Bremen, Hamburg and Luebeck: Culinary Treasures From The Hanseatic Cities

Coats of Arms of Bremen and Hamburg

The Hanseatic League was a group of trading guilds (Hanse) that existed during the 13th – 17th centuries with the purpose of maintaining a trading monopoly over Northern Europe, in particular the Baltic Sea and North Sea. While the League disintegrated in the late 16th Century, three of its cities, namely Bremen, Hamburg and Lübeck, remained members until the League’s final demise in the mid 1800’s. To this day, these three cities still refer to themselves as Hanseatic Free Cities.

From a culinary aspect, membership of the Hanseatic League, with its extensive international trading network, provided a wealth of luxurious, foreign ingredients, otherwise unavailable at that time. This had the effect of distinguishing Hanse cities from the surrounding regions of Schleswig-Holstein, East-Friesland, Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania and Lower Saxony, all of which make up Northern Germany.


Bremen and Hamburg are both cities and federal states. They are the smallest federal states in Germany in terms of size. Bremen is also the smallest, and Hamburg the third smallest in terms of population and their main contribution to the economy is derived from their respective sea ports. The state of Bremen is divided into 2 cities, namely Bremen and Bremerhaven, which lies about 37 miles to the north. The port of Bremen employs one third of the city’s working population. Hamburg’s port is equally important to the state’s economy, although major companies such as Airbus and Otto Versand, plus many of the major oil-refining companies, are also located here.

Bremen and Hamburg are two of the five states (the others being Schleswig-Holstein, Lower Saxony and Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania) that border the coastline of the North and Baltic Seas. It’s no surprise therefore, that the regional cuisine has a heavy fish influence, so much so, that northern Germans are often given the unflattering nickname of Fischköpfe (fish heads). However, there’s more to the cuisine of Bremen and Hamburg than just fish. Here’s an overview of what you can expect to find on traditional restaurant menus and on a family dining table in these northern states:

Specialties of the Hanseatic Cities

Bremer Klaben: The recipe for this northern German version of the famous Christmas Stollen dates back to the mid 16th century during the height of the Hanseatic League, when the League allowed the bakers access to the exotic ingredients traded by its member cities. A Bremer Klaben, like the Stollen, is made with sultanas or raisins, flour, butter, sugar, orange and lemon peel, rum, almonds, yeast and salt. Many of these ingredients were only available through the trading activities of the League. This specialty is usually baked at the beginning of December and in such quantities as to last until Easter. Unlike Stollen it is not dusted with confectioner’s sugar after baking.

Braunkohl und Pinkel: Kohl und Pinkel (cabbage and sausage) is probably one of Bremen’s most well-known dishes, where its correct, full name is Braunkohl und Pinkel. In most of northern Germany, the dish is called Grünkohl und Pinkel (kale and sausage), however, the Bremer version of the dish uses a variety of Grünkohl whose leaves have a reddish pigment in them, which, when cooked, impart a brown color and more spicy taste, hence the Braun (brown) in Braunkohl.

The oddly sounding Pinkelwurst is a smoked sausage made with pork, groats (oats and barley), suet, onions, salt, pepper, pork fat, bacon and other spices. The exact recipe differs from sausage maker to sausage maker, who keep their individual recipes secret!

Bremer Labskaus: Labskaus is a traditional northern German dish that originated as a dish for sailors onboard large sailing vessels in the 18th century. It was originally made with salted beef (Pökelfleisch ), since it kept well without refrigeration, potatoes and onions. Today’s variations are made a little finer by using cured or salted beef or corned beef and by adding beets, potatoes and herrings. A classic Labskaus is made with cured beef, cooked in a little water, which is then mixed with red beets, gherkins, onions and herrings or bacon. The mixture is then put through a mincing machine and steamed in pork fat and cooked further with the liquid from the meat or the gherkins.The dish is then completed by adding mashed potatoes to the mixture. It is served with Rollmops (pickled herring), fried egg or gherkins.You can also make a vegetarian Labskaus using just beets.

Hamburger Aalsuppe: Given the influence of fish in North German cuisine, one would assume that Aalsuppe would be exactly what it describes, namely a soup made with eel ( Aal meaning eel and Suppe meaning soup). While you’re indeed likely to find eel in an Aalsuppe in Hamburg, the name actually refers to the fact that this soup contains alles or everything, the word alles being drawn out to sound like aal as in aalens was noch da is’ rinkommt (everything that’s available goes in it). So, originally a stew, Aalsuppe is made with meat bones to create a broth (ham hock or chicken parts for example), dried fruit to give a slightly sweet taste, stew vegetables, vinegar to give a sweet and sour taste and a variety of herbs such as parsley, thyme, marjoram, sage, chervil, mint, dill, sorrel and basil. Some recipes also add dumplings. While Aalsuppe does not necessarily have to contain eel, most recipes these days add pieces of smoked eel or eel cooked in wine to prevent tourists complaining about false advertising!. Monkfish can also be substituted for eel.

Bremer Butterkuchen: Butterkuchen (Butter Sheet Cake) is also known as Zuckerkuchen (Sugar Cake) and often as Beerdigungs-kuchen (Funeral cake) or Freud-und Leidkuchen (joy and sympathy cake) since it is often served at weddings and funerals.

Herrings: Undoubtedly the three Hanseatic cities of Bremen, Hamburg and Lübeck in particular, had the simple herring to thank for the huge fortunes amassed during the League’s trading heyday. North Sea fishermen learned the art of salting fish to make it last thousands of years ago and salted herrings soon became a staple foodstuff particularly in poorer homes. One of the most popular dishes in northern Germany is Bratheringe (fried and marinated herrings).

Rote Grütze: Rote Grütze is another dish that’s not quite as it sounds. Literally translated the words mean red grits or red groats. While the original dish was indeed made with grits/groats and red fruit juice, the recipe has been adapted to a more palatable and lighter dish made with summer red berries, thickened with cornstarch or sago instead of grits. While there are many ways to make Rote Grütze, the classic recipe uses Sauerkirschen (sour cherries), red and black currants and raspberries.

Lübeck – Marzipan Capital of The World: The medieval town of Lübeck in the state of Schleswig-Holstein is considered to be the Queen of The Hanseatic League and the landmark 15th century fortress with its twin towers, known as the Holsten Gate, is evidence of the town’s military strength and its role as the capital of the League. The city’s most famous culinary treasure is the world-renowned Lübecker Marzipan. Lübeck considers itself to be the world capital of marzipan and is home to two of the most well-known marzipan producing companies, namely Niederegger and Carstens.

Plettenpudding: This northern German dish, consisting of layers of macaroons, raspberries, sponge cake (or lady fingers) and custard was made famous in the novel Buddenbrooks, written by famed German author Thomas Mann.

Lübecker National: In northern Germany National refers to any stew whose main components are pork and root vegetables. The Lübecker National is made with pork belly , carrots, potatoes, and onions. The Hamburger National, on the other hand, is made with rutabagas instead of carrots.

Lübecker Rotspon: The method of shipping young French Bordeaux wine to Lübeck and Bremen to be matured, bottled and shipped (mostly to Russia) began in the early Hanse years of the 13th century, although it did not gain such great importance until the 16th and 17th century. The resulting matured wine, known as Rotspon, was immortalized in Thomas Mann’s novel Buddenbrooks.