A scholar’s semester of food in the former capital of Germany.
It is not often that a city serves as a nation’s capital, is subsequently stripped of that title, then enjoys the benefits of having previously been the center of one of the world’s most prosperous countries. But Bonn is just that city. With over 300,000 inhabitants, Bonn is continuously striving to redefine its post-capital designation, and has successfully negotiated the challenges posed from losing its once-prestigious role.
Situated along Germany’s Rhine River and a stone’s throw away from Cologne, the city has retained many governmental offices, has a large and well respected university, is the headquarters for some of Germany’s largest corporations, and houses various United Nations offices. These factors have contributed to Bonn’s culture, which is a mixture of politicians, business executives, a large international community and a vibrant student population. The city is a perfect breeding ground for restaurants, shops, markets, cultural activities and events.
My first contact with Germany was almost sixteen years ago, and I’ve learned in this time that German cuisine in and of itself is nothing too exotic for the American eater, but it does in fact go beyond your stereotypical sausage, sauerkraut, pretzels and beer. Quality is king when it comes to the ingredients used, making even the simplest of German foods delicious. The Germans have a reputation for being precise and meticulous, and their food preparation is no exception. I’ve had something as common as a garden salad knock my socks off, and an unmarinated cut of grilled pork here once transformed my definition of swine. In addition to having traditional cuisine, Germany is home to the largest Turkish population outside of Turkey, which means while here, I’ve been guaranteed an endless supply of the coveted and delicious Döner Kebab along with other Turkish delights.
Given the diverse flavor of the city, Bonn’s inhabitants are constantly welcoming new cuisines. The food culture here has to cater to destitute students, wealthy executives and various politicians. As a result my year of study doubled as an abundant and appetizing array of dining experiences. The city’s motto is “Joy”, expressed in German, English and French – a testament to the international character of the city. And as traditional German fare is pushed aside to make way for exotic foodstuffs, my undertaking was to experience Bonn’s freude through the lens of its meals.
Give Us This Day Our Daily Brot – Jul 18, 2010
It’s time to talk about getting back to basics. I feel like we try to overcomplicate things in our lives with the idea that more is always better. The more money we spend on something, the better it will be. When some people cook, they believe that the more complicated a dish is, the better it will be. This couldn’t be further from the truth, as a lot of amazing meals are quite minimal in their ingredients.
Proof of that simplicity lies in one of the most basic food items humans have been consuming for thousands of years: bread. The most basic of bread recipes is simply flour and water. Period. I challenge anyone to walk into a typical American grocery store and find anything remotely resembling this basic, trusted, age-old recipe. I guarantee you it is damn near impossible.
Germans are absolutely obsessed with their bread. This is shown by the fact that they are the world’s largest bread consuming nation per capita, and they boast the greatest variety of breads (well over 300 different types) in the world. For those of us accustomed to the bread culture in the US (well, lack thereof really), one of the most noticeable features of Bonn is its sheer number of bakeries. Even on Sundays, when everything else is closed, bakeries were open in the morning, so Germans couldn’t be denied their most basic pleasure. I met Germans who, when living abroad, have brought an entire suitcase of bread with them from a visit to the fatherland, simply because they knew they couldn’t get anything close to it outside of Germany.
Let’s talk varieties. The ever-so-fun-to-announce pumpernickel is native to Germany and is known for its robust consistency. A similar variety is dinkelbrot, also not for the faint of heart given its full body, made from spelt flour. Germany has plenty of breads similar to pumpernickel and dinkelbrot, able to induce fullness after just a slice or two. This is no flaw – in fact, most Germans I know complain that they can never get full on American bread, as it’s not hearty enough.
Another ubiquitous bread in Germany is known as brötchen, what we’d refer to as “rolls.” These are usually eaten at breakfast, accompanied by cold-cuts, jams, nutella, and other toppings. I have also seen these rolls used in small sandwiches. Though baguettes are a beloved variety of bread in France, it’s quite easy to find them here in Germany as well, to be enjoyed with dinner or with cheese. Yet another popular variety is that of the large, round loaf bread with either a dark, hearty interior or a soft, light interior. These loaves are normally consumed with dinner, and when purchased fresh at a bakery are easily pre-sliced for easy enjoyment.
