Sunday, 9 June 2013

Northern Food on tour: Munchin' in München

Firstly an apology: I know the title of this post is atrocious, but I couldn't resist it. Sorry.

Munich, in common with every other German city I've had the pleasure of visiting, is great. Sausages, beer, attractive parks and squares, a super-efficient transport system with a kiosk selling Jägermeister in every station, friendly locals, and generally pleasant weather. What more could you want from a weekend break?

I was lying about one of the above. The weather. Rarely have I seen so much rain. It chucked it down almost constantly from our arrival on Thursday afternoon to our departure on Sunday night. I'm not talking drizzle here, but genuine soaked through in minutes pissing rain. So a stag weekend of loafing around in biergarten swiftly became a stag weekend loafing around in bierhallen. Not a great deal of difference really, and the news pictures of major flooding in cities less than an hour away made us realise that the persistent damp was little more than a minor inconvenience to our weekend of boozing.

This was my fifth visit to Germany, and let's just say it wasn't the first to have a rather beery focus. As a consequence I haven't got the slightest clue about more refined dining in the country, but I can tell you a thing or two about cheap eats, booze and fast food. Before I waffle on about Munich for a bit, here are my top five tips for cheap eats in Germany:

1) Eat in pubs (or beer gardens, halls or cellars). Entirely stereotypical I know, but you can't beat a good sausage and sauerkraut-fest. The quality is generally high and the prices low.

2) Go Turkish. There are at least 2.5 million people of Turkish origin in Germany, meaning that Turkish is by far the most prevalent non-native cuisine. Turkish food is everywhere, and usually good.

3) If you've risen too late our your lodgings don't provide one, look out for bars or cafes specialising in breakfast. Many of them serve set breakfasts of some generosity. If you go for the works you could be looking at juice, coffee and a colossal basket full of ham, salami, cheeses, bread rolls, pastries, jam, fruit, honey, yoghurt, smoked salmon, rye bread and whatever the hell else they can shoehorn in there.

4) Drink beer on the go. There's no stigma attached to drinking beer anywhere and everywhere in Germany. On the tube, in the streets, at the swimming baths (I kid ye not). May as well get a round in then. Just remember there's probably no stigma attached to it as people tend to behave themselves. High spirits and good cheer are fine. Fighting and puking are not.

5) Of other foreign foodstuffs commonly found, south-east Asian is worth a look (I've had decent Thai and Vietnamese) as is African (Ethiopian seems quite popular). As for Indian, if my sole experience is anything to go by, don't do it. Wait until you get home.

So what of Munich? It generally holds true to the five tips above, though there are clearly some local differences. Beer and sausages are even more popular here than in northern Germany.

The whole Bavarian oompah bands, litres of beer and lederhosen thing isn't just tourist schtick, the locals really seem to love this stuff too. On the weekend that Bayern sealed the treble the city's traditional boozers were heaving, so we kicked things off in true style with bratwurst, sauerkraut (around 7 euros) and a few litres of finest. 

As an aside, don't expect Munich to be full of currywurst, that's more of a Berlin thing, and is certainly more popular in other northern cities than down south. This very closed stall in the Olympic park was the only evidence I saw of the infamous dish.

With your sausages, you'll be needing beer, served here by the half or full litre (6-8 euros for the full, known as ein mass). A litre seems like far too much at first, but you soon get into the swing of things. These were snapped in the Hofbrauhaus, tourist central for all things Bavarian, and home to probably my least favourite of the local beers we tried. My vote goes to Augustiner, whose classic pale lager (Helles) is a thing of crisp, clean beauty.

Munich sells itself as the beer capital of the world (amongst other claimants including Prague and Huddersfield), which may be fair if we're talking in terms of volumes of the stuff drunk, but is rubbish if you're into variety and innovation. There are six breweries in the city, all of whom have been brewing the same four beers (in accordance with the purity laws, the Reinheitsgebot) for the last thousand years, and who between them control the entire drinking market in the city. 

I may have some of the detail wrong there, but you get the gist of it. The ethos is very much 'if it ain't broke don't fix it', so don't come here expecting to drink third pints of super-hopped black IPA. Order up a litre of top quality lager and go with the flow. 

Beer snacks of a non-sausage variety are also available; I'd go for a platter of meats, cheeses and a few giant dough pretzels (around 9 euros a platter, 90 cents a pretzel). If you're lucky the meat platter will include something I can only describe as black pudding haslet. The pretzels are possibly the saltiest thing you'll ever eat, but don't worry you'll have a litre of beer at hand to refresh the palate.

On Friday night we dined at the also touristy but surprisingly good Ratskeller, a huge warren of a place under the Town Hall. This being the full blown traditional German meal of the trip, it had to be Schweinshaxe, or pork knuckle, an enormous great hunk of slow roasted pig, replete with tender meat and crackling (around 18 euros). 

Meat and gravy were splendid, separately served kraut cut the fat a little, but the potato dumplings were the most pointless food stuff ever. Why you'd take some nice mash-able potatoes and work them into something more suited to a round of golf I have no idea.

Fast food time! The döner kebabs in Germany are really quite nice. Honest! Usually served on thicker Turkish bread rather than pitta, and with actual shreds of meat rather than foot long strands of processed elephant leg, you could almost eat one sober. Almost. 3 or 4 euros a pop in Munich.

A pizza and pasta place fifty yards from our hotel proved to be a lifesaver, being near enough to obtain sustenance without getting wet again if you legged it. The quality was genuinely high for the ridiculously low prices. This mushroom stuffed calzone, with a proper chew and char to the dough, cost a mere 3 euros.

Sunday afternoon, almost time for home and the excess is starting to bite. Is there a cuisine better suited to soothing sore heads than Vietnamese? Salty broths, herbs, chilli heat; it's all pure tonic. This little place down the road from the Hauptbahnhof did us proud. Pots of jasmine tea all round.

Vietnamese spring rolls and a couple of salads to start. This shrimp salad was the pick of the bunch, bright and balanced.

Noodle soups to follow. Bun bo was absolutely unbeatable hangover fodder. Savoury broth with some depth, springy noodles, herbal notes. A platter of herbs wouldn't have gone amiss, but at less than 15 euros each for tea, noodles and a bunch of shared starters this was great.

That was Munich, a successful send off for Mr Farrar who weds in July. In summary, the historic beer places are well worth a visit. Go to the Hofbrauhaus once for the experience then head elsewhere. I liked the Augustiner places best. The pubs close early, after which time it's clubs and bars (mostly quite dodgy sports bars on the face of it). The area around Hauptbahnhof (central station) is where most of the cheap hotels are, and is where you'll find good fast food and ethnic eats. I've heard that the parks, squares and beer gardens are delightful, but can't verify this as it never stopped raining. If you suffer the same fate and all else fails you can always go drink Jägermeister on the tube. Prost!

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