It’s my first time in Frankfurt, and I’ve asked a local guide to show me the finest, the very best, the beating heart of the city at work.
She immediately takes me to see some sausages.
After a stroll through Frankfurt’s Dom-Römer Quarter, the gorgeous, newly-reconstructed old city centre that was destroyed in the Second World War, we reach the Kleinmarkthalle, a vast food hall showcasing local businesses. The biggest queue is to be found halfway through, outside a relatively tiny shop. The rest of the place is busy at this time of day, but here it’s genuinely packed - in that sensible, patient way you find where Germans queue up for anything.
Behind the counter is Ilse Schreiber, something of a local legend - and she has one thing to sell today. It’s the same thing as yesterday, and the whole of the week before, and every day of this year and the last. The mass of people queuing outside are here for that one thing, and they’re so happy about it that they’ll queue for half an hour or more to get it. Folk have quite literally come from miles around (along with a few curious travellers, like myself).
As you have guessed, Frau Schreiber sells sausage - but it’s the Model T Ford of sausage. There’s one type, served in a variety of ways, and you buy it and it’s handed over on a paper tray with a splat of mustard and a bun and a napkin, and that is everyone’s lunch, without exception. That’s her business model...and she’s followed it without fail for the last 35 years.
Only in Germany? Well, perhaps - although Europeans have been mad about sausages for thousands of years. Chasing the origins of the Eurosausage is a fool’s errand, considering how so many countries have made a strident claim to be the birthplace of this useful piece of food technology.
There appears to be a reference to them in Homer’s Odyssey. The world’s first cookbook, compiled by the Roman Marcus Gavius Apicius in 228 AD, includes a recipe for making sausages. (This was so influential that for a while a collection of recipes was known as an “Apicius,” so you can be sure that this book put sausages on the map in a big way.) But of course, every European country’s tourist board lodges its own claim at being the first.
Yet nobody is quite as obsessed with sausage as the Germans, as you’ll find when you visit, Germans plus sausages: be sure, it’s no myth.
Take the case of the sausage associated with Nuremberg, the second-largest city (behind Munich) in the south German state of Bavaria. The Nuremberg sausage is widely regarded as being a little smaller than you’ll find elsewhere. Why is this? There are many legends on the matter...
(Do other countries have legends about the size of sausages? I doubt it. Welcome to Germany.)
One story is that during medical times the city gate was locked - but since it was a portcullis, it was possible for innkeepers to poke food through the holes and keep serving food to visitors after dark. Alas, normal-sized sausages were too big - and so economic necessity led to thinner Nurembergwurst.
That’s the word to look out for, by the way. Any dish that ends with the word “wurst” is based around sausage. Of the more than 1,500 varieties of wurst available across Germany, the most popular by far is bratwurst: brat meaning finely chopped meat (in this case primarily pork and maybe a little beef), and wurst meaning sausage, possible derived from the old German word wirren, “mixture.”
Everywhere in Germany has its own variation on bratwurst (I know of more than 40 types) . For example, every time I visit friends in Berlin, it’s a no-brainer than on my first night there, we’ll head out for currywurst: a fast-food dish comprised of bratwurst sliced into pieces and smothered in curry-flavoured ketchup, served alongside a portion of fries.
Another legend for you. A member of a prominent Nuremberg patrician family, was flung into debtor’s prison. Allegedly his only request was on the topic of sausages: he wished for 2 Nuremberg bratwurst to be served to him every day. Over the next 38 years of his imprisonment, he went on to consume over 28,000 sausages (I’ve done the math, it more or less checks out).
But - why? Why this obsession? Why is one of the most famous sayings in the German language Alles hat ein Ende, nur die Wurst hat zwei (“everything has an end, only the sausage has two”)?
There’s certainly a functional argument to consider. I called sausages “food technology” earlier, and it’s apt. Sausages came about because of the need to efficiently use every part of the animal and to store them longer-term - and what better way than sealing meat inside the intestinal sacs of the animal it came from? Once you add curing to the mix, sausages seem like a very sensible way to proceed.
But then there are the legendary German markets, especially the Weihnachtsmarkt, the Christmas variety that has proved such a popular export (I visited my first one in York, England). When you’re at the market, the smell from the enormous grills wafts around you, filling your nostrils with the rich aromas of bratwurst, frankfurter, knackwurst, lange rote (which is over a foot long), leberkäse (which goes up to 531 feet - no, that’s not a typo) and all the delicious, sizzling accompaniments like fried onions, fried potatoes and hot mustard.
Millions go to these markets each year, and millions walk away with full stomachs and greasy fingers after a big plate of sausage. The Germans are mad about sausage because that’s what they do. You might as well ask the English why they like tea so much.
So, it’s definitely a thing, and it’s best not questioned. There’s a reason that the phrase “it’s now or never” is translated into German as Es geht um die Wurst (it’s all about the sausage”.) Just tuck in. Guten appetit.