At times I would Germans complain that nowadays most bakeries sell pre-frozen brötchen and other non-fresh breads to their customers, but I’m sure there are still many bakeries in Bonn that supply naturally fresh-baked bread. The problem I faced when entering bakeries in Bonn was simply coming to terms with the assortment available. Still, it’s best to not go too late to a German bakery for your daily serving, lest you be confronted by near-empty shelves.
It’s very easy to get caught up in the fanaticism of the bread culture in local Germany, as the stuff is so abundant and so delicious. While I’m not typically a big bread eater on my native soil, I couldn’t help but enjoy this basic foodstuff while in Bonn. Bakeries abounded, always there to temp me into buying a loaf or a couple of brötchen. I knew I’d done my part as a Bonn devotee, trying as best I could to get back to basics.
Spargelzeitgeist – Jun 7, 2010
We all know the usual signs of spring’s arrival. Flowers begin to bloom, the days become longer, birds are chirping, and love is in the air. In Germany the same signs are present, but there is one additional indication that a shift in seasons has occurred: the appearance of a beloved vegetable.
It was actually this vegetable, not the typical changes in the season, that alerted me to spring’s arrival in Bonn. I should have known ‘twas the season, but I woke up unawares one morning to restaurants, grocery stores, markets and food stands all displaying their best attempt to lure in all Germans hungry for their spring crop. I had completely forgotten about spargelzeit.
Spargelzeit is the almost fanatical German celebration of spargel (asparagus), which officially runs from mid-April through June 24th – and which, in typical German exactness, is quite fittingly translated as “asparagus time.” You may recognize the word zeit from the borrowed word zeitgeist – referring to ideas or a feeling of a specific period or time – which wouldn’t be too far off in describing this vegetable sensation, though it’s a yearly event that’s not tied to one specific historical period. Spargel is harvested mainly underground, so it receives less exposure to sun, thereby keeping it from turning green; it is milder and more tender than green asparagus. Because of the limits of the season and high demand, once this delicacy arrives, you are constantly reminded of its presence.
Although asparagus is found everywhere in Germany, certain regions are better known for their spargel (and spargel fanaticism) than others. Bonn and the surrounding region is home to one of the more active partakers of spargel but does not have a spargel festival like other towns do. The most important aspect of consuming spargel is making sure that it’s actually from Germany, as white asparagus can also come from such countries as Holland and Greece.
At Bonn’s local farmers’ market, the merchants would constantly shout out their day’s offerings, and when it comes to asparagus, they made it known that it’s deutscher spargel they’re selling. Walking through the market gave me a sense of what products were in season, and when spargelzeit arrived, I couldn’t miss the mountains of asparagus on display at each stand.
When walking though Bonn’s winding streets, I found no shortage of spargelmenüs; almost all traditional restaurants and cafes had at least some offering of asparagus. Each one typically offered a side of asparagus accompanied by your choice of vegetable or choice of meat – usually schnitzel, prosciutto or fish – but I also found dishes that attempt to creatively incorporate asparagus into other dishes, such as asparagus risotto or a cold asparagus salad.
Spargel was almost always topped with hollandaise sauce. My personal favorite was cream of asparagus soup, which can be found everywhere but can also easily be made at home. Because springtime brings in long-awaited warm weather, Germans have plenty of opportunities to dine on asparagus dishes on a comfortable restaurant patio; still, when I would ask locals where they typically go to enjoy their spargel, the resounding response seemed to be their mom’s place.
Having partaken in spargelzeit, I understand the craze – white asparagus truly is an experience for those of us used to the green variety. When fresh, its tender, mild taste is reminiscent of springtime’s tender and mild weather, a welcome reminder to the beginning of warmer times to come. Whether you enjoy spargelzeit in the form of eating out at any of the myriad Bonn restaurants offering spring spargelmenüs or take on the task of cooking it at home, you are partaking in a delicious seasonal dish that will disappear as quickly as it came.
