Local food and drink in Germany
As we launch our Greentraveller's Guide to Germany, Sarah Baxter reveals some of Germany's finest edible delights, from tasty chocolate treats to North Sea oysters
Gemütlichkeit is one of the world’s finest words. It encapsulates the perfect German moment: you’re in a sunny beer garden or cosy tavern; there’s a sense of joy and cheer, a welcoming vibe and plentiful food and drink. Gemütlichkeit is the X-factor that makes a good gathering great, and that makes a German meal so much more than the sum of its parts.
This side order of atmosphere, along with a range of exceptional ingredients and traditional specialities, ensures eating in Germany is a pleasure. There are also many innovative chefs doing exciting new things in kitchens across the country. Forget the stereotypes: Germany isn’t just sauerkraut.
In the north, where the North and Baltic Seas lap a sandy coastline and a scatter of 50 islands, expect flappingly fresh seafood. The former Hanseatic cities of Bremen, Lübeck and Hamburg are especially renowned for their fish, as well as making good use of the exotic spices once brought in on trading ships. Head for Bremen’s old harbour, now a lively mix of fishmongers, fish restaurants and maritime heritage, where you can feast on eel and bratheringe (fried, marinated herrings). Labskaus (cured beef, mashed potato, beetroot and rolled herring), a traditional sailors’ dish, is also much-loved – perhaps because it’s alleged to be a hangover cure.
Fine diners should head for the chic North Sea island of Sylt, which has Germany’s highest density of top-class restaurants, and where you can slurp a platter of Sylter Royal oysters while watching the sun sink into the tidal mudflats. Or opt for laid-back Rügen, off the Baltic coast, where a burgeoning culinary scene serves up fine local cod and delicious farm-to-table fare.
Germany has around 23,000 organic farms and a firm commitment to quality local ingredients. There’s abundant fruit and veg, including sweet Baden plums, flavoursome potatoes (which find their way into delicious dumplings) and tiny Teltow turnips (which find their way into gourmet restaurants).
The crunchy gherkins from the waterway-riddled Spree Forest have protected status – cycle the 260km Gherkin Cycle Route to see where and how they’re grown. And, from mid-April to late June, asparagus becomes a national obsession, dominating menus everywhere; this is the time to drive the 135km Badische Spargelstrasse (Asparagus Road), which meanders from Schwetzingen through scenic spargel country.
Germans do love their meat too. The country produces 1,500 types of sausage, ranging from traditional Berlin currywurst to the pork knuckle sausages of Bavaria. In Thuringia, the Bratwurst Purity Law of 1432 guarantees the size and quality of the region’s charcoal-grilled herby rostbratwurst; the Bratwurst Museum in Holzhausen will reveal more (though not the secret recipe).
Other meat feasts to try include Westphalian ham (produced from acorn-fed pigs), game from the Harz Mountains and Rhineland sauerbraten, a hearty pot roast. In western Saarland they’re a little barbecue obsessed, and even have a word, Schwenken, to describe the unique joy of grilling meat with friends – a sort-of carnivorous offshoot of Gemütlichkeit.
Trying traditional recipes is like eating the soul of a place; these dishes tell historical stories of invasions and crossing cultures – for instance, the snail soup that belies the French influences in the east; Belgium and Dutch flavours in the Rhineland; southern dishes such as spätzle (noodles) and mountain cheeses nodding to the Alps. But there are also chefs reinterpreting these favourites, to international acclaim. The tiny Baden-Württemberg town of Baiersbronn (population 16,000) has seven Michelin stars alone. For 2016, the country saw four new two Michelin-starred restaurants join the ranks, including Austrian-styled Horváth in Berlin and Lafleur in Frankfurt.
Sweet treats are easy to find countrywide too, from Lübeck marzipan, Leipzig almond cakes, Dresden stollen and spicy Nuremberg lebkuchen (gingerbreads) to kirsch-soaked black forest gateaux and innumerable cream-topped torten. Christmas markets are good places to track these treats down. Germany also bakes 300 different styles of bread – following your nose to the local bakery to buy a fresh loaf of landbrot (farm bread) is the best way to start the day.
For more places to eat and drink, see our Greentraveller's Guide to Germany
There are 1,400 breweries in Germany, and the Purity Law of 1516 ensures nothing goes in except water, malt, yeast and hops. Bavaria is beer heaven, with Munich’s historic Hofbrauhaus offering lederhosen-clad, oompah-band fun, but you can settle into any German beer garden and be assured of a decent stein. In Frankfurt, however, you might find yourself raising a bembel (eathernware pitcher) of traditional apfelwein cider instead.
Wine-lovers are equally well served: Germany has over 100,000 hectares of vineyards, and is gradually shaking off its liebfraumilch-tarnished reputation. There are astonishingly diverse wines to be found here, and dynamic young winemakers are opening boutique, organic vineyards and raising the bar. You could drive the Wine Route through the Rhineland-Palatinate, stopping at Weinstuben en route. You could focus on sparkling wines with a trip down the Elbe Valley. Or you could take a walk along the twisty, castle-dotted Moselsteig long-distance trail, to sip crisp Rieslings by the river without having to worry about who’s going to drive. Prost!