Monday, April 30, 2012

Ritter Sport Chocolate Factory And Museum

Stuttgart's probably best known outside of Germany as the home of Porsche and Mercedes but it should probably be better known as the home of the square. Well, actually, Ritter Sport, makers of the square chocolate bars:

Since I grew up in Philadelphia, chocolate always meant Hershey's, which is made in nearby Hershey, Pennsylvania. It wasn't until I was older that I began...experimenting...with other brands. I can remember seeing Ritter Sport's unusual, maybe even weird, multi-colored square chocolate bars at supermarkets in California. I could never figure out why it said "Sport" on the package and, until recently, figured that Europeans ate them as some sort of energy or protein-type bar when they were working out or playing sports. (I really thought that for a time.) It wasn't until I got to go to Ritter Sport's factory, art and chocolate museum, and cafe that I found out the real answer...but first...

Ritter Sport is now located in Waldenbuch. It's about 30 minutes via car south of Stuttgart but it was founded in 1912 in the Bad Cannstatt area of the city, which Diana and I recently visited. We just happened to come across the old Ritter Sport factory. If you look at the left-hand side of the front of the building, you'll see a tiny white sign that says that this building used to be the Ritter factory.

The company outgrew its Bad Cannstatt location in 1930 and they packed up the whole family and moved to their new digs. The new factory is surprisingly small considering how many chocolate bars they say that they make per day. Oh yeah, like the chocolate bars, everything is themed in squares, lots of colored squares...

The Ritter "complex" is made up of a handful of buildings including the factory and offices (above) and their relatively new combo art museum, chocolate museum, chocolate workshop, chocolate shop, and cafe:

The art museum houses the personal collection of the family and, guess what, it's all about squares! They do have special exhibits too with one of the upcoming ones about an art-and-chocolate theme. The chocolate museum includes exhibits about the history of the family and business, the raw materials...

...and the supply chain...

One of the more interesting things (probably only to me) was this one display where they highlight three Ritter employees. Other than advertisements, almost all the other non-chocolate displays are about the family, which I guess is appropriate since it's a family-owned business but I thought it was nice that they included something about these three folks...

Speaking of the family, they are currently on the third generation running the show. The main figurehead used in most of their materials is the grandson of the founder. It's somewhat funny as he's got big hair and has had big hair all the way back to photos from the 70s. On the left (below) is a book that Ritter Sport put together for the 100th anniversary of the company and you can see that Alfred's one of the things that's featured. Inside the book and mentioned somewhere during the tour, the company is co-run by him and his sister (she's on the right in the right photo below). I saw only one photo of the two of them together and they both looked fairly uncomfortable. The one below is actually two cardboard-cut-out style photos put next to each other (they did it -- not me). Call me crazy but I'd bet a box full of Ritter bars that the brother and sister team don't get along. I'm not sure why I feel that but it's the sense that I get from their photos... Hmm...conspiracy theory...

The chocolate museum has a video that shows more of the history of the company. It's really the only part of the whole museum that shows the actual manufacturing operation, which is what I'd really like to see. One of the more curious, but cool, things in the museum was this "game" that has a small version of the Ritter Sport factory in it. When the button is pressed, the factory lights up and shakes for a few seconds and a small truck with a mini Ritter bar on it comes out of the factory and "drives" to a slot in the front of the display. The chocolate bar is dropped off into a bin and you get to keep/eat it. This is Berat showing off his "winnings" to Diana and Xiao while Thanos gets ready to take his turn:

They also had an interactive display where they show Ritter Sport's commercials from over the years. Can you hear me now??? Thanos, Berat, me, and Xiao are enjoying the show:

By the way, our group was pretty international with me from the United States, Diana from Colombia, Thanos from Greece, Berat from Turkey and Germany, and Xiao from China. Yeah for international day!

After we were finished touring the museums we went to the factory store:

Surprisingly, there were no free samples but they do have a load of rejected chocolate bars (mostly broken/cracked) for sale really cheap. They also sell their full line of products for about 20% less than what they cost at the store. I was "moved" by the "minimeter" that has 100 mini bars of chocolate in it to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Ritter. What can I say, it was an emotional experience...

The one thing that I was bummed about with the whole visit was that they have a workshop where they let kids make chocolate bars. You might remember the time that I got to make Cup Noodles while in Osaka. (Definitely one of my favorite stories and among the best photos of anything I've written about.) Unfortunately, Ritter only allows "younger" kids to participate. Oh well, maybe next time...

