I’d been living and working in Paris for more than 12 months by the time I got to Germany. The plan was for me to tag along on my husband’s work trip and poke around Munich in winter. I was expecting fabulous Christmas markets, breakfast meats and strudel in abundance but there was no anticipation at all around dinner.
If the French owned elegance and the Spanish and Italians sex then the Germans, I believed, had cornered the market on straight-faced entertaining conservatism: my mind was all serious faces in lederhosen and flush-cheeked stoics in cavernous beer halls; potato dumplings and cabbage and pork.
An imbecilic cultural assumption to make, to be sure.
My first night’s dinner in Munich was at a stout table in an old gabled restaurant that indeed served me up a bowl of pork and cabbage and potato dumplings, except it wasn’t really a bowl of pork and cabbage and potato dumplings; someone in that kitchen had the ability to sound out poetic verse in a dish that – in lesser hands – could have been possessed of too much heft and too little complexity.
And this was the entirety of my experience with German cuisine in a nutshell. Always surprising. Always textured. And always worth more in the mouth than the eye suggests.
I’m talking about this today as a way to explain the magic of the German dairy product, quark.
Those not intimate with quark’s characteristics like to refer to it as a German-style cottage cheese. It’s not. Quark has more depth of taste and texture than that.
Quark is traditionally made from buttermilk or soured milk cooked over very low heat and sieved to be rid of all excess liquid. It requires no rennet and so is considered a type of fresh cheese. A curd.
As a curd it has little visual appeal, but pop a spoon of fresh quark in your mouth and – aha! – there is a lightness, a sour edge and a creamy density that draws the imagination toward possibilities of cheesecake or yoghurt-dressed spiced vegetables or breakfast of fresh cheese with honeyed walnuts and a scattering of toasted seeds on top.
A foray in to the world of German doughnuts should fix that.
A hefty middle-aged German introduced me to the idea of quarkbällchen (“little quark balls”) as we stood in line together at the local deli. He was buying one of the few tubs of quark that had been reduced on the dairy shelf; it seemed no one else knew what to do with it. But this man did. In the few minutes we had together he described the ease of making – and the deliciousness of eating – his little deep-fried balls of quark. I walked back to that deli cabinet and bought the last reduced tub. I was sold.
Since then I’ve discovered all kinds of other uses for this German staple (it's also found in other German-speaking countries, such as Austria and Switzerland, and many other European countries and increasingly, in Australia, the US and Canada.)
A recent chat with Gabriel Gaté tuned me in to the possibility of using quark in classic French desserts, like his dreamy coeur à la crème d’Anjou, which led me experiment with quark in cheesecakes - which is more delicate and less sweet than the Philly cream cheese version of old.
On the savoury side, cold Margaret River days filled from dawn to dusk with driving rain have inspired evening meals of a heartier nature, including caraway potatoes topped with quark chopped through with fresh parsley, a little lemon juice and black pepper. Beautiful accompanied by a bitter green salad and enough for a wintry supper on its own.
I returned to Germany only a few times after that first eye-opening Munich trip but am happy to say that, thanks to quark, a little bit of Germany’s subtle culinary beauty has lodged itself in to my kitchen.
While the food might not be obviously sexy it is both tasty and grounding. The ideal antidote to winter when secure flavour pleases and summertime frivolity needs be replaced by a little more depth.
Which is why at this time, culinary Germany, you have my coeur à la quark.
Quark on spoon image via Pixabay
Love the story? Follow the author here: Facebook.
Creamy gâteau composed of a crumbly base of blended crackers, a vanilla and fromage blanc cream and a silky vanilla panna cotta. For a citrusy variation you can replace the vanilla with the zest of one lime.
Here's a German vegetarian dish that's a cinch. Plus, the sweet-tasting potato combined with the creamy quark makes for a wonderful snack or side dish with meat. Cottage cheese also works if you can't source quark.
We were in a very excellent wine bar one night in Milan where we had this very simple dish of boiled potatoes with a splash of vincotto and pieces of stracchino – a delicious, slightly sour, soft fresh curd-like cheese – sitting on top. So simple and delicious and speaks to my special passion for potatoes. In all their forms, they're glorious, however there is a special place in my heart for a golden crispy version, matched with chewy fried garlic cloves and some rosemary and my happiness is complete.
Berry up some Polish cheese blintzes with traditional blueberry sauce. The light cottage cheese filling makes them the perfect breakfast or light dessert, or even dinner… we won’t tell.