Blended into vibrant green smoothies, baked into chips or tossed into salads, kale has been popping up on menus and in kitchens around the globe. It’s very different to the kind of kale stew that is cooked in this part of Germany during winter, including one dish that’s a much-loved seasonal tradition. In one city here they’re even trying to attract tourists with their quirky kale customs, the most obvious of which is braving the sometimes freezing temperatures for a kohlfahrt. As tempting as it might be to laugh, kohl is in fact the German word for cabbage and fahrt, in this context, means a walk or a tour. So basically, they’re serving up cabbage tours to tourists.
Not a bad idea given kale has become the fashionable darling of the green vegetable family Brassica oleracea. Lauded for its cancer-fighting properties, it is rich in vitamins C, A and K, and can lower cholesterol levels. If that wasn’t enough, kale is packed full of antioxidants and helps reduce the early onset of common eye diseases. It’s no surprise so many people are turning to this humble cabbage for their daily dose of raw green goodness.
Kale and nobility
In the north-west of Germany, kale has been a dietary staple for centuries. The people living in and around the boggy marshes of Bremen, Oldenburg and East Friesland bordering the North Sea have always had an insatiable appetite for this cabbage variety, with written records showing kale was being eaten at banquets in the mid 16th century. However, the first kale was brought to the region from the Mediterranean during the Middle Ages. It was the only vegetable, nutritious as it was, that could grow and survive the freezing temperatures and muddy soils.
An entire season – gruenkohl saison – is named after this cabbage. And with good reason: the kind of stew made from kale is the quintessential ingredient of a regional delicacy known as kohl und pinkel or ‘kale and pinkelwurst’. For the people of Bremen and Oldenburg, it’s their beloved winter dish, a hearty meal that – alongside another cooked sausage (mettwurst) and a smorgasbord of smoked bacon and tender pork chops (kasseler) and roasted or caramelised potatoes – is sure to stave off the biggest bear hunger.
No kale, no pinkel
Kale season runs from October through to the end of March, and where there’s kale there’s almost always pinkel. Unlike most sausages (particularly in Germany), this pink-coloured sausage is only eaten with kale and only during the season. It’s not clear as to the provenance of the term ‘pinkel’ – a slang German word referring to how men urinate. Some believe it’s coined from the days when the sausage was made by hand and, during the hanging process, juice trickled down its sides.
It’s not something Juergen Hemmerling wants to speculate about too much. Along with his son, Frank, he is one of the biggest suppliers of pinkelwurst in Bremen. His father opened the first butcher shop in 1928 and today, Hemmerling employs 45 staff across six outlets. “This is a northern German sausage that you eat with kale. It’s made of pork, oat groats and onions,” says the 75-year-old butcher, who shows no sign of tiring or retiring. During kale season, half a tonne of pinkelwurst is produced here each week, with the entire process – including blanching the smoked sausage – taking up to three hours. If you live in Bremen, it’s best to eat your pinkel fresh (within a week) and throw it into a pot of brown kale (braunkohl), lots of pepper, water, onion and herbs, before serving. Why does pinkel taste so good with kale? Hemmerling is more pragmatist than connoisseur. “I don’t know. All we know is that it’s the combination that works so well.”
’Tis the season!
As an Oldenburg resident put it succinctly: “In Cologne, they have carnival and here we have kale!” The weather plays a significant role in the culinary rituals surrounding the celebrated season. “We say that the kale always needs the first frost before you can start eating it, so ideally when the temperature drops below 0 degrees,” explains Peer Steinwald, born and raised in Bremen. “It’s like an unwritten law.” Ironically, the 43-year-old recalls his mother always waiting for the first official frost to cook the family kale, even though she nearly always bought it in jars from the supermarket.
Ute Schmidt remembers only too well the effort involved in cooking fresh kale at home. “Oh, it’s so much work. You have mountains of kale leaves and the only way to properly clean them is to take them into the bathtub,” the 61-year-old housewife tells me in her spotless beige-toned lounge room in Stuhr on the outskirts of Bremen. “These days I give that job to someone else, and if I cook it at home then it’s using kale from the freezer or a tin.”
Her husband, Juergen Schmidt, says there’s nothing better than eating the cooked kale so typical of the region, whether at home or in a local tavern. It’s left for up to three hours simmering to give the dish its special flavours. “It’s always so delicious,” exults the retired ship salesman. And the best thing about it is its longevity. “Somehow, the taste just gets better after the second and third time it’s been cooked,” he says like a man who’s just won the lottery.
The best way to celebrate the season is, indeed, with a kohlfahrt. ... a long walk in cold, often snowy or icy conditions, usually in a strip of nature or a park or in the countryside with a wooden cart or bollerwagen (used to carry snacks but mostly stashes of alcohol).
