Traditional Foods of the Rhineland

Summary: An hearty metropolitan cuisine with a long history


The Lower-Rhine has been one of Europe’s most important urban centers since the days of the Roman Empire. Aided by the Industrial Revolution of the 19th century, it is today the most densely populated corner of Germany. With a rich urban heritage dating back millennia, the culinary traditions of the Rhineland are equally varied and colorful.

With such a diverse set of traditions it helps to gather them into more convenient groups. First on my list are the cuisines of the great cities of Cologne and later Düsseldorf. Then more generally I will talk about the foods of the Rhine and the trade networks it afforded. Following that are the colorful traditions of the County Berg, which heavily influenced the tables of the Rhineland. The last group is a collection of smaller dishes found across the region, but that are no less unique.

Justin Bunch | CityscapeTravel The Lower Rhine or the North Rhine, is a region divided into very clearly delineated sub-regions. The Ruhr Valley and its heavy industry rely on simple hearty dishes, the Rhine Valley and Cologne offer a mixed Bourgeois cuisine and the forests of the Eifel and Berg provide simple pastoral dishes.

The Great Cities of the Rhine

For centuries, the center of the Lower-Rhineland was the city of Cologne. Founded as Colonia Claudia Ara Agrippensium, it was shortened to Colonia. With its Roman roots, it remain the seat of the region’s bishop throughout the early Middle-Ages. From then they emerged as one of the most powerful states in the Holy Roman Empire. Craftsmen and Traders flooded the city, made rich by its connections to the heart of Europe and the North Sea. Their legacy is evident in may ways in the uniquely Colonian cuisine.

Justin Bunch | CityscapeTravel Not much is left of pre-war Cologne, what survives though, are the long culinary traditions of the city.

De re coquinaria

The Romans left us little evidence of their cooking. However, in an interesting historical twist, the most famous Roman cookbook turns out to be from Cologne. The Book, De re coquinaria, was likely written by Marcus Gavius Apicius, a wealthy gourmand from Cologne around the first century ce. The book is full of bourgeois recipes requiring obscure and expensive ingredients, giving us a window on the lives of the Roman aristocracy. When he ran out of money to spend on food, he reportedly committed suicide rather than face a life of inferior dining.

One easy and popular recipe from the book is Parthian Chicken, Pullum Particum. It requires only a few strange ingredients, namely Garum and Asofaetida. Garum is a fermented fish sauce, not dissimilar to Worchestershire sauce, made in Southern Italy. Asafoetida is a fermented spice from a bush in Afghanistan. That a man living in Cologne in the first century ce could acquire such ingredients speaks to the international trade that flourished under Roman authority.

Flönz / Kölnischer Kaviar

Every German city has a sausage to its name and Cologne is no exception. Also called Colonian Caviar, its signature sausage, Flönz, is a simple blood sausage. Though the term Flönz is fairly general and not limited to Cologne, it first appears in general usage around 1920 in the city. It refers to the simple blood sausages that were prepared for mass market, and made with lower quality ingredients. Given the overpopulation of the industrial Rhineland at the turn of the century, it makes sense that such a common low-quality sausage would be cynically called caviar.

Perhaps not the most enticing of dishes, but the sausage itself is quite delicious.

Halve Hahn

The term Halve Hahn means half of a chicken. The dish in question, however, has nothing to do with chicken. Quite simply, its a rye bread roll served with butter, a slice of Gouda cheese and occasionally a pickle. Why the name? It’s ancient joke dating from the dawn of the 20th century. According to legend, a man ordered 14 half-chickens for his party, but was instead given bread slices and cheese. Since then it has become something of an inside joke for the city.

In nearby Düsseldorf, Halve Hand is traditionally served with hand-cheese instead of Gouda. Hand-cheese requires much less fat content to make and is considered a cheese for the proletariat. As such the term Halve Hahn may also be a shortening of a term for Rye-Bread with Hand Cheese, food given out to the destitute.

A joke from the past that may not translate well to the unsuspecting tourist.

Altbier and Kölsch

The Lower-Rhine lies definitively in the Beer-consuming part of Germany, and the two largest cities have two of Germany’s most iconic beer varieties: Kölsch and Altbier.

Altbier is an older beer variety made with an indigenous hop variety, that enables the fermentation process to proceed at a higher temperature. This limited the need for artificial cooling during the brewing process and enabled the beer to be produced much easier than newer beer types. This would end with the invention of mechanical refrigeration in the late 19th century, and the lighter beers using South German and Bohemian methods became increasingly popular.

