Coffee, Sugar and Potatoes, 1648 to 1815


As a result of the Thirty Years War, resilience and pragmatism gained an even stronger footing in German culinary culture. Whole regions were completely devastated: people struggled to get back on their feet and rebuild not only houses, but foodchains. A study of bakers and bread-baking in Weida in Thuringia illuminates the effects of the war on the food economy in a small town that had been almost completely destroyed. As was usual at the time, bakers were organized in a guild, and each master baker had to buy a place in the communal ‘bread-bank’, the bench, where an employee, usually an elderly person who couldn’t do any other job, was in charge of sales. Before the war all twelve of the town’s bakers had been allowed to offer their wares for sale. Afterwards, once more normal life resumed, a system known as Wechselbacken, alternating bake-days, was introduced because demand was much lower. This arrangement, first documented in 1680, allowed only one baker to bake each day, except on market days, when everybody could do as they liked. On Sundays and holidays no bread was baked unless there was a real necessity: in these cases a single baker was permitted to bake, provided that the bread wasn’t delivered to the selling-bench before the end of the priest’s sermon. Restrictions on permitted bake-days meant that in order to make a living the town’s master bakers had to maintain their own cereal-producing farms and take up beer-brewing as an alternative source of income. The system, however, allowed them time enough to take care of these other businesses, while on bake-days sales were guaranteed. From the customers’ point of view the advantages were less obvious, since reduced competition seems to have been detrimental to quality. These regulations remained in force until the second half of the eighteenth century, when the economy seems finally to have recovered. In 1789 Tuesday and Saturday were deregulated and became general baking days and in 1793 the restrictive regulations were reduced to the bread sold at the bread-bank, and each master-baker additionally had the right to sell their wares at their own bakery’s window. From the nineteenth century onwards the system of alternating bake-days applied only to Sundays and holidays.1

The patronizing nature of the guild system was also reflected in the Hausväterliteratur (literally housefather literature), household companions directed at a growing bourgeois middle class. One of the earliest examples is the Oeconomia by Johannes Coler, a Protestant parish priest, published between 1593 and 1601. The subject-matter was very Lutheran, very comprehensive and very successful. Whereas books by professional cooks were clearly aimed at instructing colleagues searching for specialist knowledge, these works were more about guiding good (Protestant) Christians on the right path to a productive, moderate, quiet life, with recipes appearing almost as an afterthought. Just as Luther’s wife Katharina took care of all aspects of household management, detailed instructions were provided for everything from agriculture and viticulture to the correct answers to religious questions. In later centuries this would evolve into a new and vital category of cookbook directed at young wives, based in some respects on the late fourteenth-century Ménagier de Paris, but eventually leading to an independent genre in the style of Madame de Saint-Ange.

Just as Luther’s German didn’t make for the disappearance of local dialects, the regional diversity on a culinary level possibly became even more pronounced (as within the European Union today). As a larger trend, however, it could be argued that with a common language and a confession of their own under their belt, Germans now felt bold enough to look for new inspirations for food. However, they didn’t lose their love for everything Italian. By now those German kitchens that could afford these kinds of foodstuffs were familiar with lemons, cauliflower and Savoy cabbage (all originally from Italy). Rumpolt not only had a whole chapter of salad suggestions (likewise an Italian method), but also recipes for Nudel – pasta – dishes, including one for noodle soup and a kind of tagliatelle from flour and eggs which he served with grated bread, Parmesan and hot butter, a method he thought originated in Tyrol. After liberating themselves from the Roman church, Germans (or at least those at the upper end of the social spectrum), like the majority of Europeans in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century, chose France as a cultural leitmotif (an orientation which would find its disillusioning end with Napoleon).

Manners, fashion and culinary habits took on a French veneer, and French phrases were incorporated into ordinary conversation. Everything turned fashionably à la mode (des Français). Many German princes followed the example of the Prussian king Frederick II and developed a court culture on the French model. Princely palaces were built with ornately designed gardens in imitation of those of Versailles. Intimate dinners with guests seated at round tables encouraged intelligent conversation. The dining-as-spectacle banquets in which all, including beggars, had their place, became much rarer, further removing the common folk from contact with their rulers. In contrast to the all-powerful Sun King in Paris, Germany had a multitude of smaller political units governed by absolute rulers. The nobility, formerly independent, became court-attending aristocrats; self-confident burghers turned themselves into state-dependent bureaucrats, who were obedient and servile rather than acting as self-determined citizens. A fable by the Württemberg politician and writer Friederich Karl von Moser published in 1786 illustrates this:

On the occasion of the birthday of a young eagle, King Eagle gave a banquet for his family and invited the entire sky’s army to join the celebration. In deference to his power, thousands of birds waited on his table, admired the richness of the dishes and even more the heroic digestive powers of their king. ‘We’, the sated eagle finally announced to the watching crowd, ‘have eaten.’ ‘But we haven’t,’ chirped a sparrowhawk plagued by hunger. ‘You,’ replied the sublime ruler, ‘are my state. I am eating for all of you.’2

In previous centuries regional culinary differences had been most evident among the rural population – generally due to variations in the availability of raw materials – whereas upper-class cuisine was more uniform and international. In the kitchens of the educated bourgeoisie, these two styles merged, with cooks imitating and refining familiar regional dishes according to the dictates of French court cuisine. The result of the merger of sophisticated haute cuisine with peasant culinary traditions was a new culinary style, Bürgerliche Küche (this was a general European development, as witnessed, for instance, by Menon’s La Cuisinière bourgeoise, published in 1746). Whereas the cookbooks of the previous century were based on the culinary culture of the Mediterranean and to a much lesser degree Eastern Europe (Poland, Hungary and Bohemia), hefty tomes like the authoritative Die wohl unterwisene Köchin (The Well-instructed Woman Cook) by Maria Sophia Schellhammer of 1697 now firmly looked towards France. The French added sweet desserts and meat dishes such as fricasséeragoût and côtelettes to the German repertoire, complete with linguistic terms. Exotic spices were replaced by fresh herbs, cooking times were reduced and restraint and naturalness replaced the dietetics of old as a guiding principle. Somewhat to modern gourmets’ surprise, England also played an important culinary role at the time, an influence undoubtedly furthered by the general trade connections. Marperger’s kitchen dictionary of 1716 praised the cooks and dishes of England, among them the then fashionable boiled puddings.

The dominant economic phenomenon of the time was mercantilism, aiming for prosperity through trade. Rulers’ coffers were filled most easily through perfecting the tax system. On the one hand this led to extensive land surveying and, in turn, to the first mapping and classification of vineyards. On the other, innumerable toll gates represented an obstacle: merchant barges on the Rhine, for instance, had to stop and pay tolls every 6 miles on average. Mercantilism thrived in a growing populace that mass-produced for export and fitted well into the ideas of the Enlightenment, whose efforts to educate and generally improve the plight of the lower classes were directed at ‘good Christians, obedient subjects and efficient farmers’.

