Friday, April 27, 2012

Gingery Sauerbraten in Aachen

Emperor Charlemagne’s Frankish empire once covered most of modern-day Germany, France, and northern Italy. His capital was Aachen, on the border of Belgium and the Netherlands, which still has many impressive reminders of his rule, not least of which is an unusual dish he invented: sauerbraten. This slow-cooked, sour-sweet stew is commonly regarded as Germany’s national dish.

Historical accounts suggest that the Emperor Charlemagne was a foodie. He loved Roquefort cheese, introduced peacocks as a dish at court, and made efforts to improve people’s diets throughout his lands. He obviously liked the good life, because his main reason for choosing Aachen as his capital was its natural hot springs; relaxing in them was a favorite imperial pastime and they remain a major draw for visitors today. Charlemagne was also a devout Christian, and his wonderful palace chapel, now incorporated into Aachen’s Dom (cathedral), has been a destination for pilgrims for hundreds of years. The structure remains a highlight of any visit to the town today, thanks to the sense of history and devotion that seems fused into its brickwork and magnificent stained-glass windows.

Aachen cathedral was built in AD 800 to symbolize the unification and political revival of the West; it is a UNESCO World Heritage site

Aachen’s attractive Old Town is lovely to explore on foot. At its heart lies an expansive market square, encircled by some of the city’s finest medieval houses and the 14th-century Rathaus (town hall), where around 30 of the Holy Roman Emperors that followed Charlemagne feasted after their coronations.
Much of this feasting almost certainly involved sauerbraten, the local delicacy. The dish is said to have been Charlemagne’s clever idea for leftovers, and although it takes a long time to prepare, its practical and versatile nature has made it an enduring German favorite. The name means “sour roast” and much of its flavor comes from its marinade; the meat is marinated in strong vinegar for three days prior to its hours of roasting. This helps tenderize the meat – traditionally horsemeat, but today most often beef. The marinade also contains other ingredients, and it is these that bestow a uniquely delicious flavor on the dish.
Marinades vary from region to region, and even between restaurants, but the key ingredients – wine, cloves, bay leaves, and juniper berries – are always part of the mix. The meat is then browned and put back into the marinade to cook for several hours before the sauce is thickened, often with ground gingerbread to give it a real zing. Eaten with noodles or potato dumplings, it’s a food fit for emperors.

Best Places to Eat Sauerbraten

Sauerbraten-Palast inexpensive
The priorities of this restaurant are obvious from its name, which translates as the “palace of sauerbraten.” Certainly the quality of its sauerbraten would be fit for Charlemagne, though he might not appreciate rubbing shoulders with the complete cross-section of society that has made this restaurant a local institution for more than 20 years. The rather workaday, wood-clad pub interior is hardly a palace, although antiques and old prints of pre-war Aachen provide an atmospheric early 20th-century feel and time-honored authenticity. The unpretentious atmosphere rightly keeps the sauerbraten at center stage, and it is served here in giant portions, its meat so tender that it feels almost buttery in the mouth. Yet the real secret of the dish’s success here is the sweet-and-sour gravy that uses the excellent local Printen form of gingerbread as an ingredient. The accompaniments – sweet-sour red cabbage and thick-cut Benelux-style fries – are also delicious. The only drawback is that improbably low prices ensure a popularity that frequently translates into a wait at the bar, as reservations are not accepted.
Vaalser Strasse 316, Aachen; open noon–3 PM & 5–11 PM Thu–Tue (closing at 10 PM Sat and Sun); +49 241 837 73
The marinated beef of sauerbraten is served in a rich gravy, sometimes thickened with gingerbread

Also in Germany
Most traditional pubs and restaurants in Germany have sauerbraten on the menu, so there’s often somewhere good for the dish, yet in Aachen nowhere comes close to the Sauerbraten-Palast. So if you’re in Aachen and want to try it elsewhere, hop on a train for the short journey to Cologne, where the Brauhaus Ohne Namen (+49 221 81 26 80; moderate) on Mathildenstrasse has a region-wide reputation for the dish. Here it’s served with dumplings, apple compote, and the fine local beer, Kölsch. It’s rare to find sauerbraten on the menus of finer restaurants, so it’s a welcome specialty of Lutter & Wegner (; expensive) in Berlin, which has won national gastronomic awards for a dish that it has served in elegant surroundings since 1881.
Around the World
Outside Germany it’s common to find good sauerbraten wherever Germans have settled.
This particularly includes the American Midwest, where Karl Ratzsch (www.; expensive) does a superb rendition of Aachen-style sauerbraten in Milwaukee using a ginger-snap gravy. In South Africa, in the former German colony of Namibia, one of several places with good sauerbraten is the Swakopmund Brauhaus (www. swakopmund; moderate), a jolly German beer hall in an unusual setting.
A Day in Aachen
Aachen’s medieval Old Town is easily navigable on foot, but to explore its best museums and spa, you’ll need to take a bus.
Head straight to Aachen’s highlight, the Dom, which contains Charlemagne’s remains in a gilded shrine and a treasury of extraordinary relics. Afterward, amble around the relaxed Old Town, visiting the Rathaus, whose facade is lined by the figures of 50 Holy Roman Emperors and whose top floor – the Kaisersaal (emperor hall) – has 19th-century frescoes and reproduction crown jewels.
Take a 10-minute bus ride to the Suermondt-Ludwig- Museum, an art museum renowned for its stained glass collection and Old Masters such as Albrecht Dürer and Rembrandt. Or head around the corner to the Ludwig Forum für Internationale Kunst, a contemporary art museum in an elegant old Bauhaus-style factory.
Soak in the healing waters Charlemagne once enjoyed at the luxurious Carolus Thermen spa.
Getting to Aachen Germany
Cologne/Bonn airport lies 45 miles (73 km) and 50 minutes by train from Aachen. High-speed trains connect Aachen to Brussels and Paris.
There’s a good bus service around the town.
Where to stay in Aachen Germany
Da Salvatore (inexpensive) has simple rooms above an Italian restaurant by the train station.
Drei Könige (moderate) is a boutique hotel with brightly colored rooms and apartments in a great central location.
Pullman Aachen Quellenhof (expensive) is a grand old hotel with top facilities that backs onto the Carolus spa.

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