Bonn’s Immigration Rotation – May 24, 2010
I’ve never understood why immigrants in any country get such a bad rap. Most anti-immigrationists share the mentality that immigrants “need to learn the language!” or that they “took our jobs!” or that they “need to adjust to our way of life!” Yet, you never hear these naysayers yelling, “Take your food back to where you came from!”
It’s a beautiful thing these settlers have introduced to the host country, a small window into what could otherwise be an unknown culture. I’m of the other extreme: I’d love a world where there are no political boundaries, people could come and go as they please, immigration wouldn’t be such a debated topic – alas, we’d enjoy borderless, beautiful immigrant food consumption.
In Germany he largest immigrant group is the Turkish, who first began immigrating to the country around 1960 and have grown in population ever since. Lucky for the Germans, they’ve introduced one of the country’s most beautiful foods: the döner kebab (Wikipedia’s translation: “rotating roast”). While the German döner movement began in Berlin, which is said to host over 1,300 döner stands alone, it soon spread across all of Germany and can be found in even in the smallest of villages.
Consider this: In the entire US, there are approximately 14,000 McDonald’s; in Germany there are over 15,000 döner establishments. To put it into even more perspective: Germany is just slightly smaller than the state of Montana. That translates to a whole lotta döner.
To understand how the döner became so popular in Germany, you have to understand the country’s fast food environment. Imbiss refers to the type of stand or restaurant where Germans would originally fulfill their fast food needs, the staples of which are things like schnitzel, French fries, and sausage. When the first wave of Turkish immigrants came to the country during the 1960’s, these ingenious forefathers of the German döner wasted no time in utilizing the established network of imbissi to spread the good word of their food to the Germans. While it may have first seemed an ersatz schnitzel to the Germans, the döner would eventually revolutionize and overtake German fast food.
In Bonn there is no shortage of döner imbissi. I’d find the usual suspects anchored around the train station, standard providers smack in the center of the city, and a scattered set on the outskirts of town. In search of a hidden gem, I visited the Südstadt, or south part of town, to a very unassuming, most likely unknown take-out place called Dino Imbiss, where pizza, schnitzel, salad and of course döner abounded.
Bonn is not a big city by any means, but the journey did require a fifteen-minute tram ride, unthinkable for most Bonn residents seeking kebab. Situated on a quiet street with cafés, bakeries, drug stores, butchers and even a Korean grocery store, Dino looked rather uninviting from the outside. But the döner aficionado must at times forgo any notion of ambiance or atmosphere and simply dive into the food. Although Dino was no exception with its austere interior, I was greeted by a large counter of vibrant vegetables, sauces, delicious side dishes and other assorted foods.
When it comes to döner, you have your standard sandwich in a pita-like pocket and the döner dürum, which is served in more of a tortilla-like shell. I opted for the lesser-ordered dürum, and my choice was justified when I saw the dough of my dürum being freshly rolled out to be baked directly before being filled. This was the exception in Bonn when it ca,e to döner stands – most places here do not freshly make the shell, and I was ecstatic to find out there actually was such a place in this town.
I opted for the traditional filling: spit-roasted lamb. Chicken, a response to varying taste buds, is a fairly recent development in Germany. Along with the meat came my choice of “salad,” which consisted of tomatoes, cucumbers, lettuce and onions. Lastly, I chose garlic-yogurt sauce and a brush of paste-like hot sauce to top it all off. The tenderness of the lamb meat, the crunch of the salad, the tastes of garlic and spice and the freshness of the just-baked wrap provided each bite with a perfect balance – rolled up in that baby was 50 years of history, perfected into a €3.5 treat.
To all the immigrants in the world, let this be known: In the country of Tyler, I declare all of you welcome!
In the Garten of Bier – Jun 21, 2010
I’m not wont to talk about clichés or stereotypes, but I’m afraid the topic of beer is inescapable when writing about Germany. The world’s most renowned producer of this beloved libation simply cannot be discussed without at least some mention of it. Before you roll your eyes, though, let me assure you that I’m not here to talk about the drink itself, but about the culture surrounding it – and I’m going to talk about it in the context of Bonn’s beloved biergartens.
