by Kriston Capps
Guten tag! Or, however you say howdy in Danish. I’m just back from a trip through Germany, with a brief stop in Copenhagen — where the food is for the most part wretched — and can’t help but reflect on the hearty wonders of German cuisine I never got around to trying.
Over the course of my trip to Germany, I visited four cities in 7 or 8 days. Only in one, Leipzig, did I eat schnitzel. There at lunch, I also ate a delicious beef dish stewed in dark beer with various onions and mushrooms, served with potato cakes. I was well on my way to shaving precious millimeters from the diameter of my arteries, I thought. But nein: no bratwurst, no sauerkraut. I didn’t have another big Teutonic meal — much less a currywurst from a street vendor — until I slipped out to a biergarten to cheer in hushed tones for the USA.
In an effort to tweak Germany’s global image, this junket involved a lot of fancier dining (thanks, Goethe Institut!). You think Germany is all beer and sausages, various deputy dignitaries would tell us, and I would agree, salivating. I would have appreciated the opportunity to engage those stereotypes on my own, especially when I was slicing into a bone-dry turkey saltimbocca and drinking a wine that was never a Riesling like I desired.
One meal, however — one meal — was unexpectedly revealing. My trip took me to the North German holiday island of Sylt. It’s pronounced “Zult” with a swallowed “L”. It means “Hamptons.” It has the highest concentration of Michelin stars in all of Germany, and one of the nation’s few important oyster beds. And it’s a helluva drive from anywhere else.
Sylt is three hours by milk train from Hamburg or 45 minutes by ferry from Denmark. Indeed, if you position yourself just right between the Gucci outlet and the Porsche garage on the hill, you can see Denmark. Or rather, you can see the windmills that mean Denmark. (From your summer house!)
The island of Sylt itself is an unstable piece of land. Its shore along the North Sea is marked as a UNESCO World Heritage site for its dramatic changes in tide, which reveal eerie tidal pools and gross worms that form tall, poop-shaped mounds of sand by excavating the banks. The island would have disappeared altogether a hundred years ago, had some bold gray grass not taken root in dunes that would otherwise range across the land into the sea, and into oblivion.
So there’s no there there on the island of Sylt. Still, restaurateurs do an admirable job sourcing locally what they can. (They must: There’s a lot of old money to feed.) To a large extent, this means importing supplies by ferry from Denmark or by milk train over the sound from Germany, expanding the definition of “local.”
Morsum Kliff has zero Michelin stars, the restaurant’s proprietor explains, because Michelin currently has no more stars to give out in Sylt. That’s okay. They gave me a taste of something I didn’t know I wanted: German island food.
This course, for example: gratinated “Sylt Royal” oysters with spinach, served with a liaison (!) of quail eggs and salad of young herbs. I’ve never ordered baked oysters and even after eating wonderful baked oysters I’ll still never order baked oysters. But they were wonderful. Even the salad dressing, a home-made black bread vinegar, was delicious. This course also marks the first time I have ever eaten a diplomatic convention.
(On the oysters: I can’t complain at all about eating oysters baked, because the next day I got to dig around in an oyster bed, an opportunity that led me to shuck, and eat, oysters pulled fresh out of the North Sea. The North Sea is a relatively clean body of water, especially near Sylt, which makes for tasty coastal sea creatures.)
I’m passing over the codfish on potato raviolo and the Sylt-grown Galloway beef filet — both of which were local, and fine — to get to dessert. Everyone knows you don’t win the meal with dessert, and I tend to avoid sweets altogether, but . . .
. . . I would eat that sorbet of East Frisian tea for the rest of my life. Whatever that Crystalline Entity thing on top is, it gave the dish a nice crunch. And that brownie-looking guy in the back is actually by constitution a chocolat-amarena foam.
Surely Tyler’s got a good rec for where I can find proper Syltian food in D.C.? I have to say, I developed a taste.