I’ve had some fascinating and thoroughly enjoyable food and travel experiences over the last twelve months, from meeting a white asparagus queen and learning how to harvest honey to preparing eel for the smoker and going fishing in the Baltic Sea. So, I’d be lying if I said this year hadn’t been filled with culinary highlights, or that it hasn’t been a struggle to pick my top five German meals of 2018.
Though my two previous editions of this post (in 2014 and 2017) were popular, writing this list does feel like a rather self indulgent task: I loved scrolling back through photographs from the past year and thinking about all the food-related travel I’ve been able to do. However, I think writing this sort of post is also a very simple way of demonstrating just how varied the German cuisine really is: yes, it’s a short and rather meat heavy list, but I’m not sure any of the dishes I mention below are the first that leap to mind when you think of German food – and there’s not a single mention of a sausage. I’m planning to discuss this topic further here soon, but for now, here are the German dishes I most enjoyed eating in 2018. What were yours?
Disclaimer: these are my favourite – most delicious and most memorable – German dishes from this year, but it happens I enjoyed all five of them on travels funded by regional tourism boards (and in one case, on assignment for a magazine). All opinions are, however, entirely my own.
5. Calves’ liver with mashed potatoes
Far from the most photogenic (or indeed well-photographed) dish on this list, the calves’ liver with slices of cooked apple and fried onions that sat on this slowly-expanding lake of mashed potato was one of the most flavoursome plates of food I had the pleasure of eating this year. Sitting in the hot September sun surrounded by the half-timber houses of the very pretty town of Besigheim (30km north of Stuttgart), accompanied by an excellent bottle of local red wine, the tender pieces of liver, sweet and creamy sides and the rich, dark gravy might well have the potential to sway even the most reluctant of offal-eaters.
4. Steak, onions and Spätzle
A fascinating visit to the hilly region around Stuttgart in September featured a number of highlights for me – both culinary and otherwise. I made fresh-pressed fruit juice with an orchard queen, enjoyed a mid-hike snack of sausage, pretzels and homemade elderberry liqueur in a farmyard, and drank local wine whilst being pulled round a vineyard on the back of a tractor. On my first night in the area, after touring a brewery in Böblingen and sampling a few of their (very good) beers, I ordered my first ever Zwiebelrostbraten – steak, for me medium rare, served with braised onions and gravy and very good egg noodles (Spätzle). I’m the sort of person who sometimes gets a little bit emotional over a really good, simple and satisfying plate of food and this was very nearly one of those.
3. A pickled herring sandwich
During a trip to the beautiful Baltic island of Usedom in July, I visited a collection of old salt huts now used as a fish smokery with a small, cosy restaurant and takeaway sandwich shop. It was there that I was not only taught how to prepare fish and eel for smoking, but also shown how to make my own traditional north German fish sandwich. I chose a fillet of shiny silver Bismarck-style herring (marinated in vinegar), thin slices of raw onion, some pickled cucumber, a leaf of bright green lettuce and a slice or two of tomato; usually sandwiched in a freshly-baked, shell-shaped roll, for me at that point it was rather sadly sandwiched between two slices of gluten-free bread. Despite this, it was honestly one of the best sandwiches I’ve ever eaten. I may not have a photo of it – the sandwich above is sadly not the one I describe here, which I devoured before thinking to take a photo of it – but you can watch me taking a bite of it on my Instagram stories (link goes directly to Usedom highlight).
Moorland lamb with pear, beans and bacon
My final culinary expedition of 2018 was in December to the federal state of Lower Saxony, where I ate my way around the city of Hanover and half-timbered towns of Hamelin and Celle. I tried some wonderful regional specialties on my visit, most of which I’d never heard of (Calenberger Pfannenschlag, anyone? Sea buckthorn liqueur?), but the weekend’s standout dish was served at the restaurant of the 14th century town hall in Celle. The ingredients had largely come from the nearby Lüneberg Heath: thick slices of slow-cooked Heidschnucke lamb (a moorland sheep with a gamey flavour), half a poached pear filled with sweet cranberry sauce, green beans wrapped in bacon, mushrooms, gravy and potato croquettes. Having never heard of the Heidschnucke sheep – or indeed the Lüneberg Heath – before researching the trip, this meal was nothing short of a revelation.
White asparagus with smoked ham
I based this list entirely on the food (as opposed to its setting or service), but this dish came as part of a very special experience altogether, and I can’t in all honesty admit it coming in first place wasn’t in some way influenced by that. In May, I was sent on assignment to Münster by National Geographic Traveller to investigate why the Germans are so passionate about their annual crop of white asparagus (Spargel). Teaming up for the first time with a fabulous photographer to visit a terribly charming part of the country and learn about something I already held great interest in, it was an absolutely dream job.
During the three days I spent in and around Münster, I did – taking my research as seriously as I do – discover that it’s possible to eat too much of Germany’s “white gold”. Thankfully, this wasn’t before I’d eaten the dish that makes the top of this list; my lunch at a traditional, family-run restaurant in Münster’s pretty old town. None of the ingredients on my plate had travelled more than 50km to get there, and the waxy potatoes, white asparagus and golden pool of melted butter were all excellent on their own, however a couple of crumpled pink slices of Westfällischer Knochenschinken – beechwood-smoked ham made with acorn-fed pigs, a specialty of the region – took the dish to a whole other level.
So ironically, known as I am by some on Twitter as “Spargel lady”, and despite having eaten this meal several times this spring and early summer, asparagus with potatoes, Westphalian ham and melted butter turned out to be my favourite meal of 2018.
My article for National Geographic Traveller’s Food supplement about my trip to Münster – and this very plate of food – can be found online.