Mike MacEacheran | Bratwurst und bier in Nuremberg, Wizz Air
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Bratwurst und bier in Nuremberg, Wizz Air

How many sausages is a lifetime’s worth? If you’re Herr Werner Behringer, the ruddy-faced, portly owner of Bratwurst Häusle in Nuremberg, it’s an incredible 150,000. Or if you want a more precise answer it’s 146,537 and counting. The 75-year-old Franconian eats eight every working day, or ten on a good Saturday, in part to taste the quality of his homemade bratwursts, but also because thanks to his 50-year career in the business he no longer acts on hunger but by compulsion. By the time you read this, that figure may have swollen by a few thousand.

“I eat one sausage every hour,” he says, while puncturing another with a fork. “Really, the best sausage is always the next sausage.” He’s only half-listening because before him is a round pewter plate on which lies a precise line-up of six bratwursts, the skins still crackling from the grill at the centre of his restaurant. Chewing on another, Werner looks at the diners around him dolloping mustard on their plates with a grimace, as if it was a crime worthy of being taken outside and shot. “It needs to be served with horseradish,” he grunts. “It’s an insult if not!”

The bratwursts of Bratwurst Häusle, or those from its sister restaurants Goldenen Posthorn and Bratwurstglöcklein, aren’t any gammy hot-dogs to be slavered in ketchup or mustard – oh no. These are Schutzverband Nürnberger Bratwürstes, one of the world’s oldest sausages, and arguably the most respected. Born in 1313, the Nuremberger bratwurst has now turned 700, its evolution intimately linked to the city’s turbulent history and an infamous period in medieval times when starvation nearly brought the citizens of Nuremberg to their knees. If people were going to survive, they needed to do so properly and hygienically, and the recipe for the Nuremberger was inscribed on parchment, becoming a council mandate for the Franconian diet. It became the culinary cornerstone of the city.

Given that the Nuremberger is held in such lofty esteem, you may be surprised to learn that it’s such a tiddler – barely the size of a burnt pinkie-finger. They’re seven to nine centimeters long, weigh 20 to 25 grams and are only 20 to 22 millimeters thick. They have 30 per cent fat content and they can only be produced within the city walls of Nuremberg. No preservatives, no additives, no shortcuts, but centuries of scrutiny. During the Second World War, Allied Bombers even took out Bratwurstglocklein, at the time the city’s most revered sausage kitchen. That’s the prestige with which it is all held.

Before 5am each morning, deep in the bowels of Bratwurst Häusle, Werner’s team of butchers ground the sausage meat using only five ingredients: pork loin, salt, pepper, lamb intestine (imported from Iran and used for the skins) and what Werner says is the key element, Marjoram. “Fresh, fresh, fresh,” he says. “There is no secret. These pigs were alive five hours ago.”

Part of the intrigue is that every house has its own generations-old recipe, city hall politics are debated over bell-shaped plates of bangers, and every local can name their favourite butcher. Some prefer Werner’s while others like those from his archrival Martin Hilleprandt at Historische Bratwurstküche zum Gulden Stern, a half-timbered restaurant opened in 1419, making it the oldest sausage kitchen in the world. The likes of Werner and Martin may produce around 20,000 sausages each day, but in Nuremberg some 1.4 billion are eaten every year. That’s three years of production, which could stretch all the way to the moon.

The story of the Nuremberger wasn’t always so rosy-pink. “It was becoming an endangered species,” says Dr Rainer Heimler, the lawyer who took the sausage’s case to the E.U for protection towards the end of the 1990s. “There were too many poor imitators and quality was starting to suffer.” As has happened in similar cases – like those of Champagne in France, Welsh lamb and Parma ham in Italy – Dr Heimler won out and a special distinction for his city’s most famous food was awarded. It was a landmark argument five years in the making.

Still, there’s more to Nuremberg than sausages – a gorgeous Roman-era fairytale castle, Gothic cathedrals and celebrated Christmas markets – but it’s the city’s beer that brings everyone together after the 5pm work whistle blows. And do they have plenty of it. In the 80km around the city there are more than 1,000 breweries of all shapes and sizes, and in some places there are three breweries to every one village.

Speak to Christophe Maier at Imperial Castle Brewery Altstadthof and you’ll find out that his brewery is built on the same site where Franconians once created their low-temperature-loving, bottom-fermenting lagers nearly 700 years ago. Beneath is a gigantic six-acre subterranean network of rock-cut cellars, some up to 30m deep, where the barrels of alcohol were once stored. “Water was so polluted that people simply had to drink beer,” says Christophe, with a knowing smirk. Later, he sups a glass of malty red ale in the adjoining Hausbrauerei Altstadthof brewpub after work as if it was his duty. “Jah, Jah. Even the babies drank.”

What makes Nuremberg’s beer story so compelling is not just the city’s heritage or the sheer output of the stuff (there are more breweries per head than anywhere else in the world) but the near religious and partisan devotion to the brew. At the nearby Tucher brewery in the neighbour city of Fürth they use 150-year-old recipes and the grain-store is built equidistantly between the two rival cities to prevent any political or economic fall-out over ownership. “No way would I drink a Nuremberg beer,” says the brewery’s Helmut Ill, as he downs his second beer of the morning. “When the Berlin Wall fell down, we said ‘Send it to us’. Sure, it’s a joke, but that’s what our relationship with Nuremberg is like.”

Towards the end of the tour, a light-hearted argument breaks out between die-hard Fürth resident Helmut and Wolfram Zilk, an unflappable Nuremberger who is in town to visit the production floor. The claim is that Nuremberg produces better bratwurst (and beer) than its archrival Fürth. “Small towns need big sausages,” heckles back Helmut. “A big city with heart and pride doesn’t need big sausages,” replies the other. The notion that two grown men in their late 40s can get into an argument about a sausage is not as fanciful as it may seem. After all, this is Nuremberg and this is business.

Photography: Tim E White