In her signature blue-and-white striped apron, Ilse Schreiber lifts a horseshoe-shaped ring of dense, garlicky pork sausage from a pot of steaming water. She’s behind the counter at her yellow-tiled hole-in-the-wall butcher’s shop in Frankfurt’s beloved indoor market, the Kleinmarkthalle. Approaching 80, with soft grey curls and a hard life etched in her face, she slices off a large chunk of fleischwurst (mixed meat sausage), slits the skin for peeling, and hands it to me on a paper plate with a squeeze of yellow mustard, a crusty bread roll and a huge pickled gherkin. There’s a sign above the window advising people to ‘queue to the left’, ensuring the long line of daily visitors doesn’t block the other stands as it snakes its way out of the hall. This is a legendary local lunch.
Built at the end of the 1800s, then rebuilt after the Second World War, the Kleinmarkthalle is home to more than 60 food and flower stalls. Walking through its unremarkable entrance on Hasengasse feels like stepping back in time: the walls are dated, the floor worn but clean, and at first glance, the offerings very regionally German. There’s Confiserie Graff, the seventh-generation family bakery that’s lauded as one of Germany’s best, displaying dome-shaped mini Black Forest gateaux and Rödelheimer kranz, a cherry brandy-spiked variation of the much-loved Frankfurt crown cake. At Main Gourmet, regional gins, jams and vinegars are offered along with air-dried horse ham and a round of apfelwein (apple wine) cheese covered in dark purple petals. On Fridays and Saturdays, live trout, carp and char are sold in the market cellar, splashing about in the blue-and-white-tiled, built-in baths.
But alongside the made-to-order schnitzel and signs for German bread ‘like it used to be’, there are culinary offerings from around the globe: fresh pasta and Sicilian cannoli, baklava and Turkish delight. Frankfurter schneegestöber (a cream cheese and Camembert dip) sits alongside plump balls of Italian buffalo burrata and hard cheeses from Switzerland and France. White paper bundles of locally grown herbs for making grüne soße, Frankfurt’s beloved cold green sauce, nestle between papaya and dragon fruit.
Frankfurt, largely known outside Germany as a financial centre and transport hub with a shiny skyscraper skyline — and, sadly, not for its plentiful green spaces, medieval old town and excellent museums — is home to inhabitants from more than 180 countries. It’s a small city, but thanks to its multicultural population, over half of which come from migrant backgrounds, Frankfurt has a dynamic food scene that harmoniously incorporates both the traditional local food culture and cuisines from further afield. There are traditional apfelwein taverns and Michelin-starred restaurants (eight of them), craft breweries and cocktail bars, cafes serving up Korean fried chicken and Malaysian rendang, and even a boat moored on the river selling doner kebabs.
There’s also the French-Japanese patisserie-cafe Iimori, owned by Azko Iimori, who moved to Frankfurt from Tokyo in the 1980s. Azko is an elegant, ambitious woman whose Victorian-style cafe is a hop and a skip from the Römerberg, the cobbled square at the heart of Frankfurt’s old town, through which the city’s Christmas market spills each year. She also owns the Paris salon-style Japanese restaurant above the bakery, and a gyoza bar on the other side of town.
She opened this cafe 10 years ago in response to what she saw as “a decline in quality and craftsmanship in German baking”, and with her small team, almost entirely made up of family members, she creates handmade, freshly baked products every day. There’s an impressive selection of Japanese, German and French cakes and pastries in her carefully arranged glass counter, from taiyaki (fish-shaped cakes), matcha donuts and baumkuchen to macarons and tartes au citron.
Traditional culinary processes are also important for Ricky Saward, the ambitious 29-year-old head chef of Seven Swans, one of Germany’s two Michelin-starred vegetarian restaurants. The restaurant’s permaculture farm about 12 miles north of Frankfurt provides the fresh produce he uses to compose his beautiful plates of ‘radical regional’ food, such as kohlrabi dim sum stuffed with fennel and cucumber, served with rue oil, Mexican mini cucumbers and cornflowers. Entirely dependent on the course of the seasons, traditional preservation methods are for him, essential.
Born in north-west Germany, Ricky lived and worked in New Zealand and Australia before moving to Frankfurt seven years ago. “Frankfurt is different from anywhere else,” he says. “It’s a small commuter city, so it’s empty at the weekends. People take time to enjoy themselves, though, and there’s culinary experimentation. But not on the same level as Berlin; they’re not ready for that.”