The origins of kohlfahrt
The best way to celebrate the season is, indeed, with a kohlfahrt. Friends, families, sporting clubs and even whole companies participate in at least one kale tour a year. It involves taking a long walk in cold, often snowy or icy conditions, usually in a strip of nature or a park or in the countryside with a wooden cart or bollerwagen (used to carry snacks but mostly stashes of alcohol).
Willing participants drink schnapps and play games while walking for several hours. It’s a logistical exercise for organisers of the event, traditionally the kale king or queen. Dates and, importantly, finding a suitable venue or destination – always kept secret from the rest of the group – has to be booked often months in advance due to the growing popularity of the events, particularly with younger generations.
The tour guide supplies the games, drinks and, of course, snacks to ensure that no members fall behind in any area. The goal: to reach the prescribed destination … a local tavern where they will be served kohl und pinkel as part of a four-course menu. At some point in the night a new king and queen will be chosen for the following year. In years gone by, the king was the one who ate the most kale, but these days that rule has been relaxed.
Games include anything from boesseln, a Frisian tradition of throwing wooden balls along the track, to lobbing broomsticks.
Drive 40 minutes north-west of Bremen on the autobahn and you reach the kale tour capital, otherwise known as the city of Oldenburg. It is here a local sports club (the Oldenburger Turnerbund) – founded 150 years ago – invented the quirky and beloved pastime.
Riding on the global health craze for the curly-leafed cabbage, Oldenburg is determined to turn kale into a golden (at least green) currency from tourism. It is home to the Kale Academy, which educates visitors about the humble green vegetable, how to cook it and the key essentials to a successful cabbage tour. Among the items for sale and hire are bollerwagons and sticks of green coal to keep your hands warm. There’s also a plentiful array of locally made condiments such as pesto, spreads, mustard and even tea – all containing kale.
For king and country
A kale tour would not live up to its name or reputation without its jolly participants eating kale at the end. The destination has as much importance as the journey. Erwin Abel runs the Buemmersteder Krug, a traditional country inn near Oldenburg. “It’s what I love doing and I’ve done it all my life,” he says with a smile. His great-grandfather started the tavern 150 years ago and today its reputation – especially for its beloved Oldenburg-style kale stew, Ollnborger gröönkohl – precedes it.
Behind the swinging kitchen door, head chef Niko Winkelmann uses a metre-long spoon to stir a vat containing 100 litres of the risotto-like stew made from kale, water, salt, oat groats and seasoned with smoked pork. During the peak of the season, from February until March, Winkelmann prepares half a tonne of the beguiling hot green stew each weekend. Tonight is Friday night, one of the busiest nights in the kale calendar. It’s a full house and the first of 250 guests have started flooding into the corridors of the thatched-roofed inn.
Ulf Ihben and Melanie Wittig are among them. Their jingling golden necklaces gallop ahead of their fluid strides. Colleagues by day, tonight they are kale king and queen. They have had the onerous task of organising a cabbage tour for 150 co-workers from a large local firm. “It’s really an honour to organise a kale tour for a whole company,” says Ihben as their loyal kale devotees blindly stumble in behind them, happy if slightly disorientated. For Wittig, it’s her debut as a kale queen; she admits she had no idea what to expect following her anointment. But it seems her reign has been made somewhat easier. “My king is the best so everything is fine.” Like so many of their royal subjects – willing cabbage day and night trippers – across this north western German countryside, they’ll soon be tucking into a buffet of king-size ‘kale and pinkelwurst’. A few other things are guaranteed: music, dancing and a lot more very merry socialising and drinking, all in the name of kale.
I have a thing for savoury breads that border on being cakes: from zucchini bread to jalapeno cornbread. I've taken inspiration from those and today I present you with another rendition, made with spelt flour, shredded kale, a good dose of feta and a number of fragrant herbs. And to keep it all moist, I've added olive oil and Greek yoghurt. I like to toast this under the grill and serve it up with scrambled eggs and smoked salmon for a decadent Sunday brunch. If you're not feeling fancy, simply serve it with a cup of tea for a nutritious snack.
There is a goat and sheep dairy farm in Victoria, Australia, called Meredith Dairy that makes the most amazing marinated cheese. It’s like a soft goat’s cheese but richer from the sheep’s milk, and it can transform pasta like no other cheese. In this recipe, I use my own Marinated Goat’s Cheese, inspired by Meredith Dairy, with great results. If you have neither of these cheeses, it also works well with a good soft goat’s cheese.
I owe credit for this recipe to Melinda Dimitriades, a talented Australian food purveyor and chef, who arrived at my sister’s tiny New York City apartment many years ago with a tub of the famous cheese. She made us a pasta dish that we all swooned over. We have been making variations of it ever since, and this one with kale has become a cold-weather favourite.