Summary: A melting-pot of regional cuisine, but still a lot of potato.
The Middle-Rhine sits at the confluence of several different cultural regions. With the flow of the Rhine, Mosel and Lahn Rivers came political and cultural influences. New ideas and foods came not just from neighboring regions, but from all across Europe. Nevertheless, the protagonist of this region’s cuisine is still the Rhine River. Barges from the North Sea would bring seafood and spices, and barges from the south would bring cloth and grain. The river gave the region wealth that differentiated it from the neighboring Mosel Valley and Westerwald.
Selected Recipes from the Middle-Rhine
A traditional German dish, not skipping out on the root vegetables. Seafood cuisine from the Rhineland celebrates the ancient trade networks that once brought fresh mussels from the North Sea to the Rhine.
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.
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.
The Bounty of the Rhine
The industrialization of the Rhine in the 19th century would see much of its traditional industries fade away. One of the largest was fishing and seafood. The appetite for fish in the Rhineland was insatiable, helped in part by the region’s strong Catholic traditions. Though unlike the Rhenish Palatinate and the Mosel, the Middle-Rhine is within reach of the North Sea. This resulted in an unusual mix of flavors, salt- and fresh water fish in the valley.
The River provided not just the pathway to new foods, but was also a source of food itself.
Connections to the World – Rhenish Mussels
The mussels represent the region’s connections to the wider world. Traditional recipes are based on a simple white-wine base and features copious amounts of vegetable. While the recipes themselves do not offer any particular glimpse into local tastes, the musselsthemselves do.
In the distant past, the Rhine was a major source of food for the local population. Prior to the industrialization of the waterway, fish was the primary source of protein for most of the communities along the river. Trout, carp and other fish formed the basis of many traditional dishes, that have long since been forgotten in popular memory. With the collapse of the Rhenish fisheries came an increased reliance on other sources of food. The formation of regional cuisines in the 19th and 20th centuries occurred largely without freshwater sources.
Rhenish musselsin particular are a remnant of this era. They remain on the table because the barges carrying them from the north sea continued to do so. Of the thousands of fishing boats that once harvested the Rhine’s bounty, only a couple survive in museums.
Catholic Connections – Rhenish Sauerbraten and Pepse
With something to celebrate every Sunday, the catholic Rhineland was wealthy enough to celebrate with meat. This often took the form of Sauerbraten, a Sunday roast for the Middle-Classes. Without refrigeration, keeping meat available for long periods of time was a challenge. Where preservation was possible, meat became affordable for more people. Sauerbraten marinates the meat in a strong vinegar sauce, which breaks the meat down and makes it softer, but also helps preserve it for longer. The Sauer- (Sour) part of the word refers to the bitter flavor that this imbues in it.
Sauerbraten could be prepared during the week and allowed to sit until the Sunday roast. Modern recipes are no different. Mixed with large quantities of salt or vinegar, the meat should be marinated for up to a week with flavors of juniper berry, clove and pepper. The latter two being almost decadent expenses for the average person in the late 19th century.
For the smaller budgets in the 19th century was Pepse, or Sauerbraten made with pork. The results here are less suitable for the modern palate, but can be worth experimenting with.
The largest risk to the modern chef is keeping the meat from getting dry. Almost paradoxically, it can be difficult to master the art of a juicy sauerbraten. Typically the issue is poor quality meat, but it can also arise if the cooking time is too long. Basting or preparation in a closed container can also help overcome this difficulty.
Though the Rhine brought goods from the cosmopolitan north of Germany, it also brought goods, people and traditions from the rural (and Catholic) landscapes of the Mosel, Eifel and Hunsrück.
Martinsgans (St. Martin’s Goose)
Along the Rhine and Mosel Valleys, many of Catholicism’s great feast days are still celebrated. These holidays bring with them a rich tradition of very specific delicacies.
According to legend St. Martin was a Roman solider 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 there after.
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 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 stronger civic traditions by celebrating liberation of a man from serfdom. This would have granted the 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.
However, geese are large, expensive birds to eat, and its unlikely that anyone working the fields would have been able to afford one. Especially in the poor agricultural regions of the Mosel Valley, Middle-Rhine Valley and Hünsruck, the goose had to be substituted. This was often done with duck or chicken, but this substitution led to the main peasant speciality of the region: Döppekooche.
A traditional St. Martin’s day dish found in the Mosel and Middle-Rhine Valleys. It’s basically 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 feast day of the Patron Saint for the Poor.
This dish itself is not unique to the Mosel and Middle-Rhine. You can also find it the Saarland and Westerwald, but these largely 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.
