When most people think of authentic German food, bratwurst is one of the first things that comes to mind. Bratwurst is iconically German, but there are a few common misconceptions when it comes to German cuisine. One assumption is that bratwurst is the main dish in all regions of Germany – it’s not. If you head north to Hamburg, the northern islands (yes, there is indeed island life in Germany) and other regions bordering the Baltic Sea and the North Sea, you’ll find that the traditional cuisines involve a lot of fish. The second misconception is that bratwurst describes only one type of sausage.
Despite what movies may have told you, there are numerous types of bratwurst. In fact, there are more kinds of bratwurst in Germany than there are types of cheese in France (1,500 variations of bratwurst versus 1,000 kinds of fromage). And like most things in Germany, bratwurst is very regional. It’s as if every city, town and dorf has a bratwurst that represents the local identity – and every German you meet will boast that their hometown bratwurst is the best wurst.
Having lived in Germany and traveled extensively to obscure corners of the country, I have sampled a wide variety of bratwurst. I’ve noshed on the Thüringer rostbratwurst of Thuringia, snacked on the Bayreuther bratwürste of Bayreyth and devoured the Frankfurter Würstchen of (you guessed it) Frankfurt.
Not all bratwurst nomenclature involves the name of its point of origin. The Weisswurst of Bavaria and the Rot Wurst of the Swabian region are two examples of local bratwurst that don’t bear the name of the regions they’re from.
It’s hard to believe that there could be such diversity in the world of German sausage, but the flavors of each of these juicy links of meat are distinct. The mixture of spices varies, the way they’re cooked, smoked and cured differ from region to region, and even the way they’re served makes each type of bratwurst unique.
However, they all share this common thread: bratwursts are part of hyper-regional culinary traditions that date back hundreds of years.
Case in point: the Nürnberger bratwurst of Nuremberg (Nürnberg in German), which is the first ever documented bratwurst. The history of this legendary sausage is hopelessly entwined with Nuremberg’s roots because the city served as an important stop along the Spice Route during the Middle Ages. After goods like cardamom, ginger, pepper, turmeric, saffron, marjoram and other spices from the Far East made their way across the Mediterranean and over the Alps, they were funneled through the markets of Nuremberg.
From 1050 to 1571, the city had not only become one of Europe’s largest markets for trading spices and other goods, but it served as a checkpoint where spices were inspected for purity and quality. Because of Nuremberg’s high standards, the city’s name quickly became synonymous with quality and authenticity.
The Nürnberger bratwurst, and most varieties of German bratwurst for that matter, are a byproduct of Nuremberg’s role in the Spice Route. Access to a wide variety of high quality spices resulted in the insane amount of bratwurst diversity seen across Germany today. The Nürnberger calls for pork loin mixed with salt, pepper, marjoram, mace and nutmeg. And because of its cultural and historical importance, the Nürnberger and its wood-grilled variant, the Nürnberger rostbratwürste, are Protected Geographical Indications (PGI) under EU law.
The PGI distinction means these brats need to meet a strict laundry list of criteria in order to be deemed legitimate. To name a few stipulations, the law requires Nürnberger bratwursts to be 7-9 cm long, 20-25 grams in weight and have no more than 35% fat content. Furthermore, the wood used to grill the rostbratwürste needs to be beechwood aged for three years.
The most famous purveyor of these brats was the Bratwurstglöcklein (“Little Sausage Bell”), which was attached to the Moritz Chapel from 1313 until it was bombed in 1944. Even though a majority of Nuremberg was destroyed in World War II, the Nürnberger bratwurst tradition survived.
A newer bratwurst kitchen called the Bratwursthäusle was built on the other side of Moritz Chapel and is still in operation to this day. Depending on the demand, the Bratwursthäusle produces anywhere from 3,000 to 20,000 Nürnberger brats per day, which are distributed to stands and restaurants across the city. As for the Bratwurstglöcklein, the restaurant originally responsible for these infamous sausages, visitors to Nuremberg can find the new location, Behringer’s Bratwurstglöcklein, in the Handwerkhof.
There are five ways to enjoy the Nürnberger bratwurst: rostbratwürste which is grilled over 3-year-old beechwood; sour, which is cooked in a broth of vinegar and onions; smoked; “naked”, which means eating the inside of the sausage without cooking it; and, because Nuremberg is becoming increasingly international, the sausage can now be enjoyed in sushi form at Sushi Glas on the Kornmarkt.
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Traditionally, Nürnbergers are served three bratwursts in a bun, a portable option for those who wish to eat while strolling along the city’s Medieval streets, or served on a pewter plate in units of six, eight, ten or 12, with either sauerkraut or potato salad as a side.
Senf (Mustard) is the standard condiment for most bratwursts across Germany, but Nuremberg locals treat their brats differently. They’ll recommend you dress your bratwurst up with Meerrettich (horseradish). It may seem like an overpowering addition to an already flavorful bratwurst, but the pungent horseradish brings out the aromas of the bratwurst’s spices.
Regardless of how you take your Nürnberger bratwurst, there’s nothing like tasting a tradition that’s more than 700 years old.