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As the end of the year draws near, you’ll start to hear Germans wishing each other “einen Guten Rutsch”, or a smooth start (literally: a good slide in)to the new year. But how exactly do they celebrate on 31 January – known in Germany as Silvester – and most importantly, what do the Germans eat on New Year’s Eve?
In terms of festivities, there are a couple of activities that Germans traditionally engage in. The first is watching a cult television programme called Dinner For One, a German recording of a British play from 1963 that has become essential New Year’s Eve viewing in Germany (and a number of other countries, though it remains almost completely unknown in the UK).
The Germans are also heavily into lead pouring (Bleigießen), a tradition in which people take it in turn to melt small pellets of lead over a burning candle and then drop them into cool water. The lead hardens immediately, and the shape it forms is used to predict what lies ahead for the coming year for the person in question.
Lastly, there’s the fireworks. These are, of course, popular all over the world, but I’m not sure I’ve ever seen them embraced in quite the way they are in Germany. There aren’t just public displays of fireworks: come midnight, the streets (and any overlooking balconies) are filled with excited people armed with sparklers, firecrackers, fountains and rockets. Midnight on New Year’s Eve is not a time to go for a drive.
What do the Germans eat on New Year’s Eve?
On to the important stuff: the food. What do the Germans eat on New Year’s Eve? In a word: cheese. The Germans have adopted two Swiss inventions as festive favourites: raclette and fondue. Both are fun, easy ways to feed family and friends, but where fondue involves a little work in advance, with raclette, you leave all the cooking to your guests.
What is Raclette?
Raclette is a semi-hard cow’s cheese that is made specifically for melting; it has an edible rind and a rather “bold” aroma. However, raclette is also the name of the dish itself: the melted cheese plus a selection of hot and cold sides. The joy of the raclette dinner is that it’s completely customisable to every guest, and it’s a great way of satisfying both vegetarians and meat-eaters at the same time.
How to make raclette
Traditionally, a whole wheel of raclette would be cut in half, heated in front of a fire and the cheese scraped off; nowadays, table-top electric grills are a popular addition to many German kitchens – even if they only come out once a year. These have a grill plate or hot stone on top for grilling meat and vegetables; the cheese (which today comes in pre-sliced squares) is put onto small pans that slot underneath. Once bubbling and gooey, the cheese is pushed off the pans with a heatproof paddle and onto, well, whatever you fancy.
When it comes to accompaniments to raclette, I like to keep it simple, but you can get as experimental as you want – the options are endless. There are, however, a few German classics, and the essentials are the following:
- small, waxy, boiled potatoes
- bread with a crunchy crust, such as a baguette
- pickled vegetables such as silver onions and cornichons
- salamis and/or cured and/or dried hams.
Beyond these, try to consider not just flavours but also textures. For the grill or hot stone, thinly-sliced beef is good, as are fresh vegetables, from asparagus to mushrooms or zucchini.
What else do the Germans eat on New Year’s Eve?
If you’ve any room left after midnight, there’s one more thing that’s traditionally eaten just after the clock chimes twelve: a jam-filled doughnut, or Berliner.
What to drink with raclette
Beer, wine and tea are all popular drinks with raclette; what’s considered important is to avoid water, which will only help all that cheese to congeal in your stomach. I think white wine works best: choose something crisp and acidic such as a Riesling to cut through the richness of the meal. And don’t forget a bottle of German sparkling wine (Sekt) to bring in the New Year.
How to make Raclette (serves 6-8)
Raclette cheese, sliced, around 150-200g per person
1kg small, waxy potatoes
1 jar pickled silverskin onions, drained
1 jar cornichons, drained
Slices of salami, cured and/or dried ham
Fresh sliced vegetables for grilling: asparagus, tomatoes, red or yellow (bell) peppers, courgette (zucchini), aubergine (eggplant), mushrooms
Fresh meat: 150g thinly-sliced raw beef per person (in Germany, my butcher recommends Rinderhüfte, a cut from the haunch of the cow)
Boil the potatoes in salted water until you can easily slide in the point of a knife, around 20-25 minutes. Drain, leave to dry and then keep warm. (Your guests should slice these when they’ve got them on their plates.)
Prepare the rest of the ingredients and serve in individual bowls or plates, being careful not to mix the raw meat with any of the other ingredients.
Set up raclette machine according to manufacturer’s instructions.
Grill your meat and vegetables as you wish on the hot plate, making sure to cook them evenly on each side. Put a piece of cheese on each paddle and slide under the grill. When it bubbles and browns, scrape the melted cheese onto meat, bread and/or vegetables. Enjoy with the pickles.