You probably didn’t choose Germany for its food, right? But the culinary revolution that's been simmering for years under the sausage-cabbage-and-carbs layers is finally bubbling to the surface. Up and down the country you’ll find chefs playing up local, seasonal produce and making healthy, creative street food. There are exciting riffs on vegetarian and vegan food, and organic everything. Some wines these days can rival the French and Italian old-timers. Dig in and drink up – you might just be surprised.
When ordering food, a little knowledge of German can be a dangerous thing. Don't expect half a chicken when you order a Halve Hahn in Cologne – it's a rye roll with gouda cheese, gherkin and mustard. Similarly, Kölscher Kaviar is not caviar, but black pudding. And Nordseekrabben in Hamburg and Lower Saxony? They're small prawns…of course.
Metre-long bratwursts with litres of foamy wheat beer in Munich, snowball-sized dumplings with an avalanche of sauerkraut and roast pork in the Alps, salads swimming in dressing and cakes drowning in cream – every traveller has a tale of German food excess.
On paper, Germany's best-known specialities appear deceptively simple: wurst, Brot, Kartoffeln and sauerkraut (sausage, bread, potatoes and pickled cabbage). But, as any local will tell you, the devil is in the detail. Where else will you find so many kinds of sausage, such a cornucopia of bread and potatoes in so many guises? Elevated to near art forms, these staples both unite and divide the country: ingredients are often similar but regional recipes interpret them in totally different ways.
In exile in California in 1941, German playwright Bertolt Brecht confessed that what he missed most about his homeland was the bread. Tasty and textured, often mixing wheat and rye flours, and available in 300 varieties, German bread is a world-beater. A visit to an old-fashioned Bäckerei (bakery), with yeasty smells wafting from ovens, bakers elbow-deep in dough and staff who remember customers by name, is a treat.
'Black' rye bread (Schwarzbrot) is actually brown, but a much darker shade than the slightly sour Bauernbrot – divine with a slab of butter. Pumpernickel bread is steamed instead of baked, making it extra moist, and actually is black. Vollkorn means wholemeal, while bread coated in sunflower seeds is Sonnenblumenbrot. If you insist on white bread (Weissbrot), the Germans have that, too.
Fresh bread rolls (Brötchen in the north, Semmel in Bavaria, Wecken in southern Germany) can be covered in poppy seeds (Mohnbrötchen), cooked with sweet raisins (Rosinenbrötchen) or sprinkled with salt (Salzstangel).
It's the quintessential German side dish that many outside the country find impossible to fathom: sauerkraut. Bluntly put, it's shredded cabbage, doused in white-wine vinegar and slowly simmered. But if you haven't at least tried Rotkohl (the red-cabbage version of the white-cabbage sauerkraut), you don't know what you're missing. Braising the cabbage with sliced apples and wine turns it into Bayrischkraut or Weinkraut.
Chipped, boiled, baked, mashed, fried: Germans are almost as keen as Russians about the potato. The Kartoffel is not only the Vegetable Nummer Eins (first-choice vegetable) in any meat-and-three-veg dish; it can also be incorporated into any course of a meal, including potato soup (Kartoffelsuppe) as a starter, potato salad (Kartoffelsalat) with smoked fish as a main, or potato pancakes (Reibekuchen or Kartoffelpuffer) as a sweet, sugar-sprinkled treat.
In between, you can try Himmel und Erde (Heaven and Earth) – mashed potatoes and stewed apples served with black pudding – or potato-based Klösse dumplings. Pellkartoffeln or Ofenkartoffeln are jacket potatoes, usually capped with a dollop of Quark (a yoghurt-like curd cheese).
In the Middle Ages, German peasants found a way to package and disguise animals' less appetising bits and the humble Wurst (sausage) was born. Today, it's a noble and highly respected element of German cuisine, with strict rules determining varietal authenticity. In some cases, as with the finger-sized Nuremberg sausage, regulations even ensure offal no longer enters the equation.
There are more than 1500 sausage types, all commonly served with bread and a sweet (süss) or spicy (scharf) mustard (Senf).
Bratwurst, served countrywide, is made from minced pork, veal and spices, and is cooked in different ways: boiled in beer, baked with apples and cabbage, stewed in a casserole, grilled or barbecued.
The availability of other sausages differs regionally. A Thüringer is long, thin and spiced. Blutwurst is blood sausage (not to be confused with black pudding, which is Rotwurst), Leberwurst is liver sausage and Knackwurst is lightly tickled with garlic.
Saxony has brain sausage (Bregenwurst) and Bavaria sells the white, rubbery Weisswurst, made from veal. Hamburg, Berlin and the Ruhrgebiet all claim to have invented the takeaway Currywurst (slices of sausage topped with curry powder and ketchup).
No period ranks higher on the culinary calendar than Spargelzeit (asparagus season), when Germans devour great quantities of (mostly) white asparagus, which is generally considered tastier than the green variety. The harvesting of the first crop kicks off in mid-April and the season lasts until 24 June, the feast day of St John the Baptist. You'll find restaurants with asparagus menus and whole books devoted to the subject, while many towns go so far as to hold asparagus festivals in May and June.