In the United States we associate the phrase “beer garden” with any place that serves beer outdoors. While that wouldn’t be too far off from the definition here in Germany, 98% of “beer gardens” in the US are what the Germans call terrasse (a terrace) – yup, those precise Germans have done it again with their witty, exact language.
A true biergarten here in Germany actually involves a drinking establishment situated more or less in the confines of nature. A biergarten is not just a deck attached to a restaurant. It is a place, most times situated in a park, a nature reserve, near a river, in the mountains – basically anywhere patrons can truly feel like they’re in nature (and Germans do love them some nature).
We in the US are restricted from the true definition of a biergarten due to much stricter alcohol consumption laws. Biergartens in Germany are typically wide open, with benches as the only boundaries between drinker and nature. On a nice, hot day or evening in the summer time, there is nothing quite like enjoying a cold beer out in the wide open, but something tells me such boundless beer consumption in the States would be strictly verboten.
When I asked any Bonn resident about the best biergarten in this city, before I finished my question I was told, “Alter Zoll” (“old toll”). Technically the Alter Zoll is the public lookout point situated next to the biergarten, but given its proximity, the biergarten adopted the same name – it is also known as Biergarten am Alten Zoll (“Beergarden at the old toll”). Wooden benches, gravel ground and a beautiful, giant tree which lovingly draped itself over all of the drinkers composed this beer drinker’s haven.
Beer gardens are meant to be simple, and it couldn’t have been any simpler: Take a seat, order a beer from one of the student waiters, and you are greeted with a wonderful view over the Rhine River, whose windy path slowly fades out into the green hills, known as the Siebengebirge. In such a surrounding, it was impossible to keep my consumption just to one beer. If I got bored looking out on the Rhine and all of the passing ships (impossible!), a glance in the other direction would treat me to a scene of bocce players, who established the small field next to this biergarten as the place in Bonn to play Boule.
A quick hop over the Kennedy bridge brought me to the other side of the Rhine, referred to as Bonn-Beuel. Near the bridge was another beloved biergarten, Bahnhöfchen (‘little train station’). This former train station served as a restaurant and biergarten, affording views of the Rhine from the side of the river facing downtown Bonn and setting suns. It was also situated directly on the bike-and-pedestrian path, making it a convenient stop for anyone traversing the river. Although Bahnhöfchen also served a selection of food, when visiting I would usually keep to my meal of choice – beer – and watch the passers-by who have made the poor choice to suffer jogging, biking, or walking rather than partake in a cold beverage.
The other type of biergarten in Bonn that merits mention is, in fact, the one I liked most. Although I couldn’t find this one on any map, nor would I be able to ask around for any specific location, it was known by almost all students in this city (and given the large university here, there are plenty of students in the know).
This was the unofficial biergarten, the one created when friends find a nice, grassy place outdoors, bring their own drinks and enjoy their evening in the open. Just as with the official biergarten, it was the result of Germany’s lax alcohol laws, which allow denizens to consume alcohol in public.
If I was caught with no beer at home, I would simply pick up a few cold ones along the way from one of the many kiosks found throughout the city. And because there were public restrooms right next to the field, this unofficial biergarten was an ideal spot for all to enjoy a summer refreshment. My personal favorite was the field across from the Alter Zoll, where in the evenings I would find plenty of groups hanging out, playing music, and simply talking the night away.
Like most German cities, Bonn has no shortage of biergartens, and given its scenic hillsides and ideal setting along the Rhine, Bonn’s residents have made good use of the beauty surrounding them. If you ever make it to Bonn in warm weather, be sure to hug a tree, enjoy some fresh air, and stop to smell the roses.
And, oh yeah: Enjoy a beer!
