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Food by VICE

From Bad to Wurst: The Real Story of German Deli Meats

If you do your meat shopping at supermarket deli counters, German food does look disgustingly sad. But the best Wurst is being made elsewhere in Berlin by small-scale producers that turn out blood sausage and head cheese to die for.

by Giulia Pines
Aug 8 2014, 5:00pm

German food can be sad. If it isn't Germans' general lack of taste that causes them to sputter, gasp, and hiccup at the slightest hint of flavor—especially spicy flavor, beyond the horrifyingly ubiquitous paprika—it is the dearth of fresh herbs and common household spices that guarantees most German dishes will have the charisma of rejected baby food. A trip to the average supermarket in Germany can bring to mind the Great Depression, World War II, or an impending apocalypse. All of this is cause for alarm, at least according to Phillip Turo, who recently wallowed in the tragedy of German supermarket meats in his article, "The Saddest Part of German Cuisine Lives Behind the Deli Counter."

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A selection of Wurst at Blutwurstmanufaktur. Photo by Giulia Pines.

He's got it all wrong, however: German food may not be known for its jolts of flavor, but Germans can certainly claim to excel at the almighty Wurst—as long as you're looking in the right place for it. Putting aside the fact that the word "deli" actually comes from the original German Delikatessen or "fine food," the belief that the best meat Germany has to offer resides at the average supermarket is lamentably flawed.

"Industrial Wurst doesn't taste very exciting— it's been overly processed," says Ursula Heinzelmann, a native Berliner, German food expert, and author of the recent book Beyond Bratwurst: A History of Food in Germany. "But it's not disgusting as such. It's mostly just bland."

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Wurst from Vom Einfachen das Gute. Photo by Axel Mosch.

Hendrik Haase, a German culinary consultant and Wurst fanatic who blogs under the name "Wurstsack," agrees. "The culture of German Wurst craftsmanship—of handmade sausages, tradition and taste—is being lost. Wurst without any additives is hard to find nowadays in a regular supermarket, due to some devastating developments in the German meat industry."

Manuela Rehn, owner of the Berlin shop Vom Einfachen das Gute (loosely translated as "From the Simplest Comes the Best"), went one step further, linking the destruction of the traditional Wurst culture with higher costs for farmers, resulting in higher prices for consumers. "Farming has its price, of course—a price which only can be realized by both sides (producers and consumers) if we eat everything," she says. "Otherwise (and this is a problem right now) people only want to eat the 'best parts,' and these parts have an extremely high price. If the farmer can calculate with the whole animal, then the prices are more balanced."

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Gute's Berlin storefront. Photo by Caro Hoene.

Of course, it might be helpful to point out that, to Germans, the word Wurst is not simply a word for sausage, but rather encompasses every type of cured, salted, smoked, or preserved meat. Besides acting as the punch line of far too many jokes among English speakers in Germany, Wurst can mean a lot of things to a lot of people. It can be sausage, salami, or even sliced meat made from a number of animals, or anything involving animal products that has been preserved for posterity. Mottled, marbled, or multi-colored, sometimes held together by gelatin, a mix of the well-known animal parts with the unexpected—all these products are collectively referred to by Germans as Wurst, often to the confusion of English speakers.

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Vom Einfachen das Gute is reimagining what Wurst means to Germans. Photo by Manuela Rehn.

A well-made Wurst is worth more than its weight in lard, but it's also only as good as its contents. To that end, Wurst-making is about preserving the fruits (and fats) of one's summer labors for the coming winter. "It's not only about eating the whole animal," explains Heinzelmann. "If you slaughter an animal, you've got plenty of meat. You eat some fresh, and then what? You have to find a way to preserve it, and sausage is the answer."

There are no bad parts of an animal—and most Germans know this intrinsically. "Our fucked-up food culture has made filet the only edible, 'fat free' part of an animal, discarding all the beauty that remains," says Haase. "These fatty parts have been eaten for generations, but nowadays they are discarded or made into dog food in favor of low fat meat. That's a shame, because fat is taste."

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Wurst can be sausage, salami, or even sliced meat made from a number of animals. Photo by Manuela Rehn.

