A few months back, a conversation about my wintertime desire for German beer-hall dinners resulted in me writing an article for Tim Hayward’s excellent Fire and Knives – home of the finest food writing and, as you’ll see below, some truly dire jokes. It was really lovely seeing my words on the page – the magazine’s a work of art in itself – as well as appearing alongside some great food writers. Tim’s very kindly let me reproduce my piece here for anyone who mightn’t have caught the print edition. Enjoy!
Hope for the best, prepare for the wurst: travels in German food
Middle England in midwinter. With a wind coming off the fields that cuts through coats, I’m struck by an animal craving for German food. Nothing subtle, nothing refined: just beer-hall fare, all sausages and schnitzel and pork knuckle and sauerkraut, washed down with great tankards of golden beer. This is what this cold little city needs, I think. But my idea for a British bierkeller falls on deaf ears. Johann G’s Pork Temple isn’t to be.
It’s a strange kind of solace you get from German food. Other culinary cultures offer you a hug in a mug. Some dinners – pillowy ravioli, chicken soup with dumplings – hold you to their bosom and promise you everything’s going to be OK. Germany, though. Germany comes around to your house with a six-pack and a DVD of Under Siege 2 and punches you in the arm so hard it bruises.
It’s 1999. I’m thirteen years old and I think I’m in love with Germany. It doesn’t take much: as ever, it’s all about three little words. Cheese. For. Breakfast.
This was sensual pleasure on a scale I had never experienced. Admittedly, as a pubescent boy roughly as wide as I was tall, I didn’t have much to draw on in the way of comparison. Some fleeting experience of internet pornography had taught me little other than leaving me with the distinct impression that sex was something that happened while your pizza got cold. Looking at the spread before me, I knew only that however great the other thing might be, it sure as hell didn’t come with tiny jars of preservatives. I’d take what I could get.
The German breakfast is glorious. Frühstück: literally, the early bit. The food, like the language, is gloriously straightforward: cobble together everything you’ll need to get you through to lunch alive, and then some. In the south they eat white sausage with weissbier before the sun’s fully up. You could march an army on this kind of thing, though I’m reliably informed it doesn’t always end well.
I went back at sixteen, with all the curiosity of a miniature Paul Theroux with a thing for lebkuchen. A guidebook talked me into my first taste of a local speciality, the Berliner Weisse – a repulsive dish of beer mixed with fruit syrup and served with a straw. Undaunted by the near-neon colour, I drank the whole, sugary mess. They’re making a film of my teenage years called ‘The Little Pancreas That Could’.
In Berlin, a few years later, I learnt that even if you can’t cure heartbreak with currywurst, it doesn’t hurt to try.
Munich, last Easter. Beer city.
We meet our host for the first time outside the massive Jesuit church, where he’s inexplicably agreed to come to a Good Friday service with us, on my promise of banging tunes. I’ve forgotten, though, that as this is the Friday when Himself copped it, His body is hardly going to be on the menu. No Communion ‘til Sunday. I’ve brought this poor Bavarian to the only Mass of the year that doesn’t come with complimentary nibbles.
We make up for it afterwards at the Augustiner Braustübe. Pretzels the size of your head, studded with salt; a whole ham hock braised in beer; bratwurst with sweet mustard. Bratwurst – bratwurst! Its very name says ‘bratwurst’! Bowls of rye bread appear at the table. I adore this stuff: doorstop-dense, it’s a bread you can rely on. You don’t play fast and loose with rye bread. Rye bread will change how you think about fast and loose. We wash the whole lot down with every beer on offer: fresh, golden lagers and dark, malty dunkels. Sadly, we’ve just missed Starkbierzeit – three weeks of strong beer drunk in the middle of Lent, and a cheeky way for half-starved monks to make up for a forbidden meal with a stein of the good stuff.
It’s not all insider knowledge and local haunts. We decide to drop in for a quick one at the Hofbräuhaus, often described as a beer-lovers’ Mecca by people who like a little bit of theological ignorance with their cliché. One pint turns into far too many. Later I think I’ve invited an elderly Bavarian man to my wedding (I’m not engaged). We skip upstairs briefly to see the hall where Hitler used to give speeches, trying to work out how long is long enough to linger for historical appreciation but without looking like we’re on a pilgrimage. Then downstairs, more beer, an oompah band, and at least one tourist vomiting in a bin outside, sounding for all the world like a sixty-foot Wogan trying to clear his throat.
Back to the flat, and it turns out our host’s broken up with his long-term partner, just days beforehand. He’s remarkably chipper, but the flow of Apfelwein and schnapps lends the evening a morose kind of feel. He puts on a record about an Eisbär – a polar bear. ‘I wish I was an ice-bear,’ say the lyrics, ‘because ice-bears don’t have to cry’.
As an Irishman and former Catholic, I found a lot to love in Bavaria. The people share some crucial cultural touchstones: a fierce devotion both to the Virgin Mary and to potato-based sustenance. There’s a monk on your beer, and if you tip the glass just right, he looks like he’s nodding his approval. I’ve always had a thing for monks, though. Once over bucatini all’amatriciana in Trastevere, I had a Benedictine deacon tell me ‘This isn’t a date’.
It’s February now, and that chilly wind’s still whistling. There’s a time of year here when, just as you feel winter’s about to give up the ghost, it comes back with renewed fury for about three weeks more. After three years I’ve learnt that the only way to beat it is black beer, big dinners, and a modicum of shouting.
The Reformation took our monks, and over time, the little breweries dotted around the town went the way of the monasteries. We lost a lot: ritual, memory, and a non-judgemental environment in which men could wear fabulous dresses. If there’s one thing Britain needs to take back, though, it’s the beer hall. Come one, come all, and worship at the Meat Pantheon.
We might need a new name.