“Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you who you are,” wrote the legendary French gastronome Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin in the early nineteenth century. And the leap between what you eat and national character is indeed easily made – many countries or regions are closely associated with a particular food: usually by way of insult. You can think here of the British, who the French call ‘les rosbifs’ because of their love of the Sunday roast, while the Americans call them ‘limeys’, a moniker born of the Royal Navy’s practice of issuing its sailors with lime juice to ward off scurvy. Then there are the Alaskans who are sometimes referred to not altogether politely as ‘salmon crunchers’, and Hungarians who apparently get called ‘goulash heads’. But nowhere is this idea of ‘gastro-nationalism’ – of what you eat defining who you are – more strong than in Germany.
Although soldiers during the First World War cemented the less-than-polite nickname ‘krauts’ for Germans (from the popular German cabbage dish, sauerkraut), the stereotype of avid cabbage eaters had been around for many years before the conflict. In his novel The Begum's Fortune (1879), Jules Verne's German industrialist, Schultz, for instance, was a confirmed sauerkraut fan – sample line: “‘Those sausages in sauerkraut were delicious, were they not?’ remarked Herr Schultz, whose love of his favourite dish was unaffected by the Begum’s millions.”
A stereotype it may be, but Germany’s love of the brassica at the base of sauerkraut really does know no bounds; quite simply Germans have a soft spot for cabbage. And sauerkraut is an ingenious creation. Cabbage is finely shredded and layered with salt in a large pot. It is then covered and weighted down. The cabbage undergoes lactic fermentation over a couple of weeks and hey presto! Sauerkraut.
What is particularly impressive about the German love of the oft-maligned vegetable is that they have embraced it so thoroughly and so imaginatively. While pale yellowy sauerkraut is ubiquitous in restaurants and beer halls up and down the country, other ways of preparing cabbage are held in equally high esteem throughout Germany.
In the south, in Bavaria, “blaukraut” – literally, blue cabbage (really meaning “red cabbage”) holds pride of place. Elsewhere the red cabbage dish rotkohl holds sway: cooked with apples, raisins and spices for a warming winter accompaniment to meat. In fact soft cabbage dishes, with their slightly acidic tang, provide a perfect foil to rich, fatty meats and help dress up an otherwise monochrome plate of meaty fare and dumplings.
In the north, an altogether different cabbage is king: kale, known as “grünkohl” (“green cabbage”). It's loved so much there's a whole celebratory winter meal based around it, Grünkohlessen, held in January or February each year – a kind of cabbage-based Thanksgiving. Finely sliced kale is simmered until it is barely recognisable and then served with sausages and potatoes and washed down with a vast amount of beer and schnapps. The Grünkohlessen can often incorporate a “kohlfahrt” – a “cabbage tour”. Groups set out across the winter countryside intent on a village pub or inn where they’ll then sit down to a hearty meal of cabbage and meat and plenty of beer.
Cabbage may seem like a rather weak symbol for a proud nation such as Germany, but it has played a greater role in human history than one might imagine. When the explorer Captain James Cook set sail for the South Pacific in 1768 aboard the HMS Endeavour, he took with him 7,860 pounds of sauerkraut to help ward off scurvy (the fermentation process creates an abundance of vitamin C, more than is found in fresh cabbage). What the Germans seem to have understood instinctively, is that sauerkraut was in many ways the first superfood.