As a result, guild systems were increasingly identified as a hindrance to more efficient production methods, just as large, all-inclusive households gradually made way to the modern idea of a private, blood-related inner family. Civil servants and members of the educated middle classes were the first to implement the change, as the father of the family began to leave the house for work or retreated to his private office. Servants were banished to their own quarters, and children were increasingly excluded from the adult world. Fewer people worked in craft-based guilds and, with the rise of modern industry, manufacturers began to pay wages, a situation which led to more workers living independently as lodgers. At the same time, as an increasing amount of prepared food was bought in from cookshops, less space was needed in kitchens, whereas the salon became important for receiving guests.

Although the lengthy economic recovery after the Thirty Years War somewhat slowed them down in comparison with others, Germans took up the refined eating-habits of their French neighbours together with new ways in the kitchen. When cutlery became de rigueur for the nobility, the urban middle classes and affluent peasantry gradually followed suit. The use of fingers was now deemed uncouth and separate plates replaced communal bowls. From the end of the seventeenth century individual cutlery, including forks, was in general use. Tableware served increasingly to demonstrate social status. Preferences varied from region to region. In the north pewter was kept for daily use while costly silver dishes, set out when the occasion warranted, were otherwise stored in a special cabinet with a locked compartment. In the south luxury generally took the form of exclusive glassware.

In 1712 the inventory of a canvas merchant from Münster in Westphalia mentioned a tea pot, a special tea-table and silver cutlery, including knives, forks and spoons, as well as a porcelain dining service. The latter might well have been faience, since the Dutch had been striving to copy Chinese porcelain for half a century. These accoutrements, signs of an aspirational lifestyle, along with mirrors, paintings and other decorative elements, were becoming more and more common in private households. New rituals evolved, with the new and fashionable hot drinks served to visitors seated on elegant new furniture such as upholstered chairs and settees.

The way in which courtly cuisine and lifestyle trickled down through society can clearly be seen through the life and work of the writer, philosopher and scientist Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Neither over-indulgent nor notably ascetic, Goethe’s life appears to have revolved around his study and dining table, making him one of the first and most influential German gourmets. His mother’s cooking at the family home in Frankfurt am Main was as renowned as the meals he served during his long and extremely active adult life in the yellow-painted dining room of his house in Weimar.

I have eaten; but ne’er have thus relish’d my food!

For when glad are the senses, and joyous the blood,

at table all else is effaced.

As for youth, it but swallows, then whistles an air;

As for me, to a jovial resort I’d repair,

where to eat, and enjoy what I taste.

I have drunk; but have never thus relish’d the bowl!

For wine makes us lords, and enlivens the soul,

and loosens the trembling slave’s tongue.

Let’s not seek to spare then the heart-stirring drink,

for though in the barrel the old wine may sink,

in its place will fast mellow the young.3


Georg Melchior Kraus, Evening Gathering at Duchess Anna Amalia, 1795, watercolour. The poet Goethe enjoyed these informal gatherings where everybody indulged in their own interests.

Goethe’s writings provide ample proof that he made no rigid division between disciplines, be it gastronomy, poetry or science. Food and wine influenced his poetry just as powerfully as did his scientific research. For him the traditional conflict between high intellectual ambition and a supposedly lowly preoccupation with the pleasures of the table did not exist. It could indeed be argued that it was Goethe’s example that encouraged Karl Friedrich von Rumohr to publish his Geist der Kochkunst (The Essence of the Art of Cooking) in 1822. Goethe’s early years were affluent. Born in Frankfurt, his father was a wealthy man who had studied law; his mother the daughter of a hotelier and wine merchant who inherited a wine cellar. Since Goethe’s grandfather was among the highest ranking members of Frankfurt society, the young man was often a guest at important celebrations, such as the historic coronation of the Holy Roman Emperor, Joseph II, in 1764, when a whole oxen was roasted on a spit. Since 1356 the Frankfurt cathedral had served first as the election chamber of all German emperors, then as their place of coronation. The city’s municipal grandeur was balanced, however, by modesty in the everyday life of its citizens. Goethe’s aunt, for instance, was not too grand to run a delicatessen.

Expenditure by Goethe’s own household in Weimar on food and wine was quite extravagant, and invitations to lunch were generously extended. White asparagus, very fashionable in elite circles, was among Goethe’s favoured dishes. His father had planted asparagus between rows of vines in his small vineyard just outside Frankfurt’s city wall and Goethe regularly sent asparagus (as well as strawberries) from his garden over to Charlotte von Stein, his muse, who lived just around the corner. As was usual then, every household grew as much of its own food as possible, both on rented Krautland, vegetable patches, and in their own gardens. Goethe brought home venison after hunting trips with the duke, but most of the rarer food items were supplied through a network of suppliers built up over the years. A friend of Goethe’s regularly sent him fresh Dutch herrings, eel, salmon, lobster and oysters, as well as smoked tongue, pineapple, ginger and lemons. Most famous among those much valued supplies were Teltower Rübchen, an aromatic type of small white turnip from the town of the same name near Berlin, provided by his friend Zelter. The Rübchens’ story is worthy of the great writer’s merits.

The small white turnips are one of the oldest examples of a cultivar linked to a particular terroir. The district of Teltow, immediately south of Berlin is marked by sandy soils of low agricultural value. A search through the relevant literature reveals a wealth of recipes and references up to the present day. Possibly the oldest recipe is found in the Brandenburgisches Kochbuch of 1723 by Maria Sophia Schellhammer (based on the earlier Die wohl unterwisene Köchin). However, the renown of the little turnips extended well beyond mere recipes. Besides Goethe praising them highly, the gastronomic philosopher Karl Friedrich von Rumohr in his Geist der Kochkunst mentioned them as a characteristic speciality of Brandenburg. Theodor Fontane extolled the riches of the region in a poem dated 1898: ‘Masses of asparagus around Halensee, dill, morels and Teltow Turnips, crayfish from the River Oder hither and thither . . .’. The Viennese Appetitlexikon (published 1894 by Habs and Rosner) described them in detail and the French Grande Encyclopédie of the 1880s included them, under the heading navets, amongst others, de Berlin petit de Teltau.

They were nothing new in Paris, having also been included in a Traité des Jardins published in Paris in 1789, where they were described as ‘le Navet de Berlin . . . very small, white, a bit elongated, very tender and tasty’.4 The success of the Teltow turnips seems to have been an almost worldwide phenomenon. Johann Christoph Bekmann wrote in his Historische Beschreibung der Chur und Mark Brandenburg (published 1751) about the trade on land and sea, linking Brandenburg with Spain and Portugal, St Petersburg, Constantinople, Batavia and Havana, as well as ‘all parts of the world’. Among the exports were ‘all manner of field and kitchen fruits, particularly the little turnips of Teltow, which amongst foreigners are considered as delicacies’. Other claims, however, particularly those made in regional publications from the early twentieth century, seem impossible to prove. They ranged from Teltow turnips being widely cultivated in Brandenburg during the Middle Ages and monks of Lehnin regularly sending them to the pope, to Liselotte von der Pfalz introducing them at the Versailles court of Louis XIV. In a similar vein legend had them served at the wedding breakfast of Napoleon and his second wife, Marie Louise von Habsburg, in 1810.