Oh, and why the square shape? Ritter legend has it that Clara Ritter, the wife and co-founder of the company, noticed that local sports fans were buying chocolate and putting it in their sport-jacket pockets where the bars would end up breaking. I'm not sure why this'd be a huge problem but Clara had the foresight to get the company to change the shape of the bar into a square that could fit into the jacket pocket of her customers, thus the "Sport" in the name. For a time, the company had some trouble convincing their customers that the bar was still the same 100 gram weight but eventually the new design stuck and became synonymous with Ritter Sport. Like their motto says, "Square. Practical. Good." I agree.

Thanks again to my international travel companions for the fun day and especially to Berat for putting it all together. And, yes, I have enough chocolate to last for months at a reasonable rate of consumption...not that I expect that!

Thursday, April 26, 2012

A Pretzel A Day - Or Memories Last A Lifetime

Sometimes I'll hear a song that'll take me back to some moment in time. For example and for some reason, the Don Henley song Boys Of Summer, which I've never been a huge fan of, reminds me of driving down an empty Interstate 95 in Center City Philadelphia late one night. I'm not even sure if the memory is a real one or not but the song puts me right back there. Other times, something like a smell or flavor will have that effect but I can never really know when it'll happen because it's so random.

I recently had a "smell flashback" happen here in Stuttgart. I was walking back to the metro from my German class and I passed by a small kiosk that sells pretzels and other pretzel-dough-based items. The moist, "doughy" smell of the fresh-baked pretzels put me right back in the hallway of school when I was in fourth grade. Growing up in Philadelphia, soft pretzels were a daily "cookies-and-milk" type of snack when we were in school. The flashback that I have, which (again) I'm not sure really happened, is of me walking down the hall right after the large shopping-style paper bags of pretzels had been delivered to the classrooms but were still hanging on the doors outside the classrooms.

In case you don't know, the area around Philadelphia and especially out in Lancaster County is the pretzel capital of the United States. The specialty is the Philadelphia soft pretzel that usually looks something like this:

Well, in another "The World Is A Very Small Place" series, I get to eat fresh pretzels every day (if I want) here in Stuttgart! The pretzel originated, it is believed, somewhere in the area around southern Germany and/or nearby Austria, which just so happens to be where I'm living! The pretzels here are different than the ones where I grew up and tend to look something like this one that I bought a while ago in the Frankfurt airport (note my mobile phone on the right for relative size):

Back when we first arrived here, I was out looking for apartments near the center of the city and came across this bakery, which has a sign out front with a large pretzel on it:

I thought, "oh my god, I've found pretzel heaven!" but it turns out that the pretzel is a symbol for a certain type of bakery in this area. Here's another with a similar sign:

Anyway, as I've been sampling the local delicacy, I snapped some pictures so that I could share my pretzel-a-day habit with you. Well, actually, I started out with a pretzel (or three) per day when we got here but I've cut back to maybe one per week now to try to maintain my "girlish figure". The photos are in no particular order starting with this one, a Laugen Bretzel (bretzel is German for pretzel):

The typical pretzel here has the above shape and tend to be pretty big. Thin and crunchy towards the center and fat and more bread-like at the bottom. They're not as moist as what I grew up with but they're still yummy. The next one is the size of a large dinner roll and is called a Laugenbrötchen (basically "pretzel roll" in German):

I may have already polished off a couple of sandwiches on those rolls... The next one is called a Laugenhörnchen (pretzel horn roll), which I had at a restaurant near the University of Stuttgart:

One of my favorites so far was this croissant-style sandwich roll, called a Laugencroissant (yep, pretzel croissant), which seemed to be made from a combination of pretzel and croissant dough. Can you say yum?

This one has an even longer name, Laugenmohnstange. It's the most like an actual bread of all the pretzels that I've had so far so much so that it's even covered with poppy seeds:

It's been a treat to eat such a large variety of pretzels. I love it! While writing this story, I came across a pretzel festival that takes place once a year not too far from here. I added it to my calender! Woohoo! PretzelFest!

Lastly, I tend to travel fairly light but I do have my limits. My guilty pleasure is bringing food back from Trader Joe's each time I go to the U.S. My luggage is always packed to the maximum-allowed weight with peanut butter and other stuff like these peanut-butter-filled and chocolate-covered pretzel bites that they sell at Trader Joe's:

The picture doesn't do them justice but just know that they're worth lugging one-third the way around the world...

One last note, Diana, our roommate Berat, and I went food shopping last night at the "big" supermarket -- the one that has large-sized packages and lots of foreign food items. Diana and Berat each, independently, picked up some Snyder's Of Hanover Flavored-Pretzel Pieces. Yep, they bought made-not-far-from-Philadelphia pretzels at a supermarket in the home of the pretzel. Too funny. Actually, I think I'll go see what type of flashback they give me...

