A Theory as Inspired by Turnip Mousse

The other day, while we were enjoying some afternoon sun in the park, Oma called. She was on the hunt for my brother-in-law for whom she had made some turnip mousse.

My ears pricked up. ‘Mmmmm,’ I said, ‘turnip mousse. Was there ever a more appetising sounding dish?’

And really, was there? Doesn’t a part of you, upon hearing those words paired together, find yourself dreaming of a glass of wine on a sun-drenched balcony, with a big bowl of turnip mousse steaming in front of you?

SG braced himself for my subsequent thoughts, as he so often does when my ears prick up at the sound of a German quirk or speciality dish that takes my fancy.

‘Go on,’ he said, ‘what do you want to say.’

I have a theory, and it is one that will cause a few waves of displeasure among my German friends, family, and readers. Many of you will heartily disagree, and rush – as you should – to the defense of the hearty meals of your childhood. But. After some time spent gadding about Europe, and settling as I have, in Germany’s most northern state, I am prepared to submit something of a cobbled-together, ineloquent thesis. Ahem:

The further north you go in Europe, the worse the food gets (culminating, possibly, with near-rotten fish in Sweden). The further south you go, the better it gets. This applies to all things except cake. Cake peaks somewhere around central Europe. And I am not factoring England into the equation because, well … it’s England.

Now, bear with me. There are some holes in my thesis, holes that can only be filled by going on eating tours which I am very good at and plan on doing more of in the years to come. And obviously this entire topic is dangerously subjective because one man’s sweet ntomatini is another’s sausage and boiled potato. And I haven’t been to every country in Europe, nor will I be able to discuss every country in Europe. However, I am nonetheless wading in. Us Aussies are nothing if not foolhardy.

Let’s begin our journey in Greece, my spirit land, where we find an abundance of garlic and herbs, zingy olives, and fat, juicy, sun-ripened tomatoes. Slow-cooked lamb, piping hot moussaka in clay pots. full of purple aubergine and fresh thyme. Taramasalata, salty goat’s cheese, garlicky, dill-heavy tzatziki, Spanakopita, the king of pies. Fresh seafood, nutty sweets, gyros. We head up through Italy – more sun and garlic and tomatoes and herbs, big balls of mozarella, BASIL, pizza, pasta, oregano, wine, pesto. There’s Spain with its tapas and seafood and sangria and salami and sun.

That funny little tomato you see, is a ntomatini, native to Santorini. It tastes like the sun.
That funny little tomato you see, is a ntomatini, native to Santorini. It tastes like the sun.

Santorini 2011 558

Santorini 2011 556

Santorini 2011 522

Garda (290) cropped

Garda (648)

Garda (646)

This one was given an 8.2 out of 10.

The south of France I cannot comment on, but I see the pictures of wine and cheese and I know the Frenchies have a reputation for being at one with garlic, and heck, it’s France (would I be right in saying, though, the food gets less impressive as we travel north?). Somewhere around Austria and Switzerland, as the temperatures drop, a little thing called stodge enters the equation. The cakes start getting alarmingly good, and cream becomes a staple. Chocolate and human beings came to truly love each other in this part of the world, but we wave goodbye to the basil and oregano and dill and thyme. We roll into Germany and hit a wall of southern cooking. No zingy olives or sweet tomatoes here, bt pig knuckles and inpenetrable dumplings swimming in meaty sauce. The stodge factor sky-rockets, the word ‘hearty’ takes on a whole new meaning. Bread comes into its own. The Czech Republic says ‘you call that a meat dish, Germany, this is a meat dish.’ Poland snuggles under the potato blanket with Holland and Germany, and matches every German Bratwurst with a gigantic kranksi. Belgium thrills with waffles, beer and fries with mayonnaise (a train Holland and Germany are also aboard) but a dearth of sun means a dearth of much else. (I know, I know, mussels.)

Brussels 2011 179

I am going to stop us before we spill into Scandinavia, partly because I think rotten fish speaks volumes. Partly because a lot of the food beloved of north Germans finds kindred-spirit-versions in Denmark, Sweden, and Norway – I happen to know, for example, the north Germans and the Scandos are all partial to a herring, preferably pickled, possibly raw, often in a pink sauce derived from beetroot. And partly because this region of Germany’s cuisine is where my focus naturally lies, and despite feeling very much at home here by the Baltic and being very fond of Schleswig-Holstein, I cannot profess to being overly fond of Schleswig-Holstein’s kitchen.

So it is here, at the mention of pickled herring, and spurred on by my recent discovery of turnip mousse, that I feel it imperative to list some favoured dishes of the northerners.

Pickled Herring 

In a bread roll, swimming in a beetroot sauce, rolled into a cylinder of sliminess – the herring is the pig of the north.

