My arrival in Baiersbronn, a remote municipality in Germany’s Black Forest, takes place under the cover of night.
It’s 8.30pm on a chilly winter’s evening and the villages I drive through are like gaily lit islands, their houses decked out with fairy lights, wreaths and large illuminated stars. All around them, by contrast, lies a deep and unfathomable darkness, cloaking the surrounding countryside from view.
This is my first trip to the Black Forest, but I’ve always fancied it as a fairytale-like winter wonderland. Even in the darkness, I can picture the Gothic castles and medieval farmhouses out there in the inky night, surrounded by majestic evergreens glazed in a glittering frost. What I never imagined in this bucolic corner of southwest Germany, though, was a vibrant culinary scene with some of the world’s finest restaurants.
But that’s before I heard about Baiersbronn. This otherwise modest community, with a population of just 15,000, has no fewer than eight Michelin stars – the highest concentration per capita of any place on earth. To put this in perspective: London has just three three-star restaurants, Rome just one, and Germany’s capital Berlin – population 3.5 million – has none.
Six of the stars are shared equally between two restaurants: Bareiss, tucked inside a five-star hotel of the same name, and Schwarzwaldstube, at the no-less-luxurious Hotel Traube Tonbach. I’ve come to try both restaurants, which have been arch-rivals for the best part of four decades, and to find out what exactly propelled them to such heights. (The two-star restaurant Schlossberg, at the nearby Hotel Sackmann, will unfortunately have to wait till my next visit.)
I’ve also ventured here to hike around the countryside, which, considering how much I’m going to be eating over the next couple of days, strikes me as a necessary – and pleasurable – activity. Early the following morning, I drive up to the Schwarzwaldhochstraße (Black Forest High Road) to get an overview of the area. It turns out that, Gothic castles aside, my imagined view of the landscape wasn’t all that far from reality. Here, at the edge of town, are old wooden farmhouses nestled against the forest’s edge. And there, rising up the sides of the valley, are rows of towering conifers shrouded by mist.
From the high road, I drop down to Allerheiligen, the site of an eerie 12th-century Catholic monastery. It was destroyed by fire in 1804 after being struck by a bolt of lightning, but the skeleton of the abbey still stands, its lofty arches wide open to the elements.
A kilometre down a gravel path is a waterfall, also named Allerheiligen (All Souls), which zigzags through the forest. A tree trunk has become jammed in the highest part of the falls and brilliantly clear mountain water cascades around it, rushing on its long, meandering journey toward the Rhine river some 40km to my west. It’s still early and I have the place entirely to myself.
On my way back, I try to get a better sense of Baiersbronn, which is actually a cluster of nine villages strung out across several valleys rather than a single, unified town. It may not be the picture-perfect medieval settlement of my imagination, but it has real charm – with traditional wooden houses and well-stocked woodpiles everywhere – and the setting amid undulating tree-covered hills is gratifyingly picturesque.
“What I never imagined in this bucolic corner of southwest Germany, though, was a vibrant culinary scene with some of the world’s finest restaurants.”
To get myself in the right frame of mind for lunch, I pay a visit to Forellenhof Buhlbach, a trout farm acquired in 2016 by the owners of Bareiss. Trout farming has a long history in the Black Forest, and this collection of wooden buildings and stone ponds, which sits right next to the lovely old Boehringer Champagne-bottle factory, has been running since 1908.
Finally, it’s time to eat. The three-star restaurant at Bareiss, one of several dining rooms at the hotel, is a plush space with just eight tables arranged around a colossal flower display. Here, I’m confronted with questions I’ve never considered before. Do I prefer my water served cold or at room temperature? (I’m not entirely sure.) Does poached char go with star anise sauce? (Yes, gloriously.) And will the heart and liver of a char, mixed into a pearl-barley risotto, result in my sudden loss of appetite? (Thankfully not: they are surprisingly delicious.)
Indeed, the food at Bareiss is as ornate as the restaurant itself, with each course composed of several fiendishly intricate parts. In one, a spiral of scallop slices on a chive mash topped with imperial caviar shares a plate with meringue-like cylinders of lime and blobs of saffron, accompanied by a spoonful of scallop tartare and a glass of warm kaffir lime and lemongrass soup. Usually, I’m wary of any dish with so many disparate elements, but the skill and daring on display here is undeniable.
After the meal, I ask the head chef Claus-Peter Lumpp if he feels comfortable taking such risks when his hard-won Michelin rating is at stake. “Absolutely,” he says. “Other chefs feel pressure when they get three stars, but for me it was the other way around. When we got the third star, it was a relief – I could be free. It was like a license from Michelin to be even more creative.” It helps, too, that most of his guests have travelled a long way to eat at the restaurant and know what to expect (in terms of price as well as cooking style: the most expensive tasting menu here costs €235, roughly S$365). And the proximity of other world-class restaurants in the area strikes Lumpp as a positive thing. “It’s good competition,” he says. “It stops us from getting lazy.”