Heinzelmann remembers eating Leberwurst—still her favorite—on sliced bread with pickles for dinner (very often Abendbrot, a cold evening meal for middle class German families) from a very young age. Haase's family had a particularly close connection with a regional type of sausage, the so-called Nordhessische Ahle Wurscht or "old Wurst," perhaps cherished by some for its ability to be used as a weapon: "My grandparents in Northern Hesse used to make it from one-year-old pigs, home-slaughtered. There were no leftovers: The full pig, aside from head, feet and filet, was used to make it. When lightly smoked and then air-dried for months, it lost about half its weight and became very hard. We even have a family tale that my grandfather once used it to win a fight at a local pub."

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Vom Einfachen das Gute owner Manuela Rehn with her business partner Jörg Reuter. Photo by Autumn Sonnichsen.

But even when not used for self-defense, German regional sausages can pack quite a punch—and that punch is directly proportional to just how close to the source you are when you eat them. In addition to the aforementioned Ahle Wurscht, there is also Rostbratwurst (roasted sausage), best sampled in the central German region of Thüringen. The famous Bavarian Weisswurst (white sausages), made from veal and pork meat in a soft pork casing, are traditionally meant to be consumed at breakfast with sweet mustard, a pretzel and a tall glass of Weissbier. (And just to get the phallic reference out of the way: The traditional method of eating Weisswurst is to bite off one end of the fat little sausages and suck the meat out of the casing.) The so-called Presskopf or head cheese (literally "pressed head," if you want to feel particularly queasy) is a typically economical way of dealing with a variety of animal parts that yield a fantastic amount of flavor.

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Wurst can be dried or fresh. Photo by Axel Mosch.

The German (and let's face it, European) love for sausage defies the kind of "ick factor" that keeps many Americans away from the process so elegantly summed up in that well-known quote attributed to Otto von Bismarck. There is still one delicacy, however, that embraces the grand, gushing, horror movie sensationalism of the slaughter in all its splendor, not only making the most of an animal product that normally goes down the drain, but also forcing you to face your fears in its very name: the almighty Blutwurst, or blood sausage.

"I really shouldn't give myself away, but I can't say I really liked it as a kid," says Marcus Benser, the latest in a line of seven generations to operate the Neukölln-based butcher shop and prize-winning blood sausage-maker Blutwurstmanufaktur. "And for many Germans, those bad childhood memories aren't too unusual."

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The signature blood sausage from Blutwurstmanufaktur. Photo by Giulia Pines.

"But that all changed when I first started making them here," he recounts, "and when I first saw what was in there: blood, speck, onion, salt, and a secret mixture of spices."

His father had expected him to go into banking, but now he's glad to have taken over the family trade (especially considering the bad reputation of bankers lately).Since 1999, he's won the top prize for the best blood sausage in Europe from the Confrérie des Chevaliers du Goûte Boudin, one of France's most prestigious gourmet organizations, three times.

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Potted wurst. Photo by Giulia Pines.

His shop has grown from a local institution to a national foodie destination. "Lots of Berlin restaurants have our Blutwurst on the menu, not only because it's delicious but also because it's well-prepared. There's a face behind it—they know where it comes from." The shop itself is also impeccably clean, almost as if to consciously refute the image one might have of the blood-speckled butcher, up to his shirtsleeves in red gore. Here, only two jaunty, smiling middle-aged women serve customers with a sunniness that seems out of place in Berlin—where the so-called Berliner Schnauze or "Berlin cheek" reigns supreme as a mode of communication.

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A worker at Blutwurstmanufaktur displays some of the shop's wares. Photo by Giulia Pines.

In the end, of course, there shouldn't be anything to criticize about the German Wurst tradition—even if it is composed of the strangest of gelée'd concoctions, or those laced through with various bodily fluids. They are merely the best expression of those values we espouse when we talk about conscious eating—a new name for a very old way of consuming meat. As Heinzelmann says, "There's the industrial, the tasteless—and then on the other end of the spectrum is sausage that includes blood, that includes tongue, which has a long tradition we're seeing again with nose-to tail-eating. Why wouldn't you eat the tongue? Why wouldn't you eat the blood? It's absolutely delicious!"

The saddest part of German cuisine definitely lives behind the deli counter at your local supermarket, but the happiest Germans are the ones who know not to get their Wurst there.