Lower Saxony: High living

This is an extract from my article in the October issue of Food & Travel magazine: www.foodandtravel.com

AMERICAN Michael Boyer (pictured) has the glorious title of ‘Rattenfanger’ in the town of Hameln (better known to us as Hamelin). It means ‘Rat-Catcher’ but he is, of course, the brightly arrayed Pied Piper who famously led the town’s children away after not being paid for doing the same to the rats. At least that’s one version of the fable. Boyer can give you 30 more and obviously enjoys throwing himself into the slightly sinister role. ‘I started in one direction but am now a cross between Clint Eastwood and Jack Nicholson,’ he says, eyes smiling.

So what is the truth of the legend? ‘The 130 children did disappear,’ he says. ‘We don’t know what happened to them. They might have been killed, or led off into slavery. One researcher even claims they were abducted by aliens.’

With almost as little history behind it is the Hameln dish of ‘Rats Tails’, created 40 years ago in the town’s Rattenfangerhaus restaurant. The dish, cooked for me by owner Christina Hartlieb-Fricke, has a bewildering number of ingredients, involving a stir fry of peppers, mushroom, onions, olives, corn, tomato, mustard, ketchup, Worcester sauce, Tabasco, red and white wine, Port, gravy and cream.

Fortunately, the rats tails turn out to be strips of pork loin which are fried in butter and flambéed in Calvados before being poured into the sauce, the whole then served with even more cream, puff pastry rats, rice, salad and fried potato. Ach mein gott! More spectacle than culinary delight, it was surprisingly tasty.

The Rattenfangerhaus is one of several remarkable building making up a charming Altstadt that takes you back 400 years. Built in 1602, the Rat Catcher’s House stands near the Stiftsherrenhaus of 1558, with its ornate carvings of David, Cain and Abel, and Christ, and the Leisthaus of 1589, now the town museum.

Even prettier is Osnabrück, where my favoured guide was French-Canadian Jean-François Pelletier who leads wine tastings in Das Wein Cabinet. Aiming to wean locals off their beer (good luck with that), he introduced me to the wines of Markus Schneider whose straightforward labels proclaim his mission to fight back against the New World upstarts. ‘Black Print’ is a mixture of six grape varieties, including Merlot, Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon that is very dark. Full-bodied and complex (2007 vintage), with a long finish, it was everything I didn’t expect a German wine to be, especially for Euro11.

Osnabrück also has a two-star Michelin restaurant, La Vie, run by Thomas Bühne and his Sri Lankan wife. Fans, who include former German Chancellor Gerhard Schroder, expect a third star soon. The clean, crisp modern decor of la Vie reflects the incredible attention to detail in the plating, with tiny flowers, swirls of jus and iced foam.

If that sounds over-fussy, I apologise: the result is perfection. ‘I believe in having the same focus for everything on the plate,’ says Bühne. ‘It’s not a matter of putting some beef in the centre and then adding some vegetables. The quality of the vegetables – I have some really good local suppliers – is just as important.’ Where does the name of his restaurant come from? ‘Cooking is not part of my life, it is my life,’ he says.

Tradition and innovation also meet at Axel Leysieffer’s cake shop where chilli chocolate bars are a best-seller and ‘Himmlische’ (heavenly) chocolates taste just as good as the name. Overwhelmed by rich tastes, I really enjoyed a traditional baumkuchen (treecake) which takes its name from its many layers of pastry.

And what can I say about Brazilian Tomas Carlos, who has just opened a tiny coffee shop selling coffee beans infused with grappa in a top-secret process he perfected himself? Certified non-alcoholic by the local police breathalyser team, they are the perfect way for drivers to enjoy a post-meal coffee and grappa in one drink.

That’s an innovation we can all rejoice in.

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