If you’ve recently moved to the north of Germany don’t be alarmed if a group of people pass you in the streets playing Schlager music from a Bollerwagen (wooden pull along wagon). It won’t be the last time you witness this. From the end of January to March, Kohlfahrts will take place in the areas of Bremen, Oldenburg and Osnabrück.
What is a Kohlfahrt? In basic terms, it is a brisk hike that is accompanied by Schnapps, which is soaked up by a warm kale cabbage dinner afterwards.
This year was my first Kohlfahrt and based on what I had heard I was a little nervous about what to expect from this German tradition. It wasn’t the brisk walk that was alarming but the taste for Schnapps participants tend to have. Last year during the first few months of the year it was significantly notable the amount of small glass bottles of spirits that littered the streets!
The hike is led by a Kohlkoenig and Kohlkoenigin, cabbage king and queen, a title to be proud of. My partner was nominated as Kohlkoenig last year so along with his Kohlkoenigin (not me) he arranged the tour for 30 colleagues from his workplace. Although it is not part of the workplace agenda, many workmates gather together for this tradition, one could say it’s an exercise in team building. Groups of friends, people who are connected by social and sports clubs as well as families will take part in this yearly activity also.
At the start of the tour each individual is provided with their own package of snacks that include a pretzel, cheese and chocolate – sustenance to keep our energy up as we set out on the 4km walk on this pleasant winters day in Achim. Alongside our snack packs that hung around our neck, we had our shot glasses for the many flavours of Schnapps we were about to sample. The experienced people in the group knew to bring the smallest glass they could find as they knew what was in store. Once we divided in to teams that were Shrek, Ice Age and Game of Thrones themed, the rules of the tour were announced and then the hike began.
There were many games along the way to keep us entertained and prevent us from thinking about our ice cold feet. Teabag throwing is one of the games that is often played on the tour. It involves clenching the string of the teabag in your mouth, swinging it back and forth to gain momentum before hurling it as far as possible. This game would not have gone down well in the UK, it would be a sin to waste a teabag in this way. Another game was to work in teams and thread a spoon attached to string through our upper clothing, easy, right? Coordinating nine people under time constraint to do this is not so simple. In additional to the games, each time the Kohlkoenig or Kohlkoenigin blew their whistle, depending on the number of times, we either had to race to find our team, hug the closest person to us or do something to get our feet off the ground – ensue jumping on benches, fences or clinging to lamp posts. For most passersby this does not look unusual as the locals are used to seeing the silliness involved in Kohlfahrts.
Several games, numerous bottles of beers and some Currywurst later we arrived at Bootshaus, our restaurant for the evening. It was time for the Kohl und Pinkel to remedy the alcohol that had been consumed. For this traditional meal, curly kale is used. This type of cabbage needs frost to bring out the flavour, hence why the activity takes place during the winter season. As much as a plate of greens is good for you, that alone is not so appetising so in true German style, the cabbage is accompanied by a sausage, a Pinkelwurst. This type of smoked Kaszanka is only eaten in Bremen, Oldenburg and Osnabrück, cities in the North of Germany. Pinkel consists mainly of bacon, groats of oats or barley, beef suet, pig lard, onions, salt, pepper and other spices. The trick is to mash the sausage meat in to the Kohl to add flavour. The recipe of the Pinkel can vary from village to village but it tends to be a guarded as a trade secret and no butcher is prepared to give up their exact ingredients. Alongside the sausage and cabbage is another staple of German cuisine, the potato. Then it’s all washed down with Bier. For those that had room, we tucked in to Apfelstrudel and then burnt the calories away by dancing energetically to more Schlager music.
During the evening, the Kohlkoenig und Kohlkoenigin are chosen for the following year. After a moment of uncertainty I was relieved to not be chosen as Kohlkoenigin for 2019. I can now look forward to participating again next year, and in the meantime I will practise my teabag swinging. If you get the chance to take part in a Kohlfahrt don’t decline, it was one of the most fun experiences I have had since moving to Germany.
– Sarah E