Unleash your sweet tooth on these German favourites:
Black Forest gateau A multilayered chocolate sponge, cream and kirsch confection, topped with morello cherries and chocolate shavings.
Nürnberg Lebkuchen Totally moreish gingerbread from Nuremberg made with nuts, fruit peel, honey and spices.
Lübecker Leckerli Honey-flavoured ginger biscuits. Also try the fabulous Lübeck marzipan.
Dresden Stollen Christmas wouldn't be the same without this spiced cake, loaded with sultanas and candied peel, sprinkled with icing sugar and spruced up with a ball of marzipan.
Leipziger Lerche As its name suggests, it was made with lark until songbird hunting was banned in 1876. Today it's a shortcrust pastry filled with almonds, nuts and a cherry or spoon of jam.
Aachener Printen Aachen's riff on traditional Lebkuchen (gingerbread), these spicy, moreish biscuits are sweetened with beet syrup.
Grape vs Grain
Here's to Beer!
Few things are as deeply ingrained in the German psyche as the love of beer. 'Hopfen und Malz – Gott erhalt's!' (Hops and malt are in God's hands) goes the saying, which is fitting, given the almost religious intensity with which beer is brewed, consumed and celebrated – not least at the world's biggest beer festival, Oktoberfest. Brewing here goes back to Germanic tribes, and later monks, so it follows a hallowed tradition.
The 'secret' of the country's golden nectar dates back to the 1516 Reinheitsgebot (purity law) passed in Bavaria, demanding breweries use just four ingredients – malt, yeast, hops and water. Though it stopped being a legal requirement in 1987, when the EU struck it down as uncompetitive, many German brewers still conform to it anyway, seeing it as a good marketing tool against mass-market, chemical-happy competitors.
Kloster Weltenburg (near Kelheim, north of Munich), is the world’s oldest monastery brewery; its Weltenburger Kloster Barock Dunkel was presented with silver at the World Beer Cup in 2018. This light, smooth beer has a malty, toasty finish. Other connoisseurs believe the earthy Andechser Doppelbock Dunkel, produced by the Benedictines in Andechs near Munich, to be among the world’s best.
The craft beer movement has also arrived in Germany, especially in the major cities. Berlin, as per usual, is leading the way, with places such as Hops & Barley – which taps unfiltered Pilsner, dark and wheat beer in a former butcher’s shop – and Hopfenreich, the capital's first dedicated craft beer bar.
A Whole Lotta Beer
Around 6.9 million litres of beer, give or take a stein, were downed by partygoers at Munich's Oktoberfest in 2017.
Despite often giving themselves only four ingredients (malt, yeast, hops and water) to play with, Germans achieve distinctively different beers via subtle variations in the basic production process. At the simplest level, a brewer can choose a particular yeast for top or bottom fermenting.
The most popular form of brewing is bottom fermentation, which accounts for about 85% of German beers, notably the Pils (Pilsner; popular throughout Germany), most Bock beers and the Helles (pale lager) type found in Bavaria.
Top fermentation is used for the Weizenbier/Weissbier (wheat/white beer) popular in Berlin and Bavaria, Cologne's Kölsch and the very few stouts brewed in the country.
Many beers are regional, meaning a Saxon Rechenberger cannot be found in Düsseldorf, where the locally brewed Altbier is the taste of choice.
Germany's Beer Top 10
- Pils (Pilsner) This bottom-fermented pale lager, with a pronounced hop flavour and creamy head, has an alcohol content around 4.8%.
- Weizenbier/Weissbier (wheat/white beer) Predominant in the south, especially in Bavaria, this contains 5.4% alcohol. A Hefeweizen has a stronger shot of yeast, whereas Kristallweizen is clearer, with more fizz. These beers are fruity and spicy, often recalling bananas and cloves. Decline offers of lemon as it ruins the head and – beer purists say – the flavour.
- Dunkles (dark lager) Brewed throughout Germany, but especially in Bavaria. With a light use of hops, it's full-bodied with strong malty aromas.
- Helles (pale lager) Helles (pale or light) refers to the colour, not the alcohol content, which is still 4.6% to 5%. Brewing strongholds are Bavaria, Baden-Württemberg and the Ruhr region. It has strong malt aromas and is slightly sweet.
- Altbier A dark, full beer with malted barley, from the Düsseldorf area.
- Berliner Weisse Berlin's top-fermented beer, which comes rot (red) or grün (green), with a Schuss (dash) of raspberry or woodruff syrup, respectively. A cool, fruity summer choice.
- Bockbier Strong beers with 7% alcohol. There's a 'Bock' for every occasion, such as Maibock (for May/spring) and Weihnachtsbock (brewed for Christmas). Eisbock is dark and aromatic. Bock beers originate from Einbeck, near Hanover.
- Kölsch By law, this top-fermented beer can only be brewed in or around Cologne. It has about 4.8% alcohol, a solid hop flavour and a pale colour; it's served in small glasses (0.2L) called Stangen (literally 'sticks').