The Middle-Rhine is perhaps most famous for its Riesling wines. This is a distinction that I feel it perhaps does not deserve. In comparison to the wines of the Mosel and Palatinate, they will taste notably bland and uninteresting. Nevertheless, the history of wine cultivation in the region has shaped its identity more than anything else.
When travelling down the Rhine valley on a cruise boat, you will have to image every available piece of land given away to wine or fruit production. Today, most of this has been given up due to the expense of producing wine there. Instead of vineyards you will see that the forest has returned. If you go hiking though, you will find the remnants of this once dominant industry.
Middle-Rhenish wines should in theory share many of the mineral complexities of their Mosel counterparts, but I have yet so experience this. I personally recommend sweet or semi-sweet wines from this region, since the sugar will make them more palatable. You might even find a rather good sweet Riesling here. However, you will have less luck looking for a good dry Riesling.
One of the less noted drinks of the Rhineland is their penchant for distilling herbs into a questionable aperitif. The tradition is not German, and comes from the many monastic communities that once dotted the landscape. Monasteries would grow herb gardens and the distillation of the herbs was considered a way of making medicine. In the 19th century, they would become popular drinks in their own right, and in the 20th century production would be industrialized.
Today you can choose from hundreds of varieties. Though the world’s most famous brand, Jägermeister, comes from the far north of Germany, the Rhine offers some of the best. Notably, Killepitsch from Düsseldorf is nationally renown as drinkable, but essentially every village has their own.
Regional Variations worth Mentioning
There are some dishes that simply transcend regions and can be adequately describes as a national dish. Both Potato Salad and Sauerkraut were eaten all across Europe in different forms. Some regions would go further though, and create something almost identifiable as a local specialty.
Rhenish Potato Salad
There are two main families of Potato salad in Germany, the Rhenish variant and the Westphalian variant. In the Rhineland, the salad is prepared with vinegar and mustard whereas in Westphalia it is eaten with a mayonnaise sauce. That’s about it. The other details should remain the same. You might notice some other preferences, Westphalia seems to prefer more pickles and egg and the Rhineland prefers onion, but I’m not sure this reflects more than personal taste.
Sauerkraut is prepared in a multitude of ways. Perhaps the region traditionally most regarded for its versions of the dish is the Alsace, in France. There, and in most of southern Germany, it is traditionally stewed for long periods of time with fat, spices and sugar. This gives it a creamy, muted flavor. By contrast, the Rhineland stewed it without sugar, instead adding other vegetables and beans, and serving it directly or after baking in a casserole. This resulted in a strong sauerkraut flavored dish that can only be eaten in small amounts.
Given that the South-German approach is the correct way (we can be honest and say that adding the sugar is necessary), most of Germany has followed suit, and older traditions of Sauerkraut have fallen out of favor.
It’s worth noting that I think Sauerkraut is delicious when prepared correctly. That nobody eats it in the US or UK seems to be the result of not knowing that it needs to be cooked prior to consumption.
The Complete List
- Mussels – Though not by any means exclusive to the Rhineland, the fact that a traditional dish of salt-water mollusks can appear so far inland is noteworthy. Served with a wine and butter sauce, they represent the cosmopolitan Rhineland, even as far back as the Middle-Ages.
- Sauerbraten and Pepse – A Catholic tradition using the limited means for food preservation at the time to ensure everyone had access to a Sunday roast. Marinated in brine for a week, the meat (Beef for Sauerbraten and Pork for Pepse) would be flavored with juniper berries and for the wealthy with cloves and pepper.
- 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 work (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 day there was the “double-cake”. In principle the recipie is based on that of the Scharles or Dibbelabbes, its fundamentally 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.
- Dibbelabbes – A meat and potato casserole that can be prepared in a variety of ways. Traditionally based on a dough containing raw potato, mined meat and onion. Unlike the Saarland variety, this one is made in the oven.
- Bollenbeische – Traditional bread based dish prepared by frying dough in heavy oil over a fire. Typically made using a special cooking device.
- 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, its the dry varieties that best exemplify the mineral tastes of the Mosel. More generally though, Mosel Riesling wine will typically be superior to anything from the Rhine.
- Potato Salad – A European dish with a Rhenish flair. Here the cooked potatoes are covered in a dressing based on vinegar and mustard, closer to a traditional vinaigrette dressing.
- Sauerkraut – The traditional Rhineland recipe is more of a Sauerkraut stew with vegetables and beans.
Return to the Middle-Rhine
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