Der Hunger kommt beim Essen - Appetite emerges while eating [German proverb]
The idea was a simple few-day holiday in Frankfurt to visit friends. But, as ever, it was really an excuse to ply my body with an objectively unhealthy amount of food. This was Christmas; the frilly squares in all the towns across the land had been bejewelled with twinkling lights and countless wooden huts that steamed with food cooking in the cold. This was Christmas; and there was a lot of food to be had. The first stop was Frankfurt itself.
Before I had a moment to relax, my friend took me to one of the many institutions in the city - Adolf Wagner’s Apfelwein tavern. A dark-mustard brown coloured tavern from 1931 that was all tables and wooden beams. Apfelwein, a peaty form of cider that the city, and the Sachsenhausen neighbourhood, is famous for, is the thing to drink.
‘What the Germans here love, and really do it eat all the time, is Schnitzel. They bloody love it.’
I followed Jon’s advice and ordered a Jägerschnitzel: the classic battered pork schnitzel served slathered in a mushroom sauce and with potatoes. It was a hearty way to be welcomed.
Night fell and we were in the main town square - reconstructed after a slew of WWII bombardments. The Römerberg - timbered houses - rose into crenellated pyramid roofs and loomed over the sparkling Christmas tree, which, in turn, proudly stood watch over the scores of market stalls and hundreds of revellers. A glowing cloud of cooking smoke lay gently over a humming scene of locals and tourists alike drinking steaming mugs of hot wine and lining up to order food.
The first stop was the Feuerzangenbowle; a sort of jazzed up mulled wine. A rum-soaked sugarloaf, called the Zuckerhut (sugar hat) is set on fire and drips its caramelised booze into the wine below.
To pair, unperfectly, with the spiced hot wine, we ordered a classic Bratwurst with chips (pommes) and a plate of Pfifferlinge - chanterelle mushrooms cooked slow into a stew gloop and served with stodgy dumplings that provided absurd scenes as we tried to eat them armed solely with those little wooden prong forks one uses at the British seaside to eat vinegary chips.
‘I fancy something sweet!’ Trilled one of the girls. I agreed. Frankly I would have agreed with anything at that point as we had just put away bread soaked in raclette cheese and bacon as well a variety of mulled drinks.
‘Do we want it with alioli or apple sauce?’ Asked Lauren as we arrived at a very stripped back and simple stand. Gone were the moving Santas and reindeer-bedecked roofs covered in a supernova of fairy lights. This stand appeared more like a 70s fry-shop. A vat of bubbling oil fumed next to a block of lard that looked like part of an elephant’s leg. Blobs of lumpy batter were dropped in and fried into crunchy disks like hash browns: the brilliantly named Kartoffelpuffer.
My stomach was started to complain a little at this point. But just a little.
‘Shall we get one more thing?’
I consented with ease.
The pièce de la résistance. The Germknödel: a huge sweet dumpling filled with spiced plum jam and drowned in a vanilla cream sauce and poppy seeds. I emitted sounds at this point that should be best left in the bedroom.
We penguin-walked our way back to Sachsenhausen and squeezed into a tiny wine bar (Paris’ Bar) for some local wines. I opted for a dry Scheurebe from the Rheinhessen followed by a Roter Veltliner from Österreich. Two rather lovely and bone dry crispy white wines. And bed.
The following morning we strolled through a local market which was shocking for its fresh and vibrant produce that blistered out colours under a steel-grey morning sky. Mounds of sauerkraut, men making fresh pomegranate juice, old ladies in coats and woolly hats sipping on soup, the smell of soil-covered potatoes and bread. Then, outside the stock exchange, a portable wine van and tent busied with locals - mostly businessmen and older folk. A glass of Sylvaner at 11:30am outside Frankfurt’s economic hub seemed, at the very least, decadent.
Then a stroll under spitting clouds through the city’s attractive but confused centre - an unapologetic mix of old and new. Sparkling and attractive skyscrapers and apartments shot up over older, more traditional-looking buildings. Lunch, because that was necessary, was had in the bustling little Kleinmarkthalle. A busy market where we drank the popular Apfelschorle - softly sparkling apple juice - and ate plates of Hassenpfeffer mit reis, rabbit stew with rice. I believe, if memory serves, we returned home for a nap.
If I thought we had been acting luxuriously before this point, this following evening’s excesses pushed the boat out substantially. Pushed it out and sank it with First World activities. To the village of Königstein am Taunus: a dormitory town, with castle and toy town houses - about half an hour north of Frankfurt.