Friday, April 20, 2012

Bad Cannstatt

Last weekend, Diana and I were looking for something to do and we decided to go to the Bad Cannstatt area of Stuttgart. It's probably one of, if not the oldest parts of town and it's right across the Neckar river from the U-park that leads to the main train station and the city center.

I had walked through the area on the day that I visited the nearby Gotlieb Daimler Memorial but it was just a quickie on the way back home. The area is pretty old and probably built up around the mineral spas that are there. It's home to Cannstatter Wassen, where a couple of large, Oktoberfest-types of celebrations are held, two sports stadiums, and the Mercedes Museum (which I haven't yet gone to).

The main pedestrian street that runs through the middle of Bad Cannstatt:

It's also home to the oldest residential building in Stuttgart, the Klösterle, which was originally built in 1563. It was most recently renovated in 1983 and is now a restaurant. We were hoping to get coffee and/or something to snack on there but it was after 2pm and they close from 2pm to 5pm. We were able to stick our heads in and see some of the amazing wood work in the dining room.

I liked walking down the winding medieval streets because the area's full of beautiful old buildings. A random old house:

A shop with apartments and/or offices above:

A local pub:

Another random older house:

I liked the view from the parking lot down this street:

Another restaurant in a building from 1561:

One of my favorite things that we came across that day was where one building had been taken down at some point and you can see how the "new" building next door is constructed. You'd never know it when you look at somewhat-boring, brown-stucco front of the building.

We ended up walking around for about an hour or so then got some coffee and a particularly-"non-euro-sized" piece of cake at a cafe. It wasn't Claim Jumper sized but it was big. And good. It's cool that an area with so many architectural gems so close to the center of Stuttgart survives somewhat intact for us to enjoy now.

Oh yeah, near where I grew up in Philadelphia there was a place called Cannstatter Volksfest-Verein that we always knew as "the German place up on Academy (road)". It's mostly a catering hall but they do hold a few "German" festivals each year including an Oktoberfest one. The few times that I was there I figured that it would be as close to Germany as I'd ever get. Hmm...funny how things work out...

Monday, April 16, 2012

Flat Savannah

When I was back in Philadelphia in mid-January, my niece asked me to help her with a project that she was doing for her Girl Scout troop. This time it didn't involve cookies but it still was something fun. She gave me a piece of paper with a picture of a Girl Scout, called Flat Savannah, that she had colored in with markers. I was going to write about Flat Savannah but I thought that my niece could do a better job so I sent her an email with a few questions and this is what she wrote back [my notes in brackets]:

"We have Flat Savannah to earn a badge. The tradition of Flat Savanna probably came from Flat Stanley, a book about a boy named Flat Stanley and his adventures. The average [number of photos each girl got/had with Flat Savannah] would probably be about one or two. I was one out of two or three people that sent theirs off and no one really got photos. I had the most photos and I had 14. I am almost positive my Flat Savannah was the only one who went out of the country, so I know that mine went the farthest. Flat Savannah is supposed to be back on the date on the instuctions sheet [thanks for the reminder]. And if u need more info just email me again with more Qs and I will give u the As."

She's so cute, isn't she? Based on my best guess, Flat Savannah's: traveled (at least) 15,370 miles via airplane (60% on her way to Silver level on StarAlliance!), crossed the Atlantic Ocean three times, and has been to three countries. So, where has she been? Let's look...

Flat Savannah at Castellers' practice with the Castellers del Poble Sec in Barcelona, Spain:

Flat Savannah waiting for the Metro in Barcelona, Spain:

Flat Savannah back in the United States at a gift shop near New York City:

Flat Savannah visiting distant cousins, the Flat Irons, in Boulder, Colorado (United States):

Flat Savannah back in Europe getting burgers with Pau at Kiosko Burger in Barcelona, Spain:

Flat Savannah picking out some Barça items at the airport gift shop in Barcelona, Spain:

Flat Savannah at the Stuttgart airport arrivals area, Stuttgart, Germany:

Flat Savannah picking out a new car at Meilenwerk, Stuttgart, Germany:

Flat Savannah at the Porsche Museum in Stuttgart, Germany:

Flat Savannah visiting the medieval town of Tübingen, Germany:

My niece may not need any other Flat Savannah photos for her badge but I've got her in my backpack that I take everywhere. My goal is to get her to at least one more country and maybe two more before she goes back home. Who knows where she might pop up next!

