Summary: A peasant variation on Rhineland themes. Prepare for some potato.
It is not entirely fair to say that Mosel and its cuisine is simply a poorer version of Rhineland’s cuisine. Instead, it’s a poor man’s collection of recipes from various neighboring regions.
The Mosel Valley, sometimes called the Moselland, is a broad region encompassing the Mosel River between Koblenz and Trier and extending north to the Ahr River. Occasionally it will include parts of the Hunsrück to the south. Characteristically, most Germans have no idea where any of these places are. However, you can expect that residents in the region will proudly assert where the borders are and that their neighbors will disagree.
The Mosel Valley is a region with an extremely low population density, full of dense forests and rocky hills. The only major city, Trier, is a medium-sized town, even by German standards. As such, it lacks the distinct regional identity in most other parts of Germany. Aside from in Trier and the southern Eifel, I doubt you would find someone proudly upholding their hometown as you undoubtedly would in Bavaria or Saxony. Subsequently, the area lacks a distinct culinary tradition of its own, instead borrowing heavily from the Rhineland and the Palatinate. The critical distinction is that as a historically underdeveloped region, its dishes fall distinctly in the peasant category.
The Great Feast of St. Martin
Perhaps the region’s strong Catholic traditions are the only remaining cultural legacy from previous centuries. Aside from a handful of little protestant pockets on the Middle Rhine, the region ranks among Germany’s most prominent Catholic strongholds. Ruled for centuries by the theocratic Prince-Archbishops of Trier and Cologne, the Reformation did not make deep inroads here.
As a result, the people of the Mosel still celebrate many of Catholicism’s great feast days. These holidays bring a rich tradition of symbolic dishes and a long history behind them.
Martinsgans (St. Martin’s Goose)
According to legend St. Martin was a Roman soldier in the 4th century who, upon reaching the gates of Amiens on a cold, snowy night, found a beggar freezing in the street. He took off his cloak and cut it in half, ensuring that the man would be warm through the night. Later, Jesus would approach him in a dream wearing the cloak he had given to the beggar. In the morning, his cloak was found whole again, and he was baptized shortly thereafter.
The story emphasizes generosity to the poor, and he was one of the most popular patron saints in Medieval Europe. As for the Goose, apparently, St. Martin tried to hide from his fellow citizens when they wanted him to be their bishop. Rather unfortunately for him, he chose to hide in a Goose-pen, and the creatures alerted others to his presence. Why or how this turned into a tradition of eating the birds is unclear. In Germany, the goose may have appealed to its civic traditions by celebrating the liberation of a man from serfdom. This libration would have granted the freeman rights to hunt geese, among other things.
Traditionally served in the evening after the festival, the goose is roasted and served typically with a wine sauce, though there are no exact details as to how it must be prepared. Here are some example recipes for a typical St. Martin’s Goose.
However, geese are large, expensive birds to eat, and it’s unlikely that anyone working the fields would have been able to afford one. Especially in the poor agricultural regions of the Mosel Valley, the goose had to be substituted. This was often done with duck or chicken, but this substitution led to the region’s true specialty: Döppekooche.
The Döppekooche is a traditional St. Martin’s day dish found in the Mosel and Middle-Rhine Valleys (And in a few other catholic regions by different names). It’s just a spiced potato casserole with a bacon crust. To make it, you can start by preparing a base from grated raw potato, diced onions, egg, spiced, and mixed with raw sausage. This goes into a pan, gets covered with bacon strips, and then baked. Already, this seems a more appropriate dish to celebrate the Patron Saint’s feast day for the Poor.
This dish itself is not unique to the Mosel and Middle-Rhine. The Saarland and Westerwald can also find it, but these predominantly protestant regions do not celebrate St. Martins day. Hence the bacon-covered celebration of the freeman is more of a local specialty of the Mosel, Middle-Rhine (and Lahn) valleys.
Another curiosity of St. Martin’s day are the Weckmännchen or people-shaped sweet rolls. These are found throughout north-central Europe and represent some of the most ancient traditions in European cuisine. In the Middle Ages, bread shaped into holy figures was given to people physically unable to attend mass as a replacement for the Eucharist. However, the modern tradition in the Mosel valley dates to the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century, or rather, the Catholic Counter-Reformation. Shaped as St. Martin (or St. Nikolas elsewhere), they can be seen as a form of popular media. The anthropomorphic bread was an attempt to make the saints more approachable and relevant in daily life.
They can be found everywhere in Germany at different times of the year, but only in the Mosel and Rhineland do they represent St. Martin.
Recipes in this Section
Dibbelabbes is a traditional fried potato dish from the rural regions of West Germany. This variant is fried on the stove like a traditional British or American potato hash.
Schaales is a traditional baked potato dish from the rural regions of West Germany. This variant is baked in the oven like a traditional casserole.
