German 101 for foodies

Unlike romantic French or melodic Italian, German is not what I consider a pretty language. Hearing it spoken aloud, some words and phrases aren’t too bad and remind me in a way of pigeons softly cooing. Other sounds are harsh, guttural and downright ugly. This is not a good thing when you’re trying to figure out something appealing to eat in a restaurant and it sounds like your waiter is trying to clear a big wad of phlegm from his throat as he recites the specials.

It’s a given that you’ll have to eat during a visit to Germany, so it does pay to get acquainted with a few of the more common food items and how to pronounce them. Many restaurants in larger German cities such as Cologne do offer menus with English translations to make things easier. Many, however, do not, leaving you scratching your head and wondering just what the hell “erbsen” is and whether you really want to eat one.

It’s always reassuring when the plate the waiter brings to the table contains exactly what you thought you were ordering, and it is possible to deduce some items phonetically or visually. Say “schokolade” out loud and you can pretty much guess that it means “chocolate.” Same with “milch” (milk), “kaffee” (coffee) and “salat” (salad). However, seeing signs for “back” shops initially made me think they were advertising chiropractic services, or perhaps something along the lines of a “Relax the Back”-type store. Au contraire, mon frere. “Back” means “bake,” so there you go. Bakery, or as the Germans say, “backerei.”

The items that really threw me for a loop the first time I read them were the meat dishes. Meat here is called, somewhat graphically, “fleisch.” Yup. You’re literally ordering flesh. Add on the animal to determine the kind of meat, as in “schweinefleisch” (pork) or “rindfleisch” (beef). To make matters worse, ground meat is called “hackfleisch.” It’s enough to turn one into a vegetarian if you think about it too much.

Oddly, “schinken” is not chicken, as you might be led to believe after pronouncing it aloud. It’s actually ham. Chicken is “huhnchen.”

After you’ve dined out a few times and eaten something that you’ve enjoyed, it’s easy enough to look for it again on menus elsewhere. Ever the creature of habit, hubby finds one or two things he likes and sticks to them (see “pizza salami” in my earlier entry). Some consistently good and authentic German standbys that I often find myself seeking out include “gluhwein,” a delicious hot mulled red wine; “gulaschesuppe,” spicy beef-tomato soup with peppers; “schnitzel,” breaded pork tenderloin; “rippchen,” a smoked pork chop; and “spaetzle,” noodles, sometimes served with a cheese sauce like a German mac and cheese (“spaetzle mit kase”). Oh, and “eis,” which is ice cream or gelato. You see tons of signs for “eis cafes,” charming little eateries that serve coffee and desserts.

There’s sort of a caste system of restaurants here as well. There are the nicer, more upscale, sit-down places where you can enjoy full table service. There is plenty of recognizable American fast-food, sadly. There are smaller, cozy, more casual restaurants where you can enjoy a beer and some food. There are also tons of bakery/coffee shops with a handful of barstools or sometimes even just tall bar tables and no seats, good for zipping in and out for a quick espresso and a pastry. There are also snack stops galore (“imbiss”) where you can grab a quick bite of whatever might tickle your fancy. Turkish kebabs, Chinese take-out, pizza slices, even seafood.

As in any language, the most important German words to know are “bitte” (please) and “danke schoen” (thank you). I’ve found those two utterances alone, along with awkwardly pointing to the item you want on the menu, can often see you through the worst of times when it comes to ordering.

Guten appetit!

Cologne – day zwei

Got some semi-decent sleep last night, except for a couple-hour awake break thrown in for good measure courtesy of the toddler. We finally got up around 10 a.m. local time (uh… 5 a.m. Indy time?), fed the kiddo and ventured out for a breakfast of coffee and German pastry.

German backereis (bakery-style snack shops) are a dime a dozen. You can find one every block or so, and they are TASTY. Not quite as fancy as the French patisseries, but definitely no slouch in their own right. There are a couple of major franchises that you see over and over, plus a bunch of local shops, too.

These establishments are fairly small, they may not even offer seating, just to-go service. The display windows tell the story in a second. Lined with row upon row of mouthwatering baked goods, it’s hard to make a selection – croissants, hard rolls, raisin-studded rolls, cinnamony buns, donut-looking things, soft pretzels, oh my. The coffee is hit or miss, most comes straight out of a machine and isn’t great, but who cares. You’re only using it to wash down the pastries, after all.

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a small portion of a typical backerei window

We stopped into one of the bakery franchise shops for breakfast. Hubby ordered a croissant filled with creme, and I opted for a German specialty called a Berliner. It’s basically a round jelly donut covered in sugar. Yummy. And the center of controversy…

In Cold War-era 1963, John F. Kennedy was making a rousing speech in West Berlin, and in a well-meaning show of support, uttered the words “Ich bein ein Berliner,” proudly intending to say “I am a Berliner.” However, the literal translation came across as “I’m a jelly donut.”

berliner

Ein Berliner

He wasn’t far off base though; residents of Berlin ARE called Berliners, as residents of Frankfurt are called Frankfurters. I assume Hamburg residents are called Hamburgers, but can’t confirm.

Anyway, we wandered around a little more today, playing tourist and taking requisite photos of the Dom and all around town. We stopped into the train station so hubby could check into arrangements to get us to Milan later next week, then back out into the streets.

Since we’d eaten such a a late breakfast and snacked through the day, the next real meal was dinner this evening. Hubby wanted to go to a little place along the river called “Der Lowenbrau” that he’d frequented quite a bit when he was here last year. It was cold, but outdoor tables set up with space heaters allowed al fresco dining without shivering. We ordered up a couple of beers, and fed the baby while we waited for our food.

Hubby ordered one of his standbys, a pizza salami – thin-crusted pie with tomato sauce, cheese and paper-thin slices of salami. He got to know this dish well during his previous visits to Germany.

pizza salami

hubby's pizza salami

There are a plethora of Italian restaurants in Germany, due to proximity I’m guessing. Actually, there are restaurants of just about any ethnicity and ilk you could hope to find in major German cities such as Cologne. Indian, Thai, Argentinian, Ethiopian, Mexican; you name it, and it’s here. Sadly, there are also a good number of American chains such as McD’s, Burger King, KFC, Pizza Hut and Starbucks, although I can’t imagine why any U.S. visitor would eat there with so many other local options! Nice to be so spoiled for choice, but I figure when in Rome…

I want to soak up as much of the authentic German cuisine as I can while we’re here. Really, why wouldn’t I? German food is damn good stuff! Heavy on the breads, meats and potatoes, but with some interesting spicing and variations. They definitely like their pork, beef and lamb here. Typical sides seem to include potatoes, cabbage/sauerkraut and spaetzle (noodles).

My dinner tonight was the first of what I anticipate will be several schnitzels of the trip, along with fries and a small salad. I venture to say almost anyone in Indiana who eats meat has eaten a version of schnitzel. I’m talking about the traditional Hoosier pork tenderloin. It’s the same thing — a boneless pork chop, pounded into submission, breaded and fried. There are many ways you can get your schnitzel here, with a variety of sauces and toppings.

Tonight, I enjoyed a Jagerschnitzel, the pork topped with a dollop of creamy mushroom gravy. It was good, but not as good as the schnitzels we used to enjoy in Patrick’s old homestead of Ginsheim-Gustavsburg, just outside of Frankfurt. There, we frequented a tiny pub called Der Kleine Hexe (“The Little Witch”) that made a MEAN schnitzel. The place was so small and traditional, you could actually hear some little old German grandma in the back, pounding out your pork cutlet with a rolling pin before frying it up and bringing it out to your table. Hubby always ordered their Sombrero schnitzel, the chop topped with cheese, peppers and spicy tomato sauce. Brings back good memories.

schnitzel

my Jagerschnitzel dinner

Tonight, unfortunately, the toddler decided to act up, effectively squelching any plans of finishing our dinners in peace or sticking around for a second drink. Hubby and I took turns chowing down our meals while the other chased our adventurous toddler around the general vicinity. Then he started wailing and it was time to go.

Since the evening was cut short, I consoled myself with a few bites of a Ritter Sport chocolate bar purchased at a quick-stop grocery on the way back to the hotel. Ritters are some of my favorite chocolate in the world – hefty square bars of chocolate with a dizzying selection of fillings from strawberry yogurt and nuts to marzipan and peppermint cream. Tonight, I opted for a dark chocolate/chocolate mousse filling number that really left me feeling satisfied.

RitterSport

a small selection of Ritter Sport chocolate bars

Happy Halloween!