Have you ever wondered where all your German friends disappear to each Friday of 1st week at around 5pm? Why all their stuff is left in the library, as if they have left in a hurried flight? Why they don’t join you for dinner in hall that day? Here’s the secret: your friends are disappearing in order to have cake. On that special afternoon of term, many Germans in Oxford drop everything they are doing and rush towards the German Society where they’re going to have their unofficial fourth meal of the day, “Kaffee und Kuchen” (eng. ‘coffee and cake’). Perhaps the most essential part of German culinary culture.
When most people think about the German diet, our love for cake definitely won’t be the only stereotype that comes to their minds. “Why are you not having a Bratwurst?”, a friend of mine jokingly asked me at the Oxford Christmas market last year, pointing towards the German food truck, which was promoting its freshly fried Bratwürste. It took me a second to realise why I should be having one: as a German, I am expected to be an enthusiastic meat-eater. As much as I’d love to say that this cliché is entirely wrong – it’s not. German cuisine might not only consist of sausages, bread and the occasional potato, yet I can’t deny that all of these are considered essential parts of most traditional dishes.
“So this must be what British people call bread” – was my thought when I went to the bakery of a Tesco store for the very first time. I was, quite frankly, devastated. It was around lunchtime sometime during my first week at Oxford and I had been dreaming about a deliciously smelling, freshly baked loaf for days. However, where I was hoping to find an abundance of different breads from which to choose, I was instead faced with piles of impressively dry sponge that seemed to consist more of holes than bread. When I left the supermarket, I genuinely wondered whether I was going to make it through the next couple of months without ‘proper bread’. (Spoiler: I made it, and actually got some nice bread at the university’s German Society, but more about that later.) It’s not for nothing that the famous line “Food, glorious food” from Oliver Twist literally translates to “Bread, glorious bread” in the German version. Our country’s love for loaves is phenomenal. In Germany bread is not just a food, it’s an art.
The German translation of the Oliver Twist song, by the way, doesn’t continue with “we’re anxious to try it” but with “ham, cheese and butter”, yet another strong indicator of what our nation likes to consume. On both breakfast and dinner, a variety of bread delicacies is enjoyed with an even bigger selection of spreads and toppings, ranging from cheese and ham to jam and honey. Dinner is most often called Abendbrot (eng. evening bread), a name which easily speaks for itself. If you’d ever like to try it, the German Society usually organises a very authentic one, which is also what saved me from my severe, self-diagnosed bread-deficiency in Michaelmas (I promise there will be other spreads than liver!).
Enough about bread now, let’s remember the food truck at the Christmas market with its sausage-heavy menu, giving vegetarians far from an easy time. Even though the stereotype of a meat-loving Germany is slightly exaggerated since, in fact, we consume far less meat per person than some other nations (ask Google), lots of traditional dishes do rely on meat as an essential component. With this in mind, it might be less of a surprise that you can find over 1,500 different kinds of sausages in German supermarkets! Perhaps the most famous is the already mentioned Bratwürst, which is basically just a general term for any barbecued sausage. Sausages are far from the only once-living-now-dead items to be found on the menu of traditional restaurants. The most widely known meaty dish is the Schnitzel. Originally from Vienna, it is a breaded and particularly flat piece of veal. Equally famous is the Schweinshaxe, a giant roasted ham hock, and definitely not the option you should go for when you fancy a lighter meal.
You’re probably waiting for me to mention potatoes, sauerkraut and cabbage, and voilà, here they come. Most traditional German dishes (at least the meaty ones) are usually accompanied by some variation of these. I will admit that there is not particularly much that you can make of sauerkraut apart from, well, sauerkraut, but you would be surprised in how many different disguises you can discover potatoes on a restaurant’s menu. Kartoffelknödel (eng. potato dumplings), Kartoffelpuffer (eng. potato fritters), Kartoffelsalat (potato salad), and much more. Only one vegetable seems to be able to compete with our beloved potato, and that’s asparagus. Ironically, despite its short season, it’s somewhat of a star among vegetables. In the months from April to June some restaurants even devote an entire menu to it!
Last, but, for many people, certainly not least, we must not forget about German beer. I’m sure you’ve already seen Erdinger Weissbier or Beck’s at Sainsbury’s, perhaps even tasted it. The occasion where most beer is served every year, is the world-famous Bavarian Oktoberfest, attracting about 6 million visitors. Taking place at the end of September (despite its name), it lasts two entire weeks, and results in a beer consumption of several million litres. The atmosphere is not just that of an ordinary festival, instead it’s almost carnival-like. If you’d like to (literally) get a taste of it, the German Society usually organises one, which is certainly worth a try!
Talking about special occasions, something else you definitely shouldn’t miss are our Christmas markets. I know there are British equivalents, like the one in Oxford, but trust me when I say that they can’t be compared with the German original. Featuring charming wooden huts, beautiful fairy-lights and decorated trees, they’re already lovely to look at. But then there’s also the smell of delicious, Christmassy food. Schmalzgebäck (eng. deep fried dough) and Stollen (a very special fruit bread!) are just some of the delicacies you can purchase when you visit – which you definitely should. And don’t you dare forget the Bratwürst, of course.
Perhaps you think this was it, but let me tell you, the most important part is still to come. I’m talking about the unofficial fourth meal of the day, the legendary ‘Kaffee und Kuchen’ (eng. coffee and cake). These are the hours when cafés in Germany are overflowing with customers, bakeries bursting. Who doesn’t crave something sweet in the afternoon? Germans definitely do, and for most of us, there is nothing that can beat a delicious slice of cake. Schwarzwälder Kirsch (eng. Black Forest) might be the most famous one.
See, now you know where, and especially why, your German friends usually disappear each Friday of first week, and, honestly, can you blame them? In fact, maybe you should even join them next time in order to get initiated into the mysteries of German food traditions. Oh cake, glorious cake!
Image Credit: Oxford University German Society