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Herta in elevator

We are very sad to announce the passing of Herta Bloch on December 24, 2015 at the age of 94. We feel fortunate to have met Herta a couple of years ago, and to have spent two lovely afternoons visiting her in her Washington Heights apartment, where she had lived for more than 50 years. One of those afternoons, we sat in her living room overlooking the Hudson River as she told us stories about her life — her youth in Germany, emigrating to the U.S., and stories about running her store Bloch & Falk with her husband, Alfred. She spoke in great detail about the store, and she could recall individual customers, even those she hadn’t seen in many decades. Our post about Bloch & Falk, which we published here in 2013, has had an overwhelming response – mostly from people who had shopped there and have very strong and wonderful memories of eating the wide variety of meats – (wursts and aufschnitt) that the store produced. There have been almost 150 comments to date, reflecting how unique and special the store was, both for the products it produced, as well as for the generosity and kindness of its owners. You can read that post HERE.

On our second visit with Herta, we spent an afternoon baking krokerle – chocolate-hazelnut spice cookies – in her kitchen. She was a gracious host, and we had a lovely time chatting and laughing. Afterwards, we crowded around her tiny kitchen table and had cookies and coffee. You can read that post HERE.

We are glad, too, to have met her children: Marion, Andrew, and Richard (now sadly deceased, but whom we had a phone conversation with several years ago and who introduced us to Herta in the first place), and their families. Our heartfelt condolences to them on their loss.

Thanks for sharing with us, Herta! May you rest in peace.

12/27/2015 [obituary from Riverside Memorial Chapel in NYC]
Herta Bloch, nee Wertheimer, was born in Kippenheim, Germany a town in the black forest area, with a population of 1800 and approximately 40 Jewish families. The family came to America on April 1st, 1938 and settled in Manhattan. She worked as a live-in maid so that her parents could rent out one of the rooms for extra income. She married Alfred Bloch on March 30th, 1946 after he returned home from the Army. They worked together everyday in the family kosher butcher shop, Bloch & Falk, which catered to the German Jewish population of Washington Heights. They had 3 children, Marion, Richard and Andrew. Richard passed away 2 years ago, on 12/27/13. Marion Cherson Bloch is married to David Cherson, and they have one daughter, Shoshana Cherson. Shoshana is engaged to André Dudkiewicz. Richard Bloch was not married at the time of his death and had no children. Andrew Bloch is married to Kathy Hayes-Bloch, and they have 2 children, Kiera Bloch and Evan Bloch. All but Richard are still living. Herta had a sister, Margot Kohn, who died on 10/16/12. Margot is survived by her husband Jacques Kohn, but they have no surviving children. Herta had a large network of extended family and friends that she kept very close contact with right to the end of her life. She had many first cousins, spread all over the US, England, Australia and Israel that she has maintained close ties with. She was extremely devoted to her family. Herta lived an exemplary life filled with humor, grit and resiliency, making the best of any life circumstance that came her way.

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Herta Bloch, 2013, NYC

Herta Bloch — who we wrote about in our last post HERE — knew practically everyone in the German-Jewish community of Washington Heights in NYC between the 1940s through the mid-1990s, because during those years so many people shopped at Bloch & Falk, the store she owned with her husband Alfred. They came to buy the German-style cold cuts and sausages (Aufschnitt and Wurst) that were made exclusively of beef or veal (as opposed to the de rigueur pork of most German meat products). All of their products were made and smoked on-site in the back room: kosher salami, ring sausage, pastrami, smoked tongue, corned beef, the ubiquitous cervelat (a hard salami) and many other assorted meats.

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Vintage images of Bloch & Falk store, Washington Heights, NYC Photos courtesy of Herta Bloch

My grandparents, as well as most of their friends and family, shopped at Bloch & Falk. After Oma and Opa moved to New Jersey in the 1950s, they continued to make the short journey back over the Hudson River to shop at Bloch & Falk on a regular basis for the provisions they ate on a daily basis. The store was on Broadway and 173rd Street and was an easy stop en route to or from New Jersey via the George Washington Bridge. I don’t think their refrigerator was often without a stash of cured meats wrapped in white, waxy butcher’s paper. After Opa died, my uncle Andy would often stop in there to shop for Oma, until the store went out of business in the 1990s.

