Go Back
Print this page

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.

Within moments, I am given a menu and a glass of Riesling, pale gold with a streak of spun copper from a drop of liqueur. “The wine is bottled just across the way,” says Frau Serr, the proprietress, stopping at my table, her voice as soft as crushed velvet. “My husband makes the liqueur himself. Jos-ta-beeren,” she says, writing it in my notebook. “A cross between a black currant and a gooseberry.” Chilled and not too sweet—the floral backdrop of the Riesling set sparkling with a note of fruit—this apéritif takes the high road around any Kir Royale that has touched my lips (and there have been a number).

Over the next several hours, as the dining room fills and empties (Frau Serr keeping gracious vigil), I eat my way through a meal of startling imagination and execution. There are cubes of rare salmon in a jellied mosaic served with molded spoons of herring tartare dressed in a brilliant tincture of fresh chives and herbs; a layered terrine of goose liver, artichoke bottom, and morels in amber oxtail gelée. There are crisp seared duck livers that flood my mouth with the texture of hot pudding, and roast baby quail resting on threads of pale cabbage and lentils dressed in oil made with bear’s garlic, a wild spring green with a mild garlic flavor. “The cabbage,” says Frau Serr, leaning over my table, “is the first harvest of the spring. The leaves are tender and only lightly furled. When they are julienned they release a milky acid that sours them slightly. My husband dresses them with salt, pepper, caraway, Sherry vinegar, and oil.”

A purée of wild nettles arrives with a toasted brioche crouton painted with garlic oil and paved with thin slices of smoked duck liver. Strips of blond calf tripe in a sauce of veal glaze and cream, made pleasantly piquant by a splash of Riesling, come in the company of a dainty liverwurst dumpling, a spoonful of blood pudding, and lozenges of fried pork sausage. I drink a bright, honeyed Riesling from a nearby vineyard and eat everything placed before me.

Then comes a shoal of freshwater fish: skin-on perch, crisped and shiny with bacon fat, on a sauce scented with lemon thyme; panfried brook trout on strands of shaved spaetzle in an elder-blossom butter sauce; pan-roasted pike in brown butter with the sweetest tips of green and white asparagus surrounded by firm, lightly pickled field capers. Field capers? Frau Serr sketches a dandelion quickly on my pad. “The unbloomed flowers are here,” she says, the tip of her pencil pointing to the base of the plant, “and in season just a few weeks in March. My husband gathers and pickles them.”

At last, with a glass of local Spätburgunder (Pinot Noir), perfectly cool and plummy, I eat tender lamb medallions, in a sauce with whole mustard seeds, and buttery new potatoes. Three “eggs” of bittersweet chocolate mousse and a warm poached pear in a cloak of rum sabayon go down surprisingly smoothly. I have just finished one of the best meals of my life.

If his wife embodies the hushed tones and silken rustle of the front of the house, Herr Serr, arriving at my table after service, embodies the vigor and banter of the back. Yes, everything is made in-house—and half of it’s hand-foraged. I mention the capers. He laughs. “Three hours in the fields with my apprentice for a handful of those damned things,” he says, shaking his head. He prefers the young asparagus, “about fourteen days old,” for garnishing. “I dip them in boiling water or sauté the tips briefly in butter until they’re tender.” Why, I ask him, does Baden have the best food in Germany? “Because they all stomped through here—the Romans, everyone,” he says. “They all left something behind.”

Somewhere in the thick of a lengthy, sometimes explosive discourse—which begins with a defense of tripe and ends with the theory that Germans like sour, salty foods because they are frequently hungover—Herr Serr mentions Vesper, a cold snack prepared in farmhouses and traditionally served to field workers. He dashes off an address and presses it into my hand. “Go here tomorrow,” he says.

It is 3 a.m. when I return to my hotel, grateful for this extraordinary experience, thankful for people like the Serrs—people with deep traditions and commitment, with a near-mystical relationship to the land.

