I visited Bergisches Land with Tourismus NRW E.V., but all editorial and opinions are my own.
Bergisches Land is a low mountainous region in western Germany, to the south of the federal state of North-Rhine Westphalia. Made up of areas of forest, meadows, orchards and rivers, it features a multitude of pretty timber frame towns and villages as well as the largest concentration of reservoirs in Europe. Thanks to these diverse landscapes, Bergisches Land offers a wide variety of local produce and culinary specialties. There’s lots of beef, including from old breeds, as well as lamb, venison, trout and orchard fruits, and popular local drinks include beer (Pils, Altbier and Kölsch plus various local specialties) and Korn, a grain-based distilled spirit. The dishes most typical of the area are meat stews and potato specialties such as pancakes and fritters, but for many, it’s the much-loved Bergische Kaffeetafel that best characterises the local cuisine.
What is a Bergische Kaffeetafel?
The Bergische Kaffeetafel, which translates directly into English as “Bergisch coffee table”, is a mid-afternoon meal of sweet and savoury foods served with coffee. Bergisches Land has a long tradition of hospitality, and first mentions of the Bergische Kaffeetafel, which reveal that on special occasions, families would prepare a spread of various local specialties for their guests, are to be found in travellers’ diaries from the late 1700s. The meal grew to become something of an attraction for visitors from nearby cities, and townspeople would enjoy coffee tables served up by local innkeepers on train trips out into the region. The much-loved regional tradition, still popular with locals today as an opportunity to sit with friends and enter into lengthy discussions over a generous repast, is now considered the epitome of Bergisch cuisine and is a must-try when visiting the region.
What’s served as part of a Bergische Kaffeetafel?
Savoury and sweet breads form the basis of the meal, from dark, single and mixed wholegrain breads such as Schwarzbrot and Graubrot to sweet yeast bread (Hefeblatz) and raisin buns and loaves (Rosinbrötchen and Rosinenstuten), as well as crunchy golden rusks known as Zwieback. Platters of cheese and cured and cooked lunch meats including regional blood and liver sausages are typically served alongside, as well as butter, local honey and jams. Scrambled eggs are not an uncommon accompaniment.
Sweet options might include simple cakes such as Sandkuchen (pound cake) or Marmorkuchen (marble cake). Rice pudding with cinnamon and sugar also forms part of a traditional spread though these days, freshly-made waffles with hot sour cherries and whipped cream are regularly offered instead.
To drink, fresh coffee is served from a Dröppelmina, a tall, two-handled tin coffee pot kept warm by candles positioned between its three legs. The Dröppelmina gets its name from the local word Dröppel, meaning drop(s): the coffee is brewed directly inside the round-bellied vessel, the lid conveniently serving as an accurate measuring cup for ground coffee, and the grounds tend to get stuck in the spout and make it prone to dripping. A little bowl is customarily placed beneath the tap in order to catch any rogue trickles of hot coffee.
A Bergische Kaffeetafel is commonly concluded with a shot of neat Korn to aid digestion. After such a meal in Altenberg (details below), I was served a popular local herbal liqueur, Altenberger-Kräuter Likör, which is made by the 4th generation Laufenberg Grain Distillery in Köln (Cologne). It’s a slightly sweet drink made to a secret recipe from the early 1900s that incorporates 38 different local herbs.
Where to eat a Bergische Kaffeetafel
Bergische Kaffeetafeln are offered today in cafés and restaurants across the region. Many hosts serve the meal cosy side rooms specifically set up for the purpose, allowing groups to sit together undisturbed for several hours to enjoy their food and enter into long, lively discussion.
I was treated to a thoroughly enjoyable Bergische Kaffeetafel in the cosy café-restaurant at the half-timbered Hotel-Restaurant Wißkirchen in the forested municipality of Odenthal, approximately 15km northeast of Cologne and 45km southeast of Dusseldorf. There’s a list of recommended places to enjoy a Bergische Kaffeetafel on the Bergisches Land tourism website (in German). Note that in most circumstances, a Bergische Kaffeetafel needs to be ordered in advance.
You can much more about what the region has to offer, including tips on what to do and where to stay, on the Das Bergische website (available in English, Dutch and German). There’s also lots of inspiration for hiking and family holidays on the NRW Tourism site (in English).