Alt- meaning old, simply refers to the old ways of making beer and they were often kept for the brewers themselves, sort of like a secret recipe. Their popularity would surge again in the post war period. The main centers for Altbier production are Düsseldorf, Krefeld, Mönchengladbach and Neuß.

Kölsch is the beer from Cologne, and boy is Cologne is fiercely proud of its beer. It remains one of the most strictly defined beers in Germany. Originally it was an Altbier style of beer and was faced with increased competition from the new beer styles. By the 19th century it had to adapt or die and Kölsch brewers adopted a hybrid process, using both the old style of hops and fermentation process, but aging the beer in refrigeration. This creates a very distinctive, light beer, and is an essential part of Cologne’s identity.

Herb Liquor

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.

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 Rhineland 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

Justin Bunch | CityscapeTravel A famous Rhenish dish despite not being anywhere near the coast. Its fairly representative of what would have been a seafood-dominated diet.

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 mussels themselves 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 mussels in 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.

Justin Bunch | CityscapeTravel One of the signature elements of German national cuisine, Sauerbraten, is a catholic tradition from the Rhineland.

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.

The County Berg

The Counts of Berg ruled from the metropolitan city of Düsseldorf for most of their existence. However, their core territory was further east, in the hills and forests that rise from the Rhine valley to the border of the Sauerland.

This thinly populated rural landscape governed from the Rhineland, introduced a variety of traditions to Rhine valley.

Krüstchen

This dish describes one of two things. In the traditions of Berg, its a baked schnitzel on a piece of rye bread with a fried egg on top. It is essentially an open faced schnitzel sandwich with egg. Typically its served with french fries.

In Cologne however, it refers to a traditional catholic dish served during lent. Since soups were largely exempt from the fasting traditions of lent, the burghers of Cologne made a rich goulash with rye bread also called Krüstchen.

Surprisingly simple and quite good. Elsewhere in Germany you get similar dishes made with sausages or Fleischkäse instead of Schnitzel.

Bergischer Breakfast

In German it’s called the Bergischer Coffee-Table. It refers to a coffee ceremony popular in the rural territories of County Berg. It originated in the 17th century, probably not with real coffee, which arrived only in the following century. Coffee is served in an elaborate carafe and is surrounded by local charcuterie, lots of rye bread with butter and jam. It was described as being a centerpiece of local feast-day culture in the region, and largely faded away during the 20th century.

Pillekuchen

A potato pancake made with grated potato, egg and flour. It’s usually spiced with nutmeg salt and pepper. It is similar to the potato dishes of the Sauerland and Westerwald, but rather than baking in the oven, its fried in the pan like a pancake.

Simple Traditions

Some dishes transcend single cities and counties. Below are some simpler traditions native the wider Rhineland.

Apfelkraut (Apple Butter)

The English translation “Apple Butter” is misleading, since the product in the US is only vaguely related. More generally, Apfelkraut is a fruit is a syrup made by effectively boiling the fruit into a paste, traditionally without added sugar. Originally this was only made with apples, as the apples grown in the Rhineland were typically small and sour. By turning them into a sweet spread for butter, the fruit could be preserved without refrigeration or canning and create a use for otherwise inedible apples. Later, better apples and other fruits were added and today include pears and apricots.

You can get similar Apple-Butters in the US but they tend to be overloaded with sugar or artificially flavored. If it tastes distinctly like apple then you are not getting the real thing.

Himmel und Erde / Himmel un Ääd (Heaven and Earth)

Despite the dramatic name, this dish is simply mashed potatoes with applesauce or stewed apples. The Earth (Erde) comes from an old name for potato, “Erdapfel” or Earth-Apple. Some chefs in the 18th century thought it would be funny to then add Sky-Apple, or normal apples. Since then it has been called Heaven and Earth (though sky is the better, less interesting translation). Typically today it is served with a sausage of some variety, though the only requirement is potato and apple.

Sausage is optional

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.

Rhenish Sauerkraut

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.

Kulles / Potthucke

This dish is the Rhenish version of Schaales, with a number is notable differences. Like Schaales its a potato casserole, but instead of just raw, it uses a ration of raw to cooked potatoes of 4:1. Additionally, after being grated the potatoes are squeezed through a press to create a mash, instead of a hash. Unlike Schaales, its traditional to add chunks of sausage or bratwurst to the mix as well.

The picture is just for fun, not sure how appetizing you can make a potato casserole look.

Return to the Lower-Rhine

Lower-Rhine Valley

As the industrial heartland of Germany, this region suffered greatly in WWII and today is home to modern cities with few remnants of their prewar legacy

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