By the way, if you'd like to print out, color, and take photos with your own Flat Savannah, you can get one here.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Beekeeping At Johannes' Adventure Playground

One of the things that's surprised me in Germany is that there seems to be a lot less fear of kids hurting themselves while playing. I know that in the United States people are always afraid of getting sued for pretty much any injury anywhere at anytime so everything, especially for kids, is designed for maximum safety and minimum likelihood of injury. It's very different here. I've seen some what I'd call crazy designs for stuff at playgrounds that we'd never "let happen" in the U.S. because you know that some kid would fall and hurt themselves and the city/state/government agency would have to pay for physical and mental treatment for the rest of the kid's life. Yeah, it kinda' sucks because how can you learn without falling down and/or making some mistakes?

A rockin' German Spielplatz (playground) in the U-Park near the main train station in Stuttgart:

I know that some of the kids will get hurt but I love the idea that they get to push/learn their limits. Our roommate Berat is a volunteer board member at the local Abenteuerspielplatz (Adventure Playground), which is a place where kids can go after school and on Saturday to learn to make fires safely, do wood working, construct structures, along with a bunch of other cool, supervised, and safe activities. It reminds me a bit of what we used to do when we were kids in the Pennypack Park near to where I grew up in Philadelphia. The difference is that this is supervised and done in a safe way. What a great way to learn and have fun at the same time.

Well, guess what! Adventure playground isn't just for kids anymore! Berat's best friend Johannes has his own Adventure Playground and we were invited to spend the afternoon having a barbecue and learning about bee keeping! Woohoo! Hope I don't get stung!!!

Johannes' Adventure Playground (it's not really called this) is on a couple of acres that his parents own in the Weil der Stadt area west of Stuttgart. He and his parents have a couple of small structures, a bunch of fruit trees, and a beekeeping operation. But, first, it was all about the nice BBQ that he and his girlfriend Angelika prepared for us, which included a few different homemade breads, four different kinds of meat, some fresh veggies, and a bunch of other treats. Can you say "spoiled"?

As part of the adventure, we got to start a fire with kindling so that lunch could be prepared over the open flame. Berat showing us how it's done in Germany:

The happy adventurers - Berat, me, Diana, Angelika, and our host, Johannes:

Once we finished lunch and cleaned up everything, it was time to check out the bees! They have at least twelve hives going and his parents pack the honey and sell it at fairs and, more importantly, share it with friends!

Johannes told us that this empty frame had just been put in place about a week or so before. The bees are working away at building new combs:

I was very surprised at how mellow the bees are. We were pulling out the frames and literally moving the bees around with our fingers so that we could sample of some of the fresh honey and see some larvae growing.

Probably the coolest thing that happened during the day was getting to watch a bee being "born" (or is it hatched? Or???). Johannes spotted one bee that was breaking out of its comb cell so we waited until it had fully emerged. Verrrrry cool!

We were also lucky enough to get to see one of the queens. Johannes usually marks them with a white paint marker to make them easier to find. He said that the paint doesn't harm them but that, over time, the other bees end up grooming the paint off so he needs to redo it occasionally.

After our beekeeping session we went around to see some of Johannes other projects. He's got a bunch going at the same time. He's growing some different types of fruit including one apple tree with several apple varieties grafted on it. It reminded me of my neighbor from when I lived in Oceanside (California) who had an avocado tree that he had grafted four or five different types of avocados on it. Johannes is also "building" a wine cellar under one of the existing buildings. He dug down and built the roof structure out of rock and mortar first then started digging out the ground below the new roof to create the room. What a ton of work! The last thing that he showed us before we packed up for the day was one of his chainsaw sculptures that he does. This is one that he's just starting:

We headed over to his parents' house for some cake and tea and so that we could check out some other Johannes fun stuff. Oh, his mom's homemade cakes were to die for! After our snack we went down the basement to see where and how the bulk honey is stored...

...and Johannes' wood-working shop. Because Johannes' mom is from Finland, they've built a sauna down there too! Wow. And that's not all. Johannes also makes Honigwein (honey wine) and a couple of fruit-based spirits, which I'll write about some other time. Uh huh, they're good too!

Johannes is one of those way-too-smart people that you occasionally meet. He's always got some new project he's working on so that he can learn a new skill or figure out how something works. He reminds me a lot of my friend John from San Diego who is also way too smart and is always tinkering with some new project. I think one of John's most recent projects had something to do with his son's class launching a weather balloon into space...yeah.

Thanks to Berat for the introduction and a huge thank you to Johannes for sharing his Adventure Playground with us! We learned so much and didn't get hurt -- not even one bee sting!