In a nation so frequently associated with sausages, it's perhaps unsurprising that barbecuing should enjoy such popularity in Germany. Every year as soon as spring starts to break through the darkness of winter, charcoals begin to glow beneath grills, and plumes of fragrant smoke drift upwards from parks and gardens across the country.
Germans, of course, are not alone in appreciating a good barbecue – Australians, Argentinians, and Americans all enjoy a long tradition of burning meat in the outdoors. Each tradition has its subtleties, however, and there are a few aspects of German Grillkultur that should be appreciated before donning an apron and reaching for the fire-starters.
Whether the result of some primal urge to provide meat for the clan or just the opportunity to drink beer in the garden on a Sunday afternoon, barbecuing in Germany, as in many other countries, tends to be male-dominated, at least as far as handling the tongs is concerned. Sabine Schröder, a 42-year-old team assistant from Neetze, a small village in Lower Saxony, and her husband, Bernd, 47, have a barbecue almost every weekend between April and September.
“Sometimes I start the fire, and I can put charcoal on the barbecue,” she explains. “But grilling is a man's thing. My part is to make a salad.”
Bernd's part is to cook the pork sausages and fillet, the marinated chicken, turkey, and steak they get from their local butcher, and he's well-prepared for the task.
“We have a big iron barbecue, and Bernd has a little suitcase with tongs, a fork and knife; all the equipment you need,” Sabine says.
Charcoal is king
Another hard and fast barbecue rule in the Schröder household concerns the use of charcoal. Sabine's unimpressed by news of Germany's first public electric barbecue, which has recently been installed in front of the St. Michaelis Church, close to the harbour in Hamburg.
“Cooking with electricity or gas is not really barbequing,” she says, reckoning that charcoal gives the food a special taste. They aren't, however, advocates of dousing the hot coals with beer, a common practice amongst German grillmeisters. “We think it's a myth that it gives flavour to the meat,” she argues. “We like to drink the beer instead.”
The Schröders' preference for charcoal-fuelled barbecuing is reflected in a study recently conducted on behalf of the supermarket chain Lidl, which found that over 70 percent of Germans favoured the method to sizzle their sausages. The survey also established that 90 percent of Germans throw some sort of Wurst on the grill every time they have a barbecue.
Firing up the coals at home might be a luxury that the Sabine and Bernd, who have a 300-square-metre garden, are able to enjoy but it's not always afforded to those living in bigger towns and cities, even if they do have their own patch of grass. Most Germans can relate stories of strife over smoking barbecues and unwanted odours, as well as impart advice about how often you're allowed to have barbecues and how to avoid upsetting your neighbours.
Some will say you shouldn't grill every week, and it's important to make sure you down smoke out those living next to you. Another tip is to inform your neighbours ahead of time when you're going to have a barbecue, so they can close their windows and mentally prepare for the extra noise. Or you can always simply offer them a few extra sausages as tasty compensation for their trouble.
Those living in apartment buildings with only balconies and small gardens face an even bigger challenge cooking outdoors, particularly if they wish to use charcoal. Most apartment buildings' Hausordnungen or “house rules” – ban the use of charcoal barbecues on balconies for safety reasons, and tenants with gardens are frequently limited to a certain number a year.
“We're only allowed to have electric barbecues,” says Aileen Tiedemann, a 34-year-old who lives on the second floor of an apartment building in the Hamburg suburb of Eimsbüttel. “So I go to my parents' house or a park to have a proper one.”
This desire to have a “proper” barbecue goes some way to explaining the popularity of Einweggrill – a small disposable grill consisting of an aluminium tray, charcoal, and a metal mesh. Every summer stacks appear in supermarkets and petrol stations, and every weekend in parks across the country groups of friends and families gather round them to grill packs of supermarket sausages and drink beer.
Accompanied by tubs of ready-made potato and pasta salad, and a baguette or two, food prepared on an Einweggrill might not be an aficionado's idea of a barbecuing, but it does demonstrate many Germans' belief that all you really need to enjoy grilling is pleasant weather, a few bratwurst, and a bit of space away from anyone you might upset. And some charcoal, natürlich.