A flat, breaded Schnitzel the size of a serving dish; whole roasted pork knuckle covered in salty crackling; a meaty sausage as thick and wide as a toddler’s arm. Vast mounds of vinegary Sauerkraut; soft, weighty dumplings; and of course potatoes, fried, boiled, or puréed; all smothered in a sauce, rich and brown or thick and creamy, to be mopped up with dense rye bread. These are the dishes that see the Germans through the long, hard winters such as the one they’re currently enduring; these dishes plus stacks of gingerbread and cakes stuffed with dried fruits and marzipan; these and mugs of creamy hot chocolate, sickly sweet mulled wine and tiny glasses of throat-burning herb liqueur. And this is how traditional German cuisine is broadly viewed the world over: hearty, stodgy fare for lining the stomach in preparation for liter upon liter (upon liter) of beer.
As with all stereotypes, this isn’t an entirely untrue portrayal of the way that Germans typically eat: you can find all these dishes—and plenty more of the same—in any self-respecting German tavern the year round. Yet alongside these dishes, all made according to recipes that have handed down from generation to generation, you’ll find all sorts of other culinary treats on the menu based not just on individual or regional variations but seasonal ones, too. For what is little known about the Germans is that they are passionate about eating produce they have grown themselves, at the appropriate time of year, and therefore their traditional dishes, and often their beverages, too, are not just seasonal in terms of festivities—Easter bread or a Christmas goose—but largely dictated by Mother Nature herself.
Frilly kale, crunchy kohlrabi, and thick leaves of Swiss chard will all have their turn as the year rolls back round to winter, but once the frost leaves the ground and the first bright green shoots begin to poke out of the cold earth, wild garlic and leafy herbs are the first, hopeful signs that the darkest season is drawing to a close. In the grey light of early spring, huge bunches of wild garlic appear at local markets, the aromatic leaves much-loved for their culinary as well as their medicinal uses; and the herbs are bundled together to create a wonderfully fresh regional variation on the theme of salsa verde: Frankfurt green sauce. A large bunch of seven herbs (borage, sorrel, cress, chervil, chives, parsley and burnet) is chopped and mixed with boiled eggs and sour cream, yoghurt or mayonnaise (or a combination of all three), and seasoned to taste before being slathered across slices of boiled beef brisket, a warm bologna sausage or thick fillets of white fish.
As the cold weather eases off and the ground softens, late spring heralds the most famous of Germany’s culinary seasons when white asparagus, often lauded as “white gold”, is harvested in almost unbelievable proportions and dished up non-stop for two solid months, until you think no one could possibly eat another mouthful. After the official April opening of Spargelzeit by Asparagus Queens throughout the land, every last spear of white asparagus is picked carefully, by hand, right through till the end of June. It’s back-breaking work for those bending over the earth to expose and cut each revered stalk before they are graded and sold according to quality; it’s a mind-numbing test of endurance for those peeling the stalks and chopping off their woody ends in preparation for cooking; but it’s simply utterly blissful pleasure for those consuming the meltingly tender, steamed spears alongside slices of rolled pink ham, a small heap of boiled potatoes and a slick of Hollandaise sauce.
Come the end of white asparagus season, as the sun begins to beat down hard and strong, fruit steps up to make its mark on the menu. First there are the sweetest, juiciest of strawberries, then plump, dark cherries that almost explode in the mouth, and mound upon mound of peaches, apricots, and all manner of plums and berries. These are celebrated in cakes and tarts alike as well as in cold, boozy drinks such as fresh strawberry punch, made with locally produced Riesling and a splash of German champagne. Some would argue, however, that these perfectly bite-sized treats are best simply grabbed in messy handfuls from a cone-shaped brown paper bag stuffed to bursting directly at the farm on which they were grown.
As summer draws to a close, the sun setting earlier and earlier and the leaves turning slowly from bright green to burnt orange and brown, the seasonal offerings evolve from the juicy and the fresh to the earthy and comforting. The woody smell of mushrooms begins to scent the air at the farmers’ markets: first the delicate, yellowy-brown chanterelles that perfectly compliment medallions of pork drizzled with a delicate, creamy sauce; and later the more robust-looking, thick-stemmed ceps, which cannot be bettered with anything other than a small knob of garlicky butter.
A sure sign of autumn’s arrival is the pop-up stalls around town that sell Federweißer, a refreshingly tasty wine so young that when bottled, it’s essentially grape juice. The fermentation process only occurs afterwards, either whilst sitting on a shelf awaiting purchase—or in the stomach of its consumer. For this reason, bottles of this annual autumn treat are only very loosely capped in order to avoid explosions caused by the release of gas whilst the wine ferments; and Federweißer is very definitely to be drunk with care—ideally alongside a slice of homemade onion tart—becoming, as it does, considerably more alcoholic whilst it’s consumed.
Peculiar-looking roots and tubers make their appearance at this time of year, too: all manner of knobby, unattractive looking growths such as celeriac, turnips, and swedes add wonderfully earthy tones to many comforting German dishes. The surprisingly more-ish, stick-like salsify is served up with meatballs in a creamy ragu; and long, white horseradishes are served raw and whole in accompaniment to the traditional German evening meal of dark bread, meats and cheeses. Strange but much-loved vegetables appear not just below the earth but above it, too: the familiar-looking bright orange pumpkin is blended into velvet-smooth soups and even the strange-looking inedible gourds and squashes are used to decorate German shops and houses on an autumnal theme. Nothing goes to waste!
As the evenings grow colder and darker again and hearty plates of food become much-needed for comfort and warmth, there are not just tubers but greens on the menu, too: cabbage, of course, the green and crinkly savoy or sweet and vinegary red; and mounds of tight little Brussels sprouts. But what to compliment Mother Nature’s vegetarian offerings? When game season begins, the Germans truly bring out the big guns: sitting by the fire in a traditional German pub after a long winter walk one can indulge in fatty roast goose, traditionally eaten not just at Christmas but also on the Feast of St Martin in early November; or else dine on duck, venison or even wild boar.
There are plenty of Germans, however, who prefer to spend their dark winter evenings not sitting inside with a plate of hot food or pile of marzipan treats but clustered around at a Christmas market stall with a group of friends, shivering in the cold and clutching a mug of hot alcohol. There’s not just mulled wine to be had on such occasions but apple cider too and, for the coldest—or bravest—of customers, a fiery brandy punch with which to wash down a hot and crunchy potato fritter or a vast dumpling filled with plum sauce.
And as that sticky, sweet sauce is wiped from the corners of mouths at Christmas markets all over Germany, the thought of those first green shoots poking out of the frozen earth are far from the mind, however it’s not long at all till the seasonal culinary cycle begins again another year. Until then, however, there’s plenty of time to enjoy the hearty, comforting fare for which the Germans are famed. I’ll have a massive hunk of pork with its crispy, crackling, a sour and crunchy white cabbage salad and a dumpling the size of a grown man’s fist, please. Guten Appetit!