The Great Pork Knuckle Quest
Gonna try and keep this short(ish) to get back to regular blogging...
Spent 3 days of our Christmas holiday in Hamburg, a 10-hour drive from the in-laws' in France. I hadn't been terribly keen on visiting Germany, picturing only humourless crewcut blondes (male and female), rows of cold industrial warehouses and drug-filled rave parties, but the chance to visit old friends and sample some pork knuckle won over in the end.
Turned out to be a great suggestion on Philippe's part. Hamburg is a charming, cosmopolitan city with well-preserved storybook architecture (it managed to avoid most of the wartime bombs), a bustling port, elegant, tree-lined shopping streets, picturesque canals ("the Venice of the North" said the guidebook) and best of all, heaps of good food. Because of the port, many of the city's specialties are seafood dishes, a far cry from the stereotypical sausages and sauerkraut.
A trip to Hamburg also has the added benefit of snickers (the laugh, not the candy bar) every time you see the descriptive Hamburger, meaning "from Hamburg". Example:
Hamburger Hof is the name of a shopping mall.
A local football team is called Hamburger SV.
There's even a dessert that begins with Hamburger (Hamburger Rote Grutze), which had us confused on menus to no end.
This works in Frankfurt too but Hamburger still sounds funnier than Frankfurter.
Anyway, the flip side of Hamburg being such an international city is that German food is decidedly untypical daily fare. A quick call to our friend Lam to ask for recommendations yielded a puzzling "German food? I've only eaten that once in my life."
This from a guy who was born and raised in Germany.
Surely enough, a wander around several of the more popular eating neighbourhoods in Munich, such as Grosse Neumarkt, uncovered only Irish pubs, Italian pizzerias, sushi joints, even Mexican hole-in-the-walls. The first lunch that Gloria and Lam took us to too, while supposedly very German and packed to the brim with locals, turned out to be a bonafide fish and chips restaurant in the English tradition, down to the Pakistani guy manning the newspaper wrapped takeaway service.
But eventually Lam came through on our pleas for a REAL German place, and off we went for dinner at the still-not-so-German-sounding Old Commercial Room.
And here you go, genuine Hamburg specialties!
A sweet-and-sour version of minestrone filled with assorted veggies, stewed fruits and slices of eel. According to the good folks at Wikipedia, the eel was never an original ingredient in the soup. Rather, the name aalsuppe is literally soup with all in it, i.e. a toss-everything-in-and-clear-the-fridge kinda soup, but after many confused people ordered it expecting to see aallool or eel in it, the eel came to be a staple.
This was really fun. I'm a big fan of all things vinegary, so enjoyed this very much as a 'kai wei' opening to what I (rightly) anticipated was a heavy meal. The stewed fruits also seemed appropriately festive with the snow falling outside.
This was also the closest thing I'd be getting to Asian food for a while (giam chye soup?!) and so was deserving of a fair amount of lingering and licking of spoons.
My queries to Gloria and Lam on true Hamburg food earlier in the day engendered a fit of childish giggles from Gloria. "The Vomit!" she cried to Lam, "they must eat The Vomit!" She then admitted there was a very traditional dish from Hamburg called labskaus, which neither of them had yet dared to try (Lam in his almost 40 years of being a German, and Gloria in her 10 years of being married to one), on account of its uncanny resemblance to, you guessed it, vomit.
So, at dinner, we ordered The Vomit. Here it is, oozing out, swamp-creature like, the colour of exposed flesh, from under the fried egg.
The Vomit turned out to be a fairly tasty but aesthetically unappealing ladle of mushy corned beef (imagine creamed corned beef without cream, if that makes sense. Or regurgitated corned beef without Grandma's false teeth in them). Served with beetroot and mashed potatoes, it seemed like something you'd make for yourself in college when the funds run out - thrown together from tinned cans, nothing fancy or delicate, but still digestible and pretty filling.
This was fun from a tourist perspective ("Look Ma, Germans eat puke!"), but not sure if I'd voluntarily order it again or attempt to make it at home.
Our mains turned out to be more generically pan-European than German. I had duck breast with braised red cabbage and potato hash balls; Lam had a highly recommended fish and Philippe pork medallions with tagliatelle. All were very well prepared and had us eagerly swopping samples across the table. Still, it was hard to get past the mental block of "I'm in Germany and I want pork knuckle dammit!", despite Lam and our server's gentle protests that these dishes are truly Hamburgian.
Hamburger Rote Grutze
At least there was no denying that dessert was authentically local - after all, it did bear the Hamburger appellation. This turned out to be an innocuous plate of mixed berries in cream, oddly summery in the midst of bleak winter, but deliciously tart and cheerily coloured.
Our meal was accompanied (for me at least) with glass after glass of Spezi, a popular localsoft drink which is really a mix of Fanta Orange and Coke. Caramel brown and tepid, it brought back guilty childhood memories of the Kickapoo-Sarsi-Cherryade combinations my primary school drink stall aunty would allow us to concoct for 20 cents a pop.
I'd highly recommend the Old Commercial Room if you're in Hamburg looking for a good meal. The restaurant is very much a local institution, and a first encounter with one of the formally dressed, silver-haired servers is enough to impart that "hallowed hall" feeling. It's also a great place to gain insight on Hamburg's people and its development as a city, with newpaper clippings and photos covering every available inch of wall space. Oh, plus they have some kick-ass looking booze hanging around.
P.S. I finally got my pork knuckle on the way back to France during a one night stopover in Frankfurt. Nice looking city with impressive office towers and cool sculptures dotting the streets, but completely dead during the holidays. We ended up finding my precious schweinhaxe at a restaurant in the middle of the Markt with more tourist than gastronomic value. Nothing worth recommending but it looked impressive and I'm just glad I finally got it. Here's the baby!
Back to local blogging next!