My encounter with Lumpp’s biggest culinary competitor – now headed up by fortysomething chef Torsten Michel, after the departure last year of his long-time mentor Harald Wohlfahrt – is set for lunchtime tomorrow, which means it’s time to rebuild my appetite. For a spot of physical exertion, I head to the spa at Bareiss, were there are no fewer than 10 pools to swim in. I opt for the outdoor salt-water pool, heated against the winter chill, and do a few leisurely laps as night closes in over the valley and the lights of Baiersbronn come twinkling to life.
Like Bareiss, Hotel Traube Tonbach is still family-owned, having originated as a drinking place for lumberjacks in 1789. Its founder, Tobias Finkbeiner, would be hard-pressed to recognise it today, as his descendants have turned Traube Tonbach into a grand hotel with 153 bedrooms, a spa, a shopping area and several dining rooms including Schwarzwaldstube – which currently scores an astounding 99% from French guide La Liste (Bareiss has 97.75%). The grandeur of both establishments can be explained, in part, by the rivalry between Hermine Bareiss, who founded her hotel in 1951, and Willi Finkbeiner, the mid-century expansionist of Traube Tonbach. If one built a suite or spa, locals say, the other would follow suit. Now both venues are competing with top hotels around the world.
The next morning, in preparation for my lunch appointment at Schwarzwaldstube, I embark on a three-hour hike led by a cheerful local guide named Rosi Haist. We descend into the valley below the hotel and join a path that takes us on a gentle sweep around the Rinkenkopf mountain, followed by a sharp ascent to the summit. Along the way, we spot wild cherry (which forms the base of the region’s eponymous chocolate and cherry gateau) and apple trees and various mushrooms. I keep bending down to pick them, and Rosi stops me each time. “That’s deadly poisonous,” she says casually, or “It probably won’t kill you, but it won’t taste very good either…”
Though there are edible and doubtless very tasty mushrooms to be found here, along with herbs, berries and wild deer, the Black Forest isn’t famed for its food production and many of the ingredients I encounter are shipped in from France (particularly the warmer, more fertile area around the Rhine river) and other parts of Germany. So how did Baiersbronn become a Michelin star haven? Competition between its top restaurants is only one answer. Another is competition for tourism with other parts of the Black Forest: unable to match its neighbouring hamlets for natural beauty, Baiersbronn has developed its culinary assets instead.
It also helps that aspiring chefs get extremely well-trained here. In Baiersbronn, a new school curriculum has placed a greater emphasis on culinary arts. And across Germany, an apprenticeship system (of which Lumpp is a beneficiary) gives young chefs the institutional support they need to reach the top of their profession. From Schwarzwaldstube alone, some 30 alumni have gone on to win Michelin stars elsewhere.
When I make it back to the hotel and settle down for my lunch at Schwarzwaldstube, I encounter wild mushrooms that are neither lethal nor foul-tasting. They are assembled – whole, and in broth form – around a perfectly cooked duck liver, and they are wonderful. The dish is so intensely arboreal, it’s as if I’ve taken a tumble during my walk and ended up nose down in the fragrant forest floor.
The dishes at Schwarzwaldstube are more concise than those at Bareiss, though you can sense the craft that went into them. The wild hare royale, I’m informed, is gently fried and then cooked sous-vide for 36 hours before being plated up with sprouts, white truffle, a core of goose liver and an extravagantly rich (and no doubt fearsomely complicated) rouenaisse sauce. This was a favourite dish of Louis XIV, apparently, and more suited to a regal palate than my own, but I’m certainly glad I was able to experience it.
Although German fine dining has risen by leaps and bounds over the last few decades – there are now 11 restaurants in the country with three Michelin stars – it’s still heavily indebted to classic French cuisine. Bareiss and Schwarzwaldstube, with their rich sauces and luxury ingredients, are no exception, though there is a growing movement in Germany (as in other European countries) that valorises ultra-local produce and is re-engaging with the culinary heritage of generations past – and hints of this can be detected in both my lunches.
In the dining room at Schwarzwaldstube, dishes come and go in an ecstatic blur, as wisps of mist drift through the trees on the far side of the valley. As dusk descends, and the tasting menu draws to a close, I find myself hypnotised by the reflection of my tableside lights in the window. I have, I realise, been sated to the point of total submission. They could bag me up and sous-vide me for 36 hours, like the wild hare, and I wouldn’t lift a finger.
That evening, convinced that I won’t be able to manage another morsel, I go for a recuperative stroll up the hill. Beyond the village of Tonbach, everything is dark and perfectly still, save for the little river burbling in the valley below. A mile or so up the road, I pause and draw the cold, crisp forest air into my lungs, savouring the silence.
On my way back, I pass Bauernstube, the more traditional restaurant at Hotel Traube Tonbach, and find myself gazing with interest at the menu. One particular dish, a humble stew of peas, bacon and sausage, catches my eye and I feel a faint but definite stirring. It’s a miracle: after two gargantuan tasting menus, the second even bigger than the first, I’m still hungry. It must be all that crystalline mountain air. Without a further thought, I step in out of the cold and ask for a table.
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This article was originally published in the February 2019 issue of SilverKris magazine