2000s Archive

Germany's Secret Garden

Originally Published October 2002
In Baden, where the Black Forest nestles up against France and Switzerland, you'll find some of Europe's finest restaurants.

When I lived in West Berlin a dozen years ago, it was well known that the city’s great chefs came from Baden. In restaurant kitchens throughout the big, scarred metropolis—with its traffic and graffiti, kinky clubs and pink hair—chefs were hard at work re-creating the pristine regional fare of their childhoods. We couldn’t get delicacies from Baden—it was too far away—but the chefs I worked for spent hours on the phone with small farmers across the border in West Germany, coming up with specials before someone across town beat them to it. “Frau Schrott finally has those wild white strawberries,” our chef might announce. “I took them all.” Over the next few days, a succession of village ladies, their cotton dresses bound by aprons, would arrive—after driving for hours on a bumpy East German transit road—with treasures wrapped in damp newspaper: morels or chanterelles, butter or trumpet mushrooms, herbs in wild tangles, ramps, bear’s garlic, white asparagus, rhubarb, currants in three colors, Morello cherries, elder blossoms in the spring and elderberries in late summer, green and red gooseberries, wild strawberries, raspberries, blackberries. Everyone in the kitchen would gather around as if it were Christmas.

It was ironic that West Berlin’s finest wares entered the city by car from forests and village gardens on the other side of the country. Once the Wall came down, ladies in aprons continued to arrive, but their accents were different, and their travel time reduced. The produce was finally local.

In those days, I never made it to Baden, that wavy strip of land stretched out in the southwestern part of the Federal Republic, with the legendary Black Forest running through it like the laces on a boot. But there was little disagreement: Baden had the best food in Germany. Why, I asked? “Ist doch klar”—“It’s obvious”—people said: Baden was once part of the Hapsburg Empire, and was held to high standards by its French and Swiss neighbors; Baden had sunshine and a forgiving climate; Baden had the Black Forest and fertile valleys along the Rhine to the west and the Neckar to the east; Baden had wine—good wine, and lots of it.

Ten years later, my once lush German ground to chitchat, I return. I want to see if what everyone says is true. I want to savor Baden from top to bottom. Bounding off the plane in Frankfurt at 5 a.m., exhilarated and starved for impressions, I see curved, glowing metal and spit-shiny floors, hear, in the hush of early morning, the highest Hochdeutsch, silken over the public address system, and smell cologne and cigarettes. Yes, this is Germany.

Installed in a compact Renault five-speed, I head south for Heidelberg, Baden’s northernmost city, the little car shuddering with its efforts to run with the big dogs—sleek German beasts that come from behind at gale force. Exiting the frightening efficiency of the autobahn, I take a couple of turns, snake my way along a backstreet or two, and end up on a bridge. Suddenly, there is Heidelberg, as breathtaking as reported, cleft by the Neckar and cushioned by the hills that enfold it, sunlight glancing off the cream and ochre planes and terra-cotta roofs of the old city on one side, backlighting the terraced villas set in smoky green and black on the other.

My first meal, breakfast at a small café, is neither truly German (I order fried eggs and bacon) nor perfectly prepared, but everything tastes so good. The orange juice is dense and sweet, the eggs richly flavored, and the bacon thick and wavy with a clean, sweet, natural smoke. Even the baguette has a rich, nutty chew. I am reminded that German food has substance—butter melts slowly; coffee is thick and rich, the foam on a beer creamy and substantial—and that German chefs don’t shoot the flavor messengers, salt and fat.

But overall the food in Heidelberg does not transport me. Small bourgeois restaurants, generally my favorites, are good but not great; the fancy restau­rants offer anonymous fare—fussy, expensive, soulless. And so I set off for the city of Baden-Baden and the northern Black Forest. Another high-speed arrival, another beautiful town—fountains, gardens, little dogs led by well-dressed dowagers—and I am standing in the lobby of the rather pompous hotel I’ve booked. Great restaurants in the area? I ask the concierge. They are all exceptional, he says primly. The very best, he allows, is right down the street, in their sister hotel. He produces a menu, but I am not inspired.

Instead, I reserve a table at Zum Alde Gott, a restaurant deep in the vineyards of Neu­weier, about 10 miles from Baden-Baden. It was recommended by Alf, my former chef from Berlin, who based his suggestion on little more than a hunch that, because the name is in the Badisch dialect, it might be worth a visit.

The chef’s directions over the phone bring me through villages and vines to a large rustic house at the crest of a hill. I enter a dining room of deep green, pale damask, and exquisite calm. The view from my table sweeps into a valley and up the side of a mountain pleated with grape arbors.

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