More than a million revelers will line the streets of Cologne (Köln) to watch the carnival parade on Rosenmontag. The Cologne Carnival is one of the largest festivals in Europe, and in addition to the big Rosenmontag parade, there are a wealth of events and activities during the so-called “Crazy Days,” including hundreds of balls, parades, and Sitzungen (sessions or shows). Cologne is definitely the place to be during the carnival season, however, it is a city to be savored at any time of year, both for its rich cultural heritage and for its culinary traditions. As would be expected in such a cosmopolitan city, there is a wealth of international restaurants and a McDonalds on every corner. However, as an international visitor, you’ll no doubt prefer to sample the cultural specialties of the region, and Cologne is home to many.
Take a wander through the streets of Cologne and it won’t take you long to find a Kneipe (pub), Gaststätte (restaurant), Biergarten (beer garden) or Brauhaus (brewery), where you can sample an important part of Cologne’s identity, namely Kölsch. Copied by many, but rivaled by none, Kölsch is a refreshing, clear, top-fermented light beer that is a little less bitter than a traditional lager. Traditionally it is served at cellar temperature in tall, thin glasses called Stangen, which hold only 0,2 liters (about 6 ounces). With such a small capacity, the good news is that your beer will always be cold, but as tasty and refreshing as Kölsch is, you’ll quickly need a refill! No need to worry about that, however, since waiters, known as Köbes will keep bringing you a fresh glass whether you ask for it or not. You might lose track, but your waiter won’t. He or she will mark your beer coaster with the number of drinks you have consumed. If you’ve finished drinking, simply place your coaster on the top of your empty glass. But don’t lose it. You’ll need it to calculate how much you owe!
While you’ll find Kölsch in just about every bar and restaurant in Cologne, the best place to enjoy it is within sight of the Kölner Dom (Cologne Cathedral) at the renowned Brauhaus Früh am Dom. The brewery, founded by Josef Peter Früh in 1895, has been brewing Früh Kölsch for more than 100 years. Step inside this quaint edifice and you’ll find a warm, cozy (gemütlich) atmosphere, whether you choose to enjoy a hearty meal in the Hofbräustuben, the traditional Brauhaus or Brauhauskeller, or opt for just a snack and a glass of Kölsch in the Biergarten, which is open during the summer season.
Wherever you choose to sit, open the menu and you’ll have the opportunity to sample a wide variety of regional specialties. Don’t be disappointed, however, if you order the Halven Hahn. Your school German might tell you that’s half a chicken, but in fact it’s a rye bread roll (Röggelchen or Roggelbrötchen) topped with Gouda cheese and mustard and served with onions. There are many theories as to how this dish got its name, the most well-known of which is the story of a gentleman who ordered half a bread roll, and, when served with a whole one, complained in Kölsch dialect “Ääver isch wollt doch nur ens ne halve han” (aber ich wollte doch nur ein halbes haben) meaning “but I only wanted half of one,” and thus the Halven Hahn was born. For the more adventurous gourmand there’s the traditional Himmel un Äd mit Flönz, which can be translated as “Heaven and Earth” and consists of fried black pudding with potato-apple mash, the potatoes representing the earth and the apples heaven. Or, try Hämchen mit Sauerkraut und Püree, a boiled pork knuckle with sauerkraut and mashed potatoes. For a good hearty meal, tuck into a Rheinischer Sauerbraten mit Kartoffelklößen und Apfelkompott, marinated beef served wth potato dumplings and apple sauce. Sauerbraten could be considered a national dish, however the Rheinland variation, known as Soorbrode in Cologne dialect, is slightly sweeter and is made with raisins. And, if you’re just looking for some small bites, try the Kleine Kölsche Happen, finger foods made with a variety of German ham and sausage specialties or cheeses.
Now, close your eyes and imagine experiencing these regional favorites without the aid of one of your senses. We recommend that you visit the following restaurant before you imbibe too much Kölsch! Near the Hansaring, you’ll find the trendy bar/restaurant Unsicht-Bar. The word unsichtbar means “invisible” and has been cleverly used to describe a bar and restaurant that serves your dinner to you in complete darkness. Choose your meal in a showroom and your personal waiter, upon whom you will rely for the rest of the evening, will escort you to the main restaurant. Your waiter, who is actually totally blind or visually impaired, will explain to you what is on your plate by using a clock system, so you might find your Lammfilet at midnight or your Käse at two o’clock, for example. Not only will the experience give you insight into the world of the blind, it will also allow you to appreciate the aroma, texture, consistency and taste of food. It seems like a wacky idea, but it’s extremely popular, and not always easy to get a table at the weekends, unless you book months ahead. The restaurant has two other establishments in Hamburg and Berlin.
As they say in Kölsch “Joot esse un drinke hält Liev un Siel zesamme” (Gut essen und trinken hält Leib und Seele zusammen) meaning good eating and drinking holds body and soul together. We’ll certainly drink a glass of Kölsch to that. Prost!