Reaction Weekend

What is it with German cuisine?

BY Bruce Palling   /  16 August 2019

What motivates people to visit another country? Perhaps it is a museum, mountain, ruin or garden. Or it could be the people or nightlife that makes it irresistible. When it comes to Germany, many of these factors come into play, but one thing I have never heard anyone say is that they are going for the food. Come to think of it, how many of us even own a single volume devoted to German cuisine?

Perhaps I am being prejudiced, but for me, typical German fare is stodgy and unimaginative. It seems to consist of bland sausages, schnitzels, pork knuckle, dumplings and pancakes, invariably accompanied by heaps of sauerkraut and red cabbage. Red wine hardly features, as the drink of choice is beer in an unwieldy porcelain tankard.  Side salads are quite popular, but usually have hearty helpings of cold potatoes to add to my gloom. It is akin to being served bad pub food at a church fete.

Size is important too. Everything seems to be made for gluttons – even the croissants look as if they have been crafted by Fernando Botero. One way out of this dilemma is to “go ethnic”, which usually means Turkish food. However, that too is invariably pedestrian – or there is Thai or various interpretations of Italian cuisine, but they often don’t deliver either. President Chirac was caught off camera declaring that the only European cuisine worse than English, was Finnish, but then again, he was talking to Chancellor Schröder.

It would be wrong to assume there are no decent restaurants in Germany – we had a delightful classic meal of pork shoulder and whole trout at the historic Restaurant Heilig-Geist Spital over the Pegnitz River in Nuremberg. The trouble is to have anything memorable beyond these classic dishes, you have to confine yourself to the score or so finest restaurants in the entire country. Tim Raue in Berlin (two-star Michelin) is the only German restaurant on the World’s 50 Best Restaurant list and it certainly deserves to be there, though it is Asian Fusion rather than German cuisine.

Interestingly, Germany has twice as many three-star Michelin restaurants (10) than Britain and from the ones I have tried, they are excellent and even relatively reasonably priced for the quality. The one thing they do have in common though, is that none of them focus on traditional German food – they are all heavily French-influenced, although some have occasional Japanese flourishes. Almost the only thing Teutonic about the dishes will be a postmodern version of Schwarzwälder Kirschtorte (Black Forest gâteau). It is true that of Britain’s five three-star restaurants, three of them are definitely French-inspired – Ducasse at the Dorchester, Gordon Ramsay and Michel Roux’s Waterside Inn – but the big difference is there are numerous quality restaurants apart from these that offer original, innovative and ingredient-driven cuisine that is not in any sort of culinary straight jacket the way most German places are.

I have had superb meals at Sven Elverfeld in Wolfsberg and Tantris in Munich, both of which have trained up chefs who have gone on to open their own three-star restaurants elsewhere. The most renowned German chef of his generation is Heinz Winkler, the youngest ever chef to gain three stars while at Tantris, and then regained them at his eponymous Residenz Heinz Winkler, in Chiemgau at the foot of the German Alps.

Happenstance is a fine thing, so while recently driving to a friend’s Schloss in the Austrian Alps, we found ourselves only minutes from Herr Winkler’s restaurant, which was doubly inviting because it has one of the worlds largest and cheapest selections of white Burgundy from Coche-Dury.

Residenz Winkler

Less than an hour south east of Munich, it is located in a picture post card Bavarian village close to Lake Chiemsee. The restaurant and 32 bed hotel overlooks the Kampenwand Mountain and reeks of luxe, calme et volupté. Heinz celebrated his seventieth birthday while we were there, but most of the actual cooking is now done by Steffen Mezger, who moved here five years ago. Heinz briefly worked abroad in France and Spain and considers Paul Bocuse the greatest influence on his own classic cuisine, which has no magic formula except focussing on the main ingredient and ensuring that his sauces are not too heavy. Steffen Mezger says the current style is basically French with New Nordic and Mediterranean influences. He says the sort of things that I have always thought, namely that “You should be able to look at a plate and know what it is” and that three or four different components on the plate is enough. Perhaps it is because of this dogged classicism that the restaurant was demoted from three to two stars a decade ago – a similar fate befell L’Oustau de Baumanière in Provence, though there too, there had been no drop in quality. Perhaps it would be better if guides or lists of top restaurants had separate awards for classic and innovative cuisine. Of the half dozen tables occupied at the Residenz the evening we were there, I suspect we were the only foreigners, which would not be the case in the leading restaurants of France, Spain or Italy.

Apart from the a la carte menu, there were two set menus – a five courses one for €165 or eight for €193 plus slighter cheaper vegetarian offerings. The dishes were exquisite, starting with marinated raw scallops with Yuzu and cucumber and a parfait of duck liver with rhubarb and Greek yoghurt.

Marinated raw scallops with Yuzu and cucumber at Residenz Winkler
Parfait of duck liver with rhubarb and Greek yoghurt at Residenz Winkler

The balance and harmony of the ingredients were easily up to three-star Michelin standard, as was the Breton Red Mullet with leek and lime vinaigrette.

Breton Red Mullet with leek and lime vinaigrette at Residenz Winkler

I never tried the wine pairing – instead, Alexander, Heinz Winkler’s sommelier son, served a Grafen Neipperg 2015 Riesling GG (Grosses Gewachs), which means it is the quality equivalent of a Grand Cru Burgundy. Perhaps because of my lack of exposure to the very best Riesling, this was seriously impressive, with its floral elements and intensity of flavours.

For me, the best dishes of the night were the venison with chanterelles and red cabbage along with the veal with mustard cabbage and wasabi.

Venison with chanterelles and red cabbage at Residenz Winkler
Veal with mustard cabbage and wasabi at Residenz Winkler

Again, it was the simplicity and harmony of the ingredients that made both of them exceptional – each perfectly rosé and pink. Given this mastery and celebration of French cuisine by Herr Winkler, it is perhaps fitting that Germany’s greatest homage to France is a mere 10 miles away to the north. Perched on an island in the middle of Lake Chiemsee is King Ludwig’s Herrenchiemsee Palace, a faithful copy of the central portion of Versailles, complete with a hall of mirrors. Sadly, it was never completed and the cost almost bankrupted the Bavarian Court. Ludwig created this vast palace in honour of Louis XIV and I suppose you could loosely posit that Heinz Winkler has been inspired by his mentor Paul Bocuse, but there is nothing incomplete or OTT about his restaurant. Even better, the experience is certainly great value and will not bankrupt any hungry diner.

Residenz Winkler


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