If you cannot currently travel to Germany, Germany will just have to come to you: With compliments from the kitchen! This time a specialty from Bremen. What for Germans asparagus is in spring, kale is its counterpart in the winter: a seasonal vegetable that is eagerly awaited. It is served in Germany from November to February . The vegetable is widespread throughout the north — from Schleswig-Holstein and Lower Saxony to Hamburg and North Rhine-Westphalia, and even in Saxony-Anhalt, kale is well known. In Oldenburg (Lower Saxony) and Bremen, kale is a veritable cult.
The name often causes confusion. If “brown cabbage” (Braunkohl) appears on a menu, you’ll be served kale. It is also called curly kale (Krauskohl). But no name sounds as pleasant as “Frisian palm trees” (friesische Palme).
The hearty soul of kale
No matter what name the cabbage may have, the soul of the winter dish in Germany is the accompaniment, i.e. the sausage and the meat. Smoked sausages, smoked pork and bacon are a must. In Bremen and the Oldenburger Land region, “pinkel” is also added to the kale. This is a sausage specialty of the region. Pinkel not only gives the cabbage a special flavor. The high proportion of oat or barley groats in the sausage make the vegetables nice and creamy.
Pinkel is basically only produced in winter and purely for kale dishes — which makes it rather difficult to find in other regions. Because this sausage specialty is a rarity, we have refrained from using it in our recipe (sorry, dear people of Bremen!) and instead used smoked sausages made of minced pork (Mettenden). We will bind the cabbage with oat flakes.
A favorite dish with a fun factor
Because the dish is so hearty and therefore very mighty, it can practically only be eaten in winter. In summer we would just pass out in the next deck chair after eating it. And yet of all things this knockout cabbage is enjoying great popularity despite the self-optimisation mania and body-shaping stress. How can that be? There are other types of cabbage — and less calorie-rich cabbage dishes — that we could succumb to.
Well, kale has something that other cabbages don’t have. It’s an event vegetable! It brings people together in convivial gatherings and creates shared memories that bind. That’s why the beginning of the harvest is a moment that the whole of Northern Germany awaits with excitement. This is usually after the first frost, sometime in November. That’s when the big cabbage feast begins!
Since the 16th century, the inhabitants of the north have met to eat kale together. In the 19th century a new trend was added, the kale trip. A ritual that soon became widespread throughout northern Germany.
Between November and February, families, friends and acquaintances, staff and clubs meet in the name of the cabbage for a wintry outing. You can easily recognise the cabbage trippers by the fact that they pull a fully loaded handcart behind them. Thus, they wander in small groups through cities, over dikes and meadows. Happily defying the winter cold, they head for a country inn, a brewery, or a restaurant.
The journey is the destination
Sounds harmless at first. But those wagons are tough. They’re filled to the brim with alcoholic beverages. Therefore, the most important utensil of the happy walkers is a shot glass. It hangs ready for use around every neck.
On the way, the small groups pass the time with games that are without exception not suitable for the Olympics, such as paper plate or tea bag throwing, dice betting or the Frisian national sport “Boßeln”. The sole purpose of the sporting activity is to drink schnapps as often as possible. The excursionists then arrive at the restaurants in a more than positive mood, eat their well-deserved kale — and continue celebrating.
Today, the epicenters of this popular sport are Bremen and neighboring Oldenburg (Lower Saxony). The cities are in eternal competition for the prestigious title “Cabbage Metropolis”.
Anyone who would like to experience the kale meal festivities, even as an outsider, will find numerous tips on where to stop for a bite to eat on the websites of the Hanseatic City of Bremen, for example. Of course, this also applies to Oldenburg — and many other larger and smaller towns and communities in Northern Germany. During the winter months most restaurants have special offers.
A question of honor
In Bremen, kale — which by the way is called brown cabbage here — is still honored in a very respectable way. Along with stockfish (a cod dish), Bremen chicken soup and Riga butt (smoked flounder), it has a firm place on the menu of the traditional “Schaffermahlzeit,” formal dinner event.
The Schaffermahlzeit, the grandest social annual event in Bremen is a feast which can be documented as far back as 1545. It was given by the merchants and ship owners for the sea captains before the winter ended and they set sail again. In addition, this social event also raises money for the families of sailors who have been lost at sea. These days well-known celebrities from politics, industry, and the arts attend, alongside the standard 100 merchants and 100 seafarers.
Eating kale as a social event has also established itself outside Germany, everywhere where homesick northern Germans cultivate their traditions — of which kale is a natural part. Even in Taipei, the capital of Taiwan, German expats meet once a year to feast, drink and celebrate — international guests are welcome!
For 20 years the “Kale Committee” — all honorary kale fans — has been inviting to a hearty kale dinner, followed by a party! In Singapore and Tokyo, they also celebrate kale season, too. Only kale trips have not yet been seen in these metropolises. But what has not been seen may yet happen. DW