I traveled to the German states of Saxony and Thuringia for two reasons. One was to see its historical, musical and artistic attractions. The other was to indulge in the region’s legendary cuisine.
The cuisine is legendary because it starts with an abundance of ingredients. Fertile lands produce bountiful harvests of fruit, cabbage, potatoes, cauliflower, cucumbers, asparagus, maize, rapeseed, wheat, barley, onions and sugar beets. Where crop farming is difficult, beef, pork and poultry production is prevalent.
The region celebrates its agricultural abundance with autumn festivals. Dresdeners were preparing for the Saxonian Wine Festival in the city’s Altmarkt, where local wines are available at stands bedecked with ribbons, garlands and other decorations. During the second weekend of October, Weimar will host Zwiebelmarkt, a legendary folk festival held since 1653, where the onion is the star. Onion soup, onion tarts and onion bread are popular, but the festival’s most well-known attraction is the Zwiebelzopf. To tempt people to buy large quantities of onions, farmers twist dozens of Yellow Stuttgart Giant or Brunswick Dark Blood Red onion bulbs by hand around a hank of straw. This creates a braid that is then decorated with dried flowers.
I celebrated my fondness for German food in dozens of places, from tidy bakeries and historic restaurants to quick-service stands in markets and train stations.
Bakeries virtually line the streets of Germany. In Berlin, I acquired a taste for pastries like Streuseltaler and Prasselkuchen at Kamps Backstube. Then, I satisfied my craving for these treats of crispy shortbread or flaky layers of puff pastry covered with streusel topping, baked and brushed with a confectioners’ sugar glaze at Emil Reimann in Dresden and Steinecke in Leipzig.
Germans like to wash down their baked goods with a strong cup of coffee. They’ve been obsessed with coffee since the 18th century, when people flocked to coffee houses to read newspapers and discuss politics over the hot beverage. Johann Sebastian Bach directed a musical ensemble at a coffee house and wrote his Schweigt stille, plaudert nicht (Be still, stop chattering), BWV 211, also known as the Coffee Cantata, between 1732 and 1735. In 1908, a Dresden housewife named Melitta Bentz who was tired of finding coffee grounds in her drink invented the coffee filter using blotting paper and a perforated brass pot. Melitta coffee filters are still used today.
There’s nothing better for lunch than a grilled Bockwurst or another traditional Thuringian sausage, nestled in crusty white Brötchen and topped with plenty of mustard. They’re at their best when they’re served by street vendors in train stations and market squares.
Sit down to a meal at a German restaurant and you’ll find some special accessories at your place setting. Smartly folded paper napkins are far too nice to put in your lap and use, so I pack them in my suitcase as souvenirs. Scallop-edged paper doilies rest underneath soup cups. Beer coasters are branded with the logo of local German brews like Alter Dessauer, Dresden’s Radeberger Pilsner and Leipzig’s Gose, a beer that is either served straight or with syrup or cherry brandy.
Breakfast is a Thanksgiving-like feast of several different kinds of muesli, yogurts, fresh fruits, brötchen with preserves and Nutella, croissants, Zwieback, crispbreads, hard-cooked and scrambled eggs, creamy salads of smoked fish or chicken, and an ever-present array of sliced meats, wursts and cheeses. When I’m in Germany, I pass up orange juice in favor of “Multivitamin” juice.
Lunch and dinner are the highlights of my day, but when I’m in Germany, they provide the necessary fortification for my standard four-mile daily sightseeing expeditions. During two weeks, I feasted on first courses like Saxon potato soup with slices of roasted Bockwurst; tomato soup with cream and croutons; potato leek soup; and Weimar onion soup with cheese croutons.
I ate every bite of main dishes like salmon steak with lemon butter sauce, tagliatelle and zucchini; beef stewed in red wine with vegetables and boiled potatoes; omelets topped with pasta and vegetables; sirloin steak with matchstick French fries and green salad; chicken breast on a light mousse of tarragon with pasta and garden vegetables; the best oven-baked potato I’ve ever had, topped with herbed quark (curd cheese) and accompanied by a mixed salad; and chicken breast stuffed with spinach and feta cheese, wrapped in a puff pastry, and served with a green cabbage salad dressed with vinaigrette and caraway seeds — truly, one of the best lunches I’ve ever enjoyed.
For several meals, I chose my favorite German dishes: huge portions of schnitzel with fried potatoes; rouladen; or sauerbraten, accompanied by Thuringian potato dumplings and red cabbage.
For dessert, I indulged in apple strudel, chocolate mousse, trios of strawberry, chocolate and vanilla ice cream, and, for my final dinner in Berlin, a chocolate biscuit with jasmine tea and apricots that tasted as lovely as it looked.
Some restaurants exuded history, like Sophienkeller, in the vault of Dresden’s former Taschenberg Palace, once the home of a countess and now a Kempinski hotel. Some rooms feature the original walls dating back to the 14th century; others recreate the Alchimistenkeller, which recalls the cave where Johann Friedrich Böttger discovered the formula for making porcelain and invented the techniques for making and firing the “White Gold” that August the Strong, the famed Saxon ruler, loved so much. (You can read more about that in The Arcanum: The Extraordinary True Story, by Janet Gleeson). Pulverturm, a restaurant in the vaulted basement of the Coselpalais, located next to the Frauenkirche in Dresden, recalls an underground gunpowder storage facility that was originally built in 1565 and formed an important part of Dresden’s fortifications.
To recreate my favorite German dishes at home, I rely on recipes in cookbooks like A Culinary Voyage Through Germany, edited by Hannelore Kohl; Culinaria Germany, edited by Christine Metzger; and The Cooking of Germany, by Nika Standen Hazelton, part of the Time-Life Foods of the World cookbook series. On this trip, I found a new resource: a German television program called “Land und Lecker.” In this culinary challenge, a team of six businesswomen visit a rural woman in her home, dine on a three-course meal that she prepares, and then judge her to determine which contestant fixes the tastiest, most visually appealing menu of regional cuisine. During the episode I watched, Helene Scholz-von Bonin prepared carpaccio with summer salad, roast beef with colorful oven potatoes and baby vegetables, and yogurt panna cotta with berry sauce. Recipes for these and other dishes prepared on the program are available on the program’s website.