Grünkohl & Wurst // Stewed Kale & Sausages

I’ve covered this one before.

Rübenmus // Turnip Mousse

Self explanatory.

Nordseekrabben

Rubbery little shrimps that pop up everywhere, often found swimming around in soups.

Labskaus

I just feel Wikipedia does it more justice than I can.

The simple fact of the matter is: the more sun we have, the more herbs and spices we have. The sun gives us olives. Olives give us delicious oil. The sun bestows vibrancy and sweetness upon the fruit and veg; the southern European countries rely on tomatoes, up here, we’re all about the turnip. The Italians cobble together buffalo mozarella, tomatoes, and basil for a light, fresh salad, the north Germans throw some kale in a pot or puree a swede. The Greeks are grilling a bloody big octopus, the Baltic dwellers are nibbling on a raw, vinegared herring. And I don’t even want to think about atrocities the Swedes are committing with those poor herrings.

One thing the north Germans do do truly excellently, however, is berries. Berries and fried fish. And one can – trust me – do far worse than berries and fried fish.

24 thoughts on “A Theory as Inspired by Turnip Mousse

  1. Liv, in principle you are right, but people on the northern half of continental Europe still create wonderful albeit a bit stodgy dishes with staples like spuds and pasta, from Pommes Dauphinoise or Kartoffelgratin to Maultaschen, Kaesespaetzle…and they do know about herbs whereas here in Ireland the local cuisine is floury potatoes, so dusty, you cannot possibly swallow them without gallons of gravy (Bisto!) or butter, potatoes so horrible they would be rejected everywhere in the world, but after the famine people had to make themselves believe that they were “lovely balls of flour”. The only other way the locals eat potatoes is chips, crisps and mash, everything else is considered decadence.
    Meat is a dry roast, salted and peppered. They don’t know spices or herbs for home-cooking, therefore the pinnacle of haute cuisine is the “half’n half” from the local Chinese: half soggy chips, half rice swimming in chicken-curry sauce made from a powder mixed with water and without the chicken.
    Sausages are vile pinky things, containing some obscure pork products and loads of other things you rather not want to think about. German and Polish sausages and cold-meats are delicious, so is the variety of fruit and veggies unheard of or astronomically expensive here. I am homesick for German food!

    1. You are so right. I adore your descriptions. I deliberately left out England, Ireland, Scotland, and Wales, famed across the globe for their dearth of culinary deliciousness. German bread, wurst, cheese, root veggies, strawberries, cakes … oh my God, the UK isn’t even in the running.

  2. When my wife’s family from Australia came to our wedding in northern Germany, they wanted to try local food. They were brave enough to try Labskaus and Sauerfleisch, but thought it might have been better on bread rather than just as it was 😉

    But being a northerner myself I gotta admit there’s even worse:
    http://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Schwarzsauer

    1. My parents ate Schwarzsauer once or twice a year. I never dared to try it – even once. I hated the smell of it.

      1. I’m the same.. I try more or less anything, but Schwarzsauer is the only thing besides Bregen I never dared to try.

  3. I would translate Rübenmus as stewed swede. These are Steckrüben while turnips are Weißrüben and I haven’t seen them in Germany. Turnip seems to be related to Kohlrabi which is very hard to come by here in Queensland. Also, the dish isn’t typically pureed. Maybe it can be but I have never seen it like that. There are different types of root vegies in it, including some potatoes and carrots and then it’s mashed up a little and slowly cooked with pork belly, Kasseler and a special type of sausage, made for cooking not frying – Kochwurst. I would love to eat this right now!

    1. I think/thought a turnip was a swede, or a swede is a turnip – there are different kinds of turnips and one of them is called a Swede in some countries. I have seen it served with the Kochwurst, I am not sure how Oma serves it, I have never been fortunate enough to try it hahahaha. Kohlrabi is a relative of cabbage and I think is hard to come by in Aus in general!

      1. I once in my naivety tried to substitute turnip for kohlrabi in one of our favourite dishes “Geschnetzeltes with Kohlrabi in creamy sauce” because kohlrabi was unknown here – disgusting. I only know Ruebenmus as a sweet spread for on bread, it’s really quite nice and can be got here in the healthshop- imported from Germany of course.
        Oh, the cakes and pastries in any poky little bakery in Germany- I famously once burst into tears upon entering one of these sacred places after a too long time away, totally overwhelmed by the fragrances and sights.

