The southern reaches of Germany are defined by the neighbouring states of Baden-Württemberg, to the West and the expansive Bavaria to the East. Both have a wide variety of natural resources and environments which have helped shape South German gastronomy over many centuries, forming a cuisine steeped in history, climate and geography.
Bavaria, although erroneously perceived as an Alpine region, is still steeped in rural heritage and the cooking here has a distinctly rustic and hearty quality, with a predominant focus on meats and bread. Of course, there is alcohol as well, with state-capital Munich and the surrounding areas championing beer gardens, specialising in beer made in accordance with the Fifteenth-Century ‘Reinheitsgebot’ – the ‘Purity Law’ which strictly limited the production of beer to three basic ingredients of water, barley and hops.
The use of meat in Bavaria was revered and traditionally seen as a privilege of the urbanised and wealthy – otherwise it was a weekly one-off treat for the masses. The more sumptuous meat dishes of Bavaria are Gänsebraten (roast goose), roast pork, suckling pig and veal; the latter being the principle ingredient of the famous Weisswurst – ‘White Sausage’ – and served with pretzels and sweet mustard. This is arguably one of the best-known dishes of the region. When it comes to meat however, nothing is left to waste, with less-versatile cuts and offal made into hearty stand-alone treats such as ‘Head Cheese’, a rough-cut cold terrine cured with vinegar. Another traditional dish is a variation on Knödel (dumplings), known as Leberknödel – dumplings enhanced with pork and closer to meatballs than their meat-free counterparts.
Bavaria is known for breads, dumplings and pretzels, traditionally served as foods segregated from the meat-led cuisines of the cities such as Munich. The Laugenbretzel is a large crunchy pretzel served with cheese and beer, whereas noodles (spätzle) were traditionally served as a festive treat. Many dishes were served with abundant local vegetables such as sauerkraut and beets. Another key influencer in Bavarian cuisine is the geographic proximity to Austria; perhaps this is most clearly seen in adapted local dishes of the schnitzel (predominantly the Wiener Schnitzel) and for dessert, the strudel.
To the west, in Baden-Württemberg, the influence shifts towards proximity to France and of course the Black Forest. Baden-Württemberg is perhaps lesser-known for its food offerings than Bavaria but what is available is no less special. Many people say that the cuisine here is well-refined and of excellent quality (Baden-Württemberg has the highest concentration of Michelin-Starred restaurants in Germany). Whereas the familiar meats of pork, beef and veal are found here, as they are to the east, there is a huge emphasis on fruit and vegetables, particularly potato, plums and asparagus.
Baden-Württemberg is more famously known for two meat dishes – a veal roulade, rolled with potato or cabbage and served with Knödel. The state is also famed for its Black Forest Ham – the best-selling smoked ham in Europe, served with fruit or breads.
Of course, the Black Forest is more famous for its Schwarzwälder Kirschtorte – Black Forest Cake – named not for the mountainous uplands of western Baden-Württemberg but for the local liquor Schwarzwälder Kirschwasser, made from cherries. German law dictates that for the cake to be called by its proper name, the cherry brandy must be used to make it. Whereas Bavaria is known for beer, Baden-Württemberg is a major wine-producing region of Germany, particularly with regard to the Riesling grape for traditional white wines and the Spätburgunder grape for reds.
The cuisine of Southern Germany is steeped in tradition and enmeshed in the humble origins of the South German population, and therefore has always been associated more with decent home-cooking than fine cuisine and astute cultural significance. However in recent years the cooking of Bavaria and Baden-Württemberg has taken on a special identify and is becoming featured on menus of fine dining restaurants across the entire region (Bareiss being an excellent example of three-star regional cooking). With such excellent local ingredients, trademarked foods and recipes as well as beverages to match, it is very welcome to see German gastronomy showcased in the way it deserves.