German cuisine may not be the first thing that comes to mind when the subject is cooking with herbal flavors, but that’s an outdated stereotype. Germans use—and have long used—copious amounts of herbs in everyday meals, from herb tea with breakfast to the parsley-graced potatoes of a simple peasant dinner.
I was born in Stuttgart, and my parents emigrated to the United States when I was seven. When I was a little girl, herbs were featured prominently in the everyday life of my family. Mornings often started with peppermint tea. My grandmother usually had more than twenty different herb teas in her cupboard (many of which tasted quite awful and which she forced down me if I had a cold or the flu). On the windowsill, my mother always kept a small pot of chives, which she had me cut at dinnertime. My cousin’s garden was filled with parsley, chives, and fennel. Even simple, robust meals contained herbs. Caraway and fennel seeds flecked the breads we had for lunch, and parsley and chives added their flavors to a salad or vegetable every night.
German Cuisine Recipes
An Herbal Homecoming
In May 2000, I returned to Germany to uncover my family’s roots. For an herb lover visiting Germany, May is a splendid time. Meadows are in flower, open-air markets parade their best produce, and restaurants everywhere feature asparagus and herbs. We found the most unusual herb dishes in the Kaiserstuhl region, where neighboring France influences the cuisine.
In the village of Burkheim, near the Black Forest, I visited Europe’s largest herb store, the Burkheimer Kräuterhof, which sells 1,500 herbs and herbal products. Outside the front door grow herbs used in teas, dyes, medicines, and cooking, labeled with both German and Latin names.
Peter Schmidt, the owner, sells fresh herbs every Saturday at the market in Freibourg. He also markets products worldwide, counting customers from Japan and New Zealand among his clientele. His warehouse contains rows of culinary and medicinal herb products, including a traditional diuretic from nearby Alsace: cherry stems.
“The old cookbooks and tea books in the area retain the old herbal remedies,” Schmidt explains. “We have Grandma’s old recipe for using cherry stems.”
Schmidt sells bags of whole leaves for teas, telling customers to crumble them just before using for the best aroma. Tea bags, which require that all leaves are a small uniform size, diminish the quality of tea, he says. He also sells products unavailable elsewhere, such as his own custom blends for salads and soups. He imports saffron from Spain, cinnamon from Ceylon, and cardamom from Guatemala. We wanted to buy everything, but settled for soup herbs and salad herbs for the famous Frankfurt Grüne Sosse, or “green sauce.”
A Gourmet Gasthaus
After shopping all afternoon, we feasted that evening in the Gasthaus zum Kaiserstuhl, a tiny but incomparable restaurant featuring lots of fresh herbs. The head chef and owner’s son, Lothar Koch (“Koch” is German for “cook”) told us that he personally oversees everything, from selecting the wines to hiring three local farmers to supply his meat.
In their kitchen garden, the Koch family grows the herbs, flowers, and vegetables used in the restaurant. Temperatures are so mild in this extreme southwestern part of Germany that Lothar is able to use fresh herbs year round.
The restaurant’s three-foot-thick plaster walls enclose only six tables. By the door stands the Stammtisch, or “locals’ table,” a unique German custom. Here, three laborers from the nearby locksmith stop daily for a beer.
If not for the reassuring sight of the locksmiths, the place setting of five forks, four knives, and two spoons might have made me fear that my dining experience was about to be more complex than I could enjoy. Only the spoons were obvious: a big one for soup, a smaller one for dessert.
I needn’t have worried. The first fork was obviously for the appetizer, Wildwiesentörtle, or Wildflower Torte. The little quiche owed its exquisite, delicate flavor to a combination of Spanish chervil and salad burnet with ground ivy and borage flowers on top. A light white wine from the Muller-Thurgau grape perfectly complemented the quiche with a soft touch of fruity sweetness.
With my second fork, I started in on the next course: marinated veal with tuna sauce and herbs, accompanied by marinated asparagus salad with wild celery leaves. The huge white asparagus was crisp and unlike any I’d had. Wild garlic flowers, lawn daisies (Bellis perennis), borage, and white dead nettle (Lamium album) topped the veal. A glass of Grauburgunder Spätlese Trocken wine, somewhat more serious than the Muller-Thurgau, enriched this course and the soup that followed.
More lawn daisies decorated the Schlüsselblumensamtsuppe, a delicate cream soup made from cowslip (Primula veris). Next came a perch filet with asparagus—this time green, served crisp with thyme flowers and parsley. This course included new potatoes dressed with a hollandaise sauce made with lovage (Levisticum officinale) and a dandelion flower butter. The potatoes, among the best I’ve tasted, used up fork number three.
Fork four helped me start on the St. Petermer Milchkalbsfilet (veal filet) with morel mushrooms in a superb thyme sauce. Alongside it? Not just any starch, but Brennesselspätzle, a typical southern German pasta, this time made with stinging nettles for a mottled cream and green color, and potato gnocchi served with chervil and chives. Fresh spring vegetables brought even more color to the plate. A glass of fruity Spätburgunder wine, known as Pinot noir in the United States, rounded out the course.
With one course to go, I was down to one fork, one knife, and one spoon. The last course was a light homemade goat cheese. It was cut into little triangles, each capped with a few flowers and herbs, including ground ivy, Spanish chervil, calendula flowers, borage, and rocket. Finally, a sublime dessert of homemade dandelion-flower ice cream with fresh strawberries and lemon balm leaves completed one of the best meals of my life.
An Open-Air Market
My culinary travels also carried me to Munich, Frankfurt, and Rudesheim. In Munich, we visited the Viktualienmarkt, one of Europe’s greatest outdoor markets. It contains an enormous variety of herbs and vegetables grown by local farmers. We ate at the Schlosswirtschaft zur Schwaige, a restaurant in Schloss Nymphenburg. It was May, so asparagus dominated the menu that day: eleven asparagus appetizers, four soups, twenty-two main dishes, and four cold side dishes of asparagus.
In Rudesheim, the Weingasthaus Rudesheimer Schloss could have been the prototype for the pseudo-Bavarian buildings that Vail, Colorado imitates. Plaster walls, more than two feet thick, had four-foot-tall windows that opened onto an eight-foot-wide cobbled alley.
Perhaps the most flavorful part of our meal here was the jellied game, or wildsülze, made with a local wild boar and deer. Juniper, bay laurel, and marjoram contributed to an enticing melange of flavors and aromas. Dessert was fresh strawberries marinated with a sweet woodruff syrup—a fitting end to a trip that brought back fond memories of herb-flavored dishes from my childhood, and put to rest any doubts I had about the importance of herbs in today’s German cuisine.
Sibylle Hechtel writes from Estes Park, Colorado. Her latest articles appear in Red Herring and New Scientist.