The Village of Beer (and Painted Houses)
When you think of German cuisine, you probably think beer. And it's true; beer is a staple part of Germans' diet. But there is one particular region of Germany that goes especially nuts for beer: Bavaria, the birthplace of the biergarten (beer garden).
Mittenwald, the "painted village" I wrote about in last year's EuroTravel column, upholds the Bavarian traditions of beer and knödel, serving both with just about every main course.
Brezeln (und Bier)
Pretzels may seem universal--and they are--, but they originated in German monasteries during the early Middle Ages. And they are practically synonymous with Bavaria, because every beer garden and restaurant serve them. Often eaten as a snack, brezeln are a classic pairing with beer. Even I partook in the tradition, though I opted for a milder wheat beer (called hefeweizen), as I find German beers to be particularly bitter and strong (I'm looking at you, Warsteiner).
Although the name literally translates to "potato-cheese", this typically-Bavarian spread actually does not contain cheese. Instead, it is a creamy, almost milky dish consisting of mashed, boiled potatoes; diced onion; sour cream (hence the creamy, milky consistency); salt; pepper; parsley; garlic; and chives. Essentially, it is heavily-seasoned mashed potatoes on bread, and it's scrumptious.
Every European country I have visited has its own version of potato soup, but the Germans add their unique touch to it by garnishing it with sliced or whole würtschen (a Frankfurter-like sausage). There are actually two ways to make kartoffelsuppe: with a thin broth or a creamy broth. In Mittenwald and Munich, I only encountered the creamy kind, so perhaps it is Bavaria-specific. In Düsseldorf, however, which is in the North-Rhine Westphalia state, I ate the thinner variant. The thinner soup contains more vegetables, and while both are tasty, I prefer the creamy kartoffelsuppe.
Some of my readers might grimace at this next dish, but it's really not as unappetizing as it sounds. Liver dumpling soup is another common Central and Eastern European food (and I will write about the Hungarian variant in a later article), but it seems to be especially prevalent in Bavaria.
The kind I tasted was made from beef liver, which is the norm in most of Germany, so it was more livery than I was used to. Thankfully, however, the meat dumplings were heavily spiced with black pepper, parsley, marjoram, and nutmeg, so they weren't as strongly organ-flavored as I had expected.
Ah, the ever-present dumpling. Germans, and particularly Bavarians, are incredibly fond of this stuff. Sometimes made from meats, like the leberknödel, most knödel is actually made from either bread (semmelknödel) or potato (kartoffelkösse). I suppose one could loosely liken the potato variant to Italian gnocchi or Hungarian sztrapacska, except that the Germanic dumpling is vastly superior to both (sorry, Hungary!). With a chewy, somewhat sticky consistency (due to the starch), potato dumplings are one of my favorite side dishes. Bavarians serve them with all their beef and pork dishes, and when they are wading in beer sauce, potato knödel are honestly one of the most delicious foods in the world.
This complicated name just means roasted ham hock or "pork knuckle." My father ate a lot of it in Bavaria. The Germans take a whole ham hock (the bit between the tibia/fibula and metatarsals of the foot), marinate it in garlic and spices, and roast it until the skin is beautifully crispy and golden. Served with coarse German mustard, potato dumplings, and red cabbage or sauerkraut (the latter in Bavaria), schweinshaxe is a hunk of pork heaven.
Another pork dish, schweinsbraten is essentially just boiled pork, but the flavor is sinfully good. That's because the pork is of excellent quality, with abundant, tasty fat, and is drowning in beer sauce. But the crowning glory are the slices of crispy, fried skin that are laid crisscrossed on top. Served with kartoffelklösse (potato dumplings) and sauerkraut, schweinsbraten is my favorite Bavarian food.
Translated literally, sauerbraten means "sour roast," which doesn't really sound appetizing, but I promise it is. It's basically German pot roast, usually made from beef, but lamb, venison, mutton, pork, and even horse are sometimes used. Where does the sour part come in, you ask? In the marinade, which consists of vinegar or wine, water, herbs, and spices. Once cooked, the meat itself isn't sour, but it is very tender and flavorful. Pairings vary according to region, but common side dishes include red cabbage, bread or potato dumplings, spätzle (German egg and flour dumplings), boiled potatoes, mustard, and horseradish.
Incidentally, sauerbraten is one of Germany's national dishes. So the next time you're offered it, try it.
Bee-sting cake. If that's not the most bizarre name for a dessert, then I don't know what is. There are two origin stories behind the name. In the first, the baker was stung by bees that were attracted to the honey topping. The second tells of 15th century German bakers who baked this celebratory cake after attacking raiders with beehives. Personally, I prefer the latter version, as it depicts medieval bakers as rather badass. So beware the next time you decide to raid a bakery; you may just get beehives lobbed at you.
Anyway, back to the cake. Made from yeast dough with a filling of vanilla cream or custard and topped with honeyed almonds, bienenstich is perfectly sweet and delicious. Seriously, it doesn't even contain chocolate, but it's one of my favorite desserts.
Wow, that's a mouthful--a very yummy mouthful, at that. This sponge cake and chocolate buttercream concoction is a staple of Bavaria and can be found year-round in cafés, restaurants, and shops. As the name suggests (prinzregente), the cake was inspired by one of Bavaria's prince regents (Luitpold, to be exact), and may have even been created by his personal bakers in 1886.
Funnily enough, the prinzregententorte is suspiciously similar to a Hungarian cake called Dobos torta... But we'll deal with that in the final article.