The Wine Valley
The sweeping vistas of the Mosel valley are covered in the best vineyards that Germany offers. The modern-day region is defined by wine, as it is the most prominent industry and the reason most people travel there.
The only food item related to wine, Wine Soup, is found in other wine-growing European regions, especially in Tirol and Southern France. It is an especially peasanty dish that utilizes items a 19th-century vineyard would have on hand: wine, cream, and vinegar (now we would use lemon juice). Perhaps it’s better classified as a general Rhineland specialty since, at least further south, the wine gets so bad it can’t be used for anything else.
Fruit orchards once covered much of the Hunsrück and southern Eifel regions. The terrain is not conducive for growing traditional crops but could support fruit trees. Of course, the fruit these rugged regions produced was not especially good, and the apples were known for being exceptionally sour. One of the byproducts of these sour apples is Viez, an apple-wine made from sour Moselland apples.
For those that have tried apple wine, probably in Frankfurt or Berlin, you might be wondering how it could get any sourer and why anyone would drink a sour version of an already sour drink. Indeed, nobody does. It’s a local specialty that no longer really exists, as the fruit orchards that sustained it have long since disappeared. You can find it in local grocery stores, but probably not on the menu at a restaurant.
The steep cliffs of the Mosel River are covered in volcanic slate or basalt, which gives the wine terraces a crumbly mineral-rich soil. The wine, as one might expect, reflects this and offers some of the most distinctive flavors that a German Riesling can offer.
The Complete List
- Martinsgans – Or St. Martin’s Goose, is a traditional roast duck eaten on the feast day of St. Martin. Often substituted with duck, it was a celebration of liberation as only freemen could eat game on the land they worked (for serfs, it would be considered stealing). The tradition likely originated in France as part of St. Martin’s legend and is common in most areas of Germany with strong Catholic traditions. The recipe varies but is traditionally served with a wine sauce.
- Döppekooche – Now for those who could not afford a goose for St. Martins’s Day, there was the “double-cake.” The recipe is based on the Scharles or Dibbelabbes, a potato casserole with onion, spices, and sausage. The specialty in the St. Martin’s Day variety is the use of bacon, mixed in and layered on top to form a thick crust. The following day, leftovers are cut up and fried separately.
- Weckmännchen – Another traditional dish to celebrate St. Martin is the Weckman. It is essentially a sweet roll formed into the shape of a bishop. Whereas in the south of Germany, the figure represents St. Nikolaus of Santa Claus fame, in the north, it’s St. Martin. Of the specialties on this list, this is perhaps the oldest, dating back to the counter-reformation in the 16th century. One can interpret the figures as Catholic propaganda, an attempt to create worldly attachments to otherwise largely theoretical figures in Christian mythology. The tradition of making holy figures out of bread is even older. It is associated with medieval Christianity, often given to individuals who were physically unable to attend mass as a form of substitute Eucharist.
- Scharles – A meat and potato casserole that can be prepared in a variety of ways. Traditionally based on a dough containing raw potato, minced meat, and onion. Unlike the Saarland variety, this one is made in the oven.
- Wine Soup – A traditional peasant dish from the major wine regions of the Rhineland is simply wine soup. The dish varies quite a bit but is more associated with the Lower and Middle-Rhine cultural regions to which the Mosel Valley belongs. The wine is typically enhanced with lots of cream, cinnamon, and lemon and served with bread or potato dumplings.
- Bollenbeische – A traditional bread-based dish prepared by frying dough in heavy oil over a fire. Typically made using a particular cooking device.
- Viez – An apple wine notable for being made from the excessively sour apples that grow on the steep banks of the Mosel near Trier.
- Riesling Wine – The national grape of Germany, it just so happens that the Mosel Valley (and the Saarland) produces the best Riesling in the country. In contrast to the Rhineland, where the dry Rieslings are typically quite bad, the dry varieties best exemplify the mineral tastes of the Mosel. More generally, Mosel Riesling wine will typically be superior to anything from the Rhine.
- Schwenkgrill – Though the Saarland claims to have invented this grill, the Wikipedia article mentions that it is also trendy in the regions along the Mosel as well.
- Bettseichersalat – In perhaps the most peasant dish imaginable, this is a dandelion salad. Known for being a relentless weed in most places, here it is eaten as a salad.
Return to the Mosel-Valley
- By Zyance – Own work, CC BY-SA 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1784127
- Von Hagman – Eigenes Werk, Gemeinfrei, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8378216
- Von Susanne Kauz, Mannheim – Susanne Kauz, Mannheim, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9390703
- Von Micha L. Rieser, Attribution, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5398726
- By No machine-readable author provided. T.o.m.~commonswiki assumed (based on copyright claims). – No machine-readable source provided. Own work assumed (based on copyright claims)., CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=384908