Viking Kara Cruise: Visiting Germany’s famous Black Forest to hear cuckoos, eat cake

Guide Petra introduces us to the wonders of the Black Forest.
Guide Petra introduces us to the wonders of the Black Forest.

ABOARD THE VIKING KARA –  Centuries ago, farm families in Germany’s Black Forest would spend winters holed up in their mountain cabins.  Snowed in with few chores to do, the families – often with as many as a dozen children – would pass the time using natural resources they had at hand to create objects for use and to sell for extra money.

“They had plenty of wood,” said tour guide Petra. “So they would carve kitchen utensils, shingles for their roof and other things. Then they learned how to make clocks.”

Before long, the simple clocks began to take more ornate shapes. “One farmer decided to make a clock in the shape of his house,” Petra said.

The world’s largest cuckoo clock keeps time outside a clockmaker’s shop.
The world’s largest cuckoo clock keeps time outside a clockmaker’s shop.

Little people were carved for the clocks. A bird was added that would pop out of its door at the appointed hour and trill “cuckoo.”

Although the full origins of the cuckoo clock remain unknown, researchers maintain that crafts people of the Black Forest developed primitive cuckoo clocks by at least 1630. Today, clock making is a big business in the Black Forest and we are headed for one of the largest workshops to see how the clocks are made, to watch the largest cuckoo clock in the world in action and to taste that famous Black Forest Cake.

First, Petra told us, the popular Black Forest got its mysterious name not from the fact that it is dark and scary. “It’s because the conifer trees are so thick and leafy that they block out most of the light,” she said. “Those trees never lose their leaves so the forest is always shaded but it is not black. It is really a beautiful place.”

Petra was right.

A popular stop on Rhine River cruises, the Black Forest offers dramatic gorges, tumbling misty waterfalls, winding rivers, half-timbered farmhouses and hills thick with fir trees.

                         Turning back the hands of time in the Black Forest

A baker demonstrates how to make a Black Forest Cake.
A baker demonstrates how to make a Black Forest Cake.

The forest and villages look as though they have stopped the hands of time, giving visitors a glimpse into what ancient Germany might have been like. The Black Forest does have a rich mythological tradition filled with werewolves, witches, fairies and dwarves.

“Legend says that the Brothers Grimm were inspired by the Black Forest when they wrote their stories,” Petra said, referring to the authors of Snow White, Cinderella, Rapunzel, Hansel and Gretel and many more.

The cuckoo clock shop itself is wondrous. All sizes and shapes of clocks are hung on the walls, cuckooing and ticking away. There is even a Harley Davidson cuckoo clock with a couple of big Harleys parked in front of a frou-frou gas station. Priced at 2,329 Euros (about $2,560 in U.S. dollars), the Harley clock is popular with collectors, our guide said. It was fun visiting the shop but I can’t imagine working there. All the noise, I fear, would be enough to drive me cuckoo.

                                Black Forest Cake and some trivia

As for that Black Forest Cake, I had a delicious piece of the cake in a nearby bakery where I watched a baker create one of the delights. On the way out, I got a postcard with the Black Forest Cake recipe.

What makes it special, Petra says, “besides all the good cream and cherries is the wonderful Black Forest cherry brandy Kirsch. So you have to buy some of the Kirschwasser to take home and make your cake.”

The traditional Black Forest Cake has strong liquor in it.
The traditional Black Forest Cake has strong liquor in it.

I did see several travelers buying the Kirsch. Maybe to make cake. Maybe to drink. Kirschwasser also can be ordered online.

Before we left, Petra shared some interesting trivia. The hat she is wearing with the bright red pom poms has a definite purpose. “If the hat has red pom poms, it means the girl wearing it is not married. When she gets married, she wears a hat with black pom poms. That way, young men know at a quick look who is single and who is married.”

Supposedly, the colors of the Black Forest Cake follow what the Brothers Grimm described in Sleeping Beauty – the girl was born with skin as white as snow, lips as red as cherries and hair as black as ebony.

Those are the colors in the cake and in the traditional dress worn by women of the Black Forest. The blouse they wear is as white as the cream. The bollenhut (hat with big puffy red balls on top) is as red as the cherries. And their dress is as black as the chocolate shavings.


                                                   Black Forest Cake

1 dark sponge cake

1 cup cherries

3 tablespoons cherry jam

3 cups whipped cream

3 leaves of gelatin to stiffen the cream

5 teaspoons of Black Forest Cherry Kirschwasser

¼ cup chocolate shavings from milk chocolate bar

Slice sponge cake through the middle into three even layers. Prepare the gelatin and add to whipped cream. Spread jam onto bottom layer, then cover with whipped cream and cherries. Cover with another layer of cake.  Sprinkle the cherry Kirschwasser evenly over the layer, cover with ¾ inches whipped cream and place last layer on top. Cover whole cake with remaining cream and decorate with chocolate bar shavings and cherries.

If you want to make your own sponge cake, here is the recipe:

6 eggs

5 ounces sugar

5 ounces flour

1 ounce cocoa powder

Beat eggs and sugar until peaks form. Sift flour and cocoa powder together in separate bowl, then gently fold into eggs and sugar. Pour batter into non-stick round cake pan and bake at 350 degrees for 30 minutes.

Photos by Jackie Sheckler Finch

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