I used to relish going through those books that help children learn the words for things. Apple, boat, car – children are taught to name the world with illustrations. I derive a similar thrill from those huge Culinaria books produced by publisher HF Ullmann. They’re picture books for adults that cover the cuisine of specific countries.
In Culinaria Germany, there’s a double-page spread of German vegetables. Cabbages, potatoes, beetroot, swede, carrots… These are also our vegetables, the vegetables of northern Europe, and yet we never look to Germany for culinary inspiration; we just snigger about sausages and lederhosen. I started visiting regularly to see what they were cooking a decade ago. I’ve never been to chocolate-box Bavaria, it’s always been Berlin, Hamburg and the Baltic coast.
Hamburg reaches out to the world as it’s built on centuries of shipping. It has always been connected to many countries. The city has its own spice museum, and many of the tropical fruits you see in northern European supermarkets are likely to have come through Hamburg. Berliners see doner kebabs – first made and sold by Turkish immigrants – as part of their culinary culture just as much as they do pork knuckle with sauerkraut (perhaps more so) and had to gradually accommodate the joining of two very different foodways when the wall came down.
Like us, Germans have adopted Italian foods, particularly pasta, though that could be as much to do with convenience as love. In Beyond Bratwurst, food historian Ursula Heinzelmann lists the most popular dishes in Germany according to a 2010 survey. At the top are spaghetti bolognese and spaghetti with tomato sauce, but schnitzel comes in at number three and the full list includes many old-fashioned German dishes, such as Kasslerbraten (baked smoked gammon) and Königsberger Klopse (meatballs in a creamy lemon and caper sauce). But there is no official German ‘national dish’, and no codified haute cuisine as in France. It’s a country of regional cuisine, and one that has comfortably learnt to love both the local and the global.
I recently went to Schleswig-Holstein, to Lübeck, a jewel in the crown of the Hanseatic League. Lübeck is still referred to as ‘Queen’ of the league and was, in the 13th century, the richest city in Europe. Thomas Mann, who grew up there, describes the luxuries enjoyed by the city’s merchants as he details lavish dinners in his family saga Buddenbrooks. You can still get a Buddenbrooks meal in some Lübeck hotels, usually starting with herb soup and ending with Plettenpudding, a trifle-like dish.
I visited Rügen too, an island that makes Germans misty-eyed, a place of summer strawberries, grand piers and Bäderarchitektur – ‘resort architecture’ – as seen in elegant beach-side villas. For years I’d wanted to lounge in one of those Strandkörbe – literally ‘beach baskets’ – made from wicker that stand in organised rows on the white sand.
I knew what I’d find in northern Germany: herring, especially the silky Dutch matjes, served with potato salad and sweet golden beets; Fischbrötchen, bread rolls stuffed with cured or fried fish, a dish to eat on the move; plaice, which we seem to ignore, cooked with bacon lardons or little shrimp; brill and turbot; marzipan – Lübeck is the marzipan capital of the world; duck with fruit (‘broken soot’ or ‘broken-sweetness’ – sweet and sour flavours – are common here); smoked Holstein ham, sea-buckthorn liqueur and possibly the best bread in the world (sourdough-based and made with rye, wheat and spelt).
There were sausages and beer, yes, but German food isn’t one giant Oktoberfest. It’s a thrilling hunting ground for northern cooks.
Lübeck roast duck
Basically duck stuffed with Christmas cake! Well, not quite, but you get the picture: duck with a boozy, sweet, buttery stuffing – very festive. This is the way it’s done in Lübeck, but add sautéed onion, chunks of sausage and other herbs if you’d like a less sweet stuffing.
Because of the sweetness, you could serve the duck with bitter leaves and baby roast potatoes (and no sauce), though cabbage – braised red, buttery savoy or sauerkraut – and German potato dumplings or mashed potato are more traditional. You’ll notice I don’t use juices from the bird for the sauce (duck is so fatty, and it’s less hassle this way). Use homemade stock or good bought stuff.
Prep time: 15 minutes, plus soaking and cooling
Cook time: 1 hour 35 minutes, plus resting
For the duck
- 100g raisins, or a mix of raisins and sultanas
- 100ml rum
- 20g duck fat, or use butter
- 300g tart apples (I use Granny Smith), peeled, cored and cut into small chunks (prepared weight)
- 2 tsp caraway seeds (optional)
- 1 tsp ground cinnamon
- 30g butter
- 120g fresh white bread, torn into small chunks
- 2kg duck
- 6 smallish eating apples
- 4 tsp soft light-brown sugar
- a few sprigs of bay leaves, if you have any
For the sauce
- 15g butter
- 2 shallots, finely chopped
- 100ml white wine
- 500ml chicken or duck stock
1. Put the dried fruit in a small saucepan with the rum. Bring to the boil, take the pan off the heat, and leave to sit for a couple of hours or overnight. The fruit will absorb all the rum.
2. Heat the duck fat in a frying pan and sauté the apple flesh, tossing to get a little colour on it. Add the spices, butter, and some salt and pepper, and cook for a couple of minutes, then add the bread, stirring to make sure it absorbs the butter and spices. Leave to cool completely, then combine with the rum-soaked fruit.
3. Heat the oven to 200C/190C fan/gas mark 6.
4. Remove any giblets in the duck – they’re usually in a packet – and pull off any excess bits of fat. Dry the duck all over using kitchen paper. Season inside, then stuff with the fruit and bread mixture. Set the duck on a rack in a roasting tin.
