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The Germans and Europe: Food

The Germans and Europe: Food
01 Dec
In The Germans and Europe: A Personal Frontline History, British journalist and author, Peter Millar, explore Germany’s sense of identity and place in the modern world. In this exclusive extract, he looks at how German food has played a role in shaping their sense of self

It’s not just the sausages. Not that they don’t play an important part in German culinary life. The humble Wurst is so commonplace that if you wish to imply something is of no importance, you might say, with a slight tweak to the pronunciation: ‘das ist mir Wurscht’: ‘That’s just sausages to me!’

There are literally hundreds of types of sausage, many of them with origins beyond the borders of modern Germany, from the ever popular Schinkenkrakauer (literally Krakow ham, giving away its Polish origins) or the spicy Debrecziner, with its origins in the Hungarian city of that name. German varieties go from the simple Bratwurst – an almost universally found grilled sausage – and its close cousin the Bockwurst, while the Bavarian city of Nuremberg is proud of its miniature version, so petite that they are routinely served in multiples of six. It is worth noting that the sausages most widely associated with German-speaking cities – the frankfurter and the wiener –- are essentially the creations of emigrés to the USA and largely unknown as such in Germany.

For centuries the pig was the essential animal in Central Europe: almost every family kept one of these omnivorous, fast-growing, easy-breeding creatures. Pigs were also turned into cured hams (Schinken), often salted or dried or both (Speck), to last through the long winters. The Germans of the far south (aka Austrians) with their extreme Alpine climate became specialists. Tiiroler Bergspeck, is justly renowned, but so also is Schwarzwälder Speck, produced in the depths of the Black Forest.

German white sausage and beer (Image: Shutterstock)German white sausage and beer (Image: Shutterstock)

The classic pork dish of Berlin cuisine, could not be more different: the Eisbein, a salted ham hock traditionally boiled and served with boiled potatoes and Erbsenpuree, uncoloured mushy peas. When I lived in East Berlin in the 1980s there was never a problem getting meat as long as it was pork and you didn’t mind whatever cut the state butcher might – almost literally – throw at you. But Eisbein was considered a rare treat. Alex Margan, my local pub landlord, would regularly go round a string of local butchers to acquire a dozen or so ham hocks which he would then serve up, to pre-booked selected customers only at an Eisbeinessenabend (Eisbein eating evening) for selected guests only.

The Berliner Eisbein is at first glance not an aesthetically appealing dish, served up pale pink and with the boiled fat white and wobbly, but the slightly salty ham underneath is absolutely delicious. Out of instinct I would – and still do – invariably slice through the fat and discard it: this was just about excusable for a foreigner, I was told, but extremely bad form for East Berliners, who treasured any source of calories.

Iin the rest of Germany the same cut is traditionally roasted and known as a Hachse, common slang for an ankle and. Order one in a Munich beer garden and it will come glistening pinkish brown, coated with a thick layer of crackling, crunchy or tooth-threateningly impenetrable depending on how long it has sat in the oven and warming tray (you can hardly order something that requires long roasting from scratch). It is served with steak knives to cut through the crackling and rarely eaten with anything else, other than perhaps a bundle of red radishes or a savoury potato salad on the side.

The potato was introduced to Prussia in the 18th century by Frederick the Great who quickly realised it was an easily grown nutritious crop that would reduce the cost of feeding his growing population. The potato was a success in Germany. Petersilienkartoffel – boiled potatoes with a dusting of chopped parsley – is a standard accompaniment to main meals. Potato salad is ubiquitous, in various varieties, some made with Quark, a type of yoghurt, but also cooked in a savoury broth and served sprinkled with chives.

