The best of the Wurst

Beyond the beer halls, oompah bands and sauerkraut
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Munich is the Germans' favourite German city, revered for its raucous festivals, its beautiful park lands and its mild "southern" climate. Consequently it is the most expensive city in the land. Tourists from all over the world converge on Munich - particularly during the Oktoberfest beer festival - in search of the fun-loving Bavarian stereotype that is characterised by the famous Hofbrauhaus beer hall with its oompah band dressed in lederhosen and its inebriated patrons hoisting enormous mugs of beer while gorging on fat white sausages covered in sauerkraut.

I spent a week eating and drinking in Munich about ten years ago. I have been a confirmed Eurosceptic ever since. Above all, it was the memory of my experiences in the restaurants and beer halls of the Bavarian capital that made me shudder every time I tried to envision a Europe sans frontiers: a single-currency, single-culture, sing-a-long farting festival of a United States of Europe.

Of course I knew this was not a reasonable view. But I could not expunge the recollection, for example, of a certain evening when I wandered into a beer hall behind the central train station. This was a long way off the beaten tourist track, where the cavernous beer halls are benign fun parks full of stoned American college students and tipsy Tokyo briefcase men. This was altogether different: dark, sneering and sinister, another Munich, where the oompah band sang smirking songs of unimaginable vulgarity and nastiness, and the roar of the local crowd was not random lunacy but united in drunken aggressiveness, and the waiter - when he saw me jot down a few notes - grew angry and cautioned me to put my pen and paper away.

The Munich that lingered in my memory was also one where every restaurant seemed to have a window full of spit-roasted pork haunches. Dozens and dozens of lumps of swine, oozing yellow juice, rotating slowly on steel swords: the sight was enough to turn even me to a thoughtful consideration of the attractions of vegetarianism. In one of these bistros, eager to taste something other than meat after several days in the city, I ordered a special Salat. I should have known better, for it turned out to be various sliced sausages in mayonnaise, without even a slice of raw onion or a sliver of gherkin, let alone a bit of tomato or a leaf of lettuce to lighten its digestive load.

Recently I went back to Munich for the weekend. As a result, I am now ready to reappraise my Eurosceptical views and even swallow a lot of humble Wurstsalat. The weather was glorious, the long walk I took around the magnificent gardens and woods at the Nymphenburger Schloss was wonderfully relaxing. Instead of visiting beer halls, on Saturday evening I watched the magical and inspiring Cirque de Soleil perform in a graceful tent on the fairground. And on Sunday, in a leafy and affluent district of the city, we ate a superb lunch in the tranquil garden of a restaurant called - I can't believe I am about to write this - the Wursthaus im Grun Tal.

If you go to the Germans' favourite city, I would urge you to have a meal in this sprawling "rustic" cabin, where the rooms are panelled in wood and the sparkling copper pipes twist precariously around the low-ceilinged tap room. The customers, almost all from the neighbourhood, gathered in groups of eight or twelve at the wooden tables beside a small clear brook, There was no oompah music and certainly no sinister guttural anthems.

There was, obviously, plenty of meat on the menu, but also large platters of glorious green salad, bowls of bright red radishes whose cold white flesh bit into your tongue with a spicy fizzle, red cabbage cooked to a soft, almost soup-like consistency, the best potato salad that side of Lyons and potato dumplings that tasted like your favourite Sunday lunch roasted spuds. I ordered cold Matjes herring as a starter and it was far less salty than I had expected, subtle and mellow like the best sushi, but covered with shavings of sweet raw onion and accompanied by sour cream and a pile of freshly picked salad leaves. One of my neighbours actually chose the "gourmet" Wurstsalat and was so pleased with his slices of cold luncheon sausage in a vinaigrette dressing that he insisted I try some. I did, and was almost convinced.

For their main courses, many of our group ordered the roast Bavarian duck, while I decided - when in Rome etc - to dive straight into the barbecued pork Sparerips. I asked for a side dish of potato salad; our matronly waitress frowned as if this was a major culinary indiscretion in Munich, but I snuck some out of the communal bowl in any case. The spareribs themselves - what seemed like an entire rack of them - were perfectly cooked, glossy but not charred on the outside, moist and tender inside, served with a piquant sauce that would probably pass muster in Kansas City (home of the world's most discerning sparerib eaters). But I couldn't help wishing that I had ordered the duck. Served with potato dumplings in a natural jus, this was spectacular fowl - in the depth of its flavour, the proper degree of fat left on the meat and the gargantuan size of the portion.

Our pudding courses proved to be just as satisfying - and just as enormous. There was a delicious apple strudel with walnut ice-cream. Bavarian cream (famous in France as bavrois) was served with fruit salad, and, in my case, a vast plate of strawberries, blueberries, raspberries and redcurrants - all perfectly ripe - supporting a great mound of home-made chocolate ice-cream (studded with chunks of bittersweet chocolate) and lathered in fresh cream and slivers of toasted almond. Finishing this dessert was probably not a healthy idea, but it was memorable.

Most of us drank the local beer (in reasonably large but not silly steins), although a few tried the house white wine which was soft, fruity and very refreshing. Two people can eat amazingly well at Gruntal for about pounds 55, including several beers or glasses of wine and service. I suspect even John Redwood would welcome this restaurant into his neighbourhood although, of course, he'd go home hungry before he'd pay the bill in ecus