Sunday, August 9, 2015

Germany: the good, the bad and the porky

Hello to my seven readers! I missed you all. It was one heck of a busy spring here, unfortunately, but I'm thrilled to be back to tell you about the amazing two weeks Chris and I just spent traveling in Germany, wherein we managed to eat a lot of delicious food in between sightseeing. Some people have asked us “why Germany?” and the answer is mostly “why not?” There’s tons of gorgeous scenery, great roads (just ask Chris, who got to drive a BMW press car on the Autobahn) and vibrant cities like Munich and Berlin, where we spent a week each.

We like to rent apartments during longer vacations, and we lucked out on this trip – both places we scored via were amazing. Renting a place also allows me to indulge my obsession with foreign grocery stores: not only did we eat breakfast at home each day but I also cooked dinner several nights. (It gets tiresome eating out three meals a day for two weeks at a time.) We also bought a LOT of Ritter Sports and Haribo gummies.

Without further ado, I present to you what we ate in Germany: the good, the bad, and the porky.

The good (Munich):

On our first night in Munich we dined at a delightful Italian restaurant seconds from our apartment that had the most gorgeous patio, with heaters and blankets: completely unnecessary the week we were there, but I can imagine it being utterly cozy on a September evening. We ate terrific Caprese salad (that mozzarella! Oh, the dairy products in Europe just kill me with their awesomeness) and very good pasta. Our Italian waiter was funny and friendly and patient with our lack of German. We enjoyed it so much that we went back on our last night before heading up to Berlin (and you bet we had the Caprese again).

Of course, we had to try out the Hofbrauhaus am Platzl in old-town Munich. We couldn’t sit in the legendary upstairs beer hall with the frescoed ceiling (it was for huge reserved parties only) but the food was still great. Chris had weisswurst, a local veal sausage that comes boiled, with sweet mustard, and potato salad (with a mild vinaigrette dressing that seemed to contain a lot of butter – he loved it). 

I ordered two Munich-style veal sausages and käsespatzle, a bowl of handmade soft, chewy egg noodles tossed with local Tegernsee cheese and topped with crispy fried onions. The cheese was smooth and flavourful with a medium sharpness akin to Emmenthal, and was not overly oily, which can be a problem with melting cheeses. The crunchy fried onion strings were an ideal textural contrast and punch of flavour. This was one of the best things I ate on the trip.

We washed it all down with two kinds of Radler: one with dark beer, for Chris, and one with wheat beer for me – known as a Russen locally, this was far less bitter and very refreshing to this non-beer-drinker. Radler, for those of you who have not been to an LCBO in a while, is a 50-50 mix of beer and either soda or juice – traditionally, a lemon-lime soda like Sprite is used in Germany. In Canada you’re more likely to find grapefruit-flavoured ones, which I love. The German ones are a tad bit bitterer, as they’re generally made with Helles (pale ale). Nevertheless, it is THE summer drink on German patios and we had a lot of it. 

We also had a spectacular charcuterie platter and terrific schnitzel for lunch at Zum Wilder Mann in old-town Salzburg, where we took a day trip. The food was so good, we should have gone back for dinner – tucked away on a tiny side alleyway, across from an unlikely and expensive Indian restaurant, it was one of the few places that wasn’t super-touristy and annoying. They also have a guesthouse, which I’d like to investigate for a future overnight visit. 

The good (Berlin):

I did a little Googling before we left for Europe, which yielded the existence of Hanage, a tiny snack spot just one subway stop away from our rental apartment that specializes in okonomiyaki, or Japanese pancakes. We love okonomiyaki and they’re near-impossible to find in Ottawa, so we indulged the craving on our second night in Berlin and had a lovely meal. 

In fact, we did as Berliners do and ate almost exclusively in Prenzlauer Berg, the former East German neighbourhood where our apartment was located. It’s now gentrified and family-friendly, with tons of great restaurants, lovely green plazas, stunning pre-war apartment blocks (the quarter was never heavily bombed, somehow, during WWII) and fun little shops. 

On our first full day in Berlin was a Sunday. Chris spent some time Googling “Prenzlauer Berg” and found out about the Kulturbraueri (“culture brewery”) which was a short walk from our flat.  It’s a defunct brick brewery that now houses clubs, restaurants, shops, galleries, a cinema and a museum. Their courtyard hosts a weekly food truck and cart rally every Sunday, so we wandered over and had lunch in the warm sunshine. I ate a “bao burger” – a steamed bun with char siu pork, sweet and spicy sauce, and pickled veggies. Chris finally got to try currywurst, Berlin’s signature snack, though this was an upscale version made with wild boar sausage and a plum curry sauce. It was very, very tasty. (We had the “real” version a few days later, and it was fine but I can see it being more tempting after a night of drinking.)  We got smoothies from a stand that made you leave a deposit for the reusable cups. They were delicious and naturally we brought the cups back at a euro apiece!

