No, you didn’t imagine it. I have almost totally neglected this blog for many, many months. There were lots of reasons, but one major reason was a fun one: preparing for and then completing a month-long tour by bike and train of Germany with my boyfriend.
Obviously, Germany’s a bit far afield from this blog’s explicitly geographic focus, but I wanted to post about it here anyway for a few reasons.
First, I’ve run into a lot of skepticism that veganism is even possible in the land of Wurst, Schnitzel and Käsespätzle. As you’ll see, with only a few challenges it’s not only possible, but we here in the States are missing out on some really good vegan food. Also, given that there are hurdles to get over any time one travels, I thought a post like this might offer some ideas about how to travel as a vegan in areas not as easy as the PNW. Finally, for whatever relevant readership finds its way to this post, I just wanted to give some props to the outstanding businesses I found over there in hopes that I might help them succeed now that I can’t stop by multiple times in a day and give them money.
Our trip followed sort of an odd path across Germany (with a quick crossing of France and a short visit to Luxembourg), which was a factor of where we were able to fly in and out of, where we had friends to visit, and which areas of the country we particularly wanted to see by bike or simply visit:
What this meant for eating was that we spent time both in several major cities and university towns, but also in teeny little villages that dot the countryside every few kilometers. As you’d expect, we had a lot more options in the former than the latter, but we got by ok just about everywhere.
We got off to a great start in Frankfurt, with a very kind shopkeeper making us some (delicious) sandwiches to go even after the café, Savory, had closed. Did we want some tiramisu to go with that also? Um, duh.
The next day, we got some tasty snacks and beverages from the cozy-and-casual Edelkiosk, which is also entirely vegan:
Of course, we couldn’t leave Frankfurt without stopping by its entirely vegan grocery store, Veganz.
Germans are really, really into stuff to spread on bread, and the quality of the spreads tends to be right up there with the outstanding quality of the breads themselves. Here’s a small portion of the wall o’ spreads sold at that Veganz store, which doesn’t include the large selection of savory spreads we ate almost daily during our trip:
I knew from previous trips to Germany that Tartex spreads could be a vegan traveler’s best friend. These spreads are not exactly health food, but they are flavorful additions to rolls and sandwiches, and you can buy assortments of single-serving containers that don’t need refrigeration. I always made sure to have at least a few in my bag for breakfast/snack/lunch on the go. That is, until we discovered the “Cremisso” line from the same company. These spreads are made with a sunflower seed (rather than vegetable oil) base and have a consistency (though not flavor) similar to hummus, rather than margarine. This brand had a similar line of products, which proved easier to find and just as good. We got so hooked on these that I later bought a cookbook of vegan spread recipes so I can try to replicate some of these back at home. Also, I was thrilled to see that Vegan Haven carries a variety of sunflower-based spreads I’d thought I’d need to order from Vegan Essentials. I had tried these at Vegfest and loved them. And yep, they’re German!
At Veganz I also picked up a handful of single-serving packets of coffee whitener, since soy milk is very, very rare to find in coffee shops and even after 11 years in Seattle I just can’t drink coffee black. Despite the super-unfortunate name (which became a running joke for us), this was a very handy product to have with us, and I later bought a much larger container.
We quickly worked out sort of a pattern for our daily meals: Bread with spread(s) for breakfast, either from a bakery or included with our lodging; lunch from a vegan-friendly business if we found it or sandwiches made on the go if not; dinner at a restaurant found in earlier research or via Happy Cow while underway. We brought lots of snacks with us (I took an ungodly number of Raw Revolution bars as quick cycling/travel fuel, which were great until some of them came open and leaked oil all over the rest of them. Ew.) and also bought quite a few snacks along the way. A basic trail mix called Studentenfutter (literally, fodder for students) is sold nearly everywhere, as are quite a few other vegan options for snacks.
This worked great for us until, um, day 3. That’s when we hit our first holiday (Ascension Day), which in Germany means that nearly every business closes–even bakeries and grocery stores. Having forgotten that, we had to rely on our packed food for lunch as we pedaled down the Rhine (in this case, soy jerky, Clif Mojo bars and peanut-butter pretzels from Trader Joe’s). Things took a really depressing turn when (for other reasons) we had to settle for an edge-of-town motel for lodging that night with nothing that looked even adaptable in the attached restaurant. Our remaining option? The neighboring gas station, which is one of the only types of businesses that stays open on holidays. Alas, this was not a particularly well stocked gas station, so our dinner wound up being pretty ridiculous:
Things looked up from there, though. The very next day we found another all-vegan store, in the Mannheim train station of all places.
We also got the benefit of staying for a couple days with a friend in the university town of Freiburg, who really went out of her way to make sure we were well fed. Two nights of wonderful home-cooked food plus amazing bounties of food at breakfast quickly made us forget all about our dinner of potato chips.
