(Ed note: This is longer than usual. There are no pictures. Next time there will be pictures. Promise!)
When we talk about beer and food pairing, we try to come up with shorthand rules. I’ve heard Stephen Beaumont suggest you treat Lagers like White Wine and Ales like Red Wine. I’ve heard Mirella Amato suggest light coloured beer with lighter fare and darker coloured beer with heavier fare.
Both of those are pretty good shorthands, incidentally. They address the main anxiety that everyone seems to have about beer and food pairing: There’s so much stuff. We have the entire world at our fingertips, culinarily speaking. It is essentially a form of choice paralysis that makes this difficult for people. If you’ve spent your entire life paying attention and eating good food, it’s less difficult.
We’re spoiled for choice in a way that no one, historically has ever been. I’m in Toronto, which is more or less landlocked and a thousand kilometers from the nearest ocean. There’s a place down the street which, for $17.99, will serve me about 18 different kinds of sashimi on an all-you-can-eat basis. The contents of just the spice bins at one of the Bulk Barn locations in Toronto would buy you a medieval village. If I decide I want to eat Kangaroo or Camel or Moose, I can go down to the St. Lawrence Market and chow down on the various denizens of nature’s splendor.
Given all these constraints something like Oktoberfest seems practically quaint. The simplicity is life affirming. There is a sausage and some cabbage and probably some potatoes or spaetzle. It’s very straightforward and there’s even a specific beer to go with it. Marzen! They brew it in March, it sits underground in casks during the summer and then they serve it to people at Oktoberfest. It’s simple and tasty.
It’s also the result of hundreds of years of refinement, privation, misery and eventual triumph.
Germany has always been in some state of flux if we’re speaking historically. I remember watching the fall of the Berlin Wall on the news as a grade schooler. It didn’t actually become a nation state until 1871. Before 1806, it was more or less the Holy Roman Empire. Really, Germany was a series of pocket fiefdoms and principalities that were all governed by disparate laws and which did not have much in the way of trade with the outside world.
If you were a peasant in one of these principalities, you did not exist legally. The nobles would run roughshod over your fields while hunting. Your property (probably half a slab of bacon and your churchgoing smock) would revert to the nobles when you died. If you were lucky, they wouldn’t take your milk cow from you on a whim. You had to pay a tax to get married. You probably had to pay a tax to have children, depending on your location.
When you look at the surviving dishes in various regions of Germany and at the cuisine as it exists now, it’s pretty clear that the heritage was grim. From a purely carbohydrate perspective, the people in the uplands were able to grow significant amounts of grain. They had wide varieties including barley, wheat, oats, spelt, rye and so on. Bread was of paramount importance. If you cast around a little, you find that most large towns have their own varieties. Since German is a startlingly precise language, the word for supper is “abendbrot,” literally “evening bread.” If you were in the lowlands like Saxony, there might have been potatoes. If you were in a principality that was truly bereft, like Swabia, you didn’t even make bread. You made dumplings.
In terms of meat, you mostly had pigs. They kept cows and goats for milk, but probably didn’t eat them because the nutrional variety gained from dairy. They kept chickens, but mostly for eggs. If you look at a list of traditional German regional dishes, it’s rare to find chicken being used. If you were near the Rhine, you might get fish. In a lot of cases, they got protein from lentils.
From the standpoint of vegetables, you’re talking root veg and fast growing greens. Carrots, Onions, Turnips, Spinach, Broccoli and Cabbage. They didn’t really have spices. They had herbs: parsley, thyme, chives, bay leaves, juniper and caraway seeds.
To sum up, if you’re a peasant in Bavaria or Swabia or Baden or Wurttemberg (They had apples in Wurttemberg. Luxury!), you were eating a narrow variety of very basic grain based carbohydrates, with some pork, some dairy, and cabbage. The cabbage probably prevented you from getting scurvy. In Swabia, you had spaetzle and lentils. Every day. If you were lucky.
If you weren’t lucky, it was before the Reinheitsgebot. People talk about the 1487 Bavarian Purity Law as though it was about beer. It may have been partially about beer, but mostly it was about preventing brewers from competing for grains. If you ensure that brewers can only use barley by enforcing a royal decree, you keep the price of bread down. The only people who will find wheat and rye and oats and spelt useful are bakers. The local economy was so bad that they enforced pricing on beer: one to two pennies a litre.