      2. Rübenmus is actually a tasty dish because of the smoked meat flavours, like the Kasseler. I buy Kasseler here in Qld and can also get some reasonable sausages but the pork belly isn’t quite the same. With all the different vegies and spices it makes a great stew. No, swedes are sweet, turnips are almost bitter. Apparently, Scots call swedes turnips. Here is the description at Wikipedia of the yellow swede…
        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rutabaga (American name)
        You couldn’t substitute one for the other either. Same as with the Kohlrabi. The swedes they sell in northern Europe are huge. Here in Aussie and in NZ they are tiny, the same size as the turnips. They often sell them side by side. I buy them both plus one, usually expensive, parsnip for winter soup. About time to do so here…
        You’re coming into spring now. The traditional time for Rübenmus is September but you can eat it all winter. You should try it! It is also the time for Bohnen and Birnen which has the same hearty tastes that really make a lot of sense in that climate but have an interesting sweet flavour due to the pears. I am noticing that right now that we had a sudden drop in temperature and below average temperatures in Brisbane, I start eating more and develop an appetite for such dishes. I couldn’t even imagine these dishes here over summer when we have 30+ degrees for months on end. Yes, and I love Grünkohl also…

  4. Lived in Scandinavia for nearly 4 years and I agree with you! Much of Scandinavia was also super poor, so their traditional dishes reflect this. That and the fact that they can’t grow much up there. 🙂

    1. A lot of North German cuisine developed for similar reasons; citizens were poor and needed to jazz things up (sugar on potatoes to eat with the stewed kale), or the seamen needed food that would last on the boats (pickled, pickled, pickled). Also, less sun and cooler temps = a lot of root vegetables. It’s all about the bloody sun – the sun is responsible for all that is good in the world. I mean: the mango.

      1. That may be so but today these dishes are eaten in the finest restaurants and few people eat them for cost reasons but because we actually love them! People take traditional trips in groups to eat Grünkohl. My father ate Labskaus in Neumünster’s best restaurant with his Rotary friends. But we love Spargel too as you know.

  5. I think your theory is absolutely valid as a general rule, which of course doesn’t mean that there isn’t fantastic food to be found up North. I don’t agree on your cake theory though – I find the Scandinavians are fantastic with the sweet baked stuff – the cinnamon rolls are just the tip of the iceberg! 🙂

    Also, I don’t know if this is still true or ever was or if it is an urban myth, but to my knowledge, you are not allowed to take the “surströmming”, the truly disgusting fermented herring the Northern Swedes are so fond of (which in my opinion is just an excuse to take a shot after each bite because absolutism) on a plane because the tin is so much under pressure from the gases that it could explode and if you have ever been near that stuff… well, you know.

    1. The cakes are OWNED by the cold countries. I mean, look, I love Baklava like the next person, but what central to north Europe does with cakes is beyond belief.

      Perhaps the surströmming aren’t allowed on planes because THEY SHOULD BE ILLEGAL. Totaly agree with the shot theory.

  6. It definitely should be – but it would be as cruel as forbidding Aussies to put beetroot on EVERY DAMN SANDWICH. 🙂

  7. Liv, I think it’s about time you come back to Greece to eat some more ntomatini, nichts gegen Pommes mit Mayo, aber sicheer kein Vergleich… 🙂

  8. As much as I love central and south european cuisine, I wouldn’t call Scandinavia a place with bad food. I mean: Smørrebrød, Gravlaks, Smörgåstårta,…
    Well of course if we take finland’s Mämmi into the equation…(It is said that it doesn’t taste as bad as it looks, but that’s not really an achievement :D)

  9. Thank you Liv, vielen Dank. You inspired me to edit a Wikipedia entry for the first time. Labskaus was misrepresented as being ” a favorite of sailors and seaman”. It was in fact more of a dish of necessity. So here is the updated portion:
    The dish became common amongst sailors and seamen during the time of the great ships. Potatoes and salted meats were a standard fare and Labskaus would make a less than fresh cut of meat more paliable and stretch the meat supply. Labskaus is now commonly served in restaurants only on Germany’s Northern coast.

    1. Labskaus is being eaten in fancy restaurants in Hamburg. It is a northern dish, not just a coastal dish if there are any, and I always thought of it as a way to eat up various left over vegies. Swede mash or stew, as I would translate it, or cale stew is being eaten all over the north and probably more widely offered than Labskaus.

  10. Why is it called a mousse? Just checked the recipe and it sounds more like a mash, leaving out the apple, sausages and Kasseler, obviously :).

    Culinary delights can be found on the islands, if you know where to look. I could name quite a few but I’m slightly biased….

  11. Sure, but you do have to look hard and a lot of “ordinary” people are still very much into plain traditional food or stopped cooking altogether and get their carvery lunch from the local convenience store (the queues for roast, gravy mash and 2 vegs at our local Londis branch on Sundays are unreal) Irish milk and butter are definitely the best on the planet, but when it comes to cheese, you have gazillions of industrial type cheddar or expensive artisan cheeses. Celebrity chefs in their droves are trying their best to change this lack in culinary culture, but I am afraid it’s a bit like the Olympics, watching sport on TV doesn’t make you sporty!

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