In contrast there can be no doubt about the work of generations of Teltow farmers who sowed the turnips at the end of August, around St Bartholomew’s day, between the stubble left after the rye harvest. After eight or nine weeks – that is, at the end of October or the beginning of November – they were harvested. According to a report in the Teltower Kreiskalender of 1905, the turnips were in such high demand that they did not need to be offered at public markets. Instead the farmers had regular customers and exported large amounts to South Tyrol, Austria, Italy and Switzerland.

After the Second World War, for Germans living in the western part of the divided country, all this fame, history and excitement were difficult to understand. The turnips occasionally sold under this name had no special character. Grown on much richer soils near Hamburg, they tasted fresh, mildly acidic and rather watery, as turnips in general quickly adapt to local conditions. In East Germany Teltow seeds only survived in two private gardens. But since the early 1990s they have been once again become available commercially, cultivated by Axel Szilleweit, a Teltow market gardener. His Rübchen taste exactly as they are described in all the old books: aromatic, delightfully piquant and spicy-earthy, their sweetness and horseradish-like hotness wonderfully balanced.

Goethe was an experienced wine taster. On one occasion the duke had a red wine served blind after dinner and all present agreed that it was Burgundy, but couldn’t come up with more precise details (showing us that blind tastings and guessing are not a modern invention). Goethe took longer than anybody else and finally declared that, never having tasted this wine before, he didn’t believe it to be a Burgundy. He then correctly identified it as a wine from nearby Jena, stored for some time in a Madeira barrel. Goethe was equally interested in the scientific background of food and wine. He took great pains to describe the soil in Johannisberg in Rheingau (for him one of the best German vineyards) and correlate wine quality with location (terroir) and harvesting time, all of which remain vital to German wine production to this day. Goethe found beer too heavy and coffee made him ‘trist’, melancholic, but he grew very fond of hot chocolate in his old age. He always had his own wine bottle at the table in Weimar (a sign of how bottled wine had become normal, at least in cultivated circles, which it wasn’t a century earlier). His mother regularly sent him bottlings of his grandfather’s old wines from her wine cellar in Frankfurt, which she tagged ‘die alten Herren’, the old gentlemen. Goethe’s favourite vintage was 1811, der Eilfer, the year of the great comet. Just hours before he died in 1832 in Weimar, he sipped wine, albeit diluted with water.

When François Le Goullon, former head chef to the duke’s mother Anna Amalia, opened his own Hôtel de Saxe in Weimar, Goethe was a regular customer and frequently had dishes sent over to his own table, including pâté de foie gras. In 1829 Le Goullon published Der neue Apicius, a cookbook that included instructions on the composition of a proper meal as served in bourgeois circles. The first wine, he stipulated, should be a Tischwein or table wine, so called because it was set on the table, one bottle between every two guests. WürzburgerRheinweinMosel and Forster Wein (from the Pfalz) were recommended whites, and Bordeaux, Tavel or Roussillon the preferred reds. These wines were to accompany the first course, a collection of somewhat simpler dishes. With the second, more elaborate course finer wines were served, such as Burgundy, edle (noble) RheinweinLeisten and Steinwein (two of Würzburg’s best vineyard sites), plus red and white sparkling Champagne. This was to be followed by fruit and dessert accompanied by old Johannisberger, Xeres, Alicante, Cap de Constance and ächter (real) Hungarian Tokay (a selection that highlights how far trade had extended). According to Le Goullon (who by the way considered Teltow turnips fine vegetables to be pot-roasted with sugar and butter), dinner was to be completed with coffee, sugar water and liqueurs.

Coffee, together with potatoes and sugar, was one of the three culinary newcomers that had by then found their way on to the wider food scene. Although they all fundamentally changed existing habits and continue to shape foodways up to the present day, the ways in which they conquered Germans’ cups, plates and fancies were very different. The first report in German on Chaube, as coffee was called then, came from the Augsburg physician and botanist Leonard Rauwolf in 1582. Venice had its first coffeehouse around 1645 and London in 1652, although often existing inns just changed their names to adapt to the new fashion. When the drink was introduced to the French court in 1669, it became a social must-have in Germany as well. English and Dutch merchants opened a coffeehouse in Hamburg in 1677 (other sources mention 1679 or 1687). Leipzig followed suit in 1694 and Berlin finally joined the canon in 1721. In England tea quickly followed in coffee’s footsteps, appearing at the same addresses from 1658. Since it was a particularly lucrative commodity it was heavily promoted and quickly surpassed coffee, whereas in Germany only the north really took to the dried leaves. East Frisians developed a tea culture that rivalled the English one, favouring a strong dark Assam type, the so-called Ostfriesenmischung, served with rock candy and liquid cream.


Johann Simon Kerner, ‘Teltow Turnips’, in Abbildung aller ökonomischen Pflanzen (Stuttgart, 1793). The tasty organic turnips grown by Axel Szilleweit today resemble this drawing.

The rest of Germany embraced coffee. Coffeehouses became social meeting places, with not only the latest newspapers but a reputation for intense political discussion associated with intellectual progress and modernity (and in some cases social unrest). While men could socialize in public, women were relegated to Kaffeekränzchen, private coffee visits, which usually took place at home in the morning or afternoon. This ritual became so influential across all cultural sectors that the Jewish population developed a kosher adaptation for occasions where coffee was to be served after a meal which had included meat, replacing milk or cream with beaten egg white.

The coffee habit quickly spread to poorer households, popularized as a break from the monotony of the day’s labour among those who worked at home. By 1780 coffee had replaced the morning bowl of soup or gruel, a development that was helped by the availability of more affordable coffee surrogates such as Zichorienkaffee, a coffee taste-alike made with roasted chicory root. During the 1770s chicory, a plant indigenous to Germany, created a whole new industry, with centres in Brunswick and Magdeburg. Ersatz coffee, known as Prussian coffee, experienced a real boom when Napoleon blockaded the seaports, with one factory alone employing 350 workers. Various other kinds of roasted cereals were also used to eke out the supply of expensive beans, producing a concoction known as Bauernkaffee, peasants’ coffee, and along the Rhine as Muckefuck (a term often presented as a spoonerism of the French mocca faux, although this is questionable). References to coffee appeared in popular publications and were included in songs. A cartoon from around 1770 shows a distinctly well-nourished pair of townsfolk labelled Frau Kaffeeschwester, Madam Coffee-sister, and Herrn Bierwanst, Mr Beer-belly, while a folk song set to music by a Saxon music teacher remains popular to this day:


Mrs Everthirsty, born Coffeelove, and Hans Everthirsty, c. 1835, coloured etching.

C-a-f-f-e-e, trink nicht soviel Kaffee,

nichts für Kinder ist der Türkentrank,

schwächt die Nerven, macht dich blass und krank.

Sei doch kein Muselmann, der ihn nicht lassen kann!