‘We are going to a heated outdoor swimming pool before dinner in the town.’
I arched my eyebrows.
‘You can see the castle lit up.’
‘And,’ added Jon, ‘there’s a sauna.’
Only Jon and I ventured into the sauna. A collection of various rooms mostly populated by old German people who seemed gleefully unconcerned at having their ageing bits out on display. I clung tightly to my towel. Hot/dry, hot/humid, steam room. Having depleted our bodies of sweat we returned for a final bob about in the pool, where I tried my best to look thin, and then headed for dinner. A dinner I had been very excited about.
A meal to end all meals. Quite the finest Christmas dinner plate. At the Speisekammer restaurant we enjoyed roast goose. When ready, it was brought in its pan for us to see by the proud and moustachioed owner as his wife took our drinks order. I chose a Dornfelder red wine; plummy and dark that I thought would pair well with the heavy sauce-covered gamey goose. The plate was a whole leg of bird and came with a roasted apple with jam in it, a hefty dumpling, gravy and slow-cooked red cabbage. It was like all good meaty Christmas fare: a balance of savoury and sweet. I ordered another glass of wine; a blended PrimAhr red from Brogsitter Estate. We stumbled through the joyous little Christmas market and slipped a little on the now icy roads and headed back to the city.
The morning didn’t let up. We were out early and made our way to the Markt Im Hof, a somewhat hipster hub where various stalls offered international foods, smoothies served by men with beards, and artisan coffees. It was searingly cold, but blue and crisp. We ate Ethiopian food and pastrami sandwiches…for breakfast.
There was a long day ahead of us. We were heading to the Rhine and the Rheingau wine area, where my friends had thankfully agreed to let me indulge my wine love. Today wasn’t a day of food, so much as elegant boozing.
First stop? Kloster Eberbach: spiritual home of the Riesling grape.
The river snakes its way through a wide and graceful valley for over 1,200km from Switzerland to Rotterdam. And, along a lot of its length, you find vineyards. Kloster Eberbach, just set off up the hill, and hidden in a tiny green valley, is a former Cistercian Abbey where 15th century monks decided they needed some white wine to accompany their prayers.
It’s a big, bulky building. There was still frost on the shaded side of the valley when we arrived, and practically nobody there. A church, living quarters and chapels all coloured white with red rims, set off against the blue sky and green fields. The wines could be tried by the 50-cent sample at the gift-shop and tasting room. It was a little unromantic, but the wines were rather brilliant expressions of the grape from sweet to dry. We had decided against spending the impressive entry fee so, instead of linger, we headed to a viewpoint with a huge monument to Germany and contemplated the river.
The Rhine looked clean and sapphire next to the orange-brown of the early winter vineyards. The cold hadn’t fully set in to kill the land just yet. Then, small villages, stubbed with churches and spires, and hillsides topped with castles. It was a land that was truly romantic.
‘Anybody want cake and coffee?’
We drove along the river a little, passing the gloomy, almost Scottish, poetry of the Burg Rheinstein castle, but then thought we could take in a little more of the sunset-hued views and shot back up the hill to the legendary Schloss Johannisberg estate, which has been making wine for over 900 years. It claims to have discovered late harvest wines: those where the grapes are left on the vine, rot, allow in the Botrytis fungus, and help produce luscious sweet wines. Part reconstructed Baroque palace, part medieval castle, all polite people and views out to the now honey-crimson countryside. We tried a slew of wines and, once again, headed back to civilisation.
On the way home, goulash served in edible bread bowls and Curryrindswurst (beef sausages with curry ketchup) were eaten at the cute but somewhat stressful Christmas market at Wiesbaden. Because, you know, more food was needed.
Sleepily we dragged ourselves out at night to meet with some friends of my friends in another Apfelwein bar: Lorsbacher Thal. Another institution, popular with tourists, where we had a lot of that tart cider and I indulged in another local Hessen speciality. Grüner soss und Salzkartoffeln (a green herb sauce served over hard boiled eggs and boiled potatoes) and to chase that down, a Mispelchen - a peach schnapps shot with the alcohol-soaked peach still bobbing about at the bottom of the glass.
Sunday in Germany gave us arguably the prettiest village in Germany. The one that always graces those ‘prettiest towns in the world’ lists that pepper the internet. Rothenburg ob der Tauber; a little Bavarian beauty.