The Germans and EuropeThe Germans and Europe: A Personal Frontline History

But it reaches its apogee in Berlin’s Kartoffelsuppe, potato soup. I was introduced to this unique, cheap, savoury and nourishing dish, by an East German friend whose mother, I would later learn, had been spying on me for the Stasi. Jochen claimed to make far better Kartoffelsuppe than anything available in the few local restaurants: the potatoes cooked then pulverised, but not blended in a broth made from pork bones, flavoured with salt and marjoram and, some, tiny cubes of Speck, or whatever bits of dried pork rind you might have to hand. The important thing, he insisted, was to leave it to ‘rest’ for 24 hours after making it, for the flavours to mature.

The other great staple, which preceded the potato and still survives, is the dumpling – Klösschen or Knödel – from the bready slices served in Prague and eastern Austria, to my favourite, the spherical Kartoffelknödel, made with shredded raw potato and then boiled. It is my favourite though the glutinous texture can take some getting used to.

Another surprise for visitors to Germany is a fondness for raw meat. Beef tartar is ever popular while in the northwest they enjoy a dish that is anathema to most foreigners, Mett, little patties of raw pork with onion. The familiar fears of raw pork are dismissed in most of Germany due to long traditions of hygiene, and strict laws that it never be kept above 3ºC. I have even had it for breakfast in some good hotels. Swallow your prejudices and try some: it’s delicious.

The most improbable dish in this country of carnivores is a speciality of Frankfurt: grüne Sosse, literally ‘green sauce’. My wife and I were first treated to this by the partner of an Irish school friend at their home. Knowing neither were vegetarian we were astounded to be presented with a plate of boiled potatoes along with quartered boiled eggs and a vast tub of pale lime green goo which we were supposed to spoon over them before eating. That was it, the whole dish, no meat anywhere in sight. Meat is an option, but the purist will consume their grüne Sosse without. It made for a surprisingly light and refreshing meal.

Grüne Sosse (Image: Shutterstock)Grüne Sosse (Image: Shutterstock)

The traditional recipe is to use seven herbs – borage, cress, parsley, chervil, burnet, sorrel and chives, mixed by hand, not sieved or blended, with oil, salt, pepper, lemon juice, garlic and yoghurt. It is traditionally accompanied not by beer or wine but by a local drink known as Ebbelwoi a local pronunciation of what translates as ‘apple wine’: cider, brewed by small farmers in the surrounding countryside.

But we must come back to the sausages and the two most different to one another, from opposite ends of the country. Munich’s most famous – some say infamous – is the Weisswurst, literally the ‘white sausage’, pale, smooth and flecked with tiny bits of green, and served in pairs in a bowl of hot water. For those brave enough to try them, the Weisswurst is one of world’s great everyday culinary treats. Invented in the 19th century by an innkeeper who had improbably run out of pork, they are made of processed veal with lemon and parsley. The skin is not meant to be eaten, but sliced open horizontally on a plate and the meet forked out and smeared with sweet honey mustard.

It is a joke that the most tangible border in Germany is the Weisswurstlinie, the line in northern Bavaria beyond which nobody ever eats Weisswurst. Yet for the initiate there is simply no better late breakfast than Weisswurst and Weissbier, the famous effervescent wheat beer (weiss in this instance is a corruption of weizen, meaning ‘wheat’, ordered and eaten before the bell of the Alter Peter church towering over the Munich’s famed Viktualienmarkt, chimes noon.

The other particular speciality, beloved in the far northeast, is the Currywurst. I would like to say it is an gastronomic creation of proud and ancient origins. Unfortunately it is not quite that. It was invented on the streets of West Berlin in the 1980s, as a cheap spicy snack on the way home after a night out drinking. Quite simply it is the basic Bockwurst familiar all over the country, but with the addition, when it comes to the moment of serving, with a huge dollop of curry powder on top of which is poured tomato ketchup. A culinary masterpiece it is not, but as a piece of innovative late night street food it is as fine as any in the world. Berlin now even has a Currywurst museum.

History is always in the making.

This is an extract from Peter Millar’s book The Germans and Europe: A Personal Frontline History, published by Arcadia Books, £20 in hardback. To purchase via Amazon, click here.

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