Thursday, 15 May 2014

The wurst a foodie can get?

Bratwurst in Lübeck – on a proper plate
Germany remains low on the list of travel destinations for Brits - and to be honest and from a rather selfish perspective, I rather like that.

Back in 2000, my parents visited the country for the first time as part of an organised trip to see the Oberammergau Passion Play.

Performed by the village people every 10 years or so since 1634, the millennium staging coincided with my father’s retirement, so his parishioners had thought it a fitting present.

The thing that worried him most was the very fact of going to Germany – for some, The War has never really ended.

That all-important first beer of the trip
Indeed, as I have been reminded more than once, “we didn’t win the war just so the Jerries could rule us through the EU!” and as I remember clearly when coming home from my first day in the second year at Fairfield High School for Girls: “We didn’t win the war so that you should have to learn German!”

In the event, both parents were charmed. And this seems to be the case for anyone visiting.

But while scenery and beer might be attractions, one thing that is not standardly viewed as a selling point for Germany is cuisine.

After all, it’s really just sausages and pickled cabbage, isn’t it?

As only a slight aside, it should be noted here that sauerkraut is not pickled, but is fermented, with the finely-shredded vegetable layered between salt in barrels.

But back to sausages.

Matjes herring with a jacket potato
One of the tedious little rules that those who complain about ‘red tape’ love to hate came I to force in 2003, when it became law that sausages be labeled so that you know how much actual meat is in them – and not just a figure that could include all sorts of parts of the animal, plus the ‘pink slime’ that has been blasted off otherwise stripped carcasses.

But while the foodie-based revival of the humble British banger has improved things greatly, millions of the smooth, pink slimy ones are still sold, leaving one with a sense of culinary despair. And I must admit, at this point, that it not so long ago that I preferred these – although now I find them fairly repulsive.

But back to Germany and wurst.

Breakfast, with fish and small frikadellen
Our trip to Schleswig-Holstein was always going to produce some wurst opportunities, and it was in Lübeck where I enjoyed a very nice bratwurst with chips and the obligatory mustard.

Germans make some very nice mustards indeed, from the mild, yellow senf that’s just perfect with a bratwurst, to the grainy, sweet type from Bavaria.

But that really was my sole taste of wurst on this trip, although and I was delighted to find a gift box of three tins of Bavarian weißwurst and a small jar of the latter in Hamburg Airport on the way home.

Instead, I made the most of the opportunity to enjoy the fish – whether fresh, smoked or soused, and starting every day with matjes herrings at breakfast.

"A great British tradition"
Indeed, a first meal selection on German soil involved matjes herring, fish that has been ‘ripened’ by soaking in a mild preserving liquid for a few days.

The flesh is firm, boneless, easy to digest and has a delightful, delicate taste. It can be served with a variety of sauces, including a very traditional one of sour cream or yogurt, and dill.

On this occasion it was served in full fillets alongside a jacket potato with sour cream and chives.

Among the other non-fresh delicacies tried came smoked mackerel and sprat, proper gravadlax – or as the Germans call it, gravad lachs – and eel.

Passing a small shop in Travemünde itself gave an opportunityfor a glance into northern German fish culture – an absolute Aladdin’s cave of piscene wonderfulness.

The Swinging Mods set the beat
Eel featured again on the trip – but as a combination of literature and jewellery: I bought a small one in the form of a pendant, based on a Günter Grass sculpture. Readers of The Tin Drum will know the role that eels played in those pages.

Other pleasures included a piece of fried turkey with a lemon hollandaise on Sunday after our long coastal walk, and, of all things, fish and chips on the Saturday.

The latter was served from a van at a May festival that we joined, where a husband and wife team advertised this as a “great British tradition” and were really chuffed when we told them that it was very good, which it was.

Black beer
Washed down with serious black beers, as the Swinging Mods rocked the air with the sort of ’60s sounds that encouraged an amount of unabashed dad dancing on a small wooden dance floor.

On the Sunday night, we hit a restaurant on the water front, where we enjoyed a vast spread of cod, with fresh cucumber salad, buttered potatoes and pickled cucumber and a mustard, cream sauce on the size.

The Other Half, gazing at this as it was laid before us, murmered, of Germans as a whole: “when it comes to portion size, they don’t fuck about!”

We had one below-par meal – but that was more a question of the restaurant being in chaos, only one man being in the kitchen and clearly refusing to try to speed up to keep up with the influx of customers.

Portion size!
We tried cake too – and oh, German cake is a thing of very great pleasure. Forget the cliché of Black Forest Gateaux (although a real one is a real delight) – I enjoyed a local speciality topped with marzipan, because Lübeck is, after all, the marzipan capital of the world, and a deep, dense chocolate torte.

There were other points of note on the culinary agenda too: honey – the hotel restaurant had at least 12 varieties available at breakfast and lovely were the six that I managed to try during our stay.

And breads too – again, the breakfast buffet included several varieties of traditional German breads, most of them organic. I’m not quite a pumpernickel girl, but I do love a good volkornbrot, a traditional whole wheat bread.

Beer everywhere was, of course, clean and a pleasure to enjoy – slowly!

Serious, serious chocolate cake
And one evening, after that poorest meal, we relaxed in the hotel bar, The Other Half with a cocktail and me with a glass of a very light beer and a Fürst Bismarck ‘doppelkorn’ schnapps on the side. It has to be done at least once.

The only disconcerting point was that these drinks were ordered by me in such immaculate manner that the woman serving declared that I spoke German “so sweetly”! I am not sweet!

We had two evening meals in the hotel restaurant – of which much more another time. But all this – the much more ‘humble’ fodder – had more than enough to recommend it and more than enough to make it memorable.

But oh, oh, oh – the herrings!

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