings and people, seemed to inculcate in the drinkers a relaxed attitude towards life — this was a happy place in a beer garden, where the beer was good and a familiar sense of community reigned.
Later on in the beer garden at Brauerei Greifenklau we heard the thunder coming in from the mountains around, but we didn’t care because the Kellerbier was clean and malt-flecked, minerally, earthy, softly carbonated and dry in the finish. The thunder in the mountains continued, the gods at play, but here in Bamberg all was well.
I know who you are.