Photography by Emma Krasov
The majority of tourists come to Frankfurt – Europe’s premier transportation hub – just for a layover at its massive International Airport. Plus, a good amount of businessmen from all over the world flock to the financial capital of Germany to conduct their various businesses.
Meanwhile, Frankfurt am Main, State of Hessen, the fifth largest city in Germany, is located in the heart of Europe and bears its own cultural and historical significance, offering an array of unforgettable experiences for a discerning traveler.
The grand hotel Steigenberger Frankfurter Hof greeted me with impeccable service, artful ambiance, and a spring fragrance of my favorite hyacinths in planters placed on every antique surface under sparkling crystal chandeliers. Founded in 1930 by Albert Steigenberger, and ran for decades by the descendants of the original owner, with dozens of trademark properties all over the world, the massive Frankfurt hotel is lavishly decorated with period furniture, paintings, tapestries, and porcelain from the family art collection.
I took my sweet time exploring the many facilities of the hotel designed for business and leisure – from tasteful meeting rooms to a grand ballroom that sits 300; from VIP lounge (some guests return here for 40 years!) to a decadent cigar room; and from cozy library to Autorenbar (the authors’ bar) – a place for book signings, high teas, and literary discussions.
There were no authors at the bar (besides myself) but there was a dashing young man with a dazzling smile who offered me a glass of house-made lemonade of black and green teas steeped for three hours, lemon and orange slices, and fresh mint leaves – delish!
Despite this refreshing drink, the moment I arrived in my room with high ceiling, wood wall panels, heavy plush curtains, and snow-white down comforter, I was tempted to curl up on the bed and hit some zzzs for the next 10 to 12 hours, but got a hold of myself upon drinking a couple of espressos from the in-room coffeemaker.
When I dressed up for the evening and arrived in the lobby to ask for a taxi, the hotel’s head concierge, who’s been with the company since 1966, offered instead a glorious limo service with a uniformed chauffer. I immediately felt very special, and enveloped in the warmest Gastfreundschaft.
Villa Merton, a two Michelin-star restaurant, led by the celebrity chef Matthias Schmidt, born in Frankfurt, takes the notion of local and seasonal to its highest imaginable degree.
In his pursuit to deliver the freshest tastes of the region – inspired by old traditions, driven by new creativity, and comprised of the best ingredients – Chef Schmidt works with local farmers, forest rangers and fishermen from the surrounding mountain ranges and river valleys.
He puts on his guests’ tables the most surprising culinary creations made with dandelion buds, cauliflower stalks, spruce sprouts, and radish fruit – no, not the round red and white root that we all know and use in spring salads, but the tiny green fruits, looking like little pepper pods and found between the radish leaves, usually discarded by the less ambitious chefs.
There are no peppers in the chef’s kitchen – they are not local! As well as no olive oil, citrus, coffee, chocolate, and other things from faraway lands we seem to be addicted to.
There are plenty of German vegetables and herbs, local fish and game, regional cheeses, aromatic bread and butter from the organic Dottenfelderhof farm, and Luisenhaller salt from the Baltic Sea.
“I work on regional dishes that you can’t eat anywhere else,” said Chef Schmidt. “It’s good for our bodies, and it’s good for the planet. It takes time to develop a new dish with unusual ingredients, and sometimes hard to get it right, but I continue to try, or I put the idea away, and try something different.”
Of all the dishes of my memorable multi-course tasting dinner there wasn’t a single one short of amazing! With so much creativity and dedication invested in every morsel, sometimes arranged with tweezers, each plate looked like an art piece and contained wonderful surprises.
A pouched quail egg was served in a nest of row potato shavings.
A tiny smoked piece of wild goat meat was garnished with a bead of goat cheese dusted with elderberry flowers and a tart rowan berry. The dish was served on a construction of the animal’s horns.
A sour cream cookie with green juniper and pickled lemony spruce sprouts was brought to the table in a cookie tin.
Jerusalem artichoke with sunflower oil colored with charcoal, chickweed, and frozen horseradish adding a hot/cold kick to the mash, was paired with 2007 St Anton Riesling of clean minerality, hints of petrol and sweetness.
Roasted duck breast was accompanied by a slice of duck heart and a crispy pointed cabbage leaf. Fresh chives popped against a tad of sour cream in duck gravy. With that, I had one of the best reds in Germany – 2011 Schneider Steinsatz – 71% cab Franc, 21% merlot, and 8% cab sauv.
Between the courses, before cheese and dessert I received a refresher of frozen parsley root juice with wild apple puree.
A very traditional Frankfurt dish, “marinated hand cheese with music” was creatively reinvented and contained crunchy cubes of roasted bread, spring onion whites, pimpernel mousse, and caraway seeds jelly. With that I had the most delightful local staple – apple wine redolent of juicy brined apples.