C-a-f-f-e-e, don’t drink so much coffee,

the Turkish drink is not good for children,

weakens the nerves, makes you pale and sick.

Don’t be a Muslim who can’t leave it alone!

In 1734 the famous Leipzig composer and choirmaster Johann Sebastian Bach even composed a humorous Kaffeekantate, coffee cantata. In the aftermath of the Seven Years War (1756–63), which brought many French soldiers to the northwest and Saxony, coffee was so popular in these areas that the coffeehouses couldn’t maintain their established monopoly. Even today Saxons are known as Kaffeesachsen.

As the coffee-drinking habit was adopted by all social classes, coffee consumption developed into something of a political issue. The ensuing discussions revealed the upheavals that society in general was experiencing at the time. Traditional social boundaries were called into question by Enlightenment ideas and increasing social mobility through prosperity and education, something the establishment, both liberal and conservative, found worrying, even threatening. How would the social order be maintained if everyone could drink coffee and wear the latest French fashions? Many were convinced that rulers had the right, even the duty, to interfere with people’s private lives to protect them from any such harm. As in other countries, the ‘coffee plague’ was presented as an unhealthy and extravagant habit, especially as the drink was sweetened with equally expensive imported sugar. The anti-coffee crusaders also argued that coffee wasted fuel, corrupted the willingness to work and tempted the peasantry (who were expected to produce as much as possible for the urban population’s tables) to consume an unseemly amount of their sweetest milk themselves. The clergy were convinced that the new black beverage was the devil’s own brew and kept people from attending church. Coffee, it was said, weakened the German national character, while coffeehouses often had a bad reputation due to the prostitutes – known as Caffe-Menscher, coffee sluts – who frequented them. On a political level it was argued that much money was lost by importing an unnecessary luxury, thus running against the mercantilist ideal that the state maintain a positive trade balance. Coffee substitutes, in addition, were claimed to be a waste of good grain and, in the case of chicory, grown in fields that could be better used for other crops. Coffee was also accused of damaging the sale of beer and wine, both domestic products regarded as German national beverages. Beer consumption indeed fell during the eighteenth century, especially in the north, a situation which worried the landed gentry who collected taxes on brewing rights and public inns, a considerable source of income.

The first decree against excessive coffee consumption was issued in 1764 in Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel. It was probably never implemented, though, as there was no agreement on where the line should be drawn between rightful coffee drinkers and those who were abusing the habit. Other decrees followed, together with restrictions and inspections of all kinds, as well as taxes to limit the sale of both the raw material and the beverage. These measures resulted in a lively black market and large-scale smuggling. Most famous of the official measures was Frederick II of Prussia’s introduction of Kaffeeriecher or coffee sniffers, some 400 invalided soldiers who patrolled the streets of Berlin searching out the scent of roasted coffee beans. The state held a monopoly on coffee roasting, and only the nobility, clergy and senior civil servants were permitted to purchase the less expensive unroasted beans. By the 1790s the wave of prohibitions on coffee consumption finally waned and it was no longer a subject of political interest (although it would reappear in the nineteenth century as a reaction to pauperization). Coffee did not fully achieve the transformation from expensive luxury to everyday pleasure until the 1960s, and even today coffee prices can be a sensitive political issue in Germany.

Sugar developed into an indispensable partner of the new hot drinks. While cane sugar certainly became more affordable during the sixteenth century, it wasn’t until Brazil and the West Indies joined Sicily and Madeira as leading producers that sugar started to replace honey as a sweetener and rich desserts began to appear more regularly in recipe books. Sugar had long been an exclusive status symbol for the upper classes. Marx Rumpolt was the first to include in his cookbook of 1581 a chapter devoted to Zucker-Confect, sugar confections, explaining that his supplies came partly from the pharmacy. He never mentioned honey in the book, though he made clear that marzipan and Zucker-Confect were banqueting stuffs for the nobility, whereas the middle classes and peasantry had to content themselves with pastries, fruit and cheese. Affluent members of the middle classes, such as the patricians of Augsburg and Nuremberg, were early users of sugar, while the peasantry could afford it only on the most festive occasions and then tended to use it ostentatiously: highly visible ‘red’ sugar – possibly unrefined – was sprinkled over millet gruel, the festive dish mentioned earlier that was served at weddings and christenings until well into the eighteenth century (when it was replaced by rice, which was also trickling down the social food pyramid).


Louis Katzenstein, Prussian Coffee Smellers, c. 1785, wood engraving after a painting by Louis Katzenstein of 1892.

Following the example set by the French court, the new bitter-tasting hot drinks were not only sweetened with sugar but came with sweet pastries as a dessert at the conclusion of a meal or as a refreshment for morning or afternoon visitors. Additional models for sugar consumption provided by the French court were liqueur, lemonade, ices and chocolate pralinées. The last were supposedly invented by the cook of the Maréchal du Plessis-Praslin and introduced to Germany in 1676 by the French ambassador on the occasion of the Reichstag in Regensburg.

The new profession of Conditor (confectioner) included the production of Confect, a category which covered all kinds of sugar-coated fruit and spices previously regarded as medicine. Conditoren, in German also called Zuckerbäcker, literally sugar-bakers, also provided the nobility’s banqueting tables with elaborate sugar decorations, though these were never actually eaten. Their recipes were shrouded in secrecy, ensuring that sugar confections remained the ultimate status symbol until social change shifted the use of sugar in late eighteenth century.

Once again, however, Germans were lagging behind: in 1800 the tea-drinking English wouldn’t have lasted very long on the amount of sugar Germans consumed on average, just I kg per year, estimated to have doubled from a century earlier.5 Hamburg was the leading centre in Germany for sugar refining and the sugar trade because of the large number of Dutch refugees in the city, who had long been familiar with sugar through their Caribbean plantations. The first Prussian sugar factories were founded in the mid-seventeenth century, but locally refined cane sugar was of inferior quality and expensive, in spite of protective tariffs. The future of sugar production altered dramatically in 1747 when Andreas Sigismund Marggraf and Franz Carl Achard successfully produced sugar from a strain of mangel wurzel (Beta vulgaris) known today as sugar beet. Achard founded the first beet sugar factory in 1801 in Cunern in Silesia. Because of a lack of funds and mismanagement, the venture proved a failure. The king refused to grant royal privilege, as he thought it important to include the existing sugar refiners in any future developments. In 1792 a Berlin cane sugar refinery took the form of a joint stock company with 71 shareholders, all of them Berlin merchants, pointing the way towards new and more liberal trading regulations. By 1799, however, as a result of the Napoleonic Wars and the Continental Blockade, sugar beet was considered necessary to satisfy demand in Prussia, and officials published instructions on cultivation of sugar beet and information on how to use the product in the manufacture of syrup, sugar in crystal form and spirits. They also offered financial rewards for anybody able to reach a certain annual production, although this only came to fruition when sugar taxation was simplified in 1810.


Max Liebermann, Workers in Turnip Field, 1876, oil on canvas.