The Sunny Side of a Foreigner’s Frühstück – Aug 2, 2010
Sizzling bacon, frying eggs, the smell of hash browns and freshly brewed coffee lingering in the air: these scents and sounds epitomize an American breakfast. They’re what I look forward to on a Saturday morning, what I will always associate with starting the weekend off right. The American greasy spoon diner serves as affirmation that I’m not alone is this pleasure, and most American breakfast enthusiasts would agree that the greasier the diner, the better.
When traveling I often find that foods from home don’t properly translate in a foreign country. Withdrawal from what I know and love follows, and any potential substitute leads to disappointment and letdown, simply leaving me craving the things I’ve missed even more. In this day and age I can find almost any product abroad, but there’s always something missing, and it’s not until I return home that I will truly have that Saturday morning experience.
Yet, six months after moving to Bonn, there wasn’t a day that I’d missed it. In fact, I had quite the opposite reaction to homesickness when it came to breakfast in Germany, because it was the German breakfast that makes me feel as if I’ve come home. If ever there were a word for the opposite of feeling homesick, my relationship with breaking fast in Germany embodied this sensation.
An essential part of German breakfast was of course the bread, which was nothing short of phenomenal. The indispensable foundation to this tradition could be found in many different forms; however, with every foundation there must be quality building blocks, and in this case the building blocks for the German breakfast were a wonderful assortment of cured meats, probably better conceived by the American appetite as cold cuts.
You see, Germany is blessed with an overabundance of fertile land, which leads to an excessive amount of livestock, and the only way to enjoy this abundance of nourishment was to find a way to preserve it. Enter the German art of smoking, salting, and preserving meats. Just as bakeries are all too common in Bonn, so butcher shops are fairly easy to come by in this town. It’s in these meat sanctuaries that I found some of the most amazing cured (and fresh) meats known to humankind.
A gem like Haupt in Bonn’s Altstadt (“old town”) is home to butchers who make most of their own cured meats, offer a wide selection of sausages and are more than happy to walk you through their many offerings. From garlic salami to wild boar sausage to cured meats with schnapps like Kirschwasser, these homemade, top quality meats offered a wonderful way to enjoy a true German breakfast. Always sliced freshly to order, the German butcher meats I came ot love were richer, fuller, and more natural tasting than what I’ve had at home. Many hundreds of years of curing tradition easily came across in a piece of fresh cut salami or summer sausage – always moist, tender and full of vibrant flavors.
When I wanted to opt out of savory, Germany offered plenty of sweet breakfast options, including nutella, jams and marmalades. I might accompany my breads and meats with a soft-boiled egg and delicious cup of coffee. Cheeses were also essential. Available in hard and soft-spread varieties, they were best enjoyed with meats and perhaps some cucumbers or tomatoes. In typical German fashion I’d start with bread, maybe spread on some butter, layer that with some nice cheese, and top that off with any variety of cold cut. When feeling zealous, I could add some veggies on top.
Back in the U.S. I’ve tried to recreate German breakfast, but it never seems the same. Maybe it’s the atmosphere of Europe that’s missing. Maybe the quality of the meats and breads simply can’t match that of their German counterparts. Then again, maybe it’s the unnatural feeling of being homesick in my own country – I may be able to cook up some bacon and eggs, but as long as I’m in the States, I’ll never be able to truly recreate that German Saturday morning experience.
Kuchen Value – Jul 5, 2010
I’ll admit it: I enjoy the sweeter things in life. If given the choice between savory or sweet, I’m almost always going to reach for the sweets, though at times I do want to have my cake and eat it too. Fortunately, this predilection has brought me to a most wonderful tradition, known in Germany as kaffee und kuchen (“coffee and cake”).
Kaffee und kuchen is also referred to as a zwischenmahlzeit, or a meal between meals (similar to the British tradition of Teatime), and is really an excuse to get together in the afternoon. The “official” kaffee und kuchen time is 4:00 p.m., when Germans might pause to enjoy some treats, gossip, catch up or spend a leisurely afternoon moment with friends, family or guests.
