Sunday, 6 September 2015

The highs and lows of German food

They do love their meat
I had the privilege of spending the week in Cologne, Germany, piggybacking on my husband's work trip to get a cheap holiday before I start my new job.  Having spent an excellent week in Munich a few years back, I was hoping for a great trip, particularly when it came to the food.  This was not the common consensus.

When people think about European food, there are a few cuisines that spring to mind.  French food is rich but refined.  Italian food is family-friendly, simple and divine.  The Spanish know their way around seafood.  The Brits...ugh, let's not.  The Germans?  The same, but at least they have good beer.  (And the Belgians?  Nothing but WAFFLES!)

I'm not going to make a claim for British cuisine today (although, rest assured, there is a case to be made), but I do think that German food is unfairly maligned.  Yes, it is very meat-based, but it is excellent meat.  Dishes like bratwurst, weisswurst, and schnitzel are filling, satisfying and undeniably delicious.  Their food is particularly pleasing to an English palate, comprising mainly of meat and potatoes.  It rarely has the flair of French food, but has a simplicity that makes it feel like a great homemade meal.  A steak in France is likely to be buried under a sauce; in Germany, a dollop of quality mustard will suffice.  Paris will pour cream all over your potatoes; Munich will fry them or mash them, allowing them to complement the meat better.  

Bavarian food is like high-quality British food, but Cologne has a much more Mediterranean feel.  Nestled on the side of the Rhine, it can feel very Italian when the sun comes out.  Everyone sits outside with an ice-cream or coffee, whiling away the afternoon with friends.  The food reflects this.  You can find the traditional beerhouses with the long benches and sausage-based menus, but you can also enter a trattoria for thin-base Italian pizza or, shock horror, an actual salad.  For those who don't get pub culture, this café culture might be more familiar and comfortable.

As a non-drinker, the beerhouse culture is actually one of my favourite things about Germany.  You see, in England, if I go to a pub then I either have to have a fizzy drink or a Becks Blue.  It tastes like piss.  In Germany, people are much more likely to drink beer throughout the day, so they have a culture of non-alcoholic varieties.  On a menu, you will find all types of beer and a number of these will also come with non-alcoholic options.  Yet they still taste like proper beer!  Going out for a drink becomes a real pleasure when you can drink alongside your friends without feeling like the designated driver all the time.  

There is also something to be said for the snack culture of the Germans.  Sure, you have the fast food chains that you'll find in any big city, but most people still go to the smaller kiosks and cafés to pick up something freshly baked.  A German pretzel is a baked miracle (and something I think I'm going to investigate baking this week) and they have an astonishing array of doughnuts and cakes that it would be a real travesty not to sample.  No offence to the Americans but your greasy over-fried excuses for doughnuts pale in comparison.  Here, they're soft, fluffy and often beautifully decorated.  Delicious.

Apple Strudel
Martha Stewart's
apple strudel (recipe here)
To briefly celebrate Koelner food in particular, the city seems to take pride in two foodstuffs: apples and Kölsch.  Apples, I can appreciate.  I'm from cider country myself so it's always pleasing to see a menu that prioritises the fruit.  It finds its way into many main dishes, including one involving blood pudding and mash that my husband tells me is divine.  They are also fond of plopping a bowl of applesauce on your table when you're having a pork dish and will get upset if you don't try it.  You have been warned.

Kölsch is a slightly different, and more controversial, matter.  Whereas in many parts of Germany, buying a beer means getting a massive tankard of the stuff, 'beer' in Cologne will default as a 0.2 litre glass of their local brew.  When you finish a glass, a fresh one is likely to be put in front of you within seconds, but it still encourages a very different kind of drinking culture.  My husband was not a fan.  He likes a tankard, and he also likes a beer with less fizz.  Obviously, I can't drink it as it is not alkoholfrei, but I am reliably informed that it has quite a standard flavour and one that doesn't match up well against the output of some of the more famous German breweries.  He preferred the local beer of Dusseldorf but wisely chose to keep this to himself.  The drink and the drinking style do sit well with the more Mediterranean café culture though, so I can understand its local popularity.

In the spirit of full disclosure (and I warn you, this is not a pretty mental image that I am about to put in your head), I have had two food-related unpleasantnesses on this trip.  After a very rich dish of marinated beef and potato dumplings, I woke up in the middle of the night with the kind of indigestion that manifests itself with all the symptoms of a heart attack.  I was doubled over with pain and could find no, ahem, release.  I had the opposite problem after a dinner of very delicious beer-goulash with spätzle, which left my body looking disarmingly similar to how it entered, and not that long after either.  Now, I hesitate to blame this all on the food – after all, I had been drinking a lot of non-alcoholic beer, which is gassy and rarely on my menu at home – but the two instances seemed to match up quite convincingly.  I never had this problem in Munich, so I might be forced to put this as a mark against Koelner food or, at least, the two establishments involved.  Even knowing how it ended, I would still order that beer-goulash. It was that good.

This was meant to be a celebration of German food and a recommendation for you all to go and try it, but I'm not sure I've sold it with quite the conviction that I felt.  Maybe it is not as obviously winning a cuisine as Italian, but there are some real gems to be unearthed.  If you're at all a beer drinker, and particularly if you can see the attraction of the famous Oktoberfest, then trust me in that the food on offer is a fantastic accompaniment to beer, music and good conversation.  However, like beer, it might haunt you a bit the next day...

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