Aaaah Germany... The country that brought us the VW Beetle, Bauhaus and the collapsible umbrella. And this year, it is hosting the World Cup. We know - to our cost - that Germany has a national side that can hold its own with the world's best. But can Germany kick it when it comes to food and drink?
In a word: Ja!
For years, there has been the perception in the UK that German wine is poor quality. But recently things have changed. "Germany noticed too late that people's tastes had moved on from sugary wine," says Carola Fischer from the German Wine Institute. "Today young winemakers are sharing tips, they listen, talk to each other and are responding to the market."
These days, there are styles to suit many palates and the value for money can be simply astonishing. But you'll have to get in quick, sales are up and the secret's out - last year, German wine exports increased by 10 per cent, reaching a value of €475m (£320m) - which surely has to be the highest level since 1985 when Marillion's "Kayleigh" reached No2 in the charts. Aaaah... such happy memories.
The winemakers I met on my recent safari into the Land of Hasselhoff seemed well chuffed with the profile boost brought by the World Cup and one such happy chappy is Gerhard Gutzler of Weingut Gutzler in the Rheinhessen. On first meeting Gutzler, he towered over me and bellowed "Lilly!" I was about to answer in my best Bavarian falsetto - anything to appease his brooding strength - but that wasn't what Gutzler was after. A sheepdog - Lilly - appeared at Gutzler's feet as he swilled wine around his mouth before spitting it high into the air. Lilly sprang like a lion about to seize an eagle from the sky, snatched the wine into her chops and crashed to floor like a hairy meteorite. I sat in silent shock, gasping, my nostrils flaring like windsocks. I knew instantly that Lilly was a winemaker trapped inside the body of a dog. And, curiously, the more I looked at her, the happier she seemed. (omega)
But it isn't just the winemakers and their dogs that should feel proud. German breweries have a lot to shout about too. Indeed, if you love beer, Germany is heaven. The styles are widespread, the laws governing the quality of German beers are second to none and the production is prolific - at Munich's Oktoberfest alone, more than 5m litres of foaming joy are guzzled, with more than 4,000 different brands covering 40 varieties.
In the town of Mallersdorf, Sister Doris is Germany's sole nun brewer and has been brewing beer since 1966. She is a delightful puzzle of a woman. On the one hand, well, a nun, and on the other, a jolly beer drinker with an encyclopaedic knowledge of beer and brewing.
"Every profession has a joker in the pack," she chuckles, "Well, that's me".
Her face features on the labels of all her beers and she muses that "everyone who drinks my beer is sort of kissing me. And I enjoy that." It has to be said that Sister Doris's beer is jolly splendid. As for the kissing, you be the judge.
With the infectious laughter of Sister Doris still ringing in my ears, I meet up with Joachim Oertels of www.germanfoods.co.uk who has the unenviable job of persuading Brits to expand their experience of German food and drink. Tough brief? Not for Oertels. He reminds me of Gandalf - a measured, twinkling and persuasive guide, careful not to over-hype, preferring instead to encourage exploration.
"My mission is to overcome the stereotypes that people have with German food," he says. "We produce amazing ham from the Black Forest, Cambozola, goat's cheeses and regional breads."
Here, in the UK, we're already big importers of brand names such as Becks, Dr Oetker and Müller but Oertels wants the British to explore German specialities further and be more adventurous. "UK customers are usually very international in their tastes and we want to accommodate this interest."
To make his point, Oertels introduces me to a new movement in German cooking spearheaded by the so-called Junge Wilde (the young wild): a gang of young spunky maverick chefs. The Junge Wilde pride themselves on their rather quirky approach and developing unusual flavours. The movement was founded by super-confident celebrity chef Holger Stromberg. Stromberg appears regularly on German television and there's no doubting his passion. "When people are hungry," he declares, "this is when I rock." I press Stromberg on the concept of being a Junge Wilde over lunch at his Munich restaurant named simply G - what happens when he turns 70? Will he still qualify as a Junge Wilde? "If you are crazy and 70, why not? I want to die as a chef." As long as it's not in my soup, fine.
The proof is in the pudding - actually the main course: fillet of pike perch with a smoked shrimp crust, potato-espuma and rhubarb. The perch was cooked to perfection and the recommended wine a surprisingly successful match - the 2003 Black Print from Klaus Schneider. Holger and his head chef Andreas Schweiger clearly love their work and are inspired to create new dishes by listening to ear-bleeding punk music. Only in Germany. As we part Schweiger proffers me his most charming grin and croons amiably "Remember, the love is on the plate."
So, German food and booze, worthy of the World Cup? You bet. There's stacks to discover and perhaps most exciting of all, I discovered that the word for the final whistle in a game of football is Schlusspfiff. Which is also exactly the same sound made by my collapsible umbrella. Genius.
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