We had tasty Asian fusion food on the lovely, lantern-adorned patio at Umami. A sweet potato “pancake” proved to be more of a tempura nest, but was toothsome. Chris raved about his pho broth with dumplings. My yellow curry with duck arrived topped with huge crispy-skinned slices of the fabulous fowl. What a treat. 

It wasn’t the first time I’d eaten duck in Berlin though – apparently it’s less of a delicacy and more common than it is here. It was on the menu of BBQ Kitchen, a rotisserie-style casual resto under the Hackescher Markt S-bahn station where we grabbed lunch – “quarter duck” or “half duck” just like we’d order chicken. So naturally we ordered a quarter each, and boy, was it good, with lighter meat than the ducks we get here, but still flavourful and rich. The herb-roasted potatoes and red cabbage slaw we ordered for sides were also perfectly executed, the slaw in particular cutting the richness of meat and carbs. It’s a literal hole in the wall kind of place, but clean and friendly with excellent food and service. Go search it out if you’re in the area.

On our last night in Berlin we walked over to Pasternak, across a green square from Umami near our apartment, for luscious Russian food including a well-balanced appetizer plate of baked feta, thinly sliced sweet-sour beet carpaccio, and roasted eggplant salad, an indulgent bowl of vareniki (pierogis) with spinach, potato, and beef fillings, and a beautiful and unusual roulade of thin veal scaloppini filled with cheese, apricots, and spinach, napped with a sour-cherry sauce. More of those cherries appeared in both of our pretty, tasty, not-overly-sweet desserts, a sort of deconstructed apple crumble for Chris and a sweet almond and quark-filled blini for me. 

We visited an outpost of a nifty cafeteria-style restaurant called Nordsee that focuses on fish and seafood, where we ate a very fine spicy fish soup and some excellent salmon. I had a lovely “conversation” at our communal table with an older German gentleman who spoke very little English. He seemed thrilled to have someone to chat to, even if I understood one word in three. Smiling and nodding are universal, and company is company. 

While in Berlin we discovered the Hugo, an Italian summer cocktail that’s very popular in Europe. Composed of prosecco, elderflower syrup, mint, lime, and a splash of mineral water, it’s sparkly, summery, and goes down easy without getting you hammered. They sell it premixed in bottles at the supermarket as well – there was a bottle waiting for us in our apartment fridge, so we tried it out for the hell of it and liked it so much, we went and bought another bottle (for 1.30 Euros, about $2.50!!) and I ordered it at restaurants wherever it was available, which was pretty much everywhere. Some places had versions with fresh berries or ros√© wine or what have you. All were damn tasty. I sent Chris to IKEA upon our return home for a bottle of elderflower syrup. 

The bad:

We only had one seriously negative experience: attempting to get served at a beer garden in old-town Munich on a Saturday evening at 8:00 p.m. We were soundly ignored by an admittedly overworked waitress for thirty solid minutes (the other waiter, when hailed, simply shouted “talk to my colleague!”) and when Chris approached her quite politely, she brushed him off rudely. We left, furious and starving, and found a delightful Italian place down the street that served us delicious food in a timely fashion. 

We also received lackluster service at a trendy Aussie restaurant in Potsdamer Platz, where all we wanted was dessert and coffee and to soak up the atmosphere of the nifty covered courtyard at the Sony Center. The coffees were ice cold, the waiter utterly expressionless and usually absent, but the cheesecake was decent. We should have known better, honestly, but we wanted something sweet and all of the places around there were touristy. 

The porky:

I thought it would be the sausages that did me in, but in the end it was ham I never wanted to see again. Germans love pork in all its guises, especially smoked or fried. I had pork schnitzel at a beer garden in Munich. We ate umpteen ham sandwiches either on the road or at our apartment. One day, lunch was a salad and a plate of prosciutto and melon in the gorgeous historic Lehel quarter of Munich, because it was so damn hot we could not stomach anything cooked. That incredible plate of charcuterie in Salzburg contained four different pork products: black forest style ham, “bacon” style ham, cold roast pork with garlic, and salami. That’s in addition to three kinds of cheese and a generous pat – more of a slap, really – of butter for the housemade brown bread. You know, just in case. 

The day after, en route to Neuschwanstein Castle, we stopped for a ham sandwich in a tiny town called Schoengau, and that was truly the last straw. I needed a ham hiatus. It is still ongoing.
I mentioned our wurst consumption above, but as a footnote let me just say this: they are not kidding around with sausage in Germany. They are GOOD, and there are a million kinds. Suffice it to say if you’re a fan, get thee to Germany. 

We’re certainly planning a return trip – next time in winter, since it’s gorgeous at Christmastime (and also that whole no air-conditioning thing was rough). I think the heavier Bavarian food would go down better in the cold anyway. Was Germany a bit of an unusual vacation destination for us? Perhaps. Do I regret not going somewhere else? Not one bit. 



1 comment:

Charles Larabie said...

Burp! Quite a schmorgasbord you guys had! You had me at schnitzel I miss the real thing in situ. I'll be sure not to serve ham when you're next over ;)