I’ve often suspected that there are parts of the world situated on the food equivalent of ley-lines. They attract more than their fair share of amazing culinary experiences: I’m thinking Ludlow, Lyon and San Sebastián.
The tiny town of Baiersbronn must be on a particularly active one as it boasts an astonishing seven Michelin stars. We’re sitting in the marvellously upholstered Bareiss restaurant in the hotel of the same name – an absolute temple to comfort and what Germans call ‘gemütlichkeit’: a delicious, rosy glow of wellbeing.
Germany has ten restaurants with three Michelin stars; the UK has four, a disparity I was hoping to write off as the inevitable result of both Michelin and Germany’s predilection for formality and soft furnishings. But there’s no doubt chef Claus-Peter Lumpp’s food deserves its place in the superstar pantheon. It is a dazzling marriage of technique, glorious local produce and luxury: cloud-soft caramelised sweetbreads on a white bean purée scented with balsamic and vanilla; sole poached in olive oil till it’s the texture of fondant; crisp sea bass on a risotto of nuts with a vivid cider sauce. The closeness to Strasbourg means there’s plenty of foie gras and the array of tiny puddings, seemingly a thousand intricate plays on chocolate, leaves us dazzled. And that’s before the matching wines. All I can say is, rather drunkenly, ‘I love German wine’.
Before we’ve even got to this, we’ve had afternoon tea at Hotel Traube Tonbach just up the road, another spa hotel that’s every bit as imposing, every bit as dedicated to comfort and luxury as Bareiss. Cakes come from the kitchen of another triple Michelin’ed restaurant, courtesy of chef, Harald Wohlfahrt: exquisite creations that look like woodland scenes with ‘pebbles’ made from sugared nuts, liquid truffle cake lollipops, blackberry and almond slices. Our tea sommelier (oh yes) has created a blend to celebrate the famous Schwarzwalde kirschtorte, subtle notes of black cherry and chocolate. Of course: it’s Black Forest gateau.
So then we have to have the real thing. At the Café am Eck, owner Georg Klumpp talks us through this iconic cake: blowsy, chocolatey sponge; cream stiffened with sweet roux so it keeps its shape; the cherries, sharp, not sugary; shavings of fine dark chocolate; improbable quantities of kirsch. It may be a cliché, but that’s because done well, as it is here, it’s also a classic.
How on earth to blow away those food-induced cobwebs? How about taking off into the beautiful countryside… by Segway – a most unusual way to sightsee. We’re devastated to find out that the rain isn’t allowing us to sally forth, so instead we have ‘Swabian tapas’ in Segway boss Eric’s eccentric and lovely white pine Sankenbach Schwarzwaldidylle Lodge. Delicate they ain’t: pungent sausages, vinegary pickles, black pudding, treacly sourdough spread with bacon-studded lard. Oh, and beer. Black Forest beer is making me very happy indeed: hoppy and fragrant.
In search of more, we traipse up above the deep, dark forest where the capercaillie (huge woodland grouse) roam, to Glasmännlehütte, an extraordinary joint – as if you’d been whisked into a Grimm fairytale. A sprawling gingerbread house, perhaps, offering rustic food, their own-brewed beers and a view to knock socks off.
Less chi-chi than Baiersbronn and as cute as a snow globe scene, is Sasbachwalden. This is Germany’s fruit garden, alive with vines and cherry trees, and home to the famous Alde Gott winery where we enjoy a riotous tasting – I particularly love their sekt: frisky German ‘champagne’. Our new friend, Alexander, takes us on a tour of the surroundings, to vast wine barrels used as a unique b&b; how gorgeous to wake up in the middle of this magical, vine-clad countryside. To hiking trails, punctuated by little honesty bars at natural wells, where you can help yourself to schnapps – cherry? Artichoke? Fortification for the walk ahead – how civilised. And then in the evening, to a remarkable Sasbachwalden pleasure: ‘dinner jumping’; four different courses enjoyed in four very different restaurants.
There’s caraway-spiked onion tart and young, first-press wine at wood-panelled bourgeois hotel Engel; fish plates at Zum Fässlewirt, where the décor seems to have been designed by a heavy-metal-loving troll; vast platters of smoky, velvety Black Forest ham and cheese-laden Flammenkuchen at locals’ favourite Saschwaller Burehus Holzwurm; and intricate desserts at Michelin-starred Hotel Talmühle. What a trip.
It’s an inescapable fact that the serious cooking comes out of hotels here: there’s more Michelin-starred indulgence at Restaurant Hotel Sackmann. And kitsch? I reckon it was invented here. They don’t shy away from a server in full, elaborate national dress without a trace of irony. Who needs minimalism anyway?
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