To me, German cuisine is composed of myriad contradictions. A quick google image search for “German food” will shortly reveal an array of meaty and potatoey dishes, some of which may look hearty and appetising, but very few of which could be honestly described as beautiful. True, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but I dare you to look up “mett hedgehog” and tell me hand-on-heart that it is an elegant and subtle example of culinary presentation. For those unable or unwilling to use google, mett is a preparation of raw pork mince, and one of the preferred ways to serve it (still raw) is moulded into the shape of a hedgehog, with raw onion slices sticking out to form the spines. There is, however, something undeniably special about the mett hedgehog: when I explained it to my friends, they were inexplicably and immediately attached to the concept. I’m therefore truly sorry that I devastated so many by refusing to prepare the hedgehog this week – I could give the reason that I wasn’t so sure about eating the raw pork in Australia, but, honestly, my major concern was that my amateur artistic talent could never make the mett hedgehog look appetising, and, indeed, that it might end up being a horrifying eyesore, like a hedgehog trapped in a fire that has started to blister and melt. The contradiction to all of my disparagement, is that Germany is the second most highly Michelin Star-decorated country in the world (behind France), and was also rated as 10th best cuisine in the world by Ranker Travel. This is perhaps due to the willingness of the population to adhere to modern trends in food fashion, such as eating seasonally and locally, and freely adopting international foods and integrating them into the existing cuisine in remarkable examples of culinary fusion. It was appropriate that I completed my foray into German week now, because it is the end of September, marking the start of one of the most famous German celebrations: Oktoberfest. Yes, I know it sounds strange, with the month “October” in the title, but the festival usually starts in mid- to late- September and runs until early October, ending on German Unity Day, October 3, in modern times. The Oktoberfest originated in the enormous celebration of the marriage of Prince Ludwig and Princess Therese in the early 1800s, which was held in a meadow and open to all of Munich. The people of Munich enjoyed the party so much that the Prince threw another one the next year, using the opportunity to promote and celebrate Bavarian farmers, including sampling their produce. This slowly morphed into a festival primarily focused upon one particularly beloved German product, beer, but also peripherally features traditional German costume and food. These snacks serve an important role in soaking up beer, commonly featuring a lot of wurst and pork products, sauerkraut, schnitzel and pretzels – but more on all of that to come!
Pork knuckle, potato salad, asparagus salad and purple sauerkraut
Pork knuckle, or schweinshaxe, as it’s known in German, is a cured ham hock, roasted until the outside skin is crunchy and the inside is tender and juicy. This is particularly popular in the region of Bavaria, and is a typical example of former peasant foods: ingenious concoctions from cheap parts of the animal. I was pleased to be able to cook this option, because a different ham hock preparation, eisbein, which is pickled and then boiled, is sometimes considered one of the national dishes of Germany, but the pictures of it were so unappetising that I was practically forced to cook roasted pork knuckle in its place. Sorry Germans! German potato salad, called kartoffelsalat, can be served warm or cold, and differs from region to region. The south has the superior option, if my (obviously impartial) southern German friends are to be believed, containing red baby potatoes, bacon, mustard, onion, vinegar and herbs. The potato salad from the north, in contrast, is characterised by any type of potatoes drenched in mayonnaise. I also steamed asparagus, which is particularly beloved by Germans, but especially the white variety when it’s in season. Indeed, it is currently estimated that Germans eat an average of 1.5 kg of asparagus each per year. Finally, I served the meal with purple sauerkraut. Sauerkraut, literally meaning “sour cabbage” is one of the most famous fermented foods, featuring prominently in a ferment-your-own-food class I attended recently. Surprisingly, sauerkraut originated in China, where it was traditionally fermented with rice wine. It was subsequently introduced to Europe, possibly by the Tatars or even Genghis Khan, where it was modified with the addition of salt instead of rice wine. Although sauerkraut gained popularity all over Europe, with English maritime explorer James Cook, famed for the white exploration of Australia, reportedly never travelling without it because the fermentation process increases the bioavailability of nutrients, and is therefore particularly good for preventing malnutrition diseases such as scurvy. However, the dish has become particularly synonymous with Germany, to the point where “kraut” became a derogatory term for Germans. It’s dead easy to make your own sauerkraut: chop up cabbage, massage it, salt it, plop it in an airtight container completely covered in liquid (hopefully its own released juices but potentially assisted with some water), then leave at room temperature for as long as your tastes dictate, being sure to “burp” it daily by removing the lid and letting out the build up of gas. The bacteria that cause the fermentation are lactobacilli, which naturally live on raw cabbage leaves, and therefore those dodgy looking outside leaves are important to include in the mix; that’s where all the bacteria are! In Germany, sauerkraut is served either cold or warm, although heating it up too much would kill all those healthful gut bacteria that are well known to improve digestion and prevent many bowel ailments, so I ate mine cold. In addition to this, sauerkraut is thought to alleviate canker sores, maintain eye health and potentially even inhibit the growth of cancer cells! However, the store-bought versions are inevitably pasteurised and therefore have lost many of the advantages, so go ahead and make your own to reap the full rewards of magical sauerkraut.