Between 1799 and 1815, 36 sugar beet refining manufacturies were founded in Prussia, although many of them were short-lived and the rest only flourished due to the trade embargo imposed by Napoleon on England from 1806 to 1814. After the embargo the price of sugar and with it beet sugar production (which was still much less profitable than refining imported cane sugar, due to the exploitation of slave labour in the latter’s production) dropped significantly in Germany. In France and French-occupied German territories, however, Napoleon strongly promoted the manufacture of beet sugar, going so far as to prohibit the use of imported cane sugar in 1813. At the time 33 kg of harvested beets yielded only 1 kg of unrefined sugar (and 2 kg of syrup), as compared to the 1 kg of refined sugar that can be made today from just 7 kg of sugar beet. This is as much a result of higher technical efficiency as it is of the development of modern beet varieties with a higher sugar content. Beet sugar production in France continued after Napoleon’s demise, whereas Germany returned to refining cane sugar until the 1840s.6

In contrast to the craze for coffee and sugar, potatoes were accepted much more reluctantly, especially among the middle classes. Introduced first to the rich as a decorative exotic plant from South America, potatoes were not seen as food fit for humans and were often used as animal feed. Because of this potato cultivation in Germany spread unevenly, both in time and in space. The early history of the potato is difficult to trace because of the linguistic confusion, as we saw earlier in Rumpolt’s recipe, between Erd-Aepffel or earth apple on the one hand, and the Latin term Taratouphli on the other. Whereas the latter stood exclusively for potatoes, Erd-Aepffel was a term for tubers in general and, in particular, for a chervil-like plant, Kerbelrüben (Bunium or Chaerophyllum bulbocastanum), whose tuberous roots were often compared to chestnuts in taste. Wolf Helmhard von Hohberg’s Curiosa, a work published in 1682, had a recipe for Erd-Aepffel warm und kalt zuzurichten (earth apples prepared warm and cold), which has been claimed as the first potato salad recipe. However, the Frauenzimmer-Lexicon, published some 30 years later, had several recipes for Erd-Aepffel and declared them to be Cyclamen, which were said to taste like peas and were regarded as very common. An entry on Tartuffeln in the same volume makes clear that Erd-Aepffel were not potatoes: Tartuffeln are the ‘roots brought from the American Peru to Germany, looking and tasting almost like Erd-Aepffel and now found quite frequently in German gardens’.7 Until around 1700 the potato as food for people rather than animals was only found in German universities and the grander courts of the nobility. It is only after potatoes made it into the ground more widely that the term Erd-Aepffel would be used for these tubers.

In 1591 the ruler of Hessen-Cassel sent a present of Taratouphli to the elector of Saxony, mentioning their beautiful flowers. He recommended blanching the numerous tuberous roots first in water, then finishing them in butter, though this seemed to be based more on medical curiosity than serious culinary interest. Meanwhile, in the southern Netherlands, Ireland, England and Scotland, potatoes were already widely planted and accepted as a staple food. The picture is the same in Germany: in regions with soils good enough for reliable grain production, the potato took a long time to find its way into the fields, whereas in more mountainous and economically deprived areas, the population was encouraged to plant the new foodstuff by their priests, physicians, school teachers, civil servants and members of the judiciary, all anxious for the lower classes to be fed better and more reliably. The existing agrarian systems were gradually amended so that fields that had previously been left fallow in summer could be planted with potatoes, allowing production to move in from marginal lands. As it turned out, the potato was by far the most efficient crop on fallow land, although it was certainly not the best for restoring soil quality. It may well have been German mercenaries who promoted the potato’s ‘second coming’, ensuring its popularity among the German lower classes. Eventually the adoption of potatoes into Germans’ daily diet was furthered by the need to feed an increasing number of people who worked at home within a growing population. The earliest centres of cultivation were the Palatinate and the Vogtland. In 1731 a chronicle from this Saxon region mentioned potatoes as a staple food (now referring to them as Erdäpffel), declaring them as

introduced fifty and more years ago as a new food. For poor people, they are meat and roast, although at first rather undigestible. They are also made into dumplings and a white starch is produced by squeezing their juice.8

The chronicler stressed that potatoes did better on poor soil and conveniently made up for a lack of grain. In neighbouring Saxony-Weimar, where soils were generally more productive, a ducal order of 1739 was needed in order to allow the planting of Erdtufeln (an interesting linguistic meddling), though only for the feeding of wild boar, since the duke was a passionate hunter.

The potato’s advancement as a popular foodstuff was clearly furthered by heavy price increases in grain as well as bread shortages following war or famine. Because of the bread crisis of 1754 and ’55 and in preparation for the Seven Years War, which started the following year, Frederick II of Prussia was keenly aware of how important it was to feed both the army and the rest of the population as the supporting cast in the advancement of his political ambitions. He strongly encouraged his peasants to plant potatoes, for example by distributing seed potatoes. The astute observer of human behaviour had potato fields guarded by his own men, thus arousing curiosity among farmers, and didn’t hesitate to recur to a little benevolent force, as his initiative seems to have been not quite such a rapid success as is often thought. It was however made famous (in the patriotic late nineteenth century) through a painting that depicts the king himself inspecting potato fields in the marshlands of the River Oder. In Bavaria potatoes gained ground with the help of the innovative American Benjamin Thompson (later Count Rumford), who promoted his famous Armensuppe, a potato-based paupers’ soup. Not much later, in 1819 (and thus a witness to varying regional acceptance), a monograph on the potato was published in Weimar/Thuringia.9 By now the term Kartoffel had been forged and the work described 33 varieties in great detail, offering advice on their cultivation and use both for animal feed and human consumption. It gave instructions on cooking and preserving potatoes, as well as on making potato bread, butter, cheese and even wine. One of Germany’s best-loved dishes, Thüringer Klösse or Thuringian potato dumplings, can be traced back as far as 1757. Dumplings had been prepared well before the introduction of the potato, but that year the weekly newspaper Weimarisches Wochenblatt recommended mixing two parts of boiled grated potatoes with one part flour and one part grated bread, adding a few eggs, milk, butter and salt to make dumplings for boiling and baking. When potatoes largely replaced the more expensive flour and bread in the diet of the poor, more sophisticated dishes such as dumplings allowed for social differentiation, despite the tubers’ wide availability.10

The increase of the population through the second half of the eighteenth century that was sustained in particular by potatoes has been estimated at about 50 per cent.11 This greatly pleased mercantilist and militarist rulers, but had its drawbacks. Land became scarce, since more or less all viable areas were already under cultivation. This resulted in steep rises in food prices. The public as a whole took a great interest in agricultural matters, leading to the hatching of a great many plans by economists. While these schemes were not always practical or successful, they pointed in the right direction, promoting new ideas such as bringing fallow land into summer cultivation, growing clover as animal feed, stabling cattle, improving seed banks and introducing new methods in animal breeding and husbandry. The model for these innovations was the agricultural system of England. At the time, economically as well as in land use, England was a century ahead of Germany. Many English agricultural publications were translated into German, and civil servants as well as the more affluent of Germany’s farmers travelled to England to study modern agricultural practices and technology. However, all these initiatives were limited by the inflexibility of Germany’s feudal society as well as related agrarian structures such as the commons. In spite of the emergence of new forms of industry and production methods (and in contrast to England), the majority of Germans still lived in villages or small rural towns where agriculture was part of most people’s existence. Peasants were reluctant to experiment, since even one bad crop presented them with severe economic problems or hunger. Total yields varied widely from year to year, and productivity was almost impossible to increase due to the lack of manure. In a vicious circle of problems untended or poorly cultivated common land could feed only a limited number of animals, and even these were undernourished. Although in theory it may have seemed preferable to keep cattle permanently stabled, the labour involved in producing sufficient grain-feed and bedding straw was unsustainable. In addition the capital investment and other resources required to build large sheds were unfeasable for an impoverished peasantry.


