Photographs by Brandon de Kock
Black Forest ham and Black Forest cake have countless imitators the world over, and I’ve always longed to taste the real thing. So when I found myself in Germany during spring, I caught a train into this mystical thicket of forest – to Baiersbronn. Here the concentration of Michelin stars is as dense as the fir trees and the wealthy Luftschnapper (air gulpers) have been visiting for years to restore their health.
I was in search of anti-Michelin authenticity, which I discovered – in style – at two family-run lodgings that put this town on the map: Traube Tonbach and Hotel Bareiss. While their patrons may be what my Swabian grandfather calls ‘High Society’, both began as pioneering outposts. And what better place to start, than Traube Tonbach, which has been in the Finkbeiner family for seven generations
Like Wes Anderson’s Grand Budapest Hotel, it has all the romance of a bygone era. Patriarch, Herr Sebastian Finkbeiner, glides through the breakfast room greeting guests by name – many of whom have been returning for at least three of those generations. And in the Bauernstube, which once provided sustenance for famished lumberjacks, I discovered genuine, 12-month air-matured Black Forest ham.
It was the softest pink – thanks to no nitrates – with the subtle complexity of juniper berries, pepper, coriander seed and nutmeg, but even more intriguing was the herbal bouquet served as a nutty, astringent foil. Chef Oskar Fried arrived, wearing a pair of steel eyebrows as spectacle frames, to identify them tableside: ‘Goose finger’, ‘Lion’s tooth’… was I in a real life fairytale?
These, explained Oskar, are wild herbs gathered from the Northern Black Forest by an 80-year-old woman who has been bringing them to Tonbach for 25 years. We go to the kitchen to see more, and I realise these verdant bundles – neatly labeled with their supplier’s shaky script – are as much a part of Black Forest cuisine as the famous exports I’ve come to taste.
One of those is the cherry cake, which I come closer to understanding amidst the gemütlichkeit of the Dorfstuben at Hotel Bareiss. Squeezed into a corner table, under a crucifix, the view was of draft taps and waitresses in tightly laced Dirndls sawing slices of sourdough. And when Herr Bareiss stepped onto the threshold, hair combed back and coiffed silk hankerchief in his jacket pocket, I knew instantly it was mein Host.
I never intended to eat Black Forest cake here, we’d come for Zwiebelrostbraten: Perfectly medium-rare rump with a creamy, beefy sauce, a shower of crispy onions, buttered, fluffy, Spätzle. Until Ingrid, who presides over this parlour, reprimanded: ‘What? No dessert?’ Nobody argues with Ingrid. A towering Schwarzwälderkirschtorte landed in front of me with a thud.
Drenched in Kirschwasser, sandwiched with sour cherries and jauntily piped with rosettes of cream, one slice provided all I needed to know about this classic. Never too sweet, too rich or too heavy, it was the perfect contrast of bittersweet chocolate to sour cherry to light-as-air cream. I finished every last crumb.
It felt fitting since Hotel Bareiss was founded on Hermine Bareiss’s talent for baking tortes when her husband, Jakob, was killed in World War Two – and, I’m told, they still use her recipes. That crackling sourdough crust holds the story of a working single mum, who became a hospitality legend.
The glossy magenta cherries on Bareiss’s cake assumed wonky angles, the chocolate shavings are less than uniform, but it was robust and assembled with a generosity of spirit. Like something a woodcutter’s wife might bake… or a hunter’s wife, as was Mrs. Bareiss. And darn it was good.
By contrast, Tonbach’s cherry cake is an exercise in precision and a better expression of perfection I couldn’t hope to find. The same might be said of the great Chef Harald Wolfhardt of Tonbach’s three-star Schwarzwaldstube, so before leaving I asked him the secret. His answer, translated and précised: Enough Kirschwasser!
Both Tonbach and Bareiss swear by Dr. Zimmerman, which is distilled in nearby Mitteltal but I was more interested in home distillers so I found my way to Oberkirch in the Rench Valley, just to the left of Baiersbronn. And of the Rench Valley’s close to 900 distilleries, I picked Farmer Wussler.
Clemens Wussler became the face of Oberkirch distilling 20 years ago when photographed (in full regalia) for a calendar produced by the local bank and shortly after my arrival he slipped off for a costume change, returning to strike a pose at his copper still – pipe in hand and wearing a felt hat. He’s media savvy alright, but traditional values run deep.
This is not Frauen schnapps (schnapps for women), he informed me when we got to tasting – it’s 48% alcohol. So I sipped on my lady-like cherry liqueur, held my tongue and bought a bottle for later. While the menfolk extolled the virtues of his Kirsch, Wussler fetched a Vesper (snack) – some of his Schinkespek (ham) – and that’s when I got it.
Wussler churns butter, bakes bread in a wood-fired Häussler oven and keeps a Hausschwein or ‘house pig’. When it’s butchered, the leg and belly are turned into charcuterie: packed into salt turned daily, and then smoked using the Fir branches to hand. Black Forest Ham is not a self-conscious regional product, it is another aspect of self-sufficiency – as is making Kirschwasser from a glut of cherries.
It’s why regional specialities seldom transport well – context is all-important. There is a purity of process, seasonal emphasis and reverence for nature that is lost in the twee Black Forest imagery of cuckoo clocks and ersatz chocolate gateaux. What I remember about being there are the roof gardens, the fields of delicate flowers, the pristine air and, most of all, the fragrance.
Every time I try describing the ham, the cherry cake, the home-distilled Kirsch, the same two words come to mind: ‘Clean’ and ‘aromatic’, because all three are an extension of the landscape. Even in Tonbach’s über-modern new wing, with reindeer decals and red accents as vivid as the glacé cherries on their cake, it is impossible not to be aware of the ancient forest that surrounds it.
Chef Harald Wohlfhardt weaves three-Michelin-star mastery at Tonbach’s Schwarzwaldstube and Herr Finkbeiner tells of how he and chef Wolfhardt used to cross the border by train – the tracks heaped with snow – to source fresh fish at French markets. That was 30 years ago, before ‘destination restaurant’ became foodie parlance. Chef Oskar Fried also offers classes at Tonbach’s cookery school. See traube-tonbach.de
Hotel Bareiss is what Disney themeparks wish they could be, there’s a gingerbread village for the children and a tree house Rapunzel would envy. For the grown-ups there’s the three-star Restaurant Bareiss. See bareiss.com
For holiday apartments (and schnapps) on the Wussler’s working farm Fiegenhof, see fiegenhof.de
Baiersbronn does two things well: Cooking and Hiking. So head out and build up an appetite. For info on local hiking guides or the Hiking Heaven project – a Baiersbronn Tourism initiative – go to the hiker’s kiosk at Baiersbronn train station or the tourism office. Most hotels also offer organised hikes for guests. See baiersbronn.de
Black Forest Tourism
For more general information on the Black Forest, see blackforest-tourism.com