October 15, 2005

Strudel Chic: German Food Tries to Be Cool

Evethough german sausages and ham look old fashioned, they are high in quality and filling. That's hardly what you can say for most of american fast food. Sausages....drool..


Call it the Rodney Dangerfield of European cuisine: German food gets no respect. "German foods are generally perceived to be big fatty meat and heavy dumplings," says Arnim von Friedeburg, managing director of the German Agricultural Marketing Board. Some of the country's most famous dishes -- think sauerkraut and sauerbraten -- sound, well, sour. Even Oktoberfest, the widely celebrated annual German festival, is best known for massive beer consumption, pork sausages made in the U.S. and folks dressed up in short green pants.

Now German exporters are rolling out a plan to rid Oktoberfest, and German food and drink, of its folksy connotations and try to make things like sauerkraut, spätzle and pumpernickel seem chic. Mr. von Friedeburg's organization, known by its German abbreviation, CMA, has been running print and radio ads with the tag line "Forget the lederhosen, oompah bands and traditional German food." Meanwhile, manufacturers are updating packaging. Mestemacher, a maker of all-natural breads, has even replaced the old picture of ham and cheese on the label of its pumpernickel with a photo of model types in an embrace.

Giving German food a new image may seem like a big order, but there are precedents. "English cuisine" was once a joke; this year, three restaurants in England have three Michelin stars, and 10 have two (though President Chirac seems not to have noticed). And CMA is investing what Mr. von Friedeburg calls a "significant" amount in its effort.

Germany's specialty beer makers also feel misunderstood. Pilsner-style beer, a light-colored lager that's the dominant German style, now represents the vast majority of all beer consumed world-wide. But many American beer aficionados prefer more exotic varieties. So the brewers are doing their own promotions, including a Web site, Germanbeerinstitute.com. The effort will cost "many hundreds of thousands of dollars," says Horst Dornbusch, a consultant to the German beer industry.

So far, efforts to reposition German food appear to be paying off. Imports jumped by 14% in the first quarter of 2005 compared with the same period last year, according to CMA. Meijer, a Midwestern chain of 172 supercenters, and Rodman's, a small chain of specialty stores in Maryland and Washington, D.C., say they have vastly expanded their German offerings. One newly popular item is spätzle, a dumpling-shaped egg pasta that's sold both dried and fresh, in vacuum-packed bags. Boiled and tossed in browned butter, it makes a tasty side dish. Another typically German product, quark, a soft white cheese often made in the U.S., is appearing in chefs' recipes in place of cream cheese.

Some chefs are trying to change public perception of their native fare. Marcel Biró, who was once the personal chef for former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl and has cooked in Michelin-starred restaurants, now runs two restaurants in Sheboygan, Wis. "We use old German ingredients," he says, "and create a much, much lighter fare." But it's an uphill battle. "People think we're just cooking bratwurst," Mr. Biró says.

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