- Leipziger Gose Flavoured with salt and coriander, this contrives to have a stingingly refreshing taste, with some plummy overtones. Tart like Berliner Weisse, it's often served with sweeteners, such as cherry (Kirsch) liqueur or the almond-flavoured Allasch.
- Schwarzbier (black beer) Slightly stronger, this dark, full beer has an alcohol content of 4.8% to 5%. It's fermented using roasted malt.
The Rise & Rise of German Wine
For decades the name of German wine was sullied by the cloyingly sweet Liebfraumilch and the naff image of Blue Nun. What a difference a decade makes. Thanks to rebranding campaigns, a new generation of winegrowers, and an overall rise in quality, German wine is staging a 21st-century comeback.
Even discerning wine critics have been pouring praise on German winemakers of late. According to British Master of Wine Tim Atkin (www.timatkin.com), 'Germany makes the best Rieslings of all', and, waxing lyrical on the country's Pinot Noirs, he muses, 'if only the Germans didn’t keep most of them to themselves'.
Having produced wines since Roman times, Germany now has more than 1000 sq km of vineyards, mostly on the Rhine and Moselle riverbanks. Despite the common association with Riesling grapes (particularly in its best wine regions), the less acidic Müller-Thurgau (Rivaner) grape is more widespread. Meanwhile, the Gewürztraminer grape produces spicy wines with an intense bouquet. What Germans call Grauburgunder is known to the rest of the world as Pinot gris.
German reds are light and lesser known. Spätburgunder (Pinot Noir) is the best of the bunch and goes into some velvety, full-bodied reds with an occasional almond taste.
Top German Wine Producers
- Dönnhoff (www.doennhoff.com) Award-winning Rieslings.
- Weingut Meyer-Näkel (www.meyer-naekel.de) Some of Germany's best Pinot Noirs.
- Wittmann (www.weingutwittmann.de) Celebrated Rheinhessen Silvaner and Rieslings.
There are 13 official wine growing areas in Germany, the best being the Mosel-Saar-Ruwer region. It boasts some of the world's steepest vineyards, where the predominantly Riesling grapes are still hand-picked. Slate soil on the hillsides gives the wines a flinty taste. Chalkier riverside soils are planted with the Elbling grape, an ancient Roman variety.
East of the Moselle, the Nahe region produces fragrant, fruity and full-bodied wines using Müller-Thurgau and Silvaner grapes, as well as Riesling.
Riesling grapes are also the mainstay in Rheingau and Mittelrhein (Middle Rhine), two other highly respected wine-growing pockets. Rheinhessen, south of Rheingau, is responsible for Liebfraumilch, but also some top Rieslings.
Other wine regions include Ahr, Pfalz (both in Rhineland-Palatinate), Hessische Bergstrasse (Hesse), Baden (Baden-Württemberg), Würzburg (Bavaria) and Elbtal (Saxony).
The Württemberg region, around Stuttgart, produces some of the country's best reds, while Saxony-Anhalt's Saale-Unstrut region is home to Rotkäppchen (Little Red Riding Hood) sparkling wine, a former GDR brand that's been a big hit in the new Germany.
Local & Lighter
The German love of nature and eye for quality is reflected in what lands on the table. Long before 'seasonal' and 'local' were buzzwords, Germans made the most of locally grown produce. Menus burst with Spargel (asparagus) in spring and Pfifferlinge (chanterelles) in summer. In autumn the earthy delights of game, pumpkins and wild mushrooms enchant. Regional food at its best is about perfect timing, top-quality ingredients and dishes with natural, integral flavours.
Cheap frankfurters, frozen Black Forest gateau and Liebfraumilch (a sweet white wine) may have tarnished Germany’s culinary image in the past, but things are swiftly changing, with dishes getting lighter, healthier and more imaginative. Vegetarians, vegans and people with food allergies are well catered for, especially in big towns and cities. Germans like to shop at Bauernmärkte (farmers markets) and Biomärkte (organic markets and supermarkets), where they can put a face and place to a product.
Germany is also raising the bar in the street-food stakes, where you can now find a world beyond the ubiquitous wurst and kebab. The rest of the country, as always, is hot on the heels of Berlin, where food trucks and stands dish out everything from quirky takes on ceviche to jiaozi (Chinese dumplings), gourmet burgers made with 100% local beef and organic frozen yoghurt.
Germany covers the entire eating spectrum – from sidewalk sausage stands to Michelin-starred finery. Book top tables at least a week or two in advance.
- Biergarten Tree-shaded gardens for enjoying beer and meaty snacks.
- Cafes Open mostly during the daytime, these are good for everything from coffee and snacks at speed to homemade cakes.
- Gaststätten & Gasthöfe Relaxed, rustic inns, usually in rural locations, where you can tuck into old-school home cooking.
- Imbiss Fast-food snack bars offering sausages, pizzas, kebabs and the like.
- Restaurants Germany's restaurants swing from no-frills and family-run to Michelin-starred, and serve up every cuisine imaginable.