When it comes to food, Germans don’t let go of a good thing. For example, what has turned into Munich’s Octoberfest was just supposed to be an outdoor wedding reception for the Crown Prince on October 12, 1810. People had so much fun there, though, they came back to the site the next year and partied, and the next year, and the next..and it goes on still.
The history of German cooking and baking is like that, too: full of good things that have been discovered and enjoyed over a period of time that goes back to the Middle Ages. While this cuisine has deep roots in regional and European history, the people’s delight in fresh, delicious food of all sorts has also kept it modern and varied down through the ages.
♦ To the manor born
What we call Germany today climbs up from a lowland plain near the Baltic and North seas, through the hills and fertile valleys of central Germany, until it reaches the foothills and rugged Alpine regions of the south. People have lived here for thousands of years, first in tribes and then in a patchwork of small kingdoms that finally became one under the Franks and eventually turned into the Holy Roman Empire, as the German state was known in the Middle Ages.
Medieval people had a feudal society, and it wasn’t a bad place for some: kings and nobles lived the good life and held many huge feasts. The cool climate of the northern coastal region made hearty meals and soups popular, and there was also plenty of fresh seafood and herring available, as well as roast fowl. Rye and oats were grown to make dense, rich breads.
In contrast, the central region had orchards, vineyards and fertile farmlands. It was also an ideal place to raise livestock, and the area became famous for the quality of its meat, particularly the hams of Westphalia and a variety of sausages. Wheat as well as rye grew there, and the area also was known for its special baked goods like stollen and spicy cookies.
The mountainous southland was good for dairy herds, and many grains could be grown there for a rich variety of breads and baked goods, as well as for brewing beer and ale. Wild game was plentiful in the forests, and the Mosel and Rhine river valleys provided perfect environments for wine making.
♦ Everybody else gets by
Things were not so pleasant for those at the other end of the feudal system. Serfs, villeins, and free peasants ate whatever they could grow or gather during the little spare time was available to them. This included barley, rye, and oats, as well as lots of red cabbage, apples and beets in the north; the same thing, as well as turnips, sugar beets, and pears in the central region; and the south also had a wide variety of fruit.
Game was plentiful everywhere, but only kings and nobles could hunt it. Commoners could fish from some local streams and raise livestock, and they could make bread, but they had to pay the lord of the manor for use of his oven (home baking was forbidden by law).
Overall, their diet was meager and not at all rich, but they got by, using “maische,” or mash, a boiled mixture of grain, bran, meal, etc., as a filler.
♦ The Ashkenazi Jews
There was also a demographic group that lived outside of the medieval German feudal system. Since at least the early 400s, many Jewish communities had thrived in the region, especially in the Rhine valley. “Ashkenaz” was the medieval Hebrew name for Germany as it was then, and its people were the Ashkenazim, or German Jews.
They adapted the old High German into their Hebrew language and called it Yiddish. They shared many of the same foods, as far as kosher laws would allow: no pork, but plenty of pickled herring, horseradish, rye breads, vegetable soups, strudel, cakes, and even a treat that is still around today—one that you might be snacking on right now.
More types of foods were boiled in medieval times, including some breads. There are those who claim that a stirrup-shaped bread, which was boiled before it was baked, was called a "beigl" in Yiddish after the German word for stirrup, "Steigbügel." Try to imagine a mounted Teutonic knight in full panoply, the next time you’re spreading cream cheese over your bagel!
♦ Times a’changing
The Renaissance ushered in greater power for cities, and in those cities a variety of craft guilds formed, including a number of cooking and baking guilds. A new “middle” class also appeared, and it took on some of the elaborate cooking styles of the royals and nobility while keeping the best of its own heritage of peasant cooking and baking.
Then, in the 16th century, the potato arrived from the New World. At first, Germans didn’t care much for it, but it was just as filling as maische and much more tasty and versatile. Soon its popularity soared, and today it’s difficult to imagine what German cooking would be like without the potato.
There had always been a French influence in the southern region, and this increased during the social and political changes Europe went through in the mid to late 18th century. Then Napoleon attacked in 1806, and for seven years Germany was part of the French Empire. The “Little General” brought in his own chefs but hired Germans to assist them, and these native chefs carried the French cooking style throughout the land after the conquerors left.
In 1871, a unified Germany appeared for the very first time. Industrialization increased over the following decades, and the country went to war twice in the 20th century, with disastrous results each time. At the end of World War II, Germany had its “Zero Hour,” with people having to make do with less than 800 calories a day, mostly from cabbage, potatoes and bread.
Recovery happened slowly. Some 12 million Germans were expelled from formerly occupied countries in Europe, bringing back with them a variety of cooking styles and food preferences. As prosperity returned, Middle Eastern “guest workers” arrived, and a new flavor was added to the complex blend of food and style that modern German cooking had become.
♦ Old and new
Today, the most popular fast food in Germany may be döner kebab, a Turkish specialty, but old favorites are still around: some restaurants devote their entire menus to white asparagus (spargel) when it’s in season, and meat still figures prominently in all meals, including breakfast. At the same time, the country has the highest number of three-star restaurants in the world, outside of France, and Michelin recently gave 26 restaurants in Germany their first star, including a Japanese restaurant in Dusseldorf.
German cooking and baking has deep roots and yet always tastes new and fresh. The latest trends of today’s food world are found in German kitchens and restaurants alongside the old favorites that are being enjoyed by a new generation for the very first time.
Sources and more information:
Sylvia Kraus (January 31, 2011). “Die Küche des Mittelalters (The Cuisine of the Middle Ages).” Retrieved Feburary 4, 2011, from http://www.suite101.de/content/kulinarisches-mittelalter-a99443 via Google Translate.
Joachim Kammerer (October 18, 2010). “Der Siegeszug der braunen Knolle - die Kartoffel erobert Europa (The triumphal march of the brown potato - the potato conquered Europe).” Retrieved February 4, 2011, from http://www.suite101.de/content/der-siegeszug-der-braunen-knolle-die-kartoffel-erobert-europa-a88629 via Google Translate.
Wikipedia (n.d.). “German cuisine.” Retrieved February 7, 2011, from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/German_cuisine
Wikipedia (n.d.). “History of Germany.” Retrieved February 6, 2011, from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_Germany
Marianna Olszewska Heberle (1996). “German Cooking.” Retrieved February 6, 2011, from its Google Books preview at http://books.google.com/books?id=yiF0voEEaF8C&printsec=frontcover#v=onepage&q&f=false
Wikipedia (n.d.). “Ashkenazi Jewish Cuisine.” Retrieved February 6, 2011, from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jewish_cuisine#Ashkenazi
Catherine Hickley (November 9, 2010). “Michelin Upgrades Five German Restaurants to Two-Star Status.” Retrieved February 7, 2011, from http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2010-11-09/michelin-adds-five-two-star-restaurants-in-germany-awards-26-first-stars.html