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Vintage images of Bloch & Falk store, Washington Heights, NYC. Photos courtesy of Herta Bloch

Today the type of food Bloch & Falk produced has almost completely disappeared. Sausages and cold cuts with that unique blend of both German and Jewish qualities barely exist anymore — and if so, probably not with the superior quality of B&F, where everything was made by hand, in-house and in small batches. We were surprised to discover, quite by accident, a beef ring sausage for sale at the Kleinmarkthalle in Frankfurt (a large, indoor market with many stalls of food purveyors) in 2011. My mother spotted it first: Rindwurst (beef sausage) written in blue writing on a package in the glass case of a meat vendor we were walking past. Since it is unusual to see beef, instead of the usual pork, sausages in Germany, she inquired of the purveyor and learned that the company — Gref Völsings,  a local sausage company in Frankfurt that has been in business since 1894 — originally made these sausages specifically for their Jewish customers starting about 100 years ago, and has continued making them ever since. My mom bought a vacuum sealed package of the Rindwurst to bring home to Boston. There, she made the same traditional lentil soup that both her mother and grandmother made when she was a kid, using the smoked Ringwurst from Bloch & Falk to impart a smoky, meaty flavor to the soup. To her great surprise, she said it tasted very, very much the same as the Ringwurst from her childhood!

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People who remember the store and their products still lament the loss of Bloch & Falk. To this day, people write comments on blogs and internet chat rooms about their Wurst and Aufschnitt in yearning tones. Herta shrugs off the suggestion that someone, somewhere might make a similar product. “Ah, it would be much too expensive to do it the way Alfred made it. And besides, no one knows how to do it.” Yet, Herta perhaps isn’t fully aware of the growing artisanal food movement, one where people are willing to seek out — and spend more — for quality, hand-made products. Perhaps this is the type of product that would allow two seemingly distant food worlds — one of Old World traditions and the other of modern tastes rediscovering those same Old World traditions, to successfully meet up.

We wonder: would there be a market today for these types of sausages and cold cuts that have all but become extinct? What are your thoughts? We would like to hear from you!

–Sonya

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Krokerle 

Ours is a story of continuity and discontinuity – a story of community and people within that community. For me (Gaby), the story takes place in a visually stunning setting, one in which the cliffs of the Palisades of New Jersey tumble straight down to the Hudson River with the iconic George Washington Bridge spanning the scene. In my mind’s eye, I can also see the blue lights of Bill Miller’s Riviera, a nightclub that clung to the top of the cliff directly across from my apartment building in New York City’s Washington Heights neighborhood, until it closed in 1953. The lights screamed out (it is easy to get dramatic with memory) and illuminated the night sky. My apartment building was a few doors down the hill from Herta’s — though I didn’t meet her until many years later — and I walked this hill twice a day every day of my childhood, because we came home for lunch from grammar school in those days. That view is burned into my brain so much so that the imagery has entered my artwork. It is always a wild trip to return here, where all the buildings and streets remain the same.

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Gaby visiting Washington Heights, 2013

In the here-and-now we cling to the mundane, and yet our tale is far from mundane.  We are visiting Herta Bloch, who had her 92nd birthday in June. She is almost a generation older than me (even though I am starting to feel like I belong to the oldest generation).  “What can you do about age? Accept it” she says. Charging around her beautiful apartment with a majestic view of the Hudson and George Washington Bridge, Herta is bright-eyed, cheerful and vibrant. Time has been good to her. We are here to learn how to bake Krokerle – a cookie that is unique to her German-Jewish family. It was baked by her mother and exists in Herta’s archive of family recipes.

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Herta Bloch, 2013

We are surprised – and find it hilarious – when Herta says: ‘I have never made these cookies before.” We came to learn from an old master, only to discover that it is her first time! In fact, we learn that the recipe skipped a generation, passing from grandmother to granddaughter — and it is Marion, Herta’s daughter, who bakes the Krokerle in the family. On second thought, we decide that this is great! It adds to the “living quality” of the food, that the old-timer is learning to bake her mother’s recipe for the first time.

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Herta’s German measuring cup that converts weight to volume

Herta carries within her the traditions and the food of the culture we are exploring, yet she is a thoroughly modern woman. As a young immigrant in New York City, she worked as a nanny for many years, often being exploited and overworked. She met her man, who then went off to war for three years. When he returned and they married, she worked in the kosher butcher and sausage shop they owned, Bloch & Falk, while also raising three children. More on the shop and sausages to come in another post, coming soon.                                                                                                                -Gaby

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Krokerle  Makes 45-65 cookies (adapted from Herta and Marion Bloch)

This recipe produces confections with a wonderful combination of chocolate, spice and a rich nutty flavor, but they are not overly rich as they don’t contain dairy or oil. The clove may be substituted with another spice if desired, such as nutmeg or cinnamon. One other note, the size of  the cookies is variable as desired, dropped either by the teaspoonful or tablespoonful. The Bloch family traditionally made Krokerle for Channukah, but they are delightful any time of year.