I may be stretching it a bit when I call kaffee und kuchen a tradition, as it seems to be a dying one in Germany’s modern times. It’s hard these days to find people willing or able to make time for this old form of entertainment, and if so, then it’s most likely on a Sunday afternoon, when everything is essentially closed. That said, everyone is still aware that this pastime once existed, and every so often I find the younger folk sharing a kaffee und kuchen afternoon with their friends, simply on account of its kitsch value.
What makes this tradition so beautiful and so accessible is Germany’s endless line of bakeries and cafes. Most of them are bound to have some type of kuchen, and given such a wide variance of quality and type, those browsing the full selection of cakes, tarts and pies must know exactly where to go for the right dessert. Those who just want to enjoy something sweet with a nice cup of coffee can pop into almost any café or bakery and be on their way to a great afternoon.
If you are averse to heavy cream, butter, fat and loads of sugar, then sadly this isn’t a tradition for you. German cakes are no joke when it comes to making sure every possibly unhealthy ingredient is used, and that’s why I’m in love with them. Many cakes you’ll find filled with pure butter cream. Others are topped with all sorts of fresh fruits. Yet others are crowned with a half-foot mountain of pure chocolate with sugary frosting, and of course there are cakes baked with alcohol, like schnapps or rum. I wouldn’t necessarily promote consuming every one of these as a daily tradition, but as a lover of sweets I find it necessary to sometimes let go of my health-conscious views and indulge. I also find it necessary to ask for a healthy dose of schlagsahne (fresh whipping cream) to accompany my already sinful slice of life.
During my time there, Bonn was still home to many wonderful destinations for kaffee und kuchen. Tradition is what brings us together and what keeps us together, and when it came to bakeries in Bonn, tradition constantly challenged my waistline. The sweet spot of this tradition embodied two things I adore: the chance to indulge in excessive desserts (before dinner of all things) and the chance to spend time with family and friends.
Kaffee und kuchen, antiquated as it may be, acknowledges the need to cut a slice out of our busy lives, to designate an afternoon to simply talk, and of course to do this while stuffing our faces with sugary, fat-laden, cream-stuffed wonder.
Bonn Voyage – Aug 16, 2010
Hindsight forces us to look back on an experience and understand or appreciate it with a clearer perspective. I can’t say that’s the case with my half-year in Bonn: I knew upfront that I was there to experience something great, I knew to appreciate everything the city and country had to offer, and I knew that it was my duty to enjoy all the things there that would not be available in the U.S. Though my return home has already involved missing all the great foods of Bonn, I’ve known this was coming from the day I arrived.
I didn’t waste a minute getting some much missed Mexican food upon my return to the US. But as I bit into my first burrito after almost six months, I reflected upon all the other foods I had enjoyed abroad. Bonn left me with the impression that it is enjoying its growing internationalism, that it is embracing its role as Germany’s former capital but is also eager to take on a new identity. This means that it will have to confront the hard task of losing traditional German familiarities to make way for newer ways of life and cuisines. Are schnitzel, pretzels and sausages endangered German greats as Germans continue to discover couscous, dim sum and bulgur?
I feel that despite change and a move towards more international flavor, certain things will remain unchanged – or so I hope. The Germans’ love for bread will always support Bonn’s abundance of bakeries, and will never die. The age old custom of preparing cured meats and sausages will mean that butchers will always have a place in the German diet. The döner kebab will forever be a staple; in fact, future generations of Germans may not even associate it with its own Turkish roots.
And of course, German beer will forever be the pinnacle for those of the beer drinking persuasion. No amount of internationalism could ever force the beer garden out. Despite a move towards abandoning certain German values as a result of becoming more international, there will always be those basics that will keep Germany, well, Germany.
I had envisioned a long itinerary of food experiences in Bonn, but after my six short months there, many of these experiences remained untouched. Bonn still had a lot to offer, and those possibilities will only continue to expand. Although my stories may have not touched upon all the other amazing German and international cuisines available in Bonn, I know that my experiences highlight the start of a long and rewarding journey that any hungry appetite can embark upon while in Bonn and in Germany.
For those with an adventurous appetite, a curious mind, and a propensity for experiencing foreign ways of life, Bonn is a great jumping-off point from which to embark on your own German eaten path.