5. Pierce the legs all over with a skewer, then season all over (I use sea-salt flakes). Cook for an hour and 15 minutes.
6. When there’s 30 minutes left, make a horizontal slit around the middle of the apples, just piercing the skin, and set in a baking dish or small roasting tin where they sit snugly. Spoon some fat from the duck tin over the apples, season and sprinkle with the sugar. Roast with the duck. They will become tender and burst around their middles.
7. Meanwhile, make the sauce. Melt the butter in a medium pan and sauté the shallot until soft. Add the wine and boil
to reduce the liquid to about two tablespoons. Pour in the stock and reduce until concentrated in flavour – use that as your guide rather than thickness. You don’t want an over-sweet, sticky sauce.
8. To check the duck is ready, pierce between the legs and the rest of the body. The juices should be clear, not pink. Place the duck on a warm platter, cover with foil and let it rest for 15 minutes. Keep the apples warm.
9. To serve, arrange the apples and bay (if using) around the duck. Reheat the sauce and serve.
Sausages with bacon, lentils and kale
Use your favourite British sausages for this dish, or try German bratwurst. Aldi, Lidl and Waitrose usually stock them. The
meat in bratwurst is more finely ground than in British sausages, and they’re seasoned with nutmeg and marjoram. They’re also longer, so use 6-8, instead of 8-10.
Kale doesn’t have to be added but Germans love it with sausages… and it’s good for you. Serve with German mustard and mashed potato, or a soft pretzel for dipping and scooping.
Prep time: 10 minutes
Cook time: 1 hour 10 minutes
- ½ tbsp oil
- 115g smoked bacon rashers
- 8-10 sausages
- 1 large onion, finely chopped
- 125g carrots, peeled and cut into 1cm cubes
- 125g celeriac, peeled and cut into 1cm cubes
- 1 garlic clove, finely chopped
- 1 tbsp tomato purée
- 300g puy lentils
- 125ml white wine
- 1 litre chicken stock
- 2 tsp dried marjoram
- 115g kale
- 2 tbsp chopped parsley
1. Heat the oil in a heavy-bottomed pan or casserole and fry the bacon until golden (it shouldn’t get crisp), then lift it out on to kitchen paper. Brown the sausages all over in the fat left behind in the pan. Lift these out on to a plate.
2. Add the onion and cook over a medium heat until pale gold. Add the carrot, celeriac and garlic, and stir them round in the fat. Let the garlic soften. Add the tomato purée and cook it for a minute, stirring it around, then add the lentils, wine, stock and marjoram.
3. Put the sausages back in the pan, bring everything to just under the boil, then turn the heat right down. Cook for 20 minutes, stirring now and then. The lentils should hold their shape, so be careful when you stir them.
4. Remove and discard the coarse ribs from the kale, and chop the leaves. Add to the pan and cook for another 10 minutes.
5. Cut the bacon into pieces and stir them into the pan. The mixture should be quite thick, rather than soupy. If it’s too thick, you can add a little more stock or water. Check the seasoning, toss in the parsley and serve.
Onion and beer soup with cheese and mustard toasts
This has a great, deep flavour and isn’t as sweet as French onion soup because of the beer (there’s a little bitter undertone); in fact, it has surpassed my love for French onion soup as the rye-bread topping is so delicious. It’s not easy to get German cheeses here so I’ve suggested Emmental – which is made in both Switzerland and Germany – and Gruyère.
Prep time: 15 minutes
Cook time: 2 hours 35 minutes
- 40g unsalted butter
- 1.2kg onions (about 6 large onions), finely sliced
- ½ tbsp tomato purée
- ½ tbsp dried marjoram
- 1 tsp ground cumin
- 1½ tsp caraway seeds
- 100ml German beer (I use a pale lager)
- 1 litre good beef stock
- 4 slices of rye bread
- 2 egg yolks
- 150g mixed Emmental and Gruyère, grated
- 2 tsp mustard, preferably German (medium-hot) but Dijon is OK (don’t use English mustard)
1. Heat the butter in a heavy-bottomed pan and add the onions. Cook on a medium heat, stirring from time to time, for 15 minutes (adjust the heat as you need to). The onions should soften a bit and become pale gold.
2. Add 50ml water, season and turn the heat down really low. Cover the pan and sweat the onions, looking every so often to check that they aren’t getting too dry, or they will burn. This should take about an hour. You aren’t trying to caramelise these the way you do for French onion soup.
3. Turn the heat up to boil off some of the excess moisture. This will intensify the flavour. Stir in the tomato purée, marjoram, cumin and caraway, and cook for a couple of minutes, then add the beer. Bring to the boil and cook until the beer has reduced by half. Add the stock and bring to the boil. Season to taste.
4. Turn the heat down and let the soup simmer for 45 minutes to an hour. The stock will reduce and the flavours will meld. Keep tasting.
5. Lightly toast the bread. Mix the egg yolks with the cheese and mustard, then spread this on top of each piece of toast. Put these on a baking sheet or grill pan and place under a hot grill (though not too hot as the egg needs to cook before the cheese gets too dark), until the topping starts to bubble and brown.
6. Ladle the soup into broad, shallow bowls. Put a toast on each one. Push it down into the soup a bit so that the bread starts to get moist and the toasted edges disappear. Serve straight away.
Read last week’s column: #@@#@!! Diana Henry’s best recipes for Christmas entertaining