The following afternoon, a day as smoky as a Berlin pub, I drive over the Schwarzwald-Hochstrasse (“Black Forest High Road”). As I enter a valley on the other side of the mountain, the fog is swept away and I am delivered into a quintessential Black Forest landscape. Following Herr Serr’s directions, I cross a set of tracks and drive up the side of a mountain on a ­single-lane road. A sign points down a cobbled walk spilling with flowers to the main house, where a radio on the stoop plays the bouncy accordion of German folk music. No one is in sight. I enter a small paneled dining room with five wooden tables. Empty. Drifting outside, I see—on a stone terrace set with rustic wooden tables beside a little stream—an ancient dog. He glances in my direction, throws his head back, and begins to bark, his front legs lifting stiffly with each breath. Moments later, a handsome woman of about 60 rounds a corner, drawing gardening gloves from her hands.

I introduce myself and ask if I may order Vesper. “You are alone?” Yes. I see in her eyes an appraising twinkle. The old dog lowers himself on the damp stones at her feet, shaking slightly.

Seated with a menu, I see at once that the smoked meats, blood sausage, and cheeses—everything Herr Serr said must be included in a proper Vesper—are at hand. I order homemade cheese and a portion of ham, and Frau Benz sets off, unlocking doors and passing back and forth between the small outbuildings. She brings me a glass of Most, a mildly alcoholic beverage made from apples and pears. I sip the chilled, sour drink—not quite beer, not quite wine—and feel hunger slip over me. Quiet sounds of chopping issue from the kitchen next door. Several minutes pass.

Frau Benz returns with a small work of art. Creamy slices of homemade cheese, two fresh, one air-dried, are arranged on a wooden plate with a thick ribbon of Black Forest ham and a small dish of Bibeleskäs, another fresh cheese (like quark), mixed with herbs and scallions. She directs my attention to a golden slab, “our homemade butter.” The cheeses are wreathed with fresh herbs (parsley, bear’s garlic, and a graceful garland of something she calls Pimpinelle) and translucent laces of red, green, and yellow pepper. Radishes and a sloping chunk of pickle rest alongside thin apple wedges and green and black grapes. I remark how beautiful it is. “I hope you will enjoy it,” she says, placing a basket of sliced farmer’s bread on the table.

The plate is an ensemble performance of sweet and sour, crisp and creamy, sharp and mild, silky and toothsome. When I finish, Frau Benz offers me sips of her fruit liqueurs and schnapps: cherry, pear, and two kinds of plum. Each fills my mouth with fire, fruit, and honey. The Benz Mill has been in her family for over 200 years, she says. She runs it with her son, Arnold. On this rainy afternoon, however, there are just the two of us—two women, not much alike, yet not very different—two women and an old dog.

When my little Renault roars into Freiburg and the southern Black Forest the following day, it is with a sense of urgency. I have little time and much to eat and sip. I meet up with Alf, who lives here, and we begin at the city’s glorious open-air market on the Münsterplatz, by the cathedral. This enormous year-round venue offers small growers and producers a chance to show their wares—fresh flowers and local honey and schnapps, sausages, fresh herbs, handmade cheese, muddy new potatoes, and mountains of white asparagus.

Next, we drive to the highest elevation in the Black Forest, known as Schauinsland (“look into the country”), a route of hairpin turns and increasing elevation, and then we sweep down into the Markgräflerland, one of Baden’s two major wine-producing areas, which lies amid beautiful foothills ­between the Rhine and the Black Forest. Finally we do what anyone would do in Baden in the spring: We go Spargel essen.

White asparagus, whose consumption is virtually a national pastime in Germany—from mid-April to early June, entire menus are created in its honor—is thought to be at its best in Baden (though residents of Braunschweig might protest this call). The lemon-gold spears are long, fat, and straight—an ideal specimen is about eight inches—and closed at the tips, not pebbly like green asparagus. We eat the silky, sweet spears with panfried schnitzel, new potatoes and hollandaise, and a glass of Gutedel, a white wine produced almost exclusively in Germany in the Markgräflerland. The light, elegant, fragrant wine, with its subtle flavors of pear and apple—considered a perfect accompaniment to white asparagus—is a revelation to me.

On the morning before my departure, unable to bring myself to return to Frankfurt, I turn my Renault farther south and drive back to the Markgräflerland. This gentle, misty landscape, with its combination of pine and green forests that appear stitched on velvet and dusted with fog, has seduced me more than all the mountains in the Black Forest. The soft, rolling vineyards crisscrossed with paths and still dotted with tiny watchtowers (for shooting grape-robbing crows, Alf tells me) tumble down into valleys where, at sunset, the chimneys of small farmhouses curl with wisps of smoke, and fields blaze with wildflowers. I am driving to the village of Sulzburg for lunch. There, I stop at the Hirschen, a long-standing two-star restaurant, and by all accounts the best address for food in the southern Black Forest. I wonder if the fare at this decidedly posh country inn will drift toward anonymity or exemplify the virtues I have come to expect in Baden.

