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The Top Flavors Of Germany

Updated on December 31, 2009

Germany has long been the "country cousin" of the culinary world, which has pretty much written it off as being all sausage and sauerkraut. While there's a grain of truth in this stereotype, the curious cook who gives this cuisine half a chance will find a hearty cuisine that remains close to its farming roots.

In fact, German food is a sturdier cuisine than many others in mainland Europe. It remains close to its agrarian foundations, with large portions and simple seasonings. Meat is abundant, as is appropriate for a historically prosperous agricultural area. The hearty flavors and long cooking times of many traditional German dishes make them poor choices for warmer weather. Fall and winter are the best times to explore German food, which has a lot of the qualities of a "comfort cuisine."

A few regional variations are worth noting. Foods from the northern parts of Germany reflect the proximity of the sea in their use of fish and the abundance of soups and stews to ward off the chill of the cold, wet weather. Regions to the south show some French and Swiss influences, while recipes from the eastern portions of Germany have a decidedly Slavic flavor.   
 
But regional variations aside, pork and cabbage are the staples of the German kitchen (except in Jewish households, which otherwise have contributed extensively to the development of national tastes). Both foodstuffs are easy to raise and store, and are eminently adaptable to any occasion. Pork appears as chops (stuffed, breaded or just fried), smoked in hams, or roasted whole for more festive occasions. Less aesthetically pleasing parts are pickled or simmered in soups (thrifty farmers use everything). Pork reaches its sublime heights in the much-maligned sausage, or wurst. Some reports place the number of different kinds of sausages at well above 1,500, demonstrating the astonishing range of flavors and textures that can be produced from just meat and seasonings.

Cabbage, the other element in Germany's dining dyad, is often braised and seasoned with caraway seed and onions, apples, vinegar, or beer, or it is fermented to make sauerkraut. The combination of sauerkraut and pork or other meats can be a wonderful pairing: the acidity of the kraut cuts through the fattiness of the meat.

The other ingredients in German food are similarly prosaic. Beef and veal are next in line after pork, and may be braised, stewed, made into meatballs, or pounded and stuffed to become the famous Wiener schnitzel. Noodles, apples, and root crops such as kohlrabi and potatoes are common. The potato dish Rosti shows the farmer's disregard for calories: potatoes are sliced into a frying pan full of hot butter, and then fried crisp and turned out as a whole glistening pancake. As with any other cuisine, condiments make the meal. For Germans, the top two are mustard, both the seed and the sauce, and horseradish, with dill as the most common finishing herb.

What to drink with all of the meat and potatoes? Beer, beer and more beer: the average German drinks approximately 30 gallons of beer a year, more than anyone but the Czechs. And why not? German beers tend to be strong, smooth and clean-tasting, thanks to ancient brewing regulations that restrict what ingredients may go into it. If you aren't a beer drinker, German white wines such as riesling and gewurztraminer are natural matches.

Traditional German desserts can seem complicated in comparison with the more straightforward main courses. Black forest cake, a chocolate cake layered with whipped cream frosting and dark or maraschino cherries is a fine example, as are Christmas goodies such as stollen, and the numerous cookies and spicy cakes. Honey is a common sweetener in German baking, yet another trace of the farmer's simple tastes.

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