Over the last few months we have been busy researching and organizing our first wintery gourmet trip and as the seemingly inevitable washout August bank holiday arrived we were ready to launch Drink Dine Discover’s German Gourmet Christmas Markets. Germany may seem the obvious travel choice for a nation that inherited its love of Christmas from a German prince (thanks Albert!), but on closer inspection there are lots of surprises in store behind the wooden doors of those fairytale, snow-covered inns.
First up is our alternative to the usual Oktoberfest fare with our stay in the picturesque Aar Valley, not far from Cologne, where some of the country and indeed the world’s finest Pinot Noir is produced. Most people will not be too familiar with German wines, probably associating the country with aromatic whites such as Riesling or low-quality mass-produced semi-sweets the likes of Liebfraumilch. For the longest time, I quite agreed. I do like a nice dry Riesling, don’t get me wrong, but it’s not the stuff to warm your cockles in the depths of winter. So when I first met Anne, now our resident German wine expert, her love and knowledge of her country’s diverse and ancient wine production changed my attitude entirely. Pinot Noir, or Spätburgunder as it is known in Germany, is a real specialty of the Aar Valley, with its steep vineyards whose hilltops are crowned with castle ruins all along the river. Here the wines are red, rich and hearty and the perfect starting point for our tasting tour of seasonal game, family owned distilleries and freshly baked flammkuchen (a type of German tarte flambée).
As we move towards the Belgian border we will also travel through cosy villages that appear to be straight out of a Brothers Grimm tale, trying specially smoked fish by a wintery lake and learning about (and of course indulging in) scrumptious printen, a type of gingerbread only produced in Charlemagne’s favoured spa town, Aachen. Once the Coronation place of German Emperors, this picturesque little town still houses Charlemagne’s treasury, as well as one of the country’s best and most charming Christmas markets.
Though we are just scratching the surface of the wonderful richness of the German countryside, culture and cuisine, it has already become clear that images of frankfurters and flagons really are crude stereotypes. Though the beer is without question very good, and hearty plates of sausages and sauerkraut will no doubt make an appearance these are not the things that make Germany so rich and complex. I think perhaps Germany’s wealth lies in the surprising nuances and quirky traditions of its’ people, history and, of course, gastronomy, that only the inquisitive traveler experiences.