Assorted wursts, pretzel, grüne soße, sauerkraut, birnen, bohnen und speck salad.
A quick google image search of German cuisine will reveal a wealth of wursts, or as we call them in English, sausages, in every size and colour imaginable. I have never considered sausages the most aesthetically pleasing of culinary innovations, but it’s clear they are paramount to German food culture, so I had to include some. However, the next problem I encountered was the vast number of sausage varieties, each particular to a certain region of Germany, and each with its own particular traditional accompaniments. Pictured from top to bottom in my sausage array is first currywurst, sometimes said to be the national dish of Germany. Currywurst is usually made with steamed, then fried, pork sausage, such as knackwurst or bratwurst (I used knackwurst), which is slathered in a thick sauce made of tomato ketchup, vinegar and lots of mild curry powder, and served along with a heaping side of hot chips. The origin of the sauce is thought to be a woman named Herta Heuwer in 1949 Berlin, who managed to procure ketchup and curry powder from British soldiers. Herta’s street food snack became explosively popular in the devastating years following the end of the war, at one point selling over 10,000 serves of currywurst every week, and triggering the creation of an entire Museum in its honour in 2009. Next I grilled bratwurst, literally meaning “finely-chopped meat sausage”, with over 700 years of history in Germany. Bratwurst has countless recipes and varieties, and can be accompanied by bread, mustard, sauerkraut or potato salad. Next comes the Bavarian weißwurst, literally “white sausage”, which is made from veal and pork, flavoured with parsley, lemon, onions, ginger and cardamom. They were originally eaten as a snack between breakfast and lunch, certainly before the midday church bells had sounded, due to their highly perishable nature. The sausages are boiled and traditionally served in the hot water that they were boiled in, to keep them warm. The skin of the weißwurst is usually not eaten, and therefore the sausages can be split and the meat scooped out, or, more traditionally, sucked out directly from the skin and accompanied by a soft pretzel and mustard. From all of the possible accompaniments to these sausages I chose sauerkraut, soft pretzel, grüne soße, and birnen, bohnen und speck salad. I’ve already waxed lyrical about the virtues of sauerkraut, but let me now tell you about the wonders of German pretzels. To make them, a dough is first formed by combining flour, milk, water, butter, yeast and salt. After a period of kneading and resting, long thin worms are formed out of the dough, which are then shaped into the classic pretzel knot shape, and then immersed for a few seconds in a boiling solution of water and lye, or as a substitute (as I used), water and baking soda, which gives them their characteristic shiny skin and flavour through a process called the Maillard reaction. The pretzels are then seasoned with salt flakes, and baked until golden and delicious. Pretzels are thought to have been invented by monastery monks in the middle ages, who formed them to resemble arms crossed devoutly to the chest, and were bestowed upon well-behaved children who learned their prayers. However, there is also speculation that pretzels were created by German bakers in 743 after a decree that baked goods shaped into heathen symbols, such as a sun cross, as was previously popular, were henceforth banned. These days, in some parts of Germany, there is a special day called “Pretzel Sunday” during which boys must give their girlfriends pretzels, the size directly proportional to the degree of his affection. No pressure, bakers! Grüne soße, literally “green sauce”, describes a cold sauce made with handfuls of herbs, such as cress, chives, sorrel and parsley, along with sour cream, oil, vinegar, mustard and hard boiled eggs. It is often served as an accompaniment to bread, boiled potatoes, meat or eggs. Famous German writer Goethe famously adored grüne soße, with an urban legend circulating that his mother invented the sauce. Finally, in an attempt to include some vegetables in the meal, I made a birnen, bohnen und speck salad, combining steamed green beans, fresh pears and fried pieces of bacon.
