“Fine, go ahead,” Rich said, shuddering. “Just don’t expect me to eat any of it.”
I had to admit, the labskaus didn’t look particularly appetizing. Usually described as a bright purple meat purée colored with beets, mine appeared more of a tired mauve; even the sunny-side-up egg topper couldn’t make it appear anything but drab. However, I refused to be put off by appearances. Medieval German sailors lived on this hearty dish made from minced and boiled salted beef, potatoes, onions, and lard. And here at the Schiffergesellschaft — the ancient hall of the maritime guilds in the port city of Lübeck, Germany — I’d heard they served the best. I fortified myself with a swig of beer and dug in.
Imagine corned beef hash made with over-boiled beef, over-mashed potatoes, and loads of lard, seasoned with a dash of beets and a hint of herring. Rich, who loathes beets in any form, could barely look at it, but I have to say, labskaus was far from the worst thing I’ve ever eaten. It was better than Portuguese pig’s ears, for instance, which turned out to be just as rubbery and tasteless as you’d expect. And it didn’t have that peculiar oiliness that makes it so hard for me to swallow the Scots’ beloved haggis. True, labskaus wasn’t quite as good as fried flies, which are as delightfully salty and crunchy — like cocktail peanuts with wings. You don't get that kind of culinary fun with purple boiled beef, but I wouldn’t say it was truly terrible. All the same, I don’t think I’ll be ordering it again soon. OK, ever.
In spite of its underwhelming taste and appearance, I rather liked the idea of labskaus. This was the ancient seafaring community’s way of using up odd (possibly questionable) bits of salted meat and root vegetables, creating a filling dish to sustain hungry sailors on voyages throughout the Baltic Sea and beyond. It was as thrifty and practical as the merchants who sent those ships out on ever-longer trading runs. During the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, Lübeck’s merchants cleverly parlayed a well-placed port into such a prosperous business nexus that they rose to leadership in the Hanseatic League, a vast and powerful trade organization that became the juggernaut of commercial culture in the known world — much like Silicon Valley is today.
Since then, Lübeck’s fortunes have waxed and waned, as fortunes so often do. In 1932 the city boldly defied Hitler, refusing to allow him to campaign there; naturally this led to some nasty reprisals later. Toward the end of the war, the Allies bombed Lübeck’s port and devastated the ancient part of the city, but later restorations were so meticulous that the town has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The restorers mercifully managed to refrain from correcting the off-kilter, listing, crooked walls of the original medieval houses, warehouses, and towers in the town center, and combined with the conical black spires rising above the skyline like a gaggle of witch’s hats, this gives the city an endearing resemblance to the illustrations in a child’s book of fairy tales.
And that’s what I love about Lübeck. The townspeople never lost sight of the fact that its flaws didn’t diminish the city, they were the very thing that made it marvelous.
The charms of imperfection are also part of the appeal of the Lübeck Museum of Theater Puppets, where more than a thousand fantastical figures are displayed in a rabbit warren cobbled together out of half a dozen sixteenth century homes. As you climb up and down spiral staircases and turn unexpected corners, you see plenty of pretty girls and dashing youths, but the most unforgettable characters are the oddballs: grotesque villains, wild-eyed beasts, and scheming crones whose faces are outrageously alive with passion and personality.
After wandering, dazzled, through the maze of puppetry exhibits, I said to Rich, “Hungry? I think we owe it to my readers to check out the marzipan.” He responded to this suggestion with considerably more enthusiasm than he’d shown for the labskaus at Schiffergesellschaft. (Go figure.)
Legend has it that marzipan, a rich confection of ground almonds and sugar, was invented in Lübeck, possibly as the result of some ancient siege during which all other food supplies were exhausted. Once a delicacy enjoyed by the wealthy, marzipan now enjoys widespread popularity, and local “canditor” Niederegger has a vast downtown emporium on the very spot where marzipan has been sold since the twelfth century. Rated as 100% pure marzipan, Niederegger’s confections are sold worldwide in every shape imaginable, from pigs to dinosaurs to a replica of the city’s famous most landmark, the Holsten Gate.
We bought a couple of marzipan hearts covered in dark chocolate and bit into them. Oh. My. God. It was glorious stuff, far better than the American version my parents used to tuck into my Christmas stocking. It was proof that Lübeck’s merchants are still providing, at a reasonable yet profitable price, exactly what the market wants — in this case, something to refresh the palate and chase away the aftertaste of purple puréed beef with hints of beet and herring.
WE’RE OFF TO A GOOD START. Our three-month train trip began when we touched down in Paris on June 28 and immediately hopped on a train to Lille, France. Two days later we visited friends in Amsterdam, then continued by rail to Germany. After a brief stopover in Osnabruck, we arrived in Lübeck, on the edge of the Baltic Sea. Since I wrote this post, we’ve taken the ferry north to Sweden, landing in Malmö and continuing on to Stockholm. For more about our continuing adventures, subscribe to this blog and check my Facebook page for updates.
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Our Mediterranean Comfort Food Tour
I'm an American writer living in Seville, Spain and traveling the world with my husband, Rich. Right now we're on our Mediterranean Comfort Food Tour, exploring the world's favorite cuisine to discover more about European culture.
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