For Krokerle:

4 eggs

1 ½ cups sugar

2 ¾ cup all-purpose flour

1 ½ teaspoons baking powder

1 teaspoon ground clove

¼ cup Dutch-process cocoa

¼ teaspoon salt

2 tablespoons brandy (or whiskey)

8 ounces hazelnuts, skinned* and coarsely chopped *(see note below for instructions on skinning hazelnuts)

For Lemon Glaze:

1 ½ cups confectioner’s sugar, sifted

1 ½ tablespoons fresh lemon juice

1)   Mix eggs and sugar with a whisk until light and foamy.

2)   In a separate bowl, sift dry ingredients together and add to egg and sugar mixture. Stir to combine. Add liquor and nuts, stir to combine.

3)   Drop by the spoonful (either teaspoon or tablespoon) onto greased cookie sheets and place about 2” apart.

4)   Bake 10-15 minutes, until lightly browned. Remove from oven and place on a cooling rack.

5)   While the Krokerle are baking, make the glaze: Combine the confectioner’s sugar and lemon juice and stir until smooth. Add a drop of water if it is too thick.

6)   While the Krokerle are still warm, drizzle each one with a small spoonful of lemon glaze. Let cool.

Note: To skin hazelnuts: Spread the nuts on a cookie sheet and toast in a 350° F for about 10 minutes, or until you start to smell them. Be careful not to let them burn. Immediately remove from oven and spread them on a clean kitchen towel. Wrap the corners of the towel over the top and let sit for a few minutes – the steam will help loosen the skins. Roll the nuts around in the towel, unwrap and most of the nuts will be skinless.

I recently noticed that a good New York rye bread with caraway seeds is much tastier and crisper than a plain white New York rye bread. (Does anyone know why?) It got me thinking about caraway seeds. They are an important flavor addition to many German dishes and therefore also to German-Jewish food.

When I was growing up in Washington Heights, my mother made sautéed potatoes with great regularity – probably three or four times a week. I have to assume that this practice arrived on these shores with her, and that is what she was used to cooking in Germany. Like most of my mother’s food, it was simple and delicious, relying on ingredients that make themselves easily known. She used a black enameled fry pan with tapered sides brought over when they immigrated in 1939. The pan would get a large dab of Crisco or butter, or both; the pan was heated and the previously steamed potatoes were then sliced and laid into the hot fat. The aroma of the butter signaled that these delightful potatoes were on the menu. If I was doing homework on the living room floor, I would head through the swinging door to the kitchen and check out the pan, maybe snitching a slice of potato.

Mom tended to fry hotter than I do, so her potatoes usually had some darker and lighter spots, including some very crisp portions. She would add salt and caraway seeds somewhere during the cooking process. The seeds dotted the potatoes, making a very noticeable pattern which is appropriate because the caraway taste is a very distinctive characteristic of this dish.

In Germany, caraway seeds are also often added to cabbage dishes and to sauerkraut, things I also remember from my childhood. Why, I wonder, is caraway, which is called kümmel in German, so popular? This spice, like so many, has a long history winding from one continent and millennium to the next. Think Stone Age, and Egyptians burying the seeds with their dead. It is related to other spices such as fennel, coriander and anise seed and this whole family of flavorings is considered to be carminative, which means they are soothing to the digestive system. It probably does so well in North-Central Europe because it grows well there, which I think is not the case with fennel and the others. It probably also has a calming effect when eating some rather heavy, difficult-to-digest foods.

Here is a recipe for my version of my mother Erna’s roasted potatoes. I’ve swapped out her Crisco for vegetable oil, but they remain essentially as I remember them from my youth: both crispy and soft, slightly salty and filled with heady caraway notes. They are a wonderful accompaniment to just about any meal, but work especially well with schnitzel, roast chicken, or any type of wurst.

Pan-roasted Potatoes with Caraway Seeds  [serves 4 as a side dish]

1 ½ pounds thin-skinned, waxy potatoes, peeled and cut in half (if using organic, may leave the skins on)

2 tablespoons neutral vegetable oil (or 1 tablespoon oil + 1 tablespoon unsalted butter)

2 teaspoons caraway seeds

1 teaspoon salt

1) Steam or boil the potatoes until barely tender, about 20 minutes. Remove from pot. When cool enough to handle, slice into ½ inch thick pieces.

2) Heat the oil (and butter, if using) in a large fry pan. Layer potatoes into the pan and cook on medium heat. Turn frequently so they will brown evenly. When they begin to brown, scatter the caraway seeds and salt over the potatoes and toss. Cook another minute or two. The potatoes should be gently browned around the edges. Eat hot.

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