Food city: Luther’s shadow hangs over dining in Berlin

Given all the historical and religious baggage, it’s perhaps no surprise that Berliners have a complex, often contradictory relationship with their food

Writing about German food from Berlin is a little like the tourist asking the Irish man on a country lane for directions. “Well, I wouldn’t start from here . . .”

The reason is that, compared to the rest of the country, the average quality of the food on offer in Berlin isn’t that good. The bread is average, the meat so-so. Butchers are almost non-existent and the vegetables often look like they belong in a refuge for abuse victims.

The reasons: religion, history and economics. If you’re in a Catholic city, such as Munich in the south or Cologne in the west, you’ll enjoy hearty, good-quality food. If you’re in the more Protestant east and north, or godless Berlin, then you should brace yourself to encounter the stodgy filler many people associate with German cuisine.

Almost 500 years after Martin Luther launched his reformation in Wittenberg, an hour southwest of Berlin, his shadow hangs as much over German dining tables as church altars. Luther instructed his followers to eat a "meagre roast": food was to sate hunger, and gorging was a sin.

The second historical disaster to befall local cuisine was the 30 Years War, which, by its end in 1648, left much of the German lands devastated, and with it, their homes, farms and food production.

Industrialisation

German unification sparked an industrialisation in Berlin so rapid that the population almost tripled between 1871 and 1914. People flocked to cities for work, leaving behind in the countryside their chickens, fishing nets, smoke ovens and food traditions. In the capital’s slums, food had to be quick, convenient, cheap and filling.

Like Luther, Hitler continues to cast a shadow over Berlin food. A notoriously fussy vegetarian, he left behind a devastated country and a starving capital. The Tiergarten park beside Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate was turned into a giant vegetable patch, and, to this day, entire generations of Berliners are so sick of turnips that you rarely see them in shops.

Finally, east German demons have yet to be exorcised from Berlin cuisine. The term Sättigungsbeilage, so-called "sating side dishes", has been banished from the language but the notion of food as filler lives on.

Given all this baggage, it’s perhaps no surprise that Berliners have a complex, often contradictory relationship with their food. Germany as a whole has an unparalleled bread tradition, with more varieties than there are days in the year, yet Berlin’s traditional bakeries are all but dead as customers defect to “bake shops” that flog warmed-up frozen rolls.

Attitude surveys show that, unlike most of their neighbours, Germans prioritise spending on holidays and cars over food. When Berliners go shopping, quantity often trumps quality, and price is always king. As one of Germany’s poorer cities, locals demand the lowest prices for their food yet are perpetually shocked every time a food scandal of rancid meat or dodgy eggs rolls around. To get your head around Berliners and their food, the best person to talk to is Sarah Wiener. The 52-year-old was born in West Germany, raised in Austria and has lived and worked in Berlin since the 1990s. Here she operates restaurants, coffee houses, a bakery and a catering company. As well as a chef she is a successful businesswoman, television host, psychologist and prophet all rolled into one. With a nod to the second World War, she says, “There is a deep inferiority complex in the German soul towards themselves, and some view what comes from the German soil as tainted.”

“Cars and engineering achievements are embraced, but many don’t dare be proud of themselves, their products or their foods.”

Inferiority complex

That inferiority complex is reflected in Berlin’s cityscape, which is dominated by Italian and Indian restaurants and Turkish kebab kiosks. When Berliners dine out, they indulge a culinary wanderlust that favours any and all foreign cuisines – regardless of quality – before considering Berlin dishes.

And yet hearty local food is alive and well behind closed doors, as a survey for Essen & Trinken magazine showed this month. Some 85 per cent of respondents said their favourite food was fried potatoes, followed by schnitzel (breaded, fried pork) on 76 per cent and roast pork on 64 per cent. The magazine's editors used a special issue to demand a coming-out for Germans' private love of domestic dishes.

"Our cuisine is more modern than its reputation, and unbelievable tasty into the bargain," wrote Essen & Trinken's editors, launching a new "German is Tasty" website filled with regional recipes.

Despite the challenges, things are changing for the better in Berlin. After years of stagnation, a younger and more confident generation is taking an unjaundiced look at German food without the inferiority complexes. Old, dusty market halls have become new homes for regional and organic produce. And young chefs are looking beyond their kitchens to question the quality of the entire food process – soil, seeds, harvesting and processing – and the economic and political influences along the way.

“We’re only talking about a minority so far, but you only need 2 per cent of bees in any hive who go their own way to change the behaviour of the entire swarm,” says Wiener. “A minority can make the wider population want better food and to honour artisan food and real diversity.”

ACHTUNG GRAVY: FIVE UNMISSABLE BERLIN FOOD EXPERIENCES

  • One of my favourite things Spätzle: Germany's egg pasta was one of Maria's favourite things in The Sound of Music but lyricist Oscar Hammerstein renamed it "schnitzel with noodles" when he realised there's no rhyme for "schnitzel with spätzle". The small egg noodles are boiled, then fried with cheese, bacon and onion and often served with a hearty goulash. Berlin's Spätzle Express has turned them into a popular fast food.
  • Don't fear the wurst The bockwurst is the boiled one, which is like a fat hotdog, and the bratwurst is the fried one, often eaten in a bread roll. The mobile sausage salesmen are best avoided. Instead try the currywurst at Konnopke's kiosk at Eberswaldestr U-Bahn station.
  • Home cooking If you're cooking at home, try the delicious Weltmeister ("world champion") Bratwurst at Hoffmann's stand in the Marheinekehalle in Kreuzberg.
  • Best schnitzel The schnitzel, a breaded cutlet of pork or veal, is one of the great staples of Germany. Done right, the meat should be thin and the light breadcrumb coating rising in bubbles after frying. Berlin restaurant Borchardt claims it has the best schnitzel in the country, but there are plenty of competitors for that title.
  • Döner spirit Berliners claim the Döner kebab was invented in the city in 1972. Since then it has become the city's favourite fast food. The gourmet variety is Mustafa's on Mehringdamm. The other extreme can be found on Lundwigkirchplatz, where the restaurant Honca offers melt-in-the-mouth Anatolian lamb dishes.

November is Food Month in The Irish Times. You will find food-related content in all of our sections. We will also have reader events, competitions and lots of exclusive content on irishtimes.com