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Last week I had the pleasure of interviewing Felix Denk, a journalist for the magazine Zitty, which is sort of like the Berlin hybrid between Time Out New York and New York magazine. We had an extremely interesting and useful chat about the state of German food today and how it’s changing, and he proved to be an excellent source of knowledge. Over the course of the hour or so, we strayed from the format of a formal interview into more of a conversation, so I think the best way to get across what we discussed is to summarize Felix’s main points.
For some background info, Felix has been working as an editor at Zitty for four years writing reviews and features in the food and drink section. The magazine is produced every two weeks, and features mostly seasonal topics, with a stress on small businesses and self-starters like, for example, independent craft beer brewers. Zitty writes about the small things, and aims to expose and promote independent and new food producers and launch them into the public eye.
Now onto his points:
- German food is a trend, as well as regional food. This idea started out in Scandinavia, notably with Noma in Copenhagen, which appeared on the exclusive San Pellegrino list. This highly visible list decides the best restaurants in the world, and often defines the major food trends for the year. Looking at this list, you can see how a lot of regional concepts are coming back, especially in the vein of very strict local food. For the last 4 to 5 years this trend of local cooking in has been getting more prevalent in Berlin, as many restaurants are returning to the roots of regional cooking.
- In other regions of Germany, there’s not as much of a renaissance in cooking because more high quality cooking already existed there. Berlin doesn’t have much of a culinary tradition. The Brandenburg region doesn’t have much of a gastronomic identity, as it doesn’t have much food tradition to rely on. It has, for example, currywurst, bouletten (meat balls), and Berlin Schnitzel, which is from a cow’s udder and which no one would eat today, and that’s about it.
- Part of the reason Berlin doesn’t really have a food tradition is because the city never had a rich bourgeoisie, like Paris did. It was always a city for soldiers and poor people, different even from the booming beer halls of Bavaria.
Q: How can you have a renaissance with no identity?
- The chefs of the German food renaissance answer this question by trying to use local products and products of the season, in order to create an identity for the region. One problem this cult of regional cooking encounters is that good restaurants often have trouble getting local food products in a reliable number. Some even source from their own farms, which is difficult and time consuming. These restaurants are very basic in a way—they don’t use expensive products like lobster, but simple ingredients instead. These restaurants focus on simple things done well. They’ll get game from one farmer, beef from one farmer, and sausage from a third. There is a rise in very old-fashioned cooking like your grandmother might make. Nostalgia is rising.
Q: Do you get the sense that younger people eat a lot of “traditional” German food, or is it mostly older people eating this food out of a sense of nostalgia?
- The impression is that it actually seems to appeal to younger people very much. The thing about German food is that it doesn’t exclude anyone—anyone can relate to it. There seems to be a rising interest in cooking and doing things yourself. For example, these days it’s normal to bring a jar of marmalade you made yourself as a hostess gift to a dinner party, whereas 10 years ago no one would have thought of doing that.
Q: How is this new wave of German cooking dealing with the more health-conscious attitude of today?
- This isn’t really a factor because restaurants like these are more special occasion restaurants, like for weekend evenings, not for every day. It’s a memory and nostalgia thing—young people seem to be growing more sentimental.
- The new German food movement is linked to a post climate change cuisine. There is a rising mistrust of things you buy in a supermarket, as well as an unease towards things that come from far away. We no longer want mysterious, foreign ingredeitns, we now long to know how our food is made. We want to meet the farmer and know the roots of our food. For example, at My Little Farm in Brandenburg. (more info here: http://www.meinekleinefarm.org/), you can pick out a pig at farm to be slaughtered for you to eat. This is to make you more aware and conscious of exactly where your food is coming from.
- People are buying more organic food even though it’s more expensive and not necessarily healthier, because it’s more eco-friendly and much more assuring. It’s not really based on science, but on feeling good about what you’re doing for yourself and for the environment. Buying organic food used to be more of a hippy thing, now it’s come to the forefront.
- Best examples are probably Paulysaal, whose chef calls himself the “Savior of German traditional food,” Hartmann’s, and Rutz. Rutz presents Berlin food in a way that is interesting. These kinds of places serve forgotten classics of German food, things like pig’s feet, which no one would have eaten 10 years ago. Also innards are coming back and becoming trendy—what was once peasant food is becoming gourmet. 10 years ago you couldn’t have had a German restaurant with Michelin stars, today, there are several.
more info here:
- The resurgence of German food says a lot about identity. Germans didn’t used to be proud of being German, but it doesn’t really matter any more since reunification. Now that 60 years have passed, maybe it’s not so bad to be German any more, and this trend reflects that.