When I arrive, late on Sunday morning, the residents of Sulzburg are trickling through the streets on their way home from Mass. Inside the Hirschen, absolute tranquillity reigns. The dining room is beautiful and immaculate. Claude Steiner, the proprietress and sommelier, French by birth, stands looking over the reservation book. Her husband, chef Hans-Paul Steiner (who left Stuttgart for Baden in 1970 because, he says, the Swabians had no taste for culinary adventure), presides over a kitchen primed and ready for service. Their daughter, Douce, and her husband, Udo, both master chefs, are also in chef’s whites, their three-year-old daughter, Justine, in her father’s arms.

Like the Serrs and Frau Benz, the Steiners are people doing what their families before them have done, doing it well, and finding their reward in the pleasure of the process.

The midday menu, a study in elegant conversation between items sharing space on a plate, begins with an amuse-gueule in shades of pink: rabbit ravioli on a tomato cream, crab and artichoke terrine, a band of smoked salmon encircling a watercress mousse and served on a pale coral rouille. A plated primer on rabbit anatomy follows:baby roasted saddle, seared liver, and crisp panfried schnitzel served on a salad a fussy rabbit himself might select—tender creamy peas, tiny green-topped turnips and carrots, and whole diminutive lettuce hearts presented in a warm vinaigrette. A lobster bisque, lightly frothy and tarragon-laced, carries a fleet of crab quenelles. Medallions of aged local beef come with a fan of bear’s garlic crêpes, asparagus in brown butter, and a nicely reduced brown jus. For dessert there is a goat’s-milk crême brûlée served with a lush golden ice cream flecked with basil and warm balsamic-glazed strawberries.

For a moment, at least, I believe in perfect endings.



These country inns, family owned and operated for generations, are all located on or near the Badische Weinstrasse (“Baden Wine Road”), a scenic, meandering route through Baden’s main wine districts. For Germany, first dial 011-49.

" Hotel Talmühle This 30-room inn, which describes its kitchen as the “pulse of the house,” has gardens for outdoor dining. (Talstrasse 36, Sasbachwalden; 7841-10-01; from $90)

" Hotel Restaurant Rebstock Waldulm A small, romantic inn in the foothills of the Black Forest, with a restaurant serving Alsatian and Badisch cuisine. (Kutzendorf 1, Kappelrodeck; 7842-94-80; from $60)

" Hotel Restaurant Rebstock Durbach At this 40-room gem set on lovely grounds, the restaurant features regional fish and game. (Halbgütle 30, Durbach; 781-48-20; from $102)

" Spielweg Hotel and Restaurant An old farmhouse that has been converted to a small luxury inn, with indoor and heated outdoor swimming pools. (Spielweg 61, Münstertal; 7636-70-90; from $105)



In the Baden-Baden area:

" Zum Alde Gott An inventive and beautifully executed menu using local ingredients. (Weinstrasse 10, Baden-Baden/ Neuweier; 07223-55-13; closed Thursday)

" Restaurant Zum Schwan A fine, modest restaurant and inn whose chef makes Pfannkuchen with his great-grandmother’s recipe. (Hauptstrasse 45, Hügelsheim; 07229-22-07; closed Sunday evening and Monday)

In the Freiburg area:

" Gasthof Rebstock-Stube Well-prepared food is served in this charming inn. There is also an excellent wine list. (Hauptstrasse 74, Denzlingen; 07666-90-09-90; closed Sunday and Monday)

" Hotel-Restaurant Hirschen In an antique-filled inn in the center of a little village in the Markgräflerland, a restaurant with two Michelin stars and impeccable service. (Hauptstrasse 69, Sulzburg; 07634-82-08; closed Monday and Tuesday)

For Vesper:

" Benz Mühle Frau Benz makes everything for this traditional meal herself. (Am Bach 17, Ottenhöfen; 07842-25-77; open daily April 1 through November 1)

" Dilgerhof Everything is homemade. (Am Kandelbächle 22, Glottertal; 07684-12-41; closed Sunday and holidays)