As in the States, we often found vegan food at restaurants specializing in cuisines that include lots of vegetarian dishes, like Indian or Middle Eastern places. However, we were reminded that each “host” country also has an effect on what is on menus in such places: you wouldn’t believe how many Turkish shops we passed that didn’t sell falafel or hummus in any form, or how ubiquitous meat was on menus even when the restaurant was called “Ghandi.” Still, places like that were typically more vegan-friendly than ones specializing in German cuisine.
Winding through the villages in the Moselle wine country, we ran into the problem that these places primarily serve tourists in restaurants, and the towns are too small to have their own grocery store or even small market. Sometimes, this meant planning ahead a little and making a large salad with canned beans in our hotel room or in a park (I carried small plastic bottles of olive oil, vinegar, and a few spices for just this purpose).
Other times, it meant nicely asking the staff at the German-focused restaurants if they could pull something together for us that would be vegan. Some places “got” it more than others, but we never went hungry. Here’s a vegetable plate we got in the little town of Bernkastel:
Dortmund was unexpectedly great. We got into town juuust in time to catch the tail end of the all-you-can-eat vegan brunch at the adorable and friendly Cakes ‘n’ Treats. Yes, you read that right. Why do we not have all-you-can-eat vegan brunch in the PNW, guys? Or even pay by the pound. This brunch buffet was so, so good, and I want to relive it!
The timing also worked out right for us to catch dinner in the one vegan restaurant in Oberhausen, which we found by virtue of a hail-Mary search on Happy Cow. We were really lucky, since it’s only open a few nights a week, and it was quite good. My favorite was the gyro plate:
Pushing on to Leipzig, we found more great vegan options. The fast-food joint Vleischerei (a spin on the word “Fleischerei,” which means butcher shop or meat market) does such a fantastic job with vegan meats that we resolved immediately to go back before leaving town. The first time, we each had a burger, and later I had a “Vöner” (i.e., a vegan “Döner,” which Canadians know as donair) while Jud had this excellent “Thüringer” sausage sandwich–a regional specialty:
Between visits to the Vleischerei, we went to the other end of the dining spectrum, to the shmanzy Zest.
In Potsdam, outside Berlin, we lucked out again with timing and caught the grand opening of a new vegan treat shop: good dEATs. Sadly, their truffle promotion had been so successful that they were sold out of those, but we got some tasty savory things to enjoy at the super-cute café (the decor reminded me of Petunia’s in Portland) and a slice of each of their cakes to share with friends and sample.
In Berlin, as you might guess, there are more options than anywhere, and even a handy app to help you navigate them. Berlin has not just one but two Veganz stores, and of course I went to both of them. We actually wound up at a hotel just a couple blocks away from the Prenzlauerberg store, which is nestled into a little strip of vegan businesses much like Portland’s vegan mini mall.
So…to sum it up? You can eat really, really well as a vegan in Germany. Just as smaller towns in the US and Canada might require a little more research or resourcefulness to provide vegan food, you might run into some blips in the Dörfer of Germany, but it’s certainly manageable. And where you find vegan or vegan-oriented businesses, which you will with surprising frequency, you will find some really excellent food in a range of price points from a 5-Euro sandwich to 50-Euro, five-course prix fixe meals (we didn’t eat any of those!).
If you go, some quick Google searches will give you a good idea of what options are available for the area(s) you’ll be visiting. Just be sure to check their hours and days of operation, since most are not open 7 days a week and may open only mornings or only evenings. Nearly every town large enough to have grocery stores will have a Bioladen, or natural food store. There you’ll find those wonderful savory spreads that will make for quick and cheap breakfasts or sandwiches, often along with a surprisingly good selection of vegan “cheese” slices and lunchmeats. I found the texture of the cheeses to be a little on the plasticky side, but the flavor was often better than the ones we have over here, and the small packages of sandwich-size slices made for easy travel food. Even grocery stores in larger towns will usually have a case or two in the refrigerator section of such products, which can save you a stop if you don’t spot a Bioladen nearby.
If you’re a latte person, you’ll need to dig a bit to find places that offer soy milk with coffee–unless you happen across a Starbucks, which always offers it, along with precious free WiFi.
If you’re negotiating a vegan dish at a non-veg place, know that you’ll need to really spell out what you do and don’t want. Obviously, that’s easiest if you speak German, but if not a Vegan Passport should get you what you need. In many places there is little or no awareness of veganism (though in others it’s widely understood and accommodated), and people aren’t used to thinking in terms of “dairy” or other broad categories of ingredients. When we thought we’d been very clear at one place about avoiding all dairy products–specifically calling out the cheese that was mentioned on the menu–we wound up with bread served with Quark (a cultured dairy product similar to sour cream or yogurt) and a plate of vegetables with no cheese, but two large pats of butter in the middle. And you should know that Speck, which is similar to bacon, is generally viewed as a condiment and often doesn’t register in a German’s mind as “meat.” It’s never a bad idea to specify that you don’t want Speck on your salad, pasta, soup, etc.
Even though I’ve rattled on now for more than 2500 words, there’s a lot I skimmed or skipped over. If you’re headed to Germany and would like any more detail please don’t hesitate to drop me a line! As you can probably tell, I love talking about this stuff.