At the risk of overstaying my welcome here, I shall be brief in its description. It is one of those places where the camera gets tired and the battery dissolves. Legitimate, not faux, medieval timbered houses of all colours form a cobbled web of streets that tire the eyes with their beauty. It was cold, but the sky was clear again so a dribble of sun warmed the face.
The Christmas market and festive decoration had been turned up to 100 here. Seemingly every house was covered in lights, pine-tinsel, wreathes, garlands, holly. The lot. And it looked real, not shop-bought fakery. The main square glowed in the sun, and the streets were heaving with visitors. It would have been annoying if it wasn’t for the fact it was Christmas and spirits were high.
The Hansel and Gretel homes gave way occasionally to views out across the surrounding valleys, to the frosty woods untouched by the sun, to the village skyline; both medievally powerful and cutesy. We supped hot chocolate and coffees and ate surprisingly disappointing Schneebällchen (rather dry biscuit formed into balls and dusted with sugar).
The light fell quickly as the town’s light flicked on. The market smoke came back, the hot wine started bubbling, and music began to ring out. We bought a pack of warm candied nuts and headed back to the car.
It was the end of my time with my friends, but I had one more trip in store. A solo wine trip.
It was ferociously cold when I arrived, having run for a train in the morning and left my bag in a locker, at the old northern Bavarian city of Würzburg. The weather had finally taken a turn for the worse. A freezing almost-fog sat over the city all day. Highs were two degrees and I had stupidly left my hat in that Frankfurt locker. Bad photography weather.
At least the vast and imposing UNESCO Residenz palace was something to wow me on entry. An over the top Baroque giant that had a touch of the Versailles minus the gold about it. Its silent gardens captured my breath as I took my first tourist steps.
Further disappointment came when I realised that, despite impressive bits, Würzburg wasn’t quite as attractive as I had hoped, and many buildings were clothed in scaffolding. Lastly the main attractions I had come to see: namely the historic wine cellars of the Staatlicher Hofkeller, the Bürgerspital Weingut and Juliusspital Weingut were all shut.
‘We only really do visits on the weekends, and, it’s also cold, so not many people come.’
I was furious. I had come all this way, spent a lot of money getting here, and everything was shut. It was rare for a plan of mine to go awry, so when it did I entered funk. Over a coffee - it was freezing outside - and some apple cake I decided to try and make the best of the situation and take to the streets and then to the bars. If I couldn’t visit the cellars, I could at least get drunk.
At the MainWein bar I spoke to the jolly lady there as she served me a very nice Sylvaner white. Not a classic cold weather drink, but this was the Franken wine region of Germany, the home of the Sylvaner grape. I gathered myself, put my gloves on, and made my way over the Prague-esque main bridge and headed to the Marienburg Fortress.
Peering out across the city on top of a vineyard-coated hill the Marienburg fortress is a free-entry and very imposing and well-fortified 16th century complex, around which cold-looking cats purred and thick frost looked like snow.
The walk back down did a lot to assuage my gloomy mood. Auburn vineyards were all around me, falling down the steep castle hillsides back to the town, which was far more attractive as a skyline; myriad spires and domes poked out from a colourful waterfront and brown-roofed expanse.
The vines themselves had given up on life and only a few frozen-in-time grapes still clung to the plants. Back down in the city town hall I lunched on Blaue zipfel (sausage cooked in vinegar, white wine and spices) and had a glass of local white. I had not long to kill before my return train to Frankfurt so I decided, quite logically I might add, that more wine was in order. This was research of course.
I took a warm seat in the old Juliusspital - a 440 year old hospital for the old and infirm, which this being Franken, meant curing with wine. At 180 hectares they are the second largest wine estate of Germany. In the bar on the side of the old yellow palatial building I helped myself first to a Müller-Thurgau white - quite similar to an Albariño - then a Bacchus white - quite lemongrassy and apple-y - and finally a Schwarzriesling (Germany’s name for Pinot Meunier) - quite odd.
With a fuzz of alcohol keeping me company I had a final chilly walk through the vineyards of the Weingut am Stein where Ludwig Knoll is creating biodynamic wine (but that’s for another visit), and then caught my final train, final connecting train and finally my flight back to Madrid.
What I had no doubt gained in kilos I had also gained in both knowledge and an appreciation for German cuisine; especially at Christmas time.