Alice Medrich's Cocoa Brownies
Austrian Potato Strudel

Dispatches From a German Grocery Store

I love going to grocery stores. And I'm willing to bet money a lot of you do, too. No?  There's something so calming about grocery shopping. All those nice parallel lines, the reliable stacks of products, the hum of the refrigerated section, the loamy scent in the produce aisle. I heft sacks of rice in my hand, feel the bumpy rinds of cool lemons, run my index finger along smooth jars of honey. Whenever I'm feeling out of sorts, a stroll through the grocery store sets me right again.

After a long time out of German grocery stores, I am having such a good time rediscovering what's in them. There are enormous amount of dairy products, lots of whole-grain flours, very cheap, delicious honey and the most beautiful Savoy cabbages you ever did see. There are also more "ethnic" products than there used to be, like Chinese sauces and Yugoslavian pepper pastes; and the produce sections, while piddling in size compared to the grotesquerie of a Whole Foods, now sport lemon grass and cilantro along with the standard offerings of local potatoes, leeks and turnips.

I don't know about you, but when I travel I love spending an afternoon in a grocery store, looking at local cheese that will never leave the zip code, strange jams, interesting vegetables and more. You can learn a lot about a place from its grocery stores; can see the importance of cured meats, say, in one culture, or the lack of green vegetables in another. I buy gifts for people back home there, figuring a rosehip jam or an exotic nut oil is so much better than a standard post card. It's something tangible you can eat and feel transported by, something delicious you can't get back home, something special, best of all.

I thought you might like to see some of my favorite things from my local store here. Next time you're in town, stock up.


Pflaumenmus is German plum butter and it is glorious. Dark and sticky and lightly spiced with cinnamon, German bakeries pipe this stuff into doughnuts and citizens put it on toast for breakfast. I've heard it on good authority that it tastes especially delicious spread over fresh cheese on bread. For some reason, Pflaumenmus is almost always sold in tins, which makes for lovely presents.


Strudel. Oh, strudel. Those Austro-Hungarians, man, they had good ideas. Light, delicate dough, so thin you can read newspaper through it, stuffed with spiced apples and brushed with butter, browned in the oven, served with cream... Is your stomach growling yet? I am nowhere near knowing how to make my own strudel dough, so I loved finding this premade dough in the refrigerated section. Plus, isn't the type on the package worth buying it alone? This stuff is from Bavaria, which will probably make me the laughingstock of any Austrians reading the blog, but I've also seen Austrian strudel dough at a fancy department store here and I'm buying that next. Last night, I filled and baked a sheet of this dough with mashed potatoes seasoned with caraway, then mixed with sauteed leeks, onions and ham, and almost two cups of quark. Sliced and served with a salad, oh ho, it was good.


Germans love tea. They love tea. Especially herbal tea. In my grocery store, there are herbal teas available for almost every kind of ailment or situation known to man. From standard offerings like fennel and rosehip to more complicated stuff like "Men's Tea" or "Tea for the Common Cold" or even a tea called "Hot Love" (ahem), you could spend hours in the tea aisle and be convinced to stop believing in modern medicine. My favorite herbal tea at the moment is this stuff called "Arabian Spice Tea". It's flavored with cardamom and plums, among other things, and tastes especially wonderful with a spoonful of honey melted into it. No idea if it does anything good for your health, but it warms my soul and that seems plenty.


We all know Zwieback, right? Just little squares of crispy bread, best eaten when afflicted with a stomach flu. Here in Germany, though, the birthplace of the Zwieback, some evil genius has gone and done it: created what is possibly the best teatime snack ever made: the chocolate-covered Zwieback. Covered in bittersweet chocolate, Schoko-Zwieback is addictive. It's crunchy as all get out, barely sweet and so satisfying. I am a little bit obsessed. You will be, too.


Another import from Austria is Styrian pumpkinseed oil. Produced exclusively in Styria, a region of Austria, pumpkinseed oil looks like dark green ink and tastes like a pumpkinseed on steroids. I like drizzling it on pureed pumpkin soup or dressing greens for salad with it (best with a delicate white wine vinegar). It's powerful stuff and comes in all kinds of beautiful little jugs and bottles. Way, way better than a miniature replica of the Brandenburg Gate.


And finally, the best ready-made dessert you'll ever buy. Bauer, a privately-owned dairy, makes this very simple, very plain chocolate pudding. Made only with milk and no cream and with 72% cacao, it's improbably light and yet packs a serious chocolate punch. It's almost black and silky on the spoon. Best of all: the ingredient label. No preservatives, no strange color numbers. Just milk, sugar, cacao, and starch. Imagine eating a mashed pototo strudel for dinner and then still finding room for dessert? This is the only thing that will fit.