My final course was a mother’s dream come true – vegetables for dessert! First, I was presented with a glass jar of warm roasted carrot seeds to inhale and appreciate the sweet smell. Then bright orange carrot coins arrived garnished with frozen diced purple carrot, crushed rowan berries, chamomile flowers, and carrot seeds. That was my kind of dessert – sugarless, yet dreamy.
Early next morning, after an excellent breakfast at the hotel’s Hofgarten restaurant I was ready to explore the vibrant and elegant city.
On our stroll through the compact and walkable city center, my tour guide started with the introduction of “Mainhattan” – a banking district known for its spectacular skyscrapers.
“People come from all over the county just to look at them,” she said. “Even in Berlin and Cologne there is nothing like these.” Then she looked at me and said, “Well, you are from America, you might not appreciate them.” But I did appreciate them! Especially after she explained to me the asymmetrical forms of the buildings dictated by the German law that requires all workplaces in offices to have access to daylight. I was further impressed by their other features, like natural air conditioning and solar panels.
We were standing at the edge of Rossmarkt looking at the Gutenberg monument constructed in 1858 by Eduard Schmidt von der Launitz. The inventor of the printing press, Johannes Gutenberg, who lived in Frankfurt in mid-15th century, shares the monument space with his collaborators Peter Schöffer and Hans Fust, surrounded by the four allegorical figures of theology, poetry, natural science and industry that sit by their feet representing the main reasons for printing.
The most impressive contemporary building nearby with a dazzling glass funnel in the middle of its window-wall is one of Germany’s most popular shopping centers, MyZeil. Its multiple floors are flooded with natural light, enveloped in no-hard-corners hallway-escalator system, and provide shopping therapy with regional and international labels to 13 000 shoppers a day.
From here, a short walk away is Goethehaus – the birthplace of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe – the genius poet and playwright, notorious womanizer and anti-cleric scientist. Born in this house “On the 28th of August 1749, as the midday bell struck twelve…” and “The stars were favorable,” he spent many years here, writing his masterpieces – “The Sorrows of Young Werther” and the beginning of “Faust”.
Die Kleinmarkthalle (“a small market hall”) in downtown area is an obvious misnomer. The international covered market is huge, overflowing with earthly delights of all imaginable origins, and featuring artisanal breads, meats, and ripe, freshly picked delicacies like mangoes from Peru and aubergines from Sicily. Here I discovered a traditional green Frankfurt specialty Grüne Sosse made of seven herbs into a delectable accompaniment to hard-boiled eggs, potatoes, or just about anything!
We walked by the dark and imposing Frankfurt Cathedral with its 95-meter spire. Properly called Dom St. Bartholomäus and built in the 15th century, it became a site of elections of 25 and coronations of 10 emperors of the Holy Roman Empire and kings of Germany, since Frankfurt was a major city of the Empire.
On our tour I’ve learned about more than 100 city museums, and even enjoyed a well-curated show, “Esprit Montmartre” dedicated to bohemian life in Pars circa 1900 at Schirn Kunsthalle Frankfurt – one of the most recognized art-exhibition institutions in Europe. Early paintings, hardly known to the general public, by Van Gogh, Degas, Toulouse-Lautrec, Picasso, and other modernist iconoclasts were presented here in historical and cultural context of the era.
We had a nice lunch at Zu Tisch bei Michael Frank serving simple farm-fresh daily specials before heading to the Römerberg square with the world-famous statue of goddess Justitia at the top of the 1543 fountain Gerechtigkeitsbrunnen. At times of historic coronations, the fountain was filled with wine, which caused the misbehaving city dwellers to damage the poor goddess of justice more than once.
After many repairs and replacements, the current bronze statue was installed by a Frankfurt wine merchant in the 19th century. The goddess is lacking her traditional blindfold – a voucher of her objectivity. “She need to keep an eye on the city hall across the square,” joked my tour guide.
We proceeded past Frankfurt Museum Embankment along River Main with museums of art, architecture, film, communication, world cultures, applied art, Jewish history, children’s museum, etc., and boarded a Primus Linie cruise boat for a seasonal overview of the city’s gorgeous skyline and its many remarkable bridges.
That night, true to my principle to eat local in any location in the world I happen to be at the moment, I met my new Frankfurt friend Vanessa at the overcrowded boisterous Apfelwein Wagner. We sat at one of the many communal tables next to other healthy eaters devouring lamb shanks, pork knuckles, and Grüne Sosse with eggs and potatoes. By now I’ve realized that sweet and tangy apple wine – Frankfurt’s most popular beverage, served here in a traditional blue-grey jug called Bembel became my new favorite – just like the city itself. More information at: www.frankfurt-tourismus.de