Potatoes prepared in various forms. Rice and noodles definitely play a secondary role. From the popular GDR cookbook Kochen (Leipzig, 1983).

The political situation of the peasantry improved slowly from around 1800 onwards. This was partly a result of the French Revolution and partly a response to economic necessity and the need to increase productivity while lowering costs. Some rulers turned against the feudal class system, since it was in competition with the state. Gradually serfdom was abolished, although the peasantry were often unable to meet compensation payments with the result that their freedom remained somewhat theoretical. Likewise the nobility in general was reluctant to abandon a lifestyle based on status and privilege. But gradually a new class system replaced the old one of feudal loyalty and the new mobility in the labour market was an important precondition for further economic development.

Arguably the most important German agronomist of the time was Albrecht Thaer, who published his Grundsätze der rationellen Landwirtschaft (Principles of Rational Agriculture) from 1809 to 1812. The work was a plea for efficiency in agriculture as a way of maximizing profitability, calling for the liberalization of market forces to allow production to regulate itself. With time land enclosure, an essential step towards more efficient cultivation, was put into practice, again following the English example. With the same aim, owners of smallholdings were moved out of their villages and resettled next to the fields they cultivated in regions such as the Allgäu. In others, like the drained marshlands of the Oder, whole new villages were designed with the sole purpose of increasing productivity. Important innovations included the introduction of new animal feed cultivars such red clover, alfalfa, onobrychis, turnips and ryegrass (a mix dubbed Kunstgras, artificial grass) into the cycle of crop rotation. Similarly pushing agrarian reform in Germany was purpose-built agricultural machinery such as clod crushers, seed drills and iron ploughs.

English livestock farmers also led the way with their selective breeding techniques that produced larger, faster-growing cattle and sheep that converted feed to meat and milk more efficiently. Among German economists, Friesians were renowned for their milk-producing qualities in the north, as were Simmenthal in the south, but it was clear that both breeds needed plenty of feeding if they were to successfully replace adapted local breeds which, if equally well fed, could be just as efficient. Average milk yields were around 700 litres per cow per year, with fresh milk rather than butter or cheese the most economically advantageous commodity (assuming the proximity of a suitable market). Sheep were mostly kept for their wool on large estates by landowners who could afford to crossbreed local varieties with expensive Merinos imported from Spain. Pig raising was of little economic value as they continued to be fattened in the beech and oak forests, remaining genetically close to wild boar and therefore not very vigorous.12 However, with new lifestyles and rising demand from a growing population, the pressure on food production built up. The meat market provides good examples of the advantages and disadvantages guilds represented. Home slaughtering, a practice once common even among urban middle class households, was on the decline from 1750 onwards. With this came the move from salted to fresh meat, encouraged not least by health warnings against excessive salt consumption. While guild regulations restricted free trade, they made for equal opportunities for all buyers at meat shops and markets. Guild inspectors guaranteed that different kinds of meat were available at all times at set prices, and presented in an organized way, with the fattest meat regarded as the most desirable and lesser cuts priced accordingly. Battles between guilds and town officials sometimes ended with trial slaughters to determine the value of such meat as was available.


Bernhard Winter, Slaughter, 1924, oil on canvas.

Nevertheless the guild system increasingly proved a hindrance to the economically ambitious merchant. As production methods improved and became more efficient, economic pressure from overseas imports (nineteenth-century ‘globalization’) stimulated the market for mass-produced items. There had been manufacturing activities in the less fertile rural regions, particularly the lower slopes of mountainous areas, since the end of the Middle Ages. Over time these developed into dense production areas, in particular for textiles, made under the Verlagswesen or outworker system. Those who worked at home depended on their middlemen, the merchants, both to provide raw materials and to market the finished products. Unsurprisingly home workers were poor and their meals monotonous. Essentially based on potatoes and coffee, they lacked both the vegetables and meat eaten in the north, and the flour, fat, milk and eggs which provided a balanced meal in the south. A traveller’s report from rural Silesia in 1783 described the only food available in a small village on the border of Bohemia as oat bread, butter, cheese and milk. Meat, said the traveller, was consumed only once a year at the fair in a neighbouring village.13

Ambitious rulers and their civil servants began to centralize production in urban areas, establishing Manufakturen, small factories. The Prussian kings were especially motivated by the need to increase production, since their population had grown by over 60 per cent in half a century, with about one-third of people then living in towns; an exceptionally high number in the German context. While trading centres such as Nuremberg and Cologne slowed or stagnated, cities like Berlin, Stuttgart and Munich blossomed, assisted by state subsidies and protectionism. Urban fields, stables and barns still provided additional food for town dwellers but were by no means able to satisfy the new demand. The modern food industry that developed from around the turn of the nineteenth century became the underpinning of the Industrial Revolution, each fostering and stimulating the other. When the Industrial Revolution really took off during the second half of the nineteenth century, the new factory jobs pushed up the wages for agricultural workers: even more rationalization in food production, as well as increasing imports, were the results.

This interdependent development was by no means smooth. Food production took some time to catch up to the economic growth that had begun in the luxury sector, where trade was less rigidly controlled than the market for everyday supplies, which was still under the guild system. But gradually the requirements of the urban population as well as growing official interest in the factories became more important than those of agrarian producers, who tried to limit the price of raw materials in order to keep food costs down. Eventually urban craftsmen were favoured over their rural colleagues. Specialist producers such as the Pfefferküchler, gingerbread bakers, and distillers needed an urban environment to run a successful business. Statistics from 1776 indicate that urban areas, particularly Berlin, had fewer bakers, butchers and millers per inhabitant than rural areas, but each had more employees, a trend that points towards concentration and increasing labour division. In smaller towns processing of expensive wheat flour was delegated to bakers, whereas everyday rye bread was mostly baked at home. Berlin was an exception to this rule, a foretaste of things to come. Here all bread was baked by professionals: 98.4 per cent of all wheat bread and 93.2 per cent of all rye bread was bought from the baker, compared to 81.3 per cent and 15.2 per cent respectively in small towns. In 1752 in Brandenburg (the city of Berlin and the province surrounding it) more than half of the value of all imports could be ascribed to foodstuffs, mainly sugar, wine, cattle, butter and cheese, as well as smaller amounts of herring, spices, citrus and tropical fruits, tobacco, fish and other seafood, along with coffee, tea and cocoa. By 1781 imports of coffee and sugar has almost doubled, as had those of grain, cattle and distilled spirits. Wine, beer and vinegar imports decreased during the same period. In the case of vinegar this was certainly due to the promotion of local industry. In 1777 Berlin businessmen founded a wine vinegar factory in Zossen, protected by higher taxes on imported vinegar, and in 1787 by a general import ban and a drastic reduction in taxation of local wine for vinegar production. In 1798 Berlin had eleven vinegar factories with a total of 25 employees – which could be interpreted to mean that at the time the wine produced around Berlin might have been better suited to vinegar production than to being drunk as such.


