Traditional German food is honest, down-to-earth, simple and substantial. It may not possess the fantasy and imagination of Italian cooking or the delicate refinements of French cooking. But it is perfectly in tune with the earnest spirit of German life.
Breakfast – Friihstlick
Traditionally, the Germans eat five times a day. But this custom is slowly disappearing. The day begins, or at any rate used to, with a breakfast consisting of crisp, fresh ‘Semmeln’, the famous milk rolls. Eat these with butter, honey and a three minute egg accompanied by a large pot of coffee. In the south of Germany it is accompanied by an equally large pot of tea.
They eat a variety of breads with cheese, sausage and a choice of honeys and jams. On Sundays breakfast is more elaborate and usually includes fresh rolls and a boiled egg. Coffee is the main breakfast drink, although some people prefer tea, and children usually drink milk or hot chocolate. As a result of American influence in Germany since World War II, children often eat breakfast cereals such as cornflakes. Fruit juices and yogurt are also popular.
Second Breakfast – Zweites Friihstlick
The second breakfast is served around eleven o’clock. In nobler times, the rich shipowners in Hamburg, the aristocrats in their castles, and the stately lords of Berlin, Munich and Frankfurt, made a grand ritual of this meal.
It was customary to go to a favorite restaurant. There the chef served such delicacies as smoked goose breast, or a plate of oysters. Ideal for these dishes are white Rhine wine or sparkling Sekt (German version of champagne).
The common man, for his part ate hot sausages and potato salad, along with a glass of beer for his second breakfast. The farmer ate thick slices of dark bread and cured ham with a few small glasses of brandy called ‘schnaps’.
Nowadays no matter whether they go to work or to school, most Germans will take some Butterbrote or Stullen (sandwiches) with them for a mid-morning snack.
The morning is long, both for children and for working adults. School begins and most offices open at 8 a.m. and the lunch break is not until 12:30 or 1 p.m. So a sandwich is just what is needed to keep energy levels up.
Midday Meal – Mittagessen
By noon the stomach has just barely had time to begin to growl when it is time for Mittagessen. It begins with soup, preferably made with noodles or dumplings. Either followed by a roast accompanied by potatoes and vegetables or a salad, by a hearty casserole dish or by sauerkraut with different kinds of sausages.
Traditional German food for midday meal. The Germans eat their hot main meal in the middle of the day. Since school – except for the Gesamtschulen (comprehensive schools) in some German states – finishes around midday, children generally go home for their dinner.
If, however, their parents are out at work, children may go to a Hort, a day care center attached to the school, where they will be given a hot meal and can play or do homework until their parents come home.
Mittagessen usually spend in the cafeteria or at a local restaurant. Traditionally, the midday meal used to be a thick lentil or potato soup with a Bockwurst added.
This kind of soup is known as Eintopf, as the whole meal is all cooked in one pot. Another favorite with children is Verlorenne Eier (lost eggs). These are poached eggs on a bed of spinach, eaten with boiled potatoes. Himmel und Erde (heaven and earth) is also popular.
The name of this dish comes from its ingredients – a tasty mixture of apple (growing up high) and potatoes (growing in the ground), mashed together.
Dessert might consist of a compote of fruit, Eierkuchen (pancakes) or Milchreis, a rice pudding cooked with milk and with raisins and cinnamon added. Children love this dish.
Five o’clock – Kaffee mit Kuchen
At five o’clock, as the afternoon draws to a close, it is time for Kaffee mit Kuchen, coffee with cakes and tarts. This ‘Kaffee’ is the German counterpart of the English ‘tea time’. The coffee hour is treated almost like a complete meal.
Evening Meal – Abendbrot
After a day of this much culinary indulgence, it would be surprising if there were much appetite left for the evening meal.
The family comes together for the evening meal, which is based on different breads, cold meats and other traditional German food, for example dishes with sauerkraut. A central ingredient is Aufschnitt: a selection of cold meats and sausages decoratively arranged on a plate.
Dill cucumbers, a salad and various cheeses complete the meal. Most people drink black tea or herb tea at this meal, sometimes with a little dash of rum added on a cold, wintry evening. To follow, there may be a delicious dessert based on quark, a cross between cottage cheese and yogurt.
Meals for Abendbrot
So an Abendbrot is a simple cold meal. It consists of several kinds of bread accompanied by cold meats and sausages. Often there are also different kinds of cheeses, such as Emmenthaler, commonly considered as Swiss cheese but actually a native of Bavaria. Beer is always the faithful companion.
All the ingredients for the ‘Abendbrot’ are usually bought in the ‘Feinkost-geschafte’, better known to us as a delicatessen. The German delicatessen is a unique contribution to good eating with a bewildering choice of cold meats and sausages beautifully displayed and deliciously aromatic. These are foods for which Germany is unsurpassed. The almost mythical American hot dog had its origin among these numerous spicy franfurters.
There are also many different kinds of beer sausages, with or without spices, onions and garlic, but always marvellously tasty. Then there are the many varieties of the appetizing liver sausage: the hearty Berliner sausage and the light Saxon sausage. There are the dark blood sausages, sometimes made with kidney or tongue and light ‘Weisswurst’ made with aromatic green garden herbs.
There is priceless ham from Westphalia which is smoked over a smoldering juniper berry fire that gives it a particular and distinctive aroma.
Besides all these, the delicatessen carries ready-to-serve salads made with meats, creamy potatoes or cucumbers. Or perhaps you would like the delicate meat of a calf’s head that has been marinated in sour cream and then minced until smooth and creamy.
For those who would rather have fish, there are delicacies such as smoked salmon, smoked eel, Bismark herring in a sour, piquant sauce, cold trout in aspic or smoked trout.
If that isn’t enough there are also ‘Rolmops’, which are sour herring wrapped around sour pickles, or fine lobster from Helgoland, the small rocky island off the northern coast of Germany.
Traditional German Food Literature:
Kruger, Arne; Verner, Margaret. German cooking: savory German dishes prepared in the traditional way. New York; Toronto: Round the World Books, 1976.
Einhorn, Barbara. West German Food and Drink. New York: Bookwright Press, 1989.