James Beard Publication of the Year 2017

There Are Far Worse Meals Than Dark Beer and Animal Fat on Bread

There Are Far Worse Meals Than Dark Beer and Animal Fat on Bread

Zwickelbier Dunkel in Dessau

I’m criss-crossing Saxony and Saxony-Anhalt, in the eastern part of Germany, by bike. Switching from city center bike lanes to centuries-old cobblestone provincial roads, I seem to pass quickly through layers of east German history, with pit stops at Luther’s Schlosskirche in Wittenberg and Handel’s birth house in Halle.

I drop off my saddlebags at the big chain hotel in Dessau, my fallback after receiving the bad news two weeks before that my reservation in a dormitory at Dessau’s Bauhaus design institute had been cancelled due to repairs.

In my hotel room, I switch out of biking shorts into my one set of “dinner” jeans, and head into town for a drink and a bite to cap the day’s ride. I end up at Dessau’s central watering hole, the nostalgic Alter Dessauer. It opened in 2001, on the former site of the Schade Brewery, which shuttered in 1974.

Walking into the restaurant, I can’t help feeling like I’m entering a chain restaurant in suburban America. The dining room spreads out onto various platforms. There’s a second-floor mezzanine, where families young and old congregate. I scan the tables for tell-tale paper placemats that double as children’s coloring sheets and cups of crayons. Thankfully there are none, but still, I can’t keep my eyes off the kids corner with a cartoonish TV and red, blue, and yellow stools.

I plant myself at the bar occupying one corner of the brewery—a common strategy for solo diners and drinkers. After all, bartenders are more interesting than candlesticks.

I ask for a taste of the fruity summer Saisonbier, before settling on the house Zwickelbier Dunkel. Peppery and unfiltered, three gulps of this bottom-fermented beer weighs as heavy as a potato in my stomach.

Then, the accompaniment arrives: neat slices of black bread, about the width of a baguette, and a ceramic pot of what looks like lard appear before me. I skim the top of the pot’s contents with my knife, unsure whether they expect me to make more than the smallest dent in the grey spread of rendered animal fat in one sitting.

With my first mouthful, the grease fills my mouth. I immediately reach for a swig of beer.

How does it taste? asks the handsome bartender. Ja, gut, I answer. I run through the archival stacks of my brain for English-Yiddish cognates. Schlep? Schvitz? Schmutz? Schmalz!

“Ist das Schmalz?“ I ask.

“Ja!”

Unsure of whether I am actually enjoying the pairing, or whether I’m just hungry and thirsty, I chomp through the bread and schmalz and drain the beer. The bartender ask me if I’ll be having anything to eat off the menu. I opt instead for dessert: the fruity Saisonbier—no side of schmalz this time.

Brauhaus Zum Alten Dessauer
Lange Gasse 16, Dessau-Roßlau
Daily 11.00 to midnight

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