Otto Günther, Day Workers from Thuringia, 1875, oil on canvas. The meat seems to be reserved for the oldest male at the table.

When Prussia began establishing factories it introduced even more protectionist measures to reduce expensive imports, favouring internal trade between her own provinces over trade with other German states. Unsurprisingly smuggling was widespread, mainly of coffee and spirits, since consumption proved difficult to limit. In 1800 the food industry, mostly involved in the manufacture of oil, sugar and chicory as a coffee substitute, was in the third most economically important industry behind the textile and metalworking industries.

During the same period agricultural production in Brandenburg increased, especially of potatoes and legumes, crops whose byproducts were used as animal feed. Dairy farming was thoroughly encouraged with Holländereien, state-supported dairies modelled on the Dutch system of state-sponsored dairy herds. A model dairy for teaching purposes was installed in 1780 at Königshorst northwest of Berlin by a family from East Frisia, and by 1800 Brandenburg had more than 100 dairy farms.14

Spreewaldgurken, the pickled cucumbers from the Spreewald region favoured by the Prussian king Frederick II, illustrate how food production was influenced by politics. The Spreewald region, now an hour by car from Berlin in the direction of the town of Cottbus and the Polish border, is a primeval landscape of forests and swamps. The flat land begins where the River Spree flows through the Baruth Urstrom Valley and continues into the Sorb enclave that reaches from this point through the Lower and Upper Lausitz to the German-Czech border. The roots of the Serbja or Serby, as the 60,000 Sorbian Slavs living in this region call themselves, go back to the migration period during the fall of the Roman Empire when many Slavic tribes left their original home regions in Eastern Europe. As a result of the expansionism to the east by German rulers, their realm shrunk until the Sorbs finally took refuge in the swamps along the Spree. Until well into the twelfth century the Sorbs shared this region with German immigrants, cutting tiny fields and meadows out of the moorland. They primarily cultivated millet, buckwheat and linseed. Experts are divided as to when cucumbers made their first appearance in the Spreewald. Some believe that seeds excavated from the early Slavic settlement at Tornow close to Calau prove that cucumbers were brought with the Huns and Tartars. However, the majority opinion is that the cucumber was introduced in the area by Dutch immigrants at the end of the 1600s. Etymology reveals that the German Gurke derives from the Old Polish ogurek (in contemporary Polish ogórek, which also goes back to the Middle Greek águros), though the Lower Sorbian górka sounds even closer.

When the German gastro-philosopher Karl Friedrich von Rumohr in 1822 wrote of sour or pickled cucumbers from the Lausitz, he unquestionably meant Spreewald cucumbers:

However, it is the true destiny of cucumbers to be preserved in various ways, for their glassy-spongy cell structure makes them extremely receptive for every flavour which they can develop themselves or acquire from outside.

Here is his recipe for curing cucumbers:

Lay larger but still unripe cucumbers together with fennel dill, vine, and cherry leaves in brine, allow a slight fermentation to begin so that they keep the balance between salty and vinegar-sour, like a really tasty sauerkraut. Sour cucumbers are preserved in great quantities and excellent quality in Bohemia, the Lausitz and in a large part of the Slavic North.15

If we assume that the Spreewald Sorbs did cultivate cucumbers from the beginning, there is still no proof that they pickled them, although they did have all the ingredients necessary for this: good water, salt, onions, horseradish, dill, mustard, garlic, vine and sour cherry leaves. However, the Dutch weavers whom Joachim II von der Schulenburg brought in 1580 to Lübbenau, which then belonged to Saxony, certainly prepared them in this way. When they found that their weaving brought them little success they began growing cucumbers, which they knew from their homeland, and quickly found that the damp, warm, peaty-sandy moorland soil was ideally suited for the wind-sensitive and thirsty plants. Soon they were making more money from cucumbers than from weaving. At the beginning of the eighteenth century they were regularly transporting punt-loads of cucumbers to Berlin, where they proved a resounding success. However, the tight-fisted Prussian king Frederick William I was frustrated that the profits from this trade flowed out of his state into neighbouring Saxony, and persuaded 30 Lübbenau families to settle in the Prussian Lower Spreewald. His idea was that they should not only grow cucumbers but assist in the process of internal colonization. This led to the Gurken Krise or cucumber crisis, an exchange of diplomatic blows between Prussia and the Saxon court of August the Strong. But in no way did it affect the Berliners’ enthusiasm for Spreewald cucumbers and they were a regular feature on Frederick II’s menu during the second half of the eighteenth century. In the late 1860s the Berlin writer Theodor Fontane called Lübbenau ‘the fatherland of sour cucumbers’.

Spreewald cucumbers saw more ups and downs in the twentieth century and their revival following German reunification is in part linked to tourism. Sorbs were heavily persecuted under the Nazis, but tolerated during GDR times, just as minorities in the Soviet Union were encouraged to assume a certain cultural autonomy. So on the one hand double-language signs and schools went up, while on the other the area around the beautiful Spreewald swamps was brutally affected by shallow brown-coal mining. The punts moored in Lübbenau, once the only means of transport, as well as the Sorbian women’s traditional costume with their characteristic bonnets, are on the borderline between folklore and living cultural history. The Sorbian culinary influence has long become assimilated: jacket potatoes with quark and linseed oil, cucumber salad, potato pancakes and sausage with buckwheat groats are mostly identified in contemporary Germany as Eastern European rather than specifically Sorbian.

The difficulty of modernizing crafts and trades which had been established under the feudal system can clearly be seen in the way the Mühlenbann, grain milling ban (or prohibitions), hindered technical and social progress. Typically only one designated mill could be used by a community for grinding grain, guaranteeing the miller’s livelihood and ensuring that his services were available. For a state interested in taxes, millers were a secure source of income, but the ban also meant that millers could not augment their income by taking in more customers and therefore had no incentive to improve service or invest in modern technology. The milling ban in Prussia was lifted in 1808 and replaced by a purchase tax. With free trade introduced as a general rule in 1810 and the labour market liberated from the constraints of the guilds, wages became the normal form of payment and competition increased. This almost immediately affected the grain growing industry: the number of mills increased, especially the more advanced and efficient Dutch windmills, with breweries installing their own in-house mills that used horsepower. In the 1820s more and more merchants investigated and invested in modern milling technology from England and the United States. Most importantly, steam-powered mills arrived in Berlin in 1824. With these the genuinely industrial revolution of the food industry became irreversible.16

As we have seen, this was closely linked to urbanization. In 1800 big cities were rare in Germany. Berlin was by far the largest, with almost 200,000 inhabitants, while Hamburg had just over 100,000 residents, Munich 60,000, Cologne 40,000, Nuremberg and Augsburg 25,000–30,000. In comparison London counted close to a million people. The food habits of the middle classes, who flourished in urban surroundings, gradually came to dominate the general picture.

