What is Grüne Soße?
Grüne Soße (“green sauce”) is a regional German variation on the global herb sauce theme that includes Italian salsa verde, French sauce verte and Argentinian chimichurri. A cold, dairy-based sauce made with seven specific, finely chopped fresh herbs, Grüne Soße can be found on the menu in traditional German restaurants in the federal state of Hesse (Hessen) and nearby parts of its neighbouring state of the Rheinland-Palatinate (Rheinland-Pfalz). It has, of course, its regional differences: in the north of Hesse, it’s a pale green colour for being made with a generous proportion of dairy products; eat it further south and it’s a notably darker shade.
Grüne Soße is most commonly enjoyed with halved boiled eggs and boiled new potatoes, but is also eaten with slices of tender boiled beef brisket (Tafelspitz or Ochsenbrust), fillets of white fish, or even a warm chunk of Fleischwurst. In Frankfurt’s traditional cider (Apfelwein) taverns, you can order Grüne Soße with breaded and fried slices of pork or veal, which you’ll find on the menu as a Frankfurter Schnitzel.
The origins of Grüne Soße
There’s much disagreement about how and when Grüne Soße first made its entrance into Germany’s regional culinary repertoire. There are suggestions that it came to either Frankfurt or the north Hesse city of Kassel from France, Italy or Asia. The oldest recorded printed recipe for Grüne Soße is to be found in an 1856 cookbook by Wilhelmine Rührig in which a selection of “quite a lot of very finely chopped herbs” are mixed with a hard-boiled egg yolk, salad oil, mustard, vinegar and seasoning.
Ein hart gesottenes Eigelb wird mit 2 Löffel Salatöl 1/4 Stunde ganz fein verrührt, mehrere Löffel feiner Senf darunter gemischt und ziemlich viel ganz fein gehackte Gewürzkräuter als Borasch, Estragon, Petersilie, Körbel, Schnittlauch und Pimpernell alsdann Essig, Salz und Pfeffer dazu geben.
The recipe has changed very little as it’s made its way down through the generations, but you’d still be hard pressed to find a definitive list of Grüne Soße ingredients today. In addition to the herbs, the sauce involves chopped boiled eggs, oil and vinegar, but quantities of each are a matter of taste. The addition of mustard appears to be optional, and in terms of dairy, one generally appears to choose to combine sour cream or Schmand (a dairy product that sits somewhere between sour cream and créme fraîche in terms of flavour and fat content) with buttermilk or yoghurt. I’ve heard that some people use mayonnaise, but most locals I’ve spoken to consider that nothing short of sacrilegious.
Frankfurter Grüne Soße herbs
Grüne Soße is traditionally made with select quantities of sorrel, chervil, chives, parsley, burnet, cress and borage. Broadly speaking, the people of Hesse tend to be fairly relaxed with amounts and combinations, which can depend on which of the classic seven are in season, or which they have to hand.
In Frankfurt, however, mess with the herb blend at your peril. In 2016, the Association for the Protection of Frankfurter Grüne Soße won protection of geographical indications and designations of origin from the EU for the origin, quantities and combination of its herbs. Only bundles containing specific amounts of seven herbs – grown in Frankfurt or a number of specified nearby locations – can be called Frankfurter Grüne Soße. (The blend of herbs is known as Frankfurter Grüne Soße; the sauce made with them is Grüne Soße, or in local Frankfurt dialect, Grie Soß)
If you’d like to delve into the details of the Frankfurter Grüne Soße herbs and quantities thereof, have a look at the official application for the protection of geographical indications and designations of origin for Grüne Soße in the Official Journal of the European Union – it makes for wonderfully nerdy reading.
Though the EU ruling states that the herbs can be grown throughout Frankfurt and in a number of its surrounding towns and villages, the true home of the herbs is considered to be the southern Frankfurt district of Oberrad, where they’ve been grown for generations alongside lamb’s lettuce and rocket. A monument to Grüne Soße was built there in 2007 as a homage to both the sauce and the district itself; seven small glass houses in various shades of green stand in a line, symbolising each of the seven herbs.
The first harvest of Frankfurter Grüne Soße takes place in early spring to coincide with the official first day of the Grüne Soße season, Gründonnerstag (Green* or Maundy Thursday, a Christian holiday that commemorates Christ’s last supper). The herbs are bundled together by hand and rolled carefully into large white paper packages printed in green with their name and contents. The bundles are then sold at markets in Frankfurt and across the region. Grüne Soße season officially later in the year with the arrival of the first frost.
How to make Grüne Soße
Making Grüne Soße at home is very straightforward, but you do need to get your herbs right, and I for one have found it very difficult to get hold of all seven of them in the required quantities outside this region (and, indeed, the country). There’s nothing to stop you making adjustments and/or substitutions, but though this will still create a very good sauce, it just won’t taste like the real deal.
Having tested many versions over the years, I do have my own favourite recipe, which combines the usual list of ingredients with a good helping of crème fraîche (as a non-German substitute for Schmand) and was published as a reader recipe in The Guardian.
Where to eat Grüne Soße
If you’re visiting Frankfurt, I’d highly recommend stopping in at a traditional Frankfurter cider tavern and giving it a try with a glass of local cider alongside. Eier mit Grüne Soße (eggs with green sauce) is the most popular combination, and a reliable option for vegetarians having trouble navigating the rather meat-heavy menus. List of recommendations coming soon…
* It isn’t, rather disappointingly, called Green Thursday in connection with the start of Spring. The “Grün” in Gründonnerstag apparently comes from the verb greinen, to whine or lament, referring to the Middle Age custom of escorting weeping penitents back to church on this day in the Christian calendar. [Source.]