Call it Central European soul food. As the mercury falls, Berliners seek out restaurants serving traditional food to pack on a few pounds for the winter. Old-school cuisine has the stuff to become a big new trend.
Vegetarians can stop reading right here.
Not that I have anything against those whose diets differ from my own, but for the majority of Berliners, the onset of winter means meat. International street food might be all the rage right now, at least among people who find it necessary to hype Berlin as oh-so-cutting-edge, but the genuine eats in the German capital are the things cooked in Dutch ovens or cast-iron pots after the mercury has taken its annual December plunge.
'Tis the season to roast pretty much anything that will fit in an oven, be it beef, veal, pork, mutton, rabbit, chicken, turkey or goose. For instance, it isn't until winter that many people remember that Berlin sits amidst the woodlands of Brandenburg, which are full of deer and wild boar. There's hardly any other city in the world where venison and other sorts of game appears more frequently on the menus of normal everyday restaurants.
Winters in Central Europe are hard, which is why people all the way from the Baltic Sea down to the Lower Alps developed a kind of comfort food to get themselves through the months of cold and darkness.
And people from all over this vast and diverse area have brought recipes handed down through generations to Berlin, making it arguably the best place for carnivores to put on a few kilos in their annual fight against the frigid temperatures.
One of those people is Hannes Mitterhofer, proprietor of the Wirtshaus zum Mitterhofer, which specializes in Southern Tyrolean stick-to-your-ribs food: juicy roasts, hearty meat platters and homemade dumplings. The cuisine may be from the northernmost part of Italy in terms of national borders, but it tastes and feels German-Austrian.
Mitterhofer opened his establishment five years ago, and he says that in the beginning the clientele was older and resolutely middle-class. Nowadays, his customers are a mix of young and old, natives and tourists, who are all in search of something a bit unusual.
"It's sad to say, but one of our initial problems was finding chefs who could cook traditional recipes," says Hannes, who with his tattoos and long-sideburns looks more like a motorcycle repairman than a restaurant owner. "They learn all sorts of things in cooking school, but many of them have never gotten the hang of making a traditional roast with a decent sauce."
The word Wirtshaus means tavern or inn restaurant, but Mitterhofer's establishment is a playful take on that sort of traditional eatery. The mounted antlers that adorn the walls are tongue-in-cheek, and the clientele is new media, not old folks' home. On a recent Saturday, as my friend Thomas - a music critic - and I munched our way through some meaty delicacies, the median age was indeed well under 40.
Mitterhofer opened Wirtshaus zum Mitterhofer in Berlin's Kreuzberg district after cutting his teeth in a tapas restaurant in formerly trendy Prenzlauer Berg. Central European food isn't known for its subtlety, but let's face it: When you're hankering for a blood sausage with sauerkraut, Asian fusion cuisine ain't going to scratch the itch.
And from Saxony to Swabia, from Sauerbraten to Schäufele, there's lots of delicious home cooking to explore. It turns out that some of Berlin's grub is pretty good.
Learning to love Eisbein
Southern Germany is usually considered the superior region as far as cuisine is concerned, while the North is often regarded as a foodie wasteland. To test the validity of those views, I grab my mate Magnus and head to the Wirtshaus an der Hasenheide.
Located not all that far from Mittenhofer, the Wirtshaus an der Hasenheide is a world away in terms of both the cooking and the clientele. This is an unapologetically traditional, working-class corner restaurant of the sort that's sadly becoming ever rarer in Berlin. And it specializes in the dish that, together with currywurst, is most closely associated with the German capital: Eisbein.
"Ice leg," as the word is literally translated, is a smoked, then pickled ham hock, whose name may or may not come from the fact that pigs' shins were formerly used to make the blades of ice skates. For many newcomers to the capital, Eisbein is a paradigm example of surreal, inedible-looking northern German food since the cut of pork is surrounded by a thick, unappetizing layer of grey fat.
The trick is that you're not supposed to eat the fatty stuff. It's there to keep the cured pork on the inside scrumptiously juicy. Appearances notwithstanding, you're not a card-carrying carnivore if you've never had Eisbein.
But why did this dish in particular become so synonymous with Berlin?
The company we keep
My friend Magnus is Berlin-born and bred, and he has a theory about why Berliners may have embraced it.
"We always used to have it when we went to my grandmother's place in winter," Magnus recalls. "It was cheap. My grandmother was a civil servant, and although she actually had plenty of money, the first thing she'd tell you whenever you came to dinner was how little she'd paid for all the ingredients. I think that's why she made Eisbein."
It's easy to imagine that in the lean years immediately after World War II, a juicy, if fatty cut of meat must have seemed like a huge luxury in the badly damaged German capital. But the scene Magnus describes is hardly unique to Germany. I can also remember my American grandparents kicking off meals with a similar breakdown of expenses incurred.
And it's coming together with friends, not the eating per se, that's the best part of a place like the Wirtshaus an der Hasenheide (whose menu recommends, for people with smaller appetites, a "giant currywurst"), with its multi-arched ceiling, old-school interior and salt-of-the-earth patrons. Berliners, both native or adoptive, are by nature sociable. In the sunny seasons hardly anyone ever stays at home, congregating instead outside cafés and restaurants.
December temperatures don't allow for that, but habits die hard so people tend to go out for meals together or invite one another to their homes. Dishes that don't require massive amounts of preparation but do need time to roast in the oven are the perfect accompaniment to long, dark evenings, made agreeable by the company one keeps.