Hamburg was particularly renowned for the good life, and paid special attention to food and drink. However, then as earlier, even wealthy households were often content with a simple meal: generally a soup followed by a substantial meat course, preferably boiled beef, veal or mutton (the least favoured). On special occasions non-seasonal luxury foods were introduced, such as cherries grown under glass in winter or lamb in December. Many affluent Hamburg Bürger had an ox slaughtered in autumn, and Rauchfleisch, smoked beef, was a famous Hamburg speciality praised by the romantic poet Heinrich Heine in his Memoiren des Herren von Schnabelewopski of 1832. Fish in general had become rare, possibly because of overfishing, and was correspondingly expensive, though herring made occasional and unpredictable appearances as large shoals. Bread came in all forms, from white wheaten loaves for the rich to the dark pumpernickel-like rye that was an important part of the diet of the poor. However, nothing was as popular as potatoes, which were eaten daily by everybody: by choice in affluent circles, out of necessity by the poor. Legumes, sauerkraut, celeriac and turnips were brought in by water from Magdeburg and Berlin, although fresh vegetables were too expensive for less wealthy families. Strawberries were cultivated on the drained marshes south of the city, and abundant for four weeks every summer, to be enjoyed daily with wine or milk. According to the same report from 1801, Hamburg had English and French restaurants, pastry bakers and even an Italienerkeller, supposedly an Italian restaurant or wine bar, frequented by young people and tourists. Ice cream was increasingly popular at feasts and offered in summer by almost every Konditor or pastryshop. So popular was the delicacy that after a mild winter a Hamburg company was able to ship ice in from Greenland and still make a good profit.

In a report from Stuttgart in 1815 the most important differentiation between the social groups was the gap between the poor (by far the largest group) and everybody else. The poor ate three meals a day, just like the rest of the population, but they lived mostly on potatoes (instead of meat and the traditionally favoured flour-based dishes), washed down with cider or perry rather than the wine enjoyed by the rich. Chocolate, tea and punch were likewise reserved for the more affluent, who served coffee with milk and rolls, usually at breakfast and often also after lunch, together with a pipe. It is striking that the report mentioned that they preferred their coffee without sugar, possibly a way of distancing themselves from the poor, who would drink sweetened but very thin real or ersatz coffee twice or three times a day in order to quell their hunger.

As for Munich, the Berlin academic and publisher Friedrich Nicolai, writing in 1785, was particularly struck by the level of beer consumption in that city, which far exceeded that of Berlin. In Munich, he noted, beer was drunk by all social classes, whereas in Berlin the common man drank more distilled spirits and women drank coffee:

The middle and lower classes in Munich eat copiously and rather coarsely, with flour-based dishes mostly very ordinary but regarded as special by locals . . . However in good houses and inns, the food can be very good and varied and better suited to a northern palate than in Austria, as it is less soft.17

Up to the present day, Biergärten, beer gardens, are a distinctive feature of Munich and Bavarian social life. They resulted from the loosening of guild restrictions in the early nineteenth century, when breweries started to sell their beer to thirsty souls directly from the cellar. Innkeepers obviously weren’t too happy about this new competition, which proved particularly strong because breweries tended to be located near rivers, in cool, shady locations. This in turn went back to a decree from 1539 that banned beer brewing during the summer months because of the risk of fire. In reaction to this a new brew was developed that was stronger and contained more malt, so that it could be produced in March and kept over the summer if stored at low temperatures. Therefore breweries dug deep cellars, filled them with ice in winter and happily sold their Märzen (literally March beer). Their wooden benches typically stood under large horse chestnut trees, originally planted to cool the underlying cellars. To appease the angry innkeepers, the king limited the brewers’ hospitality to beer – with the exception of bread, food had to be brought along. Today beer gardens are allowed to sell Brezen (pretzels), Weisswurst (white sausages), Radi (radishes), Obazda (a highly seasoned kind of cream cheese) and much else, but bringing along one’s own hamper is still popular.

The culmination of Munich beer lust is obviously the Oktoberfest. This goes back to the same Bavarian king, the so-called König Max, Maximilian I Joseph, said to have been a gourmet and seen more frequently on the Schranne (a precursor of today’s Viktualienmarkt) than with his troops. The crown prince’s wedding in October 1810 was celebrated with a horse race on the Theresienwiese (named after the bride), then situated on the outskirts of Munich, but today more central. The popular king invited his people to celebrate with bread, mutton, sausages, beer and Austrian white wine while the newlyweds sat under an Osman tent, a spoil of the Ottoman war. Bavaria had recently added Franconia to its realm and the royal event was a useful way of stressing a unifying national identity. The following year the festival was expanded to include an agricultural show, and later also a shooting match. In 1819 most of the agricultural exhibits were replaced by stalls selling beer, wine and all kinds of food. Twelve brewers, one wine merchant, two coffee sellers, three liqueur merchants and one fruiterer, four pastrycooks, six cooks and three bakers offered their wares. The Oktoberfest had found its present form. With time the event acquired huge economic and logistic dimensions with over six million visitors today (as opposed to 100,000 in 1860). Many modern visitors sport the Bavarian Tracht, ‘traditional’ attire, which was actually invented in the late nineteenth century, including dirndl dresses for women and Lederhosen, leather knee breeches, for men – outfits much of the world takes to be traditional German national dress, just as Oktoberfest fare is thought of as typically German food. The almost 40 hectares of the Wiesn, as the locals call it, attracts many foreign visitors, especially from northern Italy and the U.S., and is as much a family destination as it is an occasion for companies to treat their customers to a night out. Everything from breakfast, to coffee and cake, to all kinds of Bavarian Schmankerl is on offer. Brathendl(grilled chicken) alone are consumed at rates of about half a million each season. Grilled Haxn (pork shanks) and grilled sausages are also popular. As in Munich’s beer gardens, people can bring along their own food as well. The main action takes place in over 30 tents, some of them gigantic halls seating up to 10,000 people. They are run by the larger breweries or independent restaurateurs. All have live music, mostly Blasmusik by traditional brass bands. A special Wiesnbier is brewed for the occasion, which is somewhat stronger in alcohol. It is served in a Mass (a beer mug containing I litre). The original mugs were made of glazed earthenware, but due to repeated complaints about filling irregularities, they are now all glass. Then as now, the visitors’ thirst remains vigorous: these years, more than 60 million Mass are emptied each year, an average of ten per visitor.


A. Adam, Oktoberfest in Munich, 1824.


Bourgeois living room and kitchen, c. 1840.

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