Let’s start our culinary tour in Germany’s northernmost state, Schleswig-Holstein. The traditional dish Birnen, Bohnen und Speck which translates to ‘pears, beans and bacon’ is not a flowery description of the meal, but rather a bald list of its ingredients. The simple fixings are cooked in a stew, spiced with pepper and parsley, and often served with salted potatoes. Treat yourself to some Lübeck marzipan afterwards – the city’s confectioners have mastered the art of melding almonds, sugar, rose water and spices ever since the Teutonic Knights brought the sweet treat to Europe.
Hamburg boasts one of Europe’s busiest ports and embraces all things maritime. That is reflected in the local food as well. Fresh fish is sold directly from the boats and quickly makes its way into one of the seafood restaurants along the harbour. For a quick bite, head to one of the street vendors who sell Krabbenbrötchen, a no-fuss bread roll topped with a scoop of cooked brown shrimp caught in the North Sea, lettuce, and remoulade sauce. But quality comes with a price. This summer, prices skyrocketed to a whopping €11,50 for a crab sandwich.
We follow Germany’s coast to Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania where the dunes along the Baltic Sea beaches are overgrown with sea buckthorn bushes. People here have demonstrated creativity in incorporating the ‘lemon of the North’ into their cuisine. Buckthorn jam, cake, and liqueur are widely popular, but keep your eyes peeled for Sanddorn Suppe. The berries are rich in vitamin C and combined with carrots or Hokkaido pumpkin create a healthy and refreshing soup.
Next up is Brandenburg. The eastern German state shares a 265-kilometre border with Poland, and over the course of history Eastern European influences have weaved their way into its culture. Food-wise, the popular Russian dish Soljanka was a go-to food in the GDR, and to this day is found on the region’s menus. Recipes differentiate between a meat, fish, or mushroom base for the stew, but always contain tomatoes, sausage chunks, bell pepper, pickles, and herbs, with a dab of sour cream and lemon juice. Some also add cabbage, carrots, or potatoes.
We arrive in the capital, Berlin, and you can probably already guess what’s coming. Exactly: Currywurst! What started out as a culinary stopgap in post-war Germany has revolutionised the country’s snack culture. According to estimates, Germans devour a mind-boggling 800 million ketchup-and-curry-sprinkled sausages every year, and increasingly creative varieties hit the food stands. While a slice of white bread or French fries slake the appetite of most, the gourmet versions are garnished with shaved truffles or 22-carat beat gold.
We continue our journey westwards to Saxony-Anhalt. A dish you often find on food menus in and around Magdeburg is Bötel mit Lehm und Stroh. Now, even if you speak German those words don’t reveal anything about the ingredients used, at least you’d hope not – Lehm und Stroh literally means ‘clay and straw’. A plate is composed of salt-cured pig knuckle, pureed peas – the clay – and sauerkraut – the straw.
We swerve to Saxony for dessert. The state’s most popular food export is Christstollen, a Christmassy fruitcake of marzipan, raisins, cinnamon, and rum. But Quarkkäulchen is a treat you can enjoy year-round. A dough of mashed potatoes and quark cheese, flour, and eggs is formed into small patties, sometimes refined with cinnamon and raisins, and then pan-fried. Just like pancakes, they come in a variety of toppings from fresh fruits and berries, to powdered sugar or vanilla sauce.
It’s time to explore the culinary landscape of Thuringia. Vast forests and rural landscapes are what coined the central German state’s tagline ‘Germany’s green heart’. Regarding food, down-to-earth dishes are the clear winners with a plate of beef roulades with Thüringer Klöße often topping the charts of the most popular dishes. For the local potato dumpling recipe, both raw and cooked potatoes are mashed together with starch and formed into fist-sized balls. A couple of croutons are pressed into the centre before they are placed in a pot of boiling water. The ready Klöße are traditionally served with meat or Sunday roast and red cabbage.
We enter Bavaria, the land of lederhosen, the Alps, and Oktoberfest. Those who have visited the world’s largest beer festival or Munich in the past will probably have enjoyed the odd pretzel, Weißwurst or crisp ham hock, but we instead look toward Nuremberg. The city further north often finds mention on the lists of the most beautiful Christmas markets, but is also known for its tasty Bratwurst recipe. Contrary to its Weißwurst cousin, the pork-based sausage is refined with marjoram and traditionally grilled over an open fire rather than boiled. A main order of Nürnberger Rostbratwurst will most likely come as a platter of four to 12 of these sausages, alongside sauerkraut, or potato salad and mustard.
Next up is Baden-Württemberg. A highlight of the Swabian cuisine is the German dumpling variety that goes by the name of Maultaschen. The square pockets are filled with minced meat, breadcrumbs, smoked ham, onions, and spinach, or any combination of those, and then cooked in vegetable broth. You can get them either in soup, fried in butter and garnished with onions, with a potato salad on the side, or sliced and roasted.
We pass through Rhineland-Palatinate on our tour to the western corner of Germany. The region is known to serve stuffed pig’s stomach. The popular Pfälzer Saumagen dish is composed of salt-cured and cooked pork, sausage meat, and blanched potatoes, all ground up, mixed and spiced with salt, pepper, bay leaves, marjoram, and other herbs. The dough-like mass is filled into a pig’s stomach and boiled until done. For the autumn version, the potatoes are often replaced with chestnuts. A side of sauerkraut and a glass of Riesling from the area make for a well-rounded meal and an authentic Palatinate experience.
We reach the Saarland. The small western state often falls under the radar regarding sightseeing, but the region boasts the highest concentration of Michelin-starred restaurants in all of Germany. The francophile influence has made gourmet food a priority, but we have a look at a simple salad the region is known for. Löwenzahnsalat, or dandelion salad, is a popular starter in spring and uses freshly cut dandelion leaves, boiled eggs, diced up dried meat, and a light vinaigrette.
As we head towards Frankfurt, we come across Hesse’s most-hyped condiment, Grüne Soße. The rest of Germany only shrugs their shoulders when asked about the sauce of yoghurt, sour cream and herbs that is tossed on boiled eggs and potatoes. Handkäs mit Musik, on the other hand, is met with more enthusiasm. The name describes a starter or snack of a regional sour-milk cheese speciality. The cheese is known for its pungent flavour and most commonly marinated in a mix of vinegar, oil, onions, salt and pepper, and then topped with caraway. The snack is washed down with another Hessian speciality: Äpplewoi, the local apple cider.
As we reach North Rhine-Westphalia, a lot of hearty dishes catch our attention. The traditional restaurants and brewhouses of Cologne and Dusseldorf list a variety of simple snacks, as well as savoury and somewhat heavy meals. Rheinischer Sauerbraten is a regional speciality of pickled and slowly roasted horse meat, often accompanied by dumplings and red cabbage. If you don’t see yourself eating horse meat, you’re not alone. The original recipe has become less popular, and a lot of restaurants also offer beef-based varieties.
We haven’t had sausages in a while, and Lower Saxony doesn’t let us down. Oldenburg’s signature dish is Grünkohl und Pinkel. People here have devoured kale long before it was declared a superfood and swamped the shelves of international health-food stores. Braised in butter, the kale is topped with potatoes and a sausage of pork, bacon, oats and spices, similar to the British white pudding.
We’ve made it to our last stop and the Hanseatic city of Bremen, and the vicinity to the North Sea brings fish back on our plate. In the 18th century, seafarers relied on the nutrition of Labskaus, and today the dish is still widely popular in northern Germany and Scandinavia. Pureed corned beef, potatoes, and beetroot are topped with fried eggs, gherkins, and herring, and resemble what Liverpudlians know as scouse.
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