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.
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.)
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.
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
Rübenmus // Turnip Mousse
Rubbery little shrimps that pop up everywhere, often found swimming around in soups.
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.