Could you stomach it?
I naturally expected to be involved in challenging intellectual activities and mingling with the political glitterati. Chowing down stuffed pig's stomach couldn't possibly fit into this glamorous scenario. But that's what the assignment was - check out Chancellor Kohl's favourite restaurant, taste the pig's stomach and report back. Pig's stomach? Well, excuse me for not passing out with excitement.
As a native of Abbeyfeale I am not unacquainted with real food. Connie the butcher kept his sheep and cows in a field close by and when we saw them hoofing it past our gate it wasn't a major mystery where the oxtail, kidney soup and Sunday roast came from. We ate and liked tongue and tripe - or at least until we found out it was the lining of a cow's stomach. How had we escaped the delights of stuffed pig's stomach?
More importantly how come this particular speciality had become synonymous with Chancellor Kohl? And what other Statesman in his right mind would dare foist pig's guts on visiting dignitaries such as Gorbachev, Thatcher, Havel et al. All would be revealed in Deidesheim, Germany. Deidesheim is in the Rheinland Palatinate (which will sound faint bells for those who stayed alert in history class) about 20 minutes from Helmut Kohl's home town of Ludwigshafen - where the German chancellor grew in political stature and reached epic girth. For all his 67 years Kohl has remained a hometown lad. He speaks with a Palatinate brogue - the German equivalent of a lush Kerry accent. He also made legendary political hay out of his tough Rhineland roots. The sophisticated folk in the salons of Bonn and Berlin had him pegged as a blubbery yokel. But much like a clever Kerryman he outwitted them all and became chancellor. To date he's the longest serving statesman in Europe. He's also the fattest. An American leader with Kohl's clout and power would have hired a platoon of personal dieticians and trainers decades ago. But Kohl is the kind who revels in the food section of the paper. That's how he found Manfred Schwarz - chef par excellence and one of Germany's top 10.
What caught the chancellor's eye was the fact that Schwarz was refining the palates of the Palatinates and updating their regional cuisine. He asked him to please revitalise some regional dishes from his youth such as stuffed pig's stomach. Like tripe and other poor cuisine offerings it had bitten the dust in favour of a more lean and clean cuisine. Schwarz wasn't a native of the region and had up to then been deprived of the bizarre delights of pig's belly - Saumagen. But he set to the daunting task of resurrecting one of the chancellor's favourite foods. The rest is part of German lore. Today, 10 years later, there is hardly a person in Germany who doesn't know about Kohl (German for cabbage) and the famous chef in Deidesheim who has dished up over 15,000 stuffed pig's bellies to very discriminating foodies. The guest list at his Deidesheimer Hof runs the gamut from the Rolling Stones, Al Gore, every politician in Germany, and world heavyweights such as Thatcher, Gorbachev and Yeltsin. Yeltsin went wild over another speciality - a strudel of blood sausage and liver meat loaf. The same Yeltsin who enriched the vocabulary by circling over Ennis?
The village of Deidesheim came as a pleasant surpise. It's a very pretty place that nestles nicely amidst charming hills covered with vines. The famed restaurant had Sound of Music overtones since all the waitresses wore alluring modern Dirdnls. I immediately ordered a glass of Deidesheim wine. There was no way I could actually face what was ahead on a mere glass of water. The moment had come. I thought I'd have to eyeball a pig's belly in all its globby glory. Instead I was presented with a very attractive plate with muted hues of white (mashed potatoes) green (sauerkraut) and a decorous slice of what looked like upmarket mortadella. If I hadn't known I had a part of a pig's innards on my plate I'd have tucked in without a thought. But too much knowledge can be a bad thing.
I already knew this was the dish the Iron Lady had "pushed around the plate and tried to hide under her fork". John Major didn't even have the guts to order it. Gorbachev lapped it up. But his native cuisine includes horse's head which is an honour reserved for only the deserving few. Bush said he was a major fan of Saumagen. But the same man was given to saying a lot of odd things like "I hate brocolli", "read my lips" and "let's kick ass". I eased gently into the sauerkraut - never a favourite of mine - up until that moment. But Schwarz had managed to refine pickled cabbage into a sublime treat. Next the mashed potatoes. Again applause for the chef. They were magically reminiscent of days now gone when a floury summer potato with a pat of butter was heaven itself. Today try to find a potato that hasn't had the taste fertilised out of it.
Cheered by the wine, cabbage and spuds I finally tasted the saumagen . . . and loved it. It's got a hearty taste of pork and potatoes and herbs and it's fantastic. I don't know to what extent the actual package of the pig's belly itself enhances the taste . . . I don't want to know. My only regret was that I had ordered the small portion.
Brigitte Downey is assistant producer of Helmut Kohl - The German Giant which is on BBC2 tonight at 6 p.m.