German food is considered distinct and recognizable, in part because of its tendency to be fatty and therefore unhealthy. However, the root of German food traces back to its geographic limitations, diverse regional influences and of course, weather and topography.
Located in the heart of Western Europe, Germany is at a latitude and longitude that produces long summers but cold and snow-filled winters. With a large population of Christians, Germany has a long cultural and social calendar which provides countless reasons for celebrations that entail food.
The tendency to describe German foods as fatty really comes from one dimensional nature of what the Germans serve. The terrain and the history of preserving foods (for their long winters) resulted in a menu of sorts that still contains preserved foods, accomplished by salting, smoking, curing or pickling. Even today, these methods are used to prepare most German foods like Sauerkraut or Sauerbraten.
The German growing season and climate limited what types of foods could be grown and cultivated. Unlike their Mediterranean neighbors to the south, Germany was confined to using things like wheat and barley products to spice up their foods. As a result, most of the typical German foods are somewhat bland. Germans typically used celery, parsley or dill to season their foods, which still left them not quite as tasteful as perhaps the food of Italians or Romans. Two of the most common accompaniments used in German cooking are mustard and horseradish.
Today, while German food has kept its roots in its cultural history, many menus are adopting lighter versions of the once very ‘heavy’ foods. Sauerkraut, the national food of Germany, actually did not originate in Germany but came through with the Tartars, who ended up in China. Sauerkraut is made from shredded layers of cabbage that have been soaked in salt and is then pressurized in vats and then a fermentation process begins. It is the fermentation process of the cabbage that produces lactic acid, giving the Sauerkraut its unique taste. Sauerkraut, while usually thought of as a topping for a hot dog, can be used hot or cold. It is served as an accompaniment to many meals and is considered very nutritious, providing vitamins and nutrients.
Germans also enjoy and prepare many pasta and potato products. Potato pancakes are widely cooked and sold in restaurants in this part of Western Europe. Made popular in the home kitchens of both German and Polish families, the potato pancake is now served in most restaurants in Germany. Bread dumplings were, up until the last few centuries, a staple food product in Germany (especially in Bavaria) due to the ease with which one can cook them and the relative low cost.
Spatzle is a German favorite comfort food, and is eaten all over Germany. The name, translated means “little sparrow.” The dish is prepared with tiny noodles or dumplings and mixed flour, eggs, and milk.
Germany is also very well known for its confections, cakes and desserts. Some of the more well-known products include marzipan, stollen and lebkuchen. These German treats are made and sold around the world today. Marzipan, made from almond and sugar, was widely used around Western Europe and may have made its way from the Italian bakeries to the dinner tables of German nobility. It was also used for medicinal purposes. During the mid-20th century, marzipan became an ever day confection in Germany and is now found during Christmas and Easter celebrations around Germany.
Lebkuchen is another name for the German variety of Gingerbread. While Gingerbread is found in many areas of Europe, Germany has the longest and strongest tradition of making the flat, ginger based bread. In fact, the oldest German gingerbread recipe is now housed in the German National Museum, and dates back to the 16th century.
Stollen is not a cookie, but sweet yeast bread that has various fruits (dried) and nuts. Perhaps Germany’s answer to ‘fruit-cake’, stollen is found in supermarkets across Germany. The stollen breads are long, and tapered and dusted with confectioner’s sugar. Some say that the shape and the presentation are to symbolize the baby Jesus in a swaddling blanket.
One of the most well-known products traced to Germany is its beer. While its fame is world-wide, Germany no longer boasts the largest consumption of beer products. And, although many people believe that the brewing of beer originated in Germany, it most likely did not. The root of beer in history probably began with the Sumerian civilization.
During these early periods, brewing of beer was the work of the woman. It was not until around 1,000 B.C. Around this time, cloisters of monks began to brew beer in order to raise funds to maintain their facilities and ministries. Because of the popularity of beer, the profession of brewing the drink became an honorable and prestigious profession. Many believed that the cloistered breweries were taking profits away from the secular/private beer breweries and so the regional leaders had cloistered breweries outlawed. One of the first to outlaw the cloisters was Kaiser Sigismund in the 15th century. By the early 19th century, there were few cloistered breweries remaining.
Up until the 16th century or so, German beer was actually ale (as opposed to lager). The lager beers (that Germany is so famous for now) have only been around for the last five centuries. The production of beer is very highly regulated in Germany. As one of its greatest exports, Germany has gone to great lengths in order to produce a superior and safe product. With the turn of the next century (the 20th) and the proliferation of industrial techniques, two very important processes would help to define quality German beer. First, the invention of refrigeration allowed for the storage of cold beer. Quality beer, as defined by the German heads of state, required constant cold temperatures. To maintain those temperatures, refrigeration was crucial. But prior to the development of the refrigerator, those kinds of cold temperatures were only available in the winter time.
While beer producers and scientists had long been studying the fermentation process – the how and the why of things that fermented – it wasn’t until Louis Pasteur discovered the exact microorganisms in the fermentation process that beer development would progress.