Tuesday, 20 May 2014

Sophisticated dining – including some wurst

Delicate couscous and feta
If Germany provided plenty of hearty, down-to-earth dining experiences, it also provided two really top-notch fine-dining experiences.

But while the food was excellent, perhaps the most interesting aspect of those meals was that they illustrated that German culinary tradition, far from being something to sniff at, is well worth looking at.

For the first couple of days, adjusting to later starts, larger-than-usual breakfasts and then larger-than-usual lunches meant that we were not in the mood to try either of the hotel’s two restaurants.

Belle Epoque is the flashiest of the two, with Michelin-starred food that, as the name implies, has its roots in what Michel Roux Jr would call “The Classics” – or a certain type of French cuisine and approach – and which is open to non-residents.

There's no escaping Thomas Mann
Downstairs, and also used for breakfast, lunch and afternoon tea, is Holstein, the hotel restaurant for residents. And as that name suggests, it has a rather more local ethos.

During last year’s solo trip to Lübeck, one of the highlights – one of the core things I’d set out to do, indeed – was dinner at Schiffergesellschaft.

The centuries-old seaman’s guild is housed in a 1553 building that still serves as a restaurant.

There, I’d tried the iconic labskaus, a seaman’s dish of pickled or corned beef, the meat mixed with onion and beetroot, and traditionally served with a fried egg on top and a plate of good old matjes herrings on the side.

A superb spargel soup
Schiffergesellschaft gets a mention in Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks, and I was delighted to find that the Holstein has a large, black and white photograph on the wall of the man himself, taken outside the hotel in 1953.

But then the author considered Travemünde as something close to a paradise.

It too features in Mann’s first great novel, and even if worthy Lübeckers were mightly offended by his 1901 literary debut, there is plenty to suggest that their modern-day descendants appreciate the added value it lends the area – there is even a Buddenbrooks restaurant in a hotel just a couple of hundred metres from where we stayed.

But back to the pickled beef.

The first thing on the Holstein menu that caught my eye – a couple of days before we were first ready to dine there – was a labskaus.

How would an essentially modern and smart restaurant tackle such a dish?

Labskaus, deconstructed
I kept that question in mind until the first evening on which we’d actually left enough space for a three-course meal.

Before we get to that, let’s start by saying that, we waited, we were served with a selection of very nice breads, plus quark (a sort of German yogurt) and a lightly spiced relish, plus butter, and then with a small plate that was less an amuse bouche and more an hors d’oeuvres, involving very delicately prepared couscous and crumbled feta that was, if not very Germanic, then certainly very pleasant.

And of course, since The Other Half doesn't like cheese, I got his feta too.

But as a first course proper, both of us opted for the spargel soup.

The asparagus season enjoys cult status in Germany.

Known by a variety of nicknames, from ‘Königsgemüse’ (king’s vegetable) to ‘Frühlingswonne’ (springtime delight) and ‘Zartes Elfenbein’ (soft ivory), restaurants across the country add special asparagus menus, while little stalls set up on the streets to sell this seasonal glory.

While Germans prefer the white asparagus, the green that we’re more familiar with is not neglected.

Matjes herring on onion
Back in 2009, when we were in Berlin in early June, we ordered spargel soup at the iconic Lutter & Wegner, but were disappointed with the overly salty result, which suggested that it had been hanging around for some time.

This time around, the result was quite simply superb, with a creamy base, slivers of perfectly cooked white asparagus, drops of delightful tarragon oil and a few croutons for added texture.

Next up for me at least was the labskaus – which turned out to be deconstructed.

There’s always a danger with this approach that it can look good but not actually achieve anything much for the palate.

Here, it proved a very enjoyable exercise in appreciating the tastes and textures of a mixed dish – I bet those sailors never thought their dish would assume the level of haute cuisine.

Wonderful blutwurst
The meat, combined with some beetroot, came in quenelles, with the fried egg replaced by a breaded quails egg atop onion and herbs, a roasted beet purée, homemade potato crisps, matjes and shredded gherkin.

I opted for the almost inevitable ice cream after – but was too stuffed to make much headway with that.

The Other Half, having opted for a rhubarb crumble after a beef dish, reported himself more than satisfied.

Our final night saw us decamp to Holstein yet again and this time, the hors d’oeuvres was an incredibly delicate matjes herring on top a sweet and gentle onion, very finely chopped, a hint of bitter herbs and a little tomato.

Zander, with beetroot and potatoes
Lovely – and ensured The Other Half didn’t leave the country without at least a taste of herring.

Again, we both opted for the same main course – blutwurst (black pudding).

Gloriously moist and tasty, it was complimented by a bitter salad and quince two ways – as small triangles of jelly and as a rather larger wedge of mousse.

A real joy, this.

For a main course, the Other Half opted for zander, a German fish that is often translated, rather meaninglessly, as ‘pike-perch’, which are two altogether different fishes.

But then there is no British alternative, although it was introduced to the Fens some time ago and is considered a pest – can I try to get rid of it by culinary methods, then?

While he enjoyed that, I dined on lachs (salmon), with new potatoes and white and green spargel, which was very nice if not earth-shattering.

For dessert, however, I picked apple three ways – a slice of feather-light strudel, a sorbet and calvados-infused brunoise on a crisp, all made with Holstein cox. Absolutely gorgeous.

Apple, three ways
On the matter of wines, we drank a German red with the first meal at Holstein: that was a first, and very nice it was too.

For the second meal, we opted for a white – a Grauburgunder: a 2012 Kabinet, trocken, Weingut Bimmerle from Baden, which was also extremely nice.

We left thinking that that was food we’d be more than happy to eat again.

What Holstein perfectly illustrates is that German cuisine is very far from being sausage and pickled cabbage.

It can be hearty and simple and comforting, but done like this, it can also be as sophisticated as anything that most of us are likely to eat anywhere.

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