Barley doesn’t make good bread. However, it’s hardy and easy to grow. It’s basically free calories. Making beer out of it is more or less a method of preservation from a dietary perspective. Barley by itself will go moldy fairly quickly. Beer will keep as long as you need it to, and you can use the leftover grain as animal fodder. It puts Dopplebock in perspective. It makes sense for the monks to fast on beer: It’s one of the only ways to preserve the calories from the previous year’s harvest to survive until lent.
Similarly, hops don’t make for good eating. While they may have some medicinal properties, their best use is as a flavouring agent for beer. Why outlaw gruit? It’s a production problem. You can farm hops. They don’t need a lot of attention. Usually gruit was made with yarrow, bog myrtle, juniper, rosemary or woodruff. These are things you have to gather. It is a massive waste of time compared to hops which you harvest once a year. Some of those ingredients are already culinarily in use, so the dual usage increases their cost.
You might ask what happens without the Reinheitsgebot price controls. Well, you’ll recall that I mentioned Swabia. In 1524, due to a population surplus, labour in Swabia was worth approximately nothing. The harvest that year was poor and the cost of food skyrocketed. These were people who basically ate Lentils and flour dumplings all the time and now they couldn’t even afford to do that. This is the kind of situation where people get killed over a parsnip. The tipping point was apparently when the Countess of Lupfen ordered serfs to collect snail shells so she could use them as spools for thread. The resulting revolts and retributional massacres thinned the peasantry across Germany by 300,000. The total population was only 12 million across all the principalities. In two years they wiped out about 2.5% of the population!
Jumping ahead a couple of hundred years, we suddenly have The Kingdom of Bavaria in 1806. What had happened was that the line of the Wittelsbachs, ruling family of Bavaria had died out and the Elector of the Palatinate had become ruler during a time when the French Revolutionary armies were overrunning the place. By 1806, they were on the second generation of rulers from the Palatinate line of Wittelsbachs and Bavaria was caught between an increasingly powerful France under Napoleon and the Hapsburgs in neighbouring Austria.
In 1806, Bavaria still had serfs. Because it was made out of small principalities that had been ruled in different ways by different nobles, the laws were different from one village to the next. The entire Kingdom was like that: incredibly outmoded. In France, the revolution had done away with monarchy. In Bavaria, they had not even been able to consolidate the disparate monarchic principalities.
Under Maximillian I Joseph of Bavaria, there was actual reform. There had to be; if they didn’t get their acts together, France or Austria would waltz in and take over. Maximilian Von Mongelas as chief minister oversaw the annexation of free towns and church lands and the holdings of lesser royalty. For the first time ever, there was a central government overseeing everything. There was standardization of agricultural production, which is the kind of thing you need if you’re going up against France or Austria. In 1808, the new constitution abolished serfdom. By 1812, they had abolished torture.
In 1810, Prince Ludwig of Bavaria got married. They threw a festival to celebrate. Oktoberfest!
What we tend to think of as German food is Oktoberfest food. Festhallen fare. Sausages and Pretzels and Sauerkraut and Sauerbraten and Schweinesaxe. It is really meat heavy. That’s not what people typically ate prior to modernization. Further, it would have been basically impossible to organize prior to modernization. Essentially, the Oktoberfest celebration demarcates a significant shift in agricultural production in Bavaria. The food being served is a sort of idealized version of the peasant sustenance that existed before centralization of government. It is a kind of annual bread and circus for the Bavarian people. (Ja! Ein Zirkusbrot!)
It is at this point in 1810 that Bavaria begins to produce the construct that dictates the way we think about beer and food pairing. It’s easy to talk about tradition and intent from this side of it. We’re sort of inculcated to think it’s brilliant. Hamburgers, after all, are just Frikadeller. Hot dogs are just Wurst. You have been eating Oktoberfest food at every family barbeque since you were born. It is not as though it was simply put under glass and existed as a static construct, either. Weisswurst, for instance, which I have been told since I started writing about beer is part of a typical mid-morning German snack wasn’t invented until 1857. By 1857, we had been making lager in Ontario for nearly 30 years.
Next time, we’ll look at the german beer and food construct from a scientific point of view and talk about why it works.