Rude Food with Vir Sanghvi: My Germany diary
Germany was not my first choice. When the temperatures became unbearable in Delhi, we decided that it was finally time to take our annual summer vacation, something I had put off because of work pressures.
Traditionally, we go West in the summer, because the climate is more temperate. This time, however, climate change had ensured that this was not so. Paris temperatures were nearly as high as the city’s hotel room rates (and a lot hotter than many places in India). Likewise with the nicer parts of Italy. Spain and Portugal were cheaper, but hot. Amsterdam was much too expensive. London in the summer is never a very attractive proposition; I love the city but summer is when you meet all the people you have spent all year avoiding in Delhi.
So, by a process of elimination, we settled on Germany. Air India and Lufthansa both had direct flights to Frankfurt and the Air India fare was not too exorbitant.
The problem was that while I had been to Frankfurt four times, I had no distinct memories of it at all. One trip had been for the launch of India: Then and Now at the book fair; another on my way to Stuttgart for a Mercedes symposium; a third on the way to wine country and the fourth and most recent, as a stopping-off point for Luxemburg.
So my wife and I decided we would take the flight to Frankfurt because it was convenient, but we would then quickly get the hell out of there and go somewhere more scenic. We settled on Cologne (a two-hour drive away), largely because we had heard of it, though we knew nothing at all about the city.
I have long been a member of Leaders Club, a programme run by The Leading Hotels of the World, a body of independent hoteliers and though the membership has many rewards (late check-out, upgrade to the next category of room, etc.) I have hardly used my membership in recent years, relying instead on Marriott’s superb Luxury Collection properties in Europe (The Gritti Palace in Venice, Hotel Alfonso XIII in Seville, Hotel Maria Cristina in San Sebastian etc.).
But there were no Luxury Collection hotels in Cologne and the Leading Hotels property in Cologne, a family-owned grand hotel called Excelsior Hotel Ernst, seemed irresistible. So, knowing nothing about Cologne, very little about the hotel except that it was over a century old, and knowing even less about Germany, we booked our flights and set off.
And am I glad we went? Gosh, yes! It was amazing!
Though we had no way of knowing this when we booked, the Excelsior Hotel Ernst is right opposite Cologne Cathedral, one of the most inspiring and beautiful churches in Europe. Within minutes of checking in, we went off to the cathedral and were stunned by its sheer beauty and majesty.
It is run by the Church, entry is free and they are hospitable and tolerant. Right in front of the entrance stood a group of Hare Krishnas, singing loudly and dancing. The priests were happy to let them sing and chant, and their tolerance extended to all religions and sects. The following day, the Falun Gong, a Chinese sect, actually set up a counter in the church’s compound and were regarded with the same benevolence.
The old city of Cologne is smallish, charming and easy to walk around in. It is full of pedestrian streets, little cafés with outdoor seating, musicians who play for free (you can drop a few coins in their caps if you like) at street corners and it borders the Rhine, the river of legend.
There were some foreign tourists (mainland Chinese, mainly) but the vast majority of visitors were Germans so there were few concessions to non-German speakers. Menus were in German, and at most restaurants, there were usually only one or two staff members who could speak in English. For all that, they were extraordinary friendly and helpful, far nicer than staff at establishments in France, the UK, or even Italy. They were genuinely welcoming and good-natured.
Because we had arrived in Cologne with no expectations and no plans, we took each day as it came. By some coincidence, we had arrived in time for the Cologne Lichter, the most spectacular fireworks display I have ever seen. It is around 25 minutes of dazzling lights in the sky choreographed to a soundtrack of music. It lights up the Rhine while hundreds of thousands of people, who have come in from all over Germany, sing, dance and light their own sparklers on the banks of the river.
Cologne is the home of Eau de Cologne, so I went off to Farina, the house that invented the scent and to 4711 (the brand that gave it mass popularity.) We took cruises on the Rhine. A short train journey (German trains are good: nearly as good as the Swiss) took us to Königswinter and up the mountains to the castle of Drachenfels.
The highlight, for us, was the Ludwig Museum, one of Germany’s greatest art museums, full of original Picassos, Klees, Fontanas, Mondrians and other masterpieces as well as a whole section devoted to pop art: Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, etc.
None of this is to say that we went from museum to cathedral, one after the other. Most of the time, we just ambled aimlessly, stopping at traditional beer places for sausages and tarte flambé. Or we sat and lazed in town squares listening to musicians play. There was no need to dress up, no need to plan ahead and everywhere we went was cool and breezy.
Frankfurt was supposed to be no more than a transit point but the two days we spent there were a revelation. It was bright and sunny, the flowers were in bloom and we ate every meal al fresco, enjoying the greenery as much as we enjoyed the food.
Ah, the food. Well, let’s talk about the good first. I asked for restaurant recommendations on Twitter and the most credible suggestion came from my friend Maunika Gowardhan (@cookinacurry) who sent us to the lovely Villa Merton where we ate Michelin-star food in the garden of a villa as evening fell. Having admired the Rembrandts at the Stadel Museum, we repaired to the museum’s Holbein restaurant where we ate an excellent lunch on the terrace.
Frankfurt has no three-Michelin star restaurants and only one two-star, which is fairly pathetic for a great metropolis. Cologne has two restaurants with two stars. We went to one of them Le Moissonier, a cramped French bistro where the owner and his wife looked after the room with warmth and care. But the tables were so small and so tightly packed that I could not understand why every side dish came in unnecessarily large plates, which the table could not easily accommodate. Most of the food was fine but hardly of two-star quality and one dish, the pâte de foie gras was dire: it had either been in the fridge too long or they had bought it from outside (a common enough practice). I can only assume that a French Michelin inspector was homesick when he gave the restaurant two stars.
As for the rest of the food, Germans always complain that outsiders treat their food as comprising boiled meat, schnitzel, sausages and potatoes. Well, having eaten now at very many non-fancy places in Germany, I can tell you that, in actual fact, German cuisine is boiled meat, schnitzel, sausages and potatoes. Yes, every cliché is accurate.
Which is not to say it is bad. I like sausages and potatoes. But yes, there comes a time when you tire of bratwurst and long for something different. My experiment with the French bistro having misfired. I went Asian instead. I found an authentic Sichuan restaurant called Great Wall (it was cheap and two thirds of the guests were Chinese) and ordered tonnes of takeaway: Mapo Tofu, Gong Bao Chicken, Beans with Minced Pork, Sichuan Barbecued Pork etc. and smuggled it back to our room. Out of respect for the Excelsior Ernst’s deluxe surroundings, we drank good champagne with it.
It is shameful to admit, but I don’t think I enjoyed a meal in Cologne as much as I enjoyed my takeaway!
If all this makes Germany sound wonderful, well yes, it really was. Not everything is perfect. Frankfurt Airport is run in a manner reminiscent of those World War Two POW camp movies and my Frankfurt hotel was disappointing.
But we had so much fun, found it was much cheaper than France or England (which was a surprise) and by the time we left, began to wonder why it had taken us so long to discover Germany.
From HT Brunch, July 28, 2019
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