Standing on the pavement outside Seven Swans enjoying an excellent rum punch flavoured with Earl Grey, orange sherbet syrup and cremant, restaurant manager Denise Omurca, who’s lived in Frankfurt for 15 years, likens the city to a mini New York. “It’s young and dynamic, despite its reputation as a banker city, and there’s a lot happening in a relatively small area,” she says. The Bahnhofsviertel (train station quarter) is a good example of this: long notorious for drugs and crime, it’s currently the hippest place in the city to hang out, with what feels like a new bar or restaurant opening every weekend.
Frankfurt’s traditional apfelwein taverns, meanwhile, are the other end of the spectrum to Ricky’s purist vegetarian cuisine. The regional cuisine here is rustic and almost vulgar in comparison: vast plates of straggly, grey-brown sauerkraut topped with inch-thick pork chops, blood sausages and beef tongue. These dishes are good for soaking up the local apfelwein: flat, tart and sour, brought theatrically from bar to table in Bembels, traditional blue-and-grey clay jugs.
Apfelwein has been at the heart of Frankfurt culture since at least the 1600s, having originated as the alcoholic choice of the poor, cheaply and easily made at home, and only becoming more widely popular after the region’s vineyards were destroyed by parasites a couple of hundred years later. The taverns, clustered mainly across the river from the old town in the Sachsenhausen district, continue to play an important role in the lives of locals, who are quick to warn fellow diners about the fearsome hangover for which apfelwein is renowned.
I buy myself a glass at Frankfurt’s annual 10-day apfelwein festival. It’s approaching midday, and as the late summer sun shines high above me, tables fill with a mix of casually dressed locals, curious tourists and bankers in expensive-looking suits. A huge, inflatable Bembel bobs above the growing crowd. There’s standard festival food on offer, from grilled sausages and kidney skewers to flammkuchen (tartes flambees), burgers and even fish and chips. I choose an apfelweinbratwurst, a sweet grilled pork and apple sausage, with a generous helping of vinegary white cabbage salad, and sit down with two other solo diners to eat.
Taking a sip of my apfelwein, I contemplate my surroundings. It’s lunchtime, and there are smartly dressed business folk eating sausages in buns and tourists drinking apfelwein cocktails against a backdrop of skyscrapers and festival stands made from wooden wine barrels. This should all seem a bit odd, but for some reason, it makes sense. Frankfurt is a celebration of regional and international, modern and traditional, rustic and refined, all coexisting harmoniously. Its culinary offerings reflect just that.
A taste of Frankfurt
Zum Gemalten Haus
The rooms at one of Frankfurt’s oldest apfelwein taverns are part wood-panelled, part painted with murals, hence its name, ‘the Painted House’. There’s pork knuckle, meatloaf and liver sausages while lighter options include bread and cold cuts, or boiled eggs with potatoes and grüne soße. Mains from €8.50 (£7.50).
To reach your table in the narrow, seven-storey building that is the Michelin-starred Seven Swans, take a two-person lift to the top floor and come out through the tiny kitchen. Chef Ricky Saward focuses on flavours and textures in his inventive tasting menus. Take a window table for great views of the Main. From €89 (£80) for six courses.
For snacks on the go or a casual lunch, head to Frankfurt’s indoor market. Sit on the mezzanine with a plate of oysters or have a simple German lunch in the Marktstubb restaurant. At weekends, enjoy the lively atmosphere on the patio. Mains at the Marktstubb from €11 (£10).
This modern cafe-patisserie is just off the Römerberg. Serving traditional German cakes and pastries, as well as pralines and petits fours, it’s both tiny and extremely popular: if you’re unable to get a seat, choose a slice of Frankfurter kranz to take away. A slice of cake costs around €3.50 (£3).
Five Frankfurt food finds
A crown-shaped sponge cake layered with red jam and buttercream, smothered in more buttercream and nut brittle, and topped with cherries.
A cold, green, dairy-based sauce made with seven specific locally grown herbs, most commonly served with boiled eggs and potatoes.
Handkäse mit Musik
Pungent, soured cow’s cheese marinated in oil, vinegar, caraway and onion, and served with slices of bread.
These ball-shaped, bite-sized marzipan Christmas pastries are flavoured with rosewater and decorated with three almond halves.
Thick-cut, cured bone-in pork chops, served with sauerkraut, mashed potatoes, mustard and a glass of apfelwein.
Published in the November 2018 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)