In Spain and Slovenia, it’s an ivy bush. In France, a bundle of straw. Austria and Italy hang out pine branches and Germany and Switzerland birch brooms. You’ll often find them out in the country, dangling sentinel before a farmhouse.
The vintner’s bush is a centuries-old form of advertising. Many European countries allow winemakers to market their own wines by opening their farmsteads and setting up temporary taverns. The farmers need no restaurant licenses, and in some countries, don’t even need to charge sales tax, so the food is cheap. But there’s a catch. So that the vintners don’t undermine commercial restaurants too much, their opening periods are often restricted to a few weeks per year and they may serve only simple, homemade wines and food.
In Germany, these taverns (Straußwirtschaft or Besenwirtschaft) enjoy soaring popularity for their rustic, intimate atmospheres and good, inexpensive food. Expect home-baked bread, several kinds of sausages and pork, homemade sauerkraut, and in the spring, sometimes asparagus. But the cultural aspects are perhaps even more interesting. This is where people come to meet, chat, and linger for hours over a glass of wine. In Heilbronn, Germany, a vintner’s bush tavern is where people secretly met to plot against Hitler’s regime. The Nazis hated these farmstead taverns for precisely that reason, but they proved powerless stop such an old tradition.
It’s part of English tradition, too. J.R.R. Tolkien wove the vintner’s bush into his opening chapter of the Lord of the Rings. At an inn called The Ivy Bush, hobbits speculate about Bilbo’s upcoming birthday party. “Good wine needs no bush,” quipped Shakespeare in the epilog to As You Like It. Of course it doesn’t, but what Shakespeare doesn’t say, and what a lot of Europeans already know, is that the bush makes the wine a lot more fun.
Have you ever visited one of these taverns in Europe? Where were you? And what was your experience?
(c) 2014 Ann Marie Ackermann