The word “spätzle” might derive from a term meaning “little sparrows”, perhaps referring to the irregular and organic shapes of this egg pasta, resembling feathers or wings. Another theory is that the word comes from the Italian “spezzato”, meaning “small pieces”. These sorts of rustic boiled dumplings are popular in surrounding regions, such as Hungary, where they are called nokedli, or Switzerland, where they are called knöpfle. Spätzle is a dish particularly synonymous with Swabia, a region of south-western Germany. To make spätzle, a thin dough is formed with flour, egg, salt and water, then laid out on a wooden chopping board and scraped off in thin irregular shapes. Spätzle are often served as a side dish to meals that have particularly generous lashings of sauce, such as sauerbraten (but more on that next!). I prepared a dish where spätzle was the primary ingredients: käsespätzle, literally meaning “spätzle with cheese”. This involves baking already-cooked spätzle with lots of grated cheese (often Emmental) and fried onion. This is sometimes said to be the German version of USA mac ’n’ cheese, although I would posit that the fresh hand-made pasta, sophisticated cheese and sweet fried onions renders the German version far superior.
Sauerbraten, potato dumplings, grünkohl and vegetables
Sauerbraten, one of the forerunners for national dish of Germany, literally means “sour roast meat”. Ah, so literal, these Germans! The dish is usually prepared from cuts of beef nowadays, although more traditionally with horse. The recipe takes quite a bit of forethought, as the meat needs to be marinated for 3-10 days, submerged in a mixture of vinegar, red wine, onion and spices such as bay leaves, pepper, cloves and juniper berries. This process of long-term vinegar marination tenderises even the toughest cuts of meat, and imparts aromatic, sweet and sour notes to the meat. When the long marination is finally complete, the meat is simmered in its marinade, with vegetables such as carrot, onion and celery for several hours until cooked and almost falling apart. The meat is then removed, and the sauce finished, often by reducing, straining and/or the addition of a shocking secret ingredient: crumbled gingersnaps. Gingersnaps, thin, crumbly and sweet biscuits that taste strongly like gingerbread, are a decadent childhood favourite of mine, but I must admit, I was sceptical about how their addition to a gravy would pan out. However, I needn’t have worried, the addition of gingersnaps is completely genius: they thickened the sauce smoothly, while imparting a delicious hint of ginger, as well as a sweetness that counteracts the vinegar of the marinade. All in all, the sauerbraten tasted remarkably cosy, with notes of hot wine, gingerbread, and sweet spices that I would usually associate with mulled wine and winter (and which I suppose many in the northern hemisphere would connect with Christmas). Indeed, many German families do enjoy sauerbraten for Christmas. The origins of sauerbraten are murky, although some figurative giants of world history have been implicated in its creation. For example, some propose that the amphoras of beef marinating in wine that Julius Caesar sent to Cologne over the Alps inspired the dish. Alternatively, others posit that Charlemagne himself invented the meal in order to prudently use up leftover meats. Whatever the story, it is clearly a proud and noble meal! German potato dumplings, called kartoffelklöße, are made by combining boiled and mashed potatoes with flour, eggs, bread crumbs, salt and nutmeg, then shaping the dough into balls and boiling them in salted water until cooked through. On its surface, grünkohl might seem surprisingly healthy for a German side dish, literally meaning “green kale”. Kale has reached cult status in northern Germany, where there are entire clubs devoted to touring country inns to sample dishes that make best use of the vegetable. There are also annual kale festivals, where the king and queen of kale are crowned after merriment and much leafy-green consumption. After a week of eating other German meals, I’m starting to think that Germans intake 100% of their yearly dietary fibre during one of these kale festivals, so that the rest of the year can be devoted to meat and potatoes without excessive gastronomic distress. Nevertheless, the popular side dish of grünkohl is usually not just stewed kale, but also includes pieces of onion, sausage, bacon, duck fat, potatoes and oats to thicken. By this stage in my week of cooking German food, I could almost feel my arteries filling with meat, so I opted to make a simpler version with just kale and onion. I know, cowardly of me, but you beat me, Germany! No more meat and potatoes please!