Germany’s St. Martin’s Day : When Goetta & Other Gruetzwursts Were Made

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St. Martin’s Day, or Martingstag in Germany, on November 11, is probably one of the most popular saint’s feast days in the Catholic world.   That’s except in the U.S., where it’s virtually unknown.   In Germany it has a mini-Mardi Gras associated with it, and could also be called the German Thanksgiving, as it celebrates the harvest and earth’s bounty.

St. Martin of Tours, a Roman-legion-turned-monk, was known as friend of the children and patron of the poor.  His holiday originated in France, but then spread to Germany, Scandinavia, and Eastern Europe.  In addition to honoring the popular saint, it celebrates the end of the agrarian year and the beginning of harvesting.

Bishop Perpetuus of Tours, ordered fasting three days a week from the day after Saint Martin’s Day. In the 6th century, local councils required fasting on all days except Saturdays and Sundays from Saint Martin’s Day to the Epiphany on January 6, a period of 56 days, but of 40 days fasting, like the fast of Lent.   Because of this similarity, it was therefore called Quadragesima Sancti Martini (Saint Martin’s Lent).  This period of fasting was later shortened to “Advent” by the Church.

Because St. Martin’s Day precedes the penitential season of Advent, it is seen as a mini “carnivale”, with all the feasting and bonfires on St. Martin’s Eve.   Bonfires are built and children parade with homemade lanterns in the streets after dark, often led by a character dressed like St. Martin as a Roman soldier, riding a white horse.  After these lantern processions, called Martinsumzüge or Laternenumzüge, they gather around the bonfires, drinking gluhwein or hot spiced wine, and sing songs for which children are rewarded with candy.  It’s kind of like trick-or-treating.

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In the Rhineland region, in cities like Cologne, bread pastries called Weckmänner or sweet bread men, are eaten in the days leading up to the feast day.   Sometimes these men are carrying little clay pipes embedded in their dough,and usually have raisins for eyes and shirt buttons.  The following day, goose or duck is eaten at a festive Thanksgiving-like dinner. Following these holidays, women traditionally moved their work indoors for the winter, while men would proceed to work in the forests.

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The goose became a symbol of St. Martin of Tours because of a legend that when trying to avoid being ordained bishop of Tours he hid in a goose pen, but was betrayed by their cackling. November is when geese are mature enough for slaughter.  St. Martin’s Day was an important medieval autumn feast, and the custom of eating goose spread across Europe. In the peasant community, not everyone could afford to eat goose, so many ate duck or hen instead.

St.  Martin is credited with spreading wine-making throughout the Touraine region, the area of France’s Loire valley, and with introducing the Chenin blanc grape varietal.   The Loire Valley is in northeastern France.  That region includes Vouvray, the home of Chenin Blanc, which is just east of the city of Tours, St. Martin’s hometown, along the Loire River.   Legend says that when he founded the Marmoutier monastery in 372 his monks began producing local wines with this grape.

In addition to coinciding with harvest-time, St. Martin’s day is also the time when newly produced wine is ready for drinking, and the end of winter preparations are done, including the butchering of animals, particularly the hog.   An old English saying is “His Martinmas will come as it does to every hog,” meaning “he will get his comeuppance” or, more bleakly, “everyone must die”.

When the hog was butchered in Germany, the entire carcass was used, including the blood, internal organs, and the off cuts of meat.    Even the brain could be used for bragenwurst or brain sausage.   So all the products from snout to tail were made at this time for Winter.  While the owner of the hog, who might have been the baron, oldest son, or owner of the manor house, used the loin, ham and other good cuts, he might offer the day laborers or younger siblings, the tagelohner and the heurling the other cuts of meat and organs for making sausage or wurst.   Blutwurst or Blood sausages would be made, and the small amounts of off cut meats would be mixed with a variety of filler grains (rye, barley, buckwheat, oats, cornmeal, and even gingerbread) to make the gruetzwursts or grain sausages, which would have included knipp, pinkel, panhas (the grandfather of scrapple), and of course our other beloved goetta predecessors.

Before refrigeration, the onslaught of cold weather would be the time that these gruetzwursts could be ‘put up’ in the meat house and kept without spoiling.  So St. Martin’s Day could be called the first Goettafest.    Maybe Glier’s should declare St. Martin the patron saint of goetta, and host a St. Martin’s procession to kick off their Goettafest.  Heck, they should even change the date from July to the weekend closest to November 11!

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