Back in Bavaria, after four days of fried fish, moorish soups , bread, cheese and, obviously, chocolate, I am forced to contemplate an issue that has haunted me since I first shoved a brie brötchen down my gullet many months ago. Why aren’t Germans fat? This is a question I give, at intervals, a great deal of thought to, not only because I managed to stack on 9kg (of which 7kg remains) when I moved here, but also because I am genuinely enamoured with – and have subsequently adopted – the German appetite and want to know how they eat what they do without being completely enormous. Remaining, in fact, quite the opposite. Strong, healthy and often quite lithe! Is it their metabolism, developed over thousands of years of eating particularly heavy foodstuffs? Is it their height? Does their general efficiency extend to their ability to process food?
Upon hearing the title of this post, SG exclaimed ‘but we are! We are the second fattest nation in Europe, after the Brits!’ I couldn’t believe it, and momentarily renamed the post ‘Why Aren’t Germans Fat(ter)?’ But some swift googling revealed Germany isn’t even in the top ten fattest nations in the developed world, and as of 2011 is only the 20th fattest nation in Europe. Put simply, Germany just isn’t in the fat club. It isn’t fat enough. And this boggles my mind.
Why should Germans be fatter, you ask? Is it because I am horribly jealous of their long legs tucked neatly into knee high boots, of their invention and consumption of the Super Dickmann* (ridiculous in form and name) and little hip gold to show for it? Possibly. But also because the staples of German cuisine comprise what a lifetime of glossy magazines, celebrities, fad diets and shaky body image preyed upon by advertising, taught me are ‘bad foods’. And for a nation that lives on bad foods, they look pretty damn good.
After a lot of field work – and I am nothing if not thorough in my food field work – I feel confident enough to be able to break down the staples of the German diet.
Really, I don’t need to say much here. Never come between a German and their wurst. To them, wurst is not just processed meat and a bit of stray trotter all mashed up and packaged conveniently in stomach lining. To Germans, wurst is art. It is cultural identity (a friend of mine once famously assumed the German drinking toast was ‘wurst’ not ‘prost’ and so yelled it, confidently, whilst chinking his glass). It is life. There is nothing the Germans can’t make into wurst, there is nothing they won’t make into wurst. There is no form of wurst they won’t eat – big rolls of lunch meat, sausages in jars, in bread, on the grill, boiled in water, smothered in curry powder, in paste form, able to be squeezed out and spread onto brötchen.
I asked SG how many types of wurst he thought there were in Germany and, looking quietly thrilled to be consulted, said, ‘oh, I couldn’t say. There are so many, the possibilities are endless. You can have a wurst that is one kind and then add one or two different ingredients and you have a completely different wurst.’ He went on to discuss a few different examples (‘and this is just breakfast wurst!’) and closed with this audacious assessment; ‘there are possibly millions of types of wurst.’
Coming from a city of sushi, Thai and artful salads, and a skinny-love culture in which carbs are the devil in fragrant, floury disguise, the first thing I noticed upon moving here (when I visited here in 2007, I was too busy drinking Jagermeister and trying to stay upright on a bicycle to notice much) was the deep, deep German love of bread. Bread is their thing, and rightfully so. German bread is absolutely wonderful. Never has there been such variety, such quality in the bread roll (brötchen) field. This is a country that eschews simple sliced bread (known, rather disdainfully, I feel, as ‘toast brot’) consigning it to quick breakfasts or emergencies only. Sliced bread doesn’t do bread justice. Toast doesn’t do breakfast justice. A loaf of sliced Wonder White? There’s the door. Get out. And wash your mouth out with soap as you leave.
Bread isn’t a dirty word in Germany. It is a celebrated dietry staple. There are more bakeries than people*, they are on every corner of every street. They are open on Sundays. Bakeries are where you go to ‘grab’ meals. Whereas once I grabbed sushi, now I grab a cheese stuffed, sunflower seed covered bread roll. And often something sweet like, for example, a Berliner. Because any round ball of sweetness, dusted in sugar and filled with jam should not ever be made to feel unwanted.
Käse – Cheese
It helps when you share a border with Holland and France, two deities in the cheese world, and Germany produces some rather delicious cheese itself. But wherever it comes from, cheese is plentiful, tasty, varied and cheap. It is also on every brötchen in every bakery (often baked onto the brötchen, resulting the imaginatively named Käsebrötchen) every breakfast table and woven into as many dishes on as many menus as possible.
Schweinefleisch – Pig meat
Germans worship at the altar of the pig. To be a pig in Germany is to be loved and eaten with equal gusto. It is to be completely unsafe from bib-wearing Germans, licking their chops and getting ready to carve you up and eat every little part of you with a side of potato dumpling. They will roast you, fry you, crumb you, mince you, wurst-ify you, bake you, take your knuckles and your elbows, schnitzel you, roll you, smother you in cheese and bake you again, spread you, raw and pink onto their breakfast brötchen.
Not just tasty, versatile and plentiful, pigs are also considered lucky critters and the Glücksschweinchen (little lucky pig) appears in many forms (often marsipan, because, you know, why not) throughout the country, most often around Christmas and New Years Eve. A touch of research leads me to believe this perhaps has something to do with it being lucky to be in possession of a pig during harder, hungrier times.
Kartoffel – Potato
Fried, baked, boiled, molded into dumplings, cut into pommes, layered into gratin, flattened into pancakes, smothered in bacon and cream moonlighting as a ‘salad’ in the north, mixed with oil and vinegar in the south. Like the pig, the potato has many uses and, like the pig, is a menu star. Unlike the pig, it isn’t lucky. Just starchy and filling.
Other frequently appearing foodstuffs worth noting:
Yoghurt, quark, cream, ice cream, drinking yoghurt, milk, cold kakao milk, creamy meat and seafood ‘salads’ for the breakfast table, creamy salad dressings, creamy soups, Hollandaise sauce, the aforementioned cheese.
So there you have it. The German diet, handily condensed. Now can you see why I spend so much time thinking about this? I do have my theories – I would be academically embarrassed if I didn’t, after all of this strenuous field work and analysis, but I would rather like to hear yours. Lack of refined sugar? Efficient metabolisms? An overall healthier attitude to food? (Bolded to denote my preference for this theory).
* The only sweet that has ever defeated me.
** Fake statistic.