Why Germany's laid-back city of Freiburg has become a magnet for culinary aficionados

Surrounded by orchards, farms and vineyards, the laid-back city of Freiburg im Breisgau may not have always featured on lists of culinary destinations around the world but it’s well worth your attention.Saturday, 2 November 2019

Thanks to its rich wine-growing tradition, mild climate and the influence of Alsatian cuisine, Baden is considered by many Germans to have some of the best regional fare in the country.
Thanks to its rich wine-growing tradition, mild climate and the influence of Alsatian cuisine, Baden is considered by many Germans to have some of the best regional fare in the country.
photo by FWTM/Spiegelhalter

I make a beeline for the market on Münsterplatz, the cobbled square around Freiburg’s imposing gothic Minster. It’s mid-August, and stalls are loaded with punnets of redcurrants, raspberries, blackberries and blueberries. Heaps of nectarines, peaches, greengages, and dark purple plums sit alongside the first of the autumn apples. The summers here have been so hot in recent years that there’s even a crate full of watermelons.

In Germany’s southwestern corner, squeezed between the Black Forest and the French border, is the long, narrow wine region of Baden. Thanks to its rich wine-growing tradition, mild climate and the influence of Alsatian cuisine, Baden is considered by many Germans to have some of the best regional fare in the country. At its heart is the vibrant university city of Freiburg im Breisgau, a gastronomic hotspot, where there’s a real focus on regional and organic produce.

At a family-run stall selling bread, sausages and wine, I try a glass of sweet Spätburgunder (Pinot Noir) grape juice. Raffael Zimmerman, tall and bearded, his bicycle parked behind his stand, gives me one of his gorgeously imperfect homemade hildabrötchen, a vanilla shortbread sandwich filled with redcurrant jelly. Made using his great grandmother’s recipe, they’re a South Baden classic, imbued with nostalgia for Freiburg natives: “It’s what you grow up with here — what your mother or omi [grandma] used to bake,” he tells me. From another stand, I try a cheesecake so creamy and smooth, the pastry so crumbly and buttery, that I’m not sure I’ll ever enjoy any other cheesecake again; and as I sample a piece of organic hay-milk cheese covered in dried purple petals, a pair of cheerful chicken farmers behind me crack open a bottle of Riesling. It’s only 11am. I like it here already.

Although Freiburg’s centre is buzzing with students, tourists and shoppers, life here feels remarkably unhurried. The cobbled streets are lined with medieval buildings— many reconstructed after the Second World War — and the pavements are patterned with mosaics. The prettiest street of all is shaded by leafy boughs of wisteria, and in narrow alleyways, children float painted wooden toy boats in the Freiburg Bächle. Fed by the Dreisam River, these water-filled gutters — found along most streets in the Old City — were first built in the 13th century as fire-prevention measure and water supply. These days, as well as being a playground for local children, they play a vital role in the city’s annual wine festival — cooling bare feet and bottles of wine.

The Schlossburg mountain beer garden is a well-loved by visitors and locals alike in Germany's Baden-Württemberg region.
The Schlossburg mountain beer garden is a well-loved by visitors and locals alike in Germany's Baden-Württemberg region.
photo by Alamy

I meet Sascha Weiss, the chef/owner of Michelin-starred Wolfshöhle restaurant, set in a gorgeous old, green-shuttered building. Dressed in chef’s whites and jeans rolled up mid-calf above his trainers, Sascha explains why he and his wife, a native Freiburger, have chosen to live here. “Wherever wine grows, people create good food,” he says. “The south west of Germany is a region of culinary pleasure, and Freiburg’s its capital.”

Sascha’s cooking is ingredient-led. “Nature gives us the best products there are, and we buy the best there is,” he tells me. “I do as little to them as possible so that they can shine.” Sascha’s tasting menu is considered and uncomplicated; the ingredients truly left to speak for themselves. There’s soft, pale smoked salmon from the Dreisam Valley and shiny slithers of deep pink Ibérico ham. Pieces of octopus, hidden beneath drooping strips of courgette, are delightfully sticky on the teeth and accompanied by a spicy, smoked paprika cream. Slow-cooked boneless beef ribs with plums fall apart with a touch of my fork. At the end of such a simple, thoughtful menu, dessert comes as a surprise: an incredibly pretty ring of pistachio biscuit garnished with intricate raspberry, lemon and pistachio creations. The paired wines come from Baden and beyond — an impressive selection of reds, sparkling and white wines, including local Gutedel and Rheingau Riesling, as well as a Tuscan cuvee.

Wurstsalat is a salad made with pink strips of Lyoner sausage dressed with oil and vinegar, served with a soft wheat sourdough.
Wurstsalat is a salad made with pink strips of Lyoner sausage dressed with oil and vinegar, served with a soft wheat sourdough.
photo by Alamy

Beers & brawn

If Baden is famous for its wines, Freiburg is renowned for its beer. I go to meet Martina Feierling-Rombach for beers and some lunch at her fourth-generation organic family brewery where we sit in the gallery overlooking the 100-year-old beer garden, tables dappled with the light streaming through the canopy of chestnut trees. The deliciously cold, frothy Inselhopf beer I’m drinking has been made across the street from where we’re sitting. Darker, more wintery options will become available with the changing of the seasons but for now, this is the only Feierling beer on the menu. Unusually, beers from other breweries are offered here, too.

“As a small, organic brewery, we don’t have the capacity to make everything we’d like, such as alcohol-free or gluten-free beers,” Martina explains. She insists on using regional ingredients not just for her beer but also for the brewery’s food, too. She orders me bibeleskäs — a cool, creamy quark spread seasoned with chopped onions and chives — and wurstsalat, a salad made with pink strips of Lyoner sausage dressed with oil and vinegar, served with a soft wheat sourdough. I try a piece of pressack (brawn), served with a thick, greenish-yellow dressing and paper-thin slices of radish so hot that Martina immediately grabs the salt shaker to mellow their spicy bite. Simultaneously, she shouts “Yes, of course!” to our waitress, who’s come to offer us more beer.

There are heartier regional classics to be had at Grosser Meyerhof, a pub that’s something of a local institution. I tuck into some proper Badisch comfort food, including schäufele (smoked and cured shoulder of pork that’s the colour of an old drunk’s cheeks) and leberle mit brägele (strips of beef liver in a rich, meaty gravy), with fried potatoes on the side.

Marinated anchovies with dill blossom, olive oil and lime, Wolfshöhle.
Marinated anchovies with dill blossom, olive oil and lime, Wolfshöhle.
photo by Baschi Bender

After a light, summery Gutedel wine — produced six miles west of the city — I’m given a sweet, cheesecake-flavoured liqueur for dessert which is, incidentally, made by the same chap who sells the cheesecake at the market.

On my last evening in Freiburg, I head to the restaurant at Hotel Oberkirch, on the edge of the Münsterplatz. The walls are wood-panelled, the floors well-worn parquet, and the white napkins on the white tablecloths folded into the shape of dinner jackets. I enjoy every last mouthful of my very traditional dinner: flädlesuppe, a beautifully clear, shimmering amber beef broth packed with thin strips of pancake and garnished with a smattering of chives; and two huge, spongy dumplings that have been breaded and fried and come with a rich and creamy chanterelle sauce.

As I drain a glass of local Weissburgunder (Pinot Blanc), I hear a brass band warming up outside. Stepping out into the square, I find benches and tables being erected on the cobbles; a wine stand has already been set up. It’s a balmy evening, and the sinking sun is throwing golden light across the square. The scene is irresistible; I queue for another glass of wine. The band strikes up with its rhythmical oompahs, and as the sky grows dark, a local chef climbs on a table to play the spoons.

Finally, as the sun disappears completely, a line of people links arms and sways enthusiastically from side to side. Simple pleasures, seriously good food: the Freiburgers really know how to enjoy themselves here.

In sunny weather try a Kalte Sophie; a red or white wine slushie that’s become Freiburg’s go-to warm-weather tipple.
In sunny weather try a Kalte Sophie; a red or white wine slushie that’s become Freiburg’s go-to warm-weather tipple.
photo by Baschi Bender

Where to eat the best food in Freiburg

1. Alte Wache
This wine tavern, set in a historic building on Münsterplatz sells an impressive selection of local wines, gins and fruit brandies. Join one of its regular tastings or sit outside with a glass of bubbly and some yeasty, buttery, bacon gugelhupf. Alternatively, if it’s sunny, try a Kalte Sophie, a red or white wine slushie that’s become Freiburg’s go-to warm-weather tipple. Open wine tastings €10 (£8) for three wines.

2. Hotel Oberkirch
The menu at Hotel Oberkirch largely comprises regional favourites, from slow-cooked beef in a horseradish sauce, to maultaschen (large pasta parcels filled with vegetables or ground beef). Most of the wines are from the Baden wine region. Two courses with wine €40 (£32).

3. Café Schmidt
Just outside the student quarter, this traditional coffeehouse serves an array of cakes, pastries and pralines. The black forest gateau here comprises layers of light, fluffy chocolate sponge soaked in kirsch, preserved cherries, whipped cream and a crispy biscuit base. €3.90 (£3) per slice.

4. Stefan's Käsekuchen
The cheesecakes sold here all have crumbly, buttery pastry bases and a quark and cream filling with a hint of vanilla. Alongside classic versions like poppy seed, cherry and raisin, there are seasonal variations such as rhubarb or apricot. €9.50 (£8) per cheesecake.

When in Freiburg try flammkuchen; an Alsatian import topped with onions and lardons.
When in Freiburg try flammkuchen; an Alsatian import topped with onions and lardons.
photo by Getty

Five delicious foods to try in Freiburg

1. Flammkuchen
An Alsatian import: a thin, crispy toasted flatbread smeared with soured cream and topped with onion and lardons.

2. Badische dreierlei
Fried potatoes, strips of Lyoner sausage and a dollop of quark mixed with fresh herbs.

3. Lange rote
A 35cm-long, grilled beef and pork sausage served in a bread roll with fried onions. The market in the Münsterplatz is the best place to try it.

4. Spätzle
These egg noodles are traditionally made by scraping dough off a board into boiling water. They’re usually layered with cheese and often topped with caramelised onions.

5. Ochsenfleisch mit meerrettichsosse
Thick slices of slow-cooked beef covered in a creamy horseradish sauce.

How to plan a trip to Freiburg

EasyJet flies from Edinburgh and Luton to Basel, from where buses run frequently to Freiburg. Lufthansa flies from Manchester and Heathrow to Frankfurt am Main. From there, it’s a direct train to Freiburg.

Double rooms at Park Hotel Post from €149 (£130).

Published in the November 2019 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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