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German food - is it really that bad?

"During the last 50 years that nation has changed more than any other in Western Europe. Yet it has remained German, because everything that happens to a nation or a people happens because of what went on before." Nike Standen Hazelton (written in 1969)

This book - my next 'first recipe' book has been sitting on my desk for ages now. I have picked it up a few times, but every time I have been so unenthused that I have just put it down again. But I need to move on. It's beginning to weigh me down.

Which I realise is not a very enticing beginning. Bear with me. I'll try to be at least a little bit interesting and try to find a few different angles to all of this.

It's an old book - first written in 1953 I think, but I also think that I would have bought this paperback edition in the late 1960s early 1970s. I probably bought it because it was a time when I was trying out a whole lot of different cuisines in an attempt to widen my outlook on food. And I did have fond memories of sausages and sauerkraut.

Which I shall of course come to.

The book is also a small paperback with absolutely no pictures a very brief introduction, a poor index and recipes that are short and to the point. No lyrical essays à la Nigel Slater here. Not a cookbook that you would read for pleasure. No it's a reference book. Purely factual. I have probably made a couple of things from it back in the day, but I can't remember what, so I can't really comment on how good the actual recipes are.

And so, because this is a first recipe book from my top shelf of assorted oddities, I turn to the first recipe and what do I find - in the inevitable 'soup' chapter - Egg custard (Eierstich), with 'for soups' in brackets, just in case you thought it was the egg custard that you got in tarts. Even so one can't put away the image of that kind of egg custard and so you try to imagine how on earth it would have any relevance to soup. Well below is what it looks like (from the modern internet) - and really it's an eggy kind of dumpling.

It seems to be something that is mostly put into a consommé kind of soup and often cut into fancy shapes as you see here. Not an enticing recipe to keep you reading or even browsing is it? To me, although the photograph of the soup is reasonably attractive it somehow looks simultaneously stodgy and watery.

In these first recipe posts I have not actually commented very much on how that first recipe places the whole book. So just a few words. These days, of course, cookbooks are much glossier productions, although you do still get the occasional one with very few pictures - both Stephanie Alexander and Maggie Beer, for example, are guilty of this. And my unthinking use of the word 'guilty' there shows my own prejudices. The tendency to be sucked in by pretty pictures. There are a few very honourable exceptions though - my early trio of gurus - Robert Carrier, Elizabeth David and Jane Grigson, all of whom wrote so well, at least here and there in their books, that one read on. Nigel Slater and Nigella too, in their early books did not have any illustrations other than the occasional line drawing.

This book, however, does not entice. The introduction as I said, is brief and mostly descriptive of how the book is laid out. In contrast I also have The Cooking of Germany - one of the volumes in the Time Life Foods of the World series which I used to collect. Remember when one could subscribe to series like this? The Time Life volumes were glossy productions with classy photographs (now faded somewhat and somehow old-fashioned), although with not very many illustrations of the actual dishes. Considering the poor reputation of German food it is actually interesting that they have a whole volume dedicated to it whereas the entire Middle-East and all of South-East Asia are lumped together. Now I think the cover photograph is somehow abhorrent - so completely over the top, but you have to admit that it is at least eye-catching. And there is a lot of text explaining all the various aspects of German cooking not to mention a very thought provoking introduction by its author Nina Standen Hazelton.

No, this first recipe book will be taken to the street library next time I pass by.

However, I shall not abandon German food just like that. I have very fond memories of sausages and sauerkraut in Autobahn cafés as we zoomed across Germany on the way to Yugoslavia way back when and also of German cakes, and German bread which we purchased on Sundays from Hahndorf in the Adelaide Hills - a very German little spot, when all of the other bakeries were closed. Rich, dark and moist it was a family favourite and when we returned to Melbourne we mourned its loss until we discovered that Baker's Delight made a similar loaf. Alas no more. Those sausages however, can be found in one of the most frequented food stalls in the Queen Vic Market - bratwurst and sauerkraut in a roll with mustard, and gherkins. Yum. And, of course, in Aldi - ready for you to weave your magic with a jar of Aldi sauerkraut.

And here's a vaguely mind-blowing fact - there are some 1200 different kinds of sausages in Germany - I think that's more than cheeses in France. Below are just a few.

“....there are more different sausages in Germany than there are breakfast foods in America, and if there is a bad one among them then I have never heard of it. They run in size from little fellow so small and pale and fragile that it seems a crime to eat them to vast and formidable pieces that look like shells for heavy artillery. And they run in flavor from the most delicate to the most raucous, and in texture from that of feathers caught in a cobweb to that of linoleum, and in shape from straight cylinders to lovely kinks and curlycues.” H.L. Mencken (1880-1956)

Before I leave the sausages though I should mention the currywurst "that multicultural miracle," according to The Guardian and which is apparently the most ubiquitous fast food in Germany.

What is it? Well according to Wikipedia it is a bratwurst served with:

"a sauce based on spiced ketchup or tomato paste topped with curry powder, or a ready-made ketchup seasoned with curry and other spices. The dish is often served with chips." Wikipedia

And where did it come from - well sort of the British, which when you look at the version on the left you can sort of see:

"The invention of currywurst is attributed to Herta Heuwer in Berlin in 1949, after she obtained ketchup (or possibly Worcestershire sauce) and curry powder from British soldiers in Germany. She mixed these ingredients with other spices and poured it over grilled pork sausage." Wikipedia

However, there is much more to German cuisine than sauerkraut and sausages although that mix of sweet, sour and spicy is one feature of the cuisine. As shown here in a dish of Sauerbraten - beef braised in wine and vinegar and served here with those enormous potato dumplings. For that's the other thing that critics deplore.

Like the sausages there is a vast array of dumplings. Robin Howe dedicates a whole chapter to them. The ones on the right are very tempting looking potato dumplings but then they aren't floating in soup and therefore going soggy. But they are not just made from potatoes. They are made from everything possible from plums and apples to liver, sometimes in combination.

And in the south - as you near Italy - they begin to look more like gnocchi, as shown in these Schupfnudeln with browned butter and poppy seeds which are actually an Ottolenghi recipe. I did check the 'authentic' versions and they look very much like his. I don't think he has messed with the traditional very much here.

He also had a go at Flammkuchen - a kind of thin pizza which is topped with bacon and onions usually. Below are three versions that I found: Ottolenghi's Flammkuchen with speck and leeks; an 'authentic' version from Wikipedia and one from Adam Liaw of all people. Similar but different.

And the cakes. Oh the cakes. I remember the cakes. From the glorious Black Forest Cake - a modern version of which is shown here, through the apple cakes and cheesecakes to the streusel cakes that I absolutely love. And I'm not really a cake person. Their cakes are to die for.

Another thing that we tend to forget about Germany today is its multicultural and regional nature. Today it is extremely multicultural. There is a huge population of imported Turkish workers in Germany, and, as we know, Germany has been very generous in welcoming refugees. And a whole country - the former East Germany. As the big financial and manufacturing centre of Europe it attracts people from all over the world. And this must have had a huge impact on the food. Döner kebabs, for example, are also ubiquitous fast food. Then there is the inevitable impact of American fast food chains and Italian pizza and pasta. Italy, after all is not far from its southern border. Last, but certainly not least we should remember that Germany - a relatively recent nation - is made up of a large number of regions that were formerly nations, principalities, dukedoms with specific cultures and identities, which still, to this day, show up in the regional nature of the cuisine - and all of those sausages.

It should also be noted that Germany has the fourth largest number of Michelin starred restaurants in the world, which at least signifies that the rich are more adventurous in their eating habits, and that Germans can cook. It probably doesn't reflect what the ordinary person is eating though. Nevertheless I'm sure that they have just as many cooking shows, cookbooks and magazines as the rest of us. And there's always Instagram and TikTok.

"Given the onslaught of ready-made rubbish, it's a miracle that gourmet cooking can survive and develop." Wolfgang Siebeck

Poor old Germany though. Like poor old Britain. Well any of the northern European countries really. We suffer from the perception that our food is rubbish - stodgy, fatty and unappetising in spite of the really good historical reasons for this:

"Unlike the Mediterranean countries, the growing season limited the people to early forms of wheat, barley, and pasture land for livestock." The Spruce Eats

"Old World techniques of food preservation through salting, smoking, curing, or pickling is still a common way of preparing fish, meats, and vegetables." The Spruce Eats

Germans work hard. We all know that. To be able to work hard you need fuel, hence my first recipe author Robin Howe, can say:

"Germans are heavy-eaters, and their meals are substantial." Robin Howe

You can't grow olives in Germany - well they're not a natural fit. Or all of those other Mediterranean goodies. But the Romans introduced them to vines and they produce some wonderful wine. Nevertheless for centuries they resisted change:

"In Germany it was the cooks of Protestant priests and housewives who maintained traditions, and unlike their French counterparts, they have remained faithful to cabbage. This lack of imagination and resistance towards foreign ingredients ended up paralysing German cooking" Wolfgang Siebeck

And potatoes. Nothing wrong with either potatoes or cabbage in my book and besides cabbage is becoming a very trendy vegetable, so here's my final dish to demonstrate how the modern world is transforming sauerkraut - Ottolenghi's (of course) Spiced turmeric cabbage